Saturday, 20 December 2008

Homeopathy...less than a drop in the ocean.

Main Entry: ho·me·op·a·thy
Pronunciation: \ˌhō-mē-ˈä-pə-thē, ˌhä-\
Function: noun
Etymology: German Homöopathie, from homöo- homeo- + -pathie -pathy
Date: 1826
: a system of medical practice that treats a disease especially by the administration of minute doses of a remedy that would in healthy persons produce symptoms similar to those of the disease.

Homeopathy was introduced to the world by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th Century. It has its basis in an alleged 'law of similarities', which, when applied to this purported medical science, states that 'like cures like'.

It's easily confused with vaccination, but there is a simple, crucial difference: vaccination is the introduction of dead microbes into the system to stimulate the immune system into fighting a disease.

The basic thrust of homeopathy is that maladies and ailments can be cured by introducing small amounts of substances that produce the same symptoms as the ailment. For example, if you have a skin condition, a homeopathic remedy might be to introduce the body to a diluted mixture of a mineral or botanical substance that causes skin conditions, like sumac or poison oak. If you have an acidic stomach or an ulcer, the homeopathic remedy would include acids.

By 'small', I mean...infinitesimally small, and by diluted...really diluted. There are standard symbols for measuring dilution, represented by the Roman numerals X & C. 'X' is for dilutions of 1 to 10, 'C' for 1 to 100. The standard homeopathic preparations is '30C'. This is equivalent to one molecule of the curative substance diluted in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water.

According to Stephen Barrett MD writing on the Quackwatch website, "this would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth".
Robert Park of the American Physical Society, to whom Barrett refers in his Quackwatch article, says this:

This is the point at which we are all supposed to realize how ridiculous this is and share a good laugh. But homeopaths don't laugh. They've done the same calculation. And while they agree that not a single molecule of the active substance could remain, they contend it doesn't matter, the water/alcohol mixture somehow remembers that the substance was once there. The process of succussion is presumed to charge the entire volume of the liquid with the same memory. Is there any evidence for such a memory?

The homeopathic fraternity acknowledges the above dilution to be correct, but rather than accept the truth of homeopathy, they engage in the same kind of sunk costs fallacy that afflicts devotees of the practice. How? They claim that water has a memory.

Now, while this sounds completely outlandish, science has been doing its part to do what science does best: test.

While no proof yet exists of water's ability to remember past molecular inahabitants, a Swiss chemist, Louis Rey, has conducted experiments in which he hoped to challenge conventional thinking on the subject.

I'm more than sceptical about the veracity of homeopathy as a valid treament; I think it's downright nonsense. But rather than expound too much further, I'll let Richard Dawkins and James Randi explain it all far better than I can:

What really intrigues me about the whole thing is that, as with astrology or tarot or faith healing or psychic power or an Abrahamic god, people subsume or even discard the more likely truth in favour of 'how it makes me feel'. And worse, presented with overwhelming evidence to refute the claims of 'horoscopists' or the religious faithful, these people use 'how it makes me feel' as their buffer against critical thought and the potential for learning.

Worse, I'm firmly of the belief that engaging in the fallacy of sunk costs is more damaging to people than biting the bullet and accepting the possibility of a different truth.

On that note, I don't feel so good. I need a glass of water.