How Homeopathy Works

This Saturday, a lot of people are going to publicly overdose on homeopathic medicine, to prove that the pills are totally inert. This is part of the ‘10:23’ campaign. Personally, I love homeopathy. Its practices read like a scathing satire of alternative medicine. Literally every part of it is wrong. Just as you think it’s done being silly, you read the next bit and if anything it gets more absurd. Allow me to explain.

The way homeopathy works — I say ‘works’. The way homeopathy is thought to work — I say ‘thought’. The way homeopathy is believed to work is by a principle called ‘like cures like’. So you cure a disease using something that causes the same symptoms (even though they tell you that homeopathy treats diseases, not symptoms unlike, they say, something which they call ‘allopathy’ and which everyone else calls ‘medicine’). So, for example, say you have fractured limbs. As any player of Theme Hospital will tell you, Fractured Limbs is caused by falling from high places onto concrete, so you might get some concrete, put it in a glass of water and call it medicine. That’s a rather facetious example, but you can genuinely buy homeopathic remedies made with dolphin song or the light of Venus. The light of Venus? What disease does that cause? I think if you’re exposed to significant amounts of Venus-light then the terrible heat and the atmosphere of sulphuric acid will be what does for you. Homeopaths work out what diseases to flog these esoteric tinctures for by giving them to healthy people and writing down what it does to them. In case nothing happens, they omit such extravagances as a control group or any statistical tests, so they get the same guaranteed results as the N = 1 science of Braniac. They call these experiments ‘provings’, which is a bit like me writing ‘working’ on my timesheet when I was actually doodling: it is what I would like people to believe I was doing.

Anyway. You take your medicine, which you’ve carefully selected to be the worst possible thing you could give the patient, and dilute it. This, homeopaths conveniently assert, reduces its harmful effects while amplifying its presumed healing properties. You take a drop of the water with your medicine in, and put it in 10ml of fresh water, which is assumed to be about a 1:100 dilution, which they call “1C”. Then you shake it, or hit it with a book. (That obviously achieves nothing, so it can be fun to leave it out, thereby making homeopaths say amusingly daft things like ‘well of course it’s going to sound silly if you don’t mention the succussion’, which is the word they invented for hitting things with books.) Then you repeat the dilution, and succussion, so you have a 1:10,000 dilution, which they call “2C” and then again so you have a 1:1,000,000, or “3C” dilution. They call it a ‘potency’ instead of a ‘dilution’ because that sounds more like it might work, but chemists may recognise this as the technique used to remove all trace of a chemical from titration pipettes (except they’re delicate so you don’t hit them with books). Homeopathic remedies are routinely sold at a potency of “100C”, which means…

The problem with a 100C dilution is that it’s beyond analogy or satire. A 60C dilution would have to literally fill the entire universe before it had even a remotely realistic chance of containing a single molecule. When homeopathy was first imagined, we didn’t know about Avogadro’s Number, but now we know that beyond 12C there are generally no molecules left of the original medicine. It’s just a glass of water. So modern homeopaths have invented a thing called the ‘memory of water’. Some of them write long pieces of gibberish about quantum theory which read like a shooting script for one of the sillier episodes of Star Trek Voyager, but mostly they pin their meagre hopes on some kind of unspecified crystalline microstructures which they say form around molecules in water, and which heal your body somehow and don’t get damaged by being repeatedly hit with a book. Of course nobody has ever shown the memory of water effect in a laboratory or that homeopathic remedies have any therapeutic effect, but they write a lot more entertaining but merit-free quantum bullshit to explain that away. This empty water can optionally be soaked into a sugar pill if liquid medicine isn’t your thing, so my advice would be not to give hyperactive children homeopathic sleeping pills.

The problem with the ‘memory of water’ hypothesis (aside from the fact that it isn’t true) is that beyond a 24C dilution there is none of the 12C solution left either, so water would not only have to remember what it contained, but communicate this information to some future water. A 100C dilution would have had to do this at least four times. This aqueous Chinese-whispers obviously has no active ingredient, and homeopaths therefore believe that the real power of homeopathy is that it activates the body’s own healing powers, which sounds very natural and healthy but raises two rather important questions, the first of which is ‘why doesn’t the body just use those powers in the first place?’, and the second of which is ‘what environment did mankind evolve in where this was the best system?’. Developing an immune system that needs kick-starting by some water which used to have poison in it seems to me like an evolutionary mis-step.

No, the immune system evolved to try its level best to fix anything that might go wrong in the body, but it’s a bit of an ad-hoc job and doesn’t always get it right. Sometimes it’s slow, sometimes it fails, and sometimes epically backfires and kills its owner. Modern medicine works by giving a group of intelligent people a deep understanding and knowledge of anatomy, asking them to interfere with the natural progression of a disease, and banking on their expertise to make a better fist of it than the body’s in-built system, which by the way is the same system that reckons if you don’t wash your face enough you need a load of spots that hurt to clean. It’s a slightly messy process, obviously, because there’s a finite number of options available, so we do massive amounts of research to discover every effect that every chemical and surgical procedure we can think of has on the body. Doctors look through that research to find one which will do what they need it to, and anything else it happens to do is called a ‘side effect’ and the patient has to put up with them or take their chances with the disease.

Homeopaths, on the other hand, insist their medicine has no side effects. Much like the Daily Mail, they see the world as divided into ‘healing’ and ‘disease-causing’ things, and like the Daily Mail put everything on both lists. It’s just a pathetic piece of magical thinking which belies a complete lack of understanding of how the world works. It’s not divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ things; things are right or wrong for a particular purpose. It’s this kind of thinking that leads to people putting deisel in a petrol engine, assuming they haven’t ruined it already by using 100C unleaded.

Sugar pills Homeopathic medicines in Boots, labelled with poncey Latin names to appear more credible. Hence the alternative spelling 'homœopathy'. Creative Commons License photo credit: Gwyn Richards

And obviously people are perfectly free to think this way and to spend many a happy afternoon pointlessly diluting glasses of water and hitting them with books. Probably the ritual will make them feel better. But if people rely on this voodoo nonsense instead of real medicine, they die. And when they promote it over real medicine, they kill. Boots the Chemist have admitted in Parliament that there is no evidence that homeopathic medicines work, but they sell them anyway, alongside the real medicine, because “[their] customers think they work”. Campaigns like 10:23 are important to minimise the harm these things do.

Homeopaths will tell you that 10:23 does nothing to disprove homeopathy. The stunt is for loads of people to each chug an entire box of pills all at once to demonstrate that nothing happens. Such homeopathic overdose stunts have been done before, and homeopaths have got their excuse down pat by now: they say that any non-zero number of pills, if swallowed all at once, is the same as one pill. (I agree, apart from the ‘non-zero’ part.) They can say this, and indeed anything they like, because once you’ve effectively invoked magic, all bets are off. But the point isn’t to convince homeopaths — they’re far too invested to quit now — but to show everyone else how silly it is. If you have a bit of a cold and someone suggests you try homeopathy, and you do and you get better because it was only a cold, that can be quite convincing. But if we can goad the homeopathic community into publicly saying something as patently absurd as “one hundred pills is the same dose as one pill” then that’s a valuable victory. Anyone who’s seen that will think twice before entrusting their health to a homeopath. It also raises questions about why the packaging of these pills says to take a dose of two. That’s the business plan of a dodgy plumber.

That’s the point: we don’t need to disprove homeopathy. Aside from the fact that it is the homeopaths’ responsibility to prove their theory, all you need to do to homeopathy is hand it enough rope. A public awareness campaign is exactly the last thing homeopaths need.