If it quacks like homeopathy…

There is a lot that can be said about homeopathy, particularly on a science blog like this one. And most of it is not very nice – but I’m going to say it anyway.

To cover the basics, homeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, based on the “Law of Similars”, or the idea that “like cures like”. This essentially involves treating disease using substances that cause the same sort of symptoms – except that you dilute it as much as possible, because supposedly if high concentrations cause an illness, then low concentrations must cure it.

(This is something I’ve never understood. Homeopaths like to claim that, unlike regular doctors, they treat the whole person and not just the disease. Yet their remedies are based on merely addressing the symptoms, which is supposed to be more “holistic” than, say, fixing what caused the problem.)

But the concentrations used mean there should be absolutely nothing left of the original substance. For instance, one popular homeopathic remedy for the flu is Oscillococcinum, made from duck organs (yes, really). It’s prepared at what they call 200C, which translates to a concentration of 1 part in 10400. To put that in perspective, most estimates put a limit on the number of particles in the entire universe as somewhat less than 1087. (The good news is that means it’s probably safe for vegans.)

A duck, whose heart and liver are used to make Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic remedy for the flu
A duck, whose heart and liver are used to make Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic remedy for cold and flu. Its feathers can also be used. (Photo by H. Zell, via Wikimedia Commons)
Don’t get me started on claims that water has a memory, or that there’s some sort of magical quantum effect. Quantum mechanics may do very strange things that don’t make sense in our familiar macroscopic world, but physicists actually understand it very well. It’s not some magic word you can just use to bluff your way through anything.

But the main point is that it simply doesn’t work: see the reviews from our old friends at the Cochrane Library (and yes, I’m aware of claims that science somehow doesn’t work on homeopathy; but this is a science blog, so I’m going to stick with it).

With all this damning lack of evidence, Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) is quite sensibly preparing a statement on homeopathy. According to leaked drafts, they’re likely to conclude that “it is unethical for health practitioners to treat patients using homeopathy, for the reason that homeopathy – as a medicine or procedure – has been shown not to be efficacious.”

And it’s not just the rather amusing scientific reasons listed above that make it unethical, but also the serious fact that people have died after only taking homeopathic remedies for otherwise treatable illnesses: a baby in NSW that died from severe eczema and a WA woman who died of colorectal cancer.

It also follows a similar finding from the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (PDF 1.6 MB).

Unsurpisingly, homeopathy’s supporters are trying to fight this conclusion. The Aurum Project – “commitment to the health and wellbeing of children” – is recommending their followers write to the NHMRC to complain.

Well, why not take their lead but do the opposite? Write to the NHMRC and tell them you support their goals.

After all, the way that science works is that the truth eventually wins out – but it doesn’t hurt to help it along.

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