Homeopathy / pseudoscience / Scams / Skepticism · August 23, 2005

Why Homeopathic Medicine does NOT work.

While walking through a supermarket, or health food store, or even on some random shelf of a pharmacy, you encounter something called a “Homeopathic” medicine. It swears it will cure your cold, your gout, or your aching back.

These ‘medicines’ seem so believable. They are professionally packaged, they carry warnings, advice on usage, and they may also have some sort of official-looking approval on them too. Will it hurt to try one?

Well, it probably won’t make things any worse, unless you use a homeopathic medicine in the place of seeing a doctor.

  • What is Homeopathy? Where did it come from?

According to the Homœopathic Pharmacopœia of the United States (HPUS):

Homeopathy is the art and the science of healing the sick by using substances capable of causing the same symptoms, syndromes and conditions when administered to healthy people.

Any substance may be considered a homeopathic medicine if it has known “homeopathic provings” and/or known effects which mimic the symptoms, syndromes or conditions which it is administered to treat, and is manufactured according to the specifications of the Homœopathic Pharmacopœia of the United States (HPUS). [Emphasis mine – MB]

HPUS doesn’t seem to say how Homeopathy was invented, but a brief web search turns up a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843). My web search also gave a clue as to why Mr. Hahnemann is not mentioned promentantly on the HPUS site; he may have had some additional ideas that were discredited by his followers.

  • How is Homeopathy supposed to work?

Well, let’s just examine the that first paragraph from HPUS. The one that says that it uses “substances capable of causing the same symptoms….” I knew I heard that before – oh yea, I heard it when I used to play the game Dungeons and Dragons a long time ago. It is one of the Laws of Magic. In particular, it is called the Law of Similarity, as part of the Law of Association. See this link for details.

The Law of Similarity says that like things produce like, and that the effect resembles it’s cause. Basically, what this means for Homeopathy, is that if eating a certain substance, be it plant, animal or mineral, will give a healthy person a fever, then a much smaller dose of that substance will actually heal a feverish person!

  • Why is Homepathy just a fraud?

This subject has been beaten to death by skeptics on the Internet. It is probably done best by Quackwatch. So you don’t have to take my word on it, go watch as a professional puts some heavy research into it. I’m just pointing out to my family and friends how much of a waste of money this medicine is. I’ll do it by adding just a bit of common sense, along with a little research.

Lets take a look at this. At the time of this writing, (Aug. 2005) GNC – a retail health suppliment company commonly found in malls, had this to say about Homeopathy:

Understanding Homeopathic Potency

1) Homeopathic remedies are prepared through a process called potentization. Potentization involves a series of systematic dilutions and successions (a forceful shaking action). Potentization is important, because it removes all risk of chemical toxicity while activating a remedy substance and enabling it to affect the body therapeutically.

2) Homeopathic pharmacies operate according to strict guidelines, to ensure that the remedies and potencies are consistent and reliable. The first step in producing a homeopathic remedy is acquiring a pure preparation of the original substance in its natural form (a solution of a mineral salt, a “mother tincture” of a plant, etc.). The original substance is then put through a measured series of dilutions, alternating with succussions, until the desired potency is made.

3) Homeopathic potencies are designated by the combination of a number and a letter (for example, 6X or 30C). The number refers to the number of dilutions the tincture has undergone within a series to prepare that remedy. The letter refers to the proportions used in each dilution of the series (the Roman numeral X means 10, and the Roman numeral C means 100), as well as the number of succussions the vial of solution undergoes in each successive stage.

4) For example: To prepare a 6X potency of Ledum palustre, one part of the Ledum mother tincture is combined in a vial with nine parts of the carrier liquid, and succussed ten times again, making a 2X solution. The process is repeated four more times, for a total of six dilutions and succussions—and the final result is a 6X potency of Ledum. (To make a 30C, one part of the tincture would be combined with ninety-nine parts of the carrier liquid and succussed 100 times in each of thirty steps.) Pellets, tablets, or powders are then medicated with the potentized liquid, or drops of the remedy are taken in liquid form.

5) The more dilutions and succussions a substance undergoes, the higher the potency will be. Higher potencies of homeopathic remedies (anything higher than 12C) have been diluted past the point that molecules of the original substance would be measurable in the solution. This is a major stumbling block for skeptics when it comes to understanding and accepting the idea of homeopathy. Homeopathic remedies, when correctly chosen, clearly work—but not in the way that drugs do (through chemical actions that affect the body processes). It is not completely understood why potentized remedies can work so deeply and specifically, but many likely theories have arisen through research and observation. It appears that they function on an energetic level to stimulate the body to heal itself more efficiently.
[Paragraph numbers added by me for critiquing purposes. – MB]

Let’s take this one paragraph at a time and see what they are saying –

  1. The process of potentization is defined for us as, “a series of systematic dilutions and successions.” Successions is defined for us as, “a forceful shaking action.” So what GNC is saying here is that the original substance is added to something to dilute it, and then shaken to mix up the resulting mixture.
  1. This second paragraph doesn’t hold much meaning – they start with a “pure preparation” of the orginal substance in it’s natural form? If a plant gives you a fever, then what part of the plant do they use? The leaves? The whole plant? A specially derived oil from the plant? How do they seperate one organic compound from another? The vagueness here is not reassuring to me. Then they start diluting and shaking the results.
  1. Okay, here is a bit better information. Dilution is designated by number and letter. 6X means 60 potentizations and 30C means 3000 potentizations, at least I think this is so. At this point I assume that more potentizations means that the substance is increasingly weaker, right?
  1. This part was confusing to me. It doesn’t tell exactly how each potentization is put together. It seems intentionally vague. Let’s see if we can figure it out. GNC says that one part of the Ledum mother tincture is combined with 9 parts of a carrier liquid. (A ‘tincture’ is a solution created by dissolving the target material in alchohol.) So that equals 10 parts, or 1X according to the rules of Homeopathic marking.

And then they say it is, “…successed ten times again, making a 2X solution.” What? This has to be a misprint. Shaking the material 10 times will not double the solution! Maybe GNC has a misprint here?

In February of 2004 I checked the Ralph’s Grocery and Pharmacy department’s online Health Guide, and found an article titled, “Understanding Homeopathic Potency.” But that wasn’t any help because I got the same wording. It seems that GNC and Ralphs both get their information from a company called “Healthnotes.” But by spring of 2005, Ralph’s had taken their explanation down. Now they don’t seem to explain the “How” of Homeopathy.

So while casting around the Internet, I came across a recommended site called HomeoInfo. On their page titled, “The System of Scales and Brackets” I found this about Tinctures:

According to the preparation methods in the HPUS, all tinctures are 1/10 plant strength so the raw mother tincture is a 1X. The next step is to make a 2X. Since the 2X is a dilution of 1/100 it is the same as a 1C. From there you can do 1:9 to get X potencies and 1:99 to get the C’s.

Some are marked MT for mother tincture and others have the symbol Ø to show that it is a tincture.

What I understand this to actually mean is that one part of the original material is added to 9 parts of alchohol to make the mother tincture (MT). This is labeled 1X. It is at a strength of 1 part in 10.

To make a 2X, you may need to change your method a little.

The first method would be to take one-tenth of the original mother tincture and add it to 9 parts of carrier liquid.

The second method would be to just use the whole 1X solution as a ‘part’ and add it to an equally sized 9 parts of carrier liquid.

I have reason to believe that the first method is used instead of the second, due to sheer quantity of the resulting solution. So lets use the first method of measuring that I describe.

To make a 2X solution, you take one part of the original 1X solution and add it to 9 parts of carrier liquid. At this point there is one part of original material dissolved into 99 parts of solution. Looks like you don’t have to worry about the alchohol in the orignal solution anymore – this stuff is only 2 Proof!

But wait! They talk about a solution that is labeled 30C! How do we figure this out? Let’s do some math.

If 1X = 1:9, Then we can say there are 10 total parts of solution, or 101.
So 2X = 1:99, Then we can say there are 100 total parts of solution, or 102.


If 1C = 1:99, Then we can say there are 100 total parts of solution, or 1001.
So 2C = 1:9999, Then we can say there are 10000 total parts of solution, or 1002

30C = 10030
. Which is 1 part of the mother tincture dissolved into
999,999,999,999 parts of the carrier liquid!

If we were to use the second method that I describe, where we just keep adding solution to dilute the original substance, how much would we get? Starting with a teaspoon of the original substance, a teaspoon is equal to 4.928922 x 10-6 cubic meters. Multiplied by 1 x 10030 and find for the volume of a sphere. My calculation shows a spherical volume with a radius of 490,028 km. The radius of the Earth is only 6,378.1 km!

Now you can see why I had my doubts that the makers of Homeopathic substances don’t just keep dumping their entire resultant solutions into the next succession. There aren’t that many customers! There isn’t that much room on Earth! The resulting solution would have a radius 76 times greater than that of the Earth! Whew!

  1. Would it even be possible that a single molecule of the original material is left in any randomly sampled part of this mix? We could calculate it … however paragraph 5 above saves us the trouble!

Higher potencies of homeopathic remedies (anything higher than 12C) have been diluted past the point that molecules of the original substance would be measurable in the solution. This is a major stumbling block for skeptics when it comes to understanding and accepting the idea of homeopathy.

Major stumbling block?” My, they don’t mince words do they? So how does this magic potion work if there is no longer any of the original material in it? The paragraph goes on to say that they don’t know why it works, and mumbles some pseudoscientific crap about energy.

If you look around on the Internet, the best guess that anyone has is that the carrier liquid ‘remembers’ the influence of the original material that it was associated with. This is it. This is the best theory that anyone can come up with. Since most carrier liquids are plain distilled water, you have to wonder about this! Do they use municiple tap water? If so, how do they account for the impurities in this tap water that might affect treatment? Bottled distilled water? There are still impurities!

Do they make their own distilled water? If so, they will quickly discover that there exists NO METHOD AT ALL to make distilled water without some impurities! Homeopathy offers no explanation of how to ‘clear’ water memory. If water ‘remembers’ what it was in contact with, then it would be logical to assume that the water will remember touching the side of the container that it is being distilled in!

And just how good is water’s memory? The Homeopathic community does not know! They can’t know if water will remember impurities that it associated with decades, or millennia ago! All water on Earth has gone through a biological cycle over and over again for millions and millions of years! What is this water able to remember? Just how therapeutic is Trilobite piss? Would we be wary of waste from Whale, Walrus, Worms or Wart Hogs?

Higher potencies of homeopathic remedies (anything higher than 12C)

Wait, something seems wrong here. Are they claiming that a more diluted substance has a higher potency than a lesser diluted substance? Yes! They ARE! The less the amount of original substance, the better it works. This again defies logic. (I get this wild thought that if I could achieve infinite dilution, the resultant potion should bring the dead back to life!)

Homeopathic remedies, when correctly chosen, clearly work

Really? They do? What proof is there for this? To see if this proof is valid, let’s take a look at how Modern science is supposed to work:

  • Modern science is “Peer review” driven. This means that when one scientist makes a discovery, he writes up his findings and submits them to one (or several) science journals. His peers will read his work, and will attempt to duplicate his efforts. If any of his methods or findings seem questionable his peers will definitely attempt to duplicate his findings, and are happy to point out where his science fails.
  • Scientific results are repeatable. If a set of conditions give a certain result, then duplicating the conditions will give an identical result.
  • Scientists who test to see if a particular substance has an effect on people rely on a scientific method called a “double-blind” test. In these tests, the people being subjected to the test often have no idea what they are being tested for. At the very least, they have no idea if they are being given an active substance or a placebo. The person running the test also does not know what is being tested for, and also does not know if an active substance or a placebo is being given. The scientist that understands what is going on is not present during a double-blind test so that nothing is given away accidentally. All results, no matter how trivial, are recorded by people who don’t know what is being tested for, and the raw data is then sorted out by the scientist.

So we can see that these methods of measuring results and having them reviewed by your peers is what makes science self-correcting. Science makes mistakes all the time! This is taken as given by any true scientist! But the methods of science result in the eventual correction of mistakes

So again, what proof is there that Homeopathic remedies work? If there is proof, it should be in a peer-reviewed medical journal, right? Luckily, as a student at California State University, Fresno; I have access to many on line scientific journals. I used the MEDLINE (Silverplatter) server which indexes more journals in health and medicine than any other server at my school. I then used “Homeopathic” as a keyword and started reading the resulting abstracts from various journals.

First I was shocked to find out that there are ‘medical’ journals for alternative medicine! Such as the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, or the Journal of the Faculty of Homeopathy! All of these so called ‘scientific’ journals start with the assumption that Homeopathy is a working, proven science! I’ll take this opportunity to state that if science starts with a bias – if it does not operate from a neutral, objective standpoint, then said ‘science’ is only worthless crap. It is worse than worthless – it can be dangerous!

The next thing that I found is that the standard ‘neutral’ medical, biological, and biochemical journals seem to also be doing research into Homeopathy.

Just from a curious browse through the these abstracts I found that if the Journal seemed ‘iffy’ to me, in that it used the words “Homeopathic” or “Alternative” in the journal title, then for the most part the Homeopathic remedies under test were seen to have value, or were determined to act positively.

Abstracts from all other journals were very emphatic in their results in that Homeopathic remedies do not work, or at best were indeterminant!

Homeopathic supporters are quick to point out a 1986 Clinical study published in the mainstream British medical journal Lancet that indicates that Homeopathic remedies were effective in the treatment of ‘allergic rhinitis’. I found this journal entry in Lancet. I also found another Lancet journal entry for 1997, about a Meta-analysis of Homeopathy, that said it:

… found insufficient evidence from these studies that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition. Further research on homeopathy is warranted provided it is rigorous and systematic. (Lancet 1997 Sep 20; 350(9081): 834-43)

Well, that’s not too bad – it seems to say that Homeopathic methods don’t seem to work, but that further research should be done. Provided that the research is done scientifically.

But wait! Letters to the Lancet, as part of peer review, point out that the 1997 Meta-Analysis is severely flawed due to biases of the original tester, inappropriate use of statistics, and poorly acquired data. The letters say that the Meta-analysis has a biased positive viewpoint, and that Homeopathy has been shown to be worthless in many journals.

Lastly, I took a look at exactly WHAT the original article was supposed to be, and I found something that surprised me. The original 1986 ‘study’ was not a Lancet article at all! Instead, it is only a ‘letter’ to Lancet detailing ‘case-reports’. The Meta-analysis is an article, which resulted in peer-review. The original 1986 ‘letter’ has been for the most part ignored as not worth a real response. The response is much the same as if someone had sent a letter to the editor of Scientifc American magazine saying that his blurry photos were proof of Bigfoot! It is somewhat valuable as humor, but no one will bother to respond to it!

This is the ‘Proof’ that Homeopathy works? How disappointing!

I have met people who claim that they have used Homeopatic remedies and who have said that these remedies worked for them. Good for them! But let me gently remind the reader that there is something called the ‘placebo effect’ too. The human mind is wonderfully able to create it’s own drugs (called endorphins)

I have noticed that none of these people have claimed to use a Homeopathic remedy for such things as staunching severe (life-threatening) bleeding, or for reducing the pain and swelling of a broken arm. That would impress me!

I have yet to find a double-blind, repeatable, scientifically reviewed test that proves that Homeopatic remedies work. But maybe I’m wrong, eh? If you know of such a test, published in a mainstream medical journal, I would like to know.

I don’t know how anyone else feels about this – but I find it disturbing that there are practicing witch-doctors in the United States that sell ‘magic’ potions to cure real ailments. There seems to be no proof that these treatments do anything more than make money for the witch-doctor in question.

If a seller of these potions believes that what he or she is doing is valid, then I would consider them to be mis-informed. If a person is doing this just for the money – well, that’s just pathetic.

Maybe we should call this Homeopathetic medicine?