Sunday, January 6, 2013

Homeopathy is 66% harmless and 33% good sense

Further to my recent "I believe" frustrations I have decided to think a little more about homeopathy. I was first exposed to the theories when reading a book called "Voodoo Science: The road from foolishness to fraud" in 2004. Sure, with a title like that the book was unlikely to be sympathetic, but I let one fact sit with me for about ten years. There is not even one molecule of active ingredient in any homeopathic preparation. That is a fact that is undisputed by the homeopathic community - in fact it's considered a plus. Have a look at Dr Ben Goldacre's three minute walkthrough below:

The mechanism is that "water has memory" and that's about as far as I need to go down that line of discussion.

But it hasn't been a big problem to me. I haven't had loved ones forego cancer treatment in favour of sugar pills (with water memory embedded, apparently) and if a person wishes to pay $10 for the placebo effect then who am I to stop them?

So why do I call it 66% harmless? Because homeopathy has three principles. I got this from "Homeolab USA" but a search on "homeopathy three principles" will give you hundreds. I love the way big words make it seem better:

1. Similitude There should be a connection between illness and remedy.
2. Infinitesimality Homeopathy uses vegetable, mineral and chemically processed mixtures of natural substances, in repeatedly diluted strength to administer minute doses.
3.Totality Since Homeopathy considers a person as a whole, every treatment is based on the assumption that every illness is the apparent manifestation of a much deeper-rooted disorder.

So if we look at those principles, the first two actually cancel each other out. Remember the "no molecule" undisputed fact? To be honest it's just as well there is no active ingredient because here principle 1 is glossed over but it really is "what makes you sick actually cures you". Y'know, cat allergies treated with elements of cat hair? Presumably cancer treated by consuming cancer cells?

Anyhoo, the fact that there is no active ingredient in any homeopathic preparation means that the risk of poisoning our patients is averted. So the first two principles, combined, make the approach harmless. 66%

That last principle, totality, I like. Unfortunately (or maybe not) for the homeopathic movement it pretty much makes the whole process scientifically untestable. The principle means that we should treat the entire patient - mind, spirit (I presume), diet, some exercise. Good, sense. 33%. In science they call those things "extraneous" or "intervening" variables. So, a young girl stops having asthma attacks as she puts water drops under her tongue, but at the same time dust in the house is reduced and she stops drinking milk, gets to bed earlier and her parents stop fighting in front of her? Clever homeopath.

So, 66% harmless and 33% good sense. Where's the 1%? It's probably accounted for by the fact that people can sell bottles of water for $10, or might encourage others to forego medical treatment or (dare I say) vaccination. For an example close to many people's hearts we might consider the argument that homeopathy killed Steve Jobs. So I don't have a name for what that 1% might be called, but I leave it to you, the reader.

And as far as the mechanism of the first two principles I am happy to be convinced, so please just send me the information about "nonmolecular water memory". I am partial to the scientific process, however. Flawed as it may be, like democracy it's the best we've got. And the scientific process did eventually discredit that medical hack Andrew Wakefield and "The Lancet" did retract his bullshit 1998 paper.

But this is about the time I hear "well that's my opinion and I'm entitled to it"

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