Oh man, it was World Homeopathic Awareness Week (WHAW?!) last week and I didn’t even get a chance to post. I guess I’ll have to turn this in late, like so much schoolwork.
We’ll open up with the obligatory “What the hell is homeopathy?” question. I like to throw a bit of mild swearing into pretty much any question, which, along with the above-mentioned post-crastination, is why I don’t have an advanced degree.
We’ll get to a real live homeopath in a moment. First, let’s get just a basic awareness for what’s going on here, in case you didn’t know, or don’t want to know, or knew something and forgot, or knew something and then had that knowledge erased from your mind by aliens.
There is a lot of confusion about what a homeopath does. Of course, this simple post cannot address all of the things that they actually get to do: What a homeopath does is what a homeopath does. Many people believe that homeopaths prescribe herbs or natural medicines, or simple, effective home remedies. Some of them do these things, but that is not the strict definition of homeopathy.
Set your temporal devices back to 1796. Tennessee has just become a state. Austria, in the Hapsberg era, has invented numbered bank accounts. John Adams has defeated Thomas Jefferson in the first Presidential election, calling him “an atheist, anarchist, demagogue, coward, mountebank, trickster, and Francomaniac.” Edward Jenner has used the first vaccination against smallpox.
And a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann, has decided “that which can produce a set of symptoms in a healthy individual, can treat a sick individual who is manifesting a similar set of symptoms.” This commonly goes under the axiom “like cures like.”
Like cures like. The dose makes the poison. In Hahnemann’s time, this likely seemed to be sound advice – medical treatments were often quite dreadful. It would indeed, in many cases, have been more helpful to stay home with a glass of water than to go to the doctor. Furthermore, successful therapies such as vaccination for the smallpox and the bark of the chinchona tree, seemed to point to this “like cures like” theory.
But wait, quinine? I myself drink enough gin and tonic water to be immune to the flying death-dart mosquitoes in the area, and by Hahnemann’s theories, I should have symptoms of malaria constantly.
Oh therein lies the historical rub. For, you see, an overdose (or a constant, high-level dose) of quinine does indeed cause malaria-like symptoms, called cinchonism. Of course, this is not malaria – malaria is caused by a blood-borne parasite, but many of the symptoms are the same.
So how did Hahnemann come by this idea? By giving himself the chinchona bark, of course. Eventually, he succumbed to cinchonism. Then, he backed off the dose – coming to a point where there was very little quinine in the solutions he was taking.
Suddenly, Hahnemann is cured of cinchonism. He does not have malaria, either. Of course, he’s living in Germany at the time, but that’s beside the point. The idea is there, and then – a quackery is born.
Now wait! You may say, if you know anything about homeopathic medicine. It’s not just dilution that you do – it’s a special mixing process!
Right. This process is called “potentisation,” and there is a special technique for this: Succussion is the process of agitating a freshly diluted solution by rapping its container hard against a hard but elastic object such as a leather-bound book, or a saddle stuffed with straw (these days Hahnemann believed that succussion released dynamic forces – Lebenskraft – from the diluents. These were preserved and intensified with subsequent dilutions, due to the succussion.
It’s not just magic water. It’s magic water you’ve been shaking – releasing the “dynamic forces” or “vital energies” or, as I like to say – “magic.”
And as you dilute, you take out the damaging substance and leave the dynamic vital blue-potion mana.
For a long while, this seemed to work! The homeopathic hospitals were a success for nearly one hundred years. While in other hospitals you would be subjected to bloodletting, burning, bizarre concoctions, (mmm, viper’s flesh and hellesbore) and alcohol poisoning before succumbing to inexpert surgery and sepsis, in a homeopathic hospital, you were clean, drank beer, exercised, and you were given… water.
Water? No, wait – aren’t homeopathic remedies supposed to contain at least a tiny dilution of the original material?
Well, for the answer to that to be “yes,” someone has to be lying.
Alright, so the basis here is that the higher the dilution of the agent, the more healing capacity is has. This seems highly counterintuitive, and it contradicts one of the more pertinent points of modern medicine: the dose-response relationship.
But, you see – it may not even be physically possible to dilute things in the manner that Hahnemann and modern homeopaths recommend – you can read about it here.
So you have a solution – this is what homeopaths call the “0x” solution. If you dilute it by a factor of 100, you now have a 1x solution.
This is not “strong enough” – that is, not diluted enough – for homeopathic purposes.
Nor is 24X. At the 24X point you’re not only unlikely to get a real molecule of the original substance, you’re unlikely to get a molecule of the original solvent.
A dilution of 40X is one molecule. In the entire universe.
But hey – the dilution just makes it stronger! What you want is 60X – the dilution advocated by Hahnemann for most purposes: on average, this would require giving two billion doses per second to six billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.
The ever-popular anti-flu homeopathic solution Oscillococcinum is at 200X dilution. To have a single molecule of duck liver and kidney (which is what oscillococcinum is made from) you would need 10 to the 320th universes of the same size as ours to get a molecule in your “remedy.”
But hey – it’s all in the dilution – the magic, shaking motion that transfers the ‘elan vital into your water; it’s not about the water. Most of your modern homeopaths have a vague idea of some sort of quantum action, which means that water has memory – that somehow water molecules (or alcohol or sugar, if the original material is not water-soluble) are A: changed in form and function by the addition of a solute and B: this changed molecular structure persists after the removal of the solute.
The first part is only partly true. Water, dissolving a solute, will align itself to “surround” molecules – a function of the unique shape of the water molecule. However, the second part is only true for a few picoseconds. Water is not a simple collection of placid, unmoving H2O molecules; the random molecular Brownian Motion occasionally breaks one of the oxygen-hydrogen bonds in the solution, sending a cascade of Hydronium and hydroxide into the solution. This process, the self-ionization of water rapidly and constantly restructures the mass of water molecules.
So water doesn’t have (a good) memory. There is nothing in the succussion process that mixes a solution in any unique manner. If the principles of homeopathy were true, all water would be the ultimate homeopathic remedy, containing a memory of all the things it had ever come in contact with in the world.
Or, if water had memory and homeopathy was sweet sweet bullshit,
Of course, homeopaths can give you some pretty… interesting… explanations for why their product works! If you want a good idea of just how vague and hazy these ideas can be, well – here’s a real-live homeopath, recorded for you!