Homeopathic Blues

One of the things that scares me as a skeptic is the possibility of someone I care for, someone close to me, falling victim to some quack alternative medical scam because they weren’t thinking critically at the time.

Alternative medicine?

Alternative to what, medicine that’s based on genuine evidence?

For one thing, it’s inventing a false dichotomy of alternative vs. science-based medicine, since if the majority of alleged alternative treatments actually worked, and could be shown to work in properly controlled studies, they wouldn’t BE alternative.

They’d be, well, medicine, and that would be it. Some of them are, despite being hijacked by Alt med advocates as their own.

Those claimed alternatives that really do work, and I mean better than placebos do, better than sugar pills, have been shown to work and are currently being used as part of regular medical practice.

But it’s not the alternative treatments that have some small efficacy that bother me, it’s the treatments that have no real support from reasonably-conducted studies, many of which are based on debased magical ideas with no scientific plausibility to begin with, much less being not even being supported by the data.

It’s no surprise that those who practice such implausible modalities shun the use of controlled and blinded experiments because those things rather inconveniently ‘don’t work for them.’

I wonder why….? *crickets chirping*

There is a spectrum of efficacy for differing medical modalities, all the way from the completely worthless, implausible treatments to those well-supported by medical research.

The more implausible treatments have either not been shown to work under reasonable test conditions or have been shown not to work under those same conditions.

I have yet to see someone suffer from even frequently repeated overdoses of entire bottles of, say, homeopathic sleeping pills much less just doze off into la-la land, despite the recent spate of skeptics overdosing all over the world, to no effect, not even a yawn.

What’s kept me from doing it is the fact that the local pharmacies I’ve been to so far have more integrity in the stock they carry than I’ve anticipated. Damn. Well, maybe I should be pleased – bully for them.

I’m afraid the only thing homeopathy will ever cure is your thirst, and to paraphrase comedian Dara O Briain, while you can’t overdose on it, you can f**king drown from it. After all, it’s just water.

By the way, my diabolical Big Pharma paymasters have just emailed me to inform me of the payment in my sooper sekret Swiss bank account for writing this post. Baaah!

8 thoughts on “Homeopathic Blues

  1. Really great post. Thankyou, I’ll be e-mailing it to some woo-minded friends, who see me as nothing more than a “closed-minded skeptical Science Teacher and geek”. Ohhh the irony…Actually, I think it *is* the irony that drives me quite insane, that and the frustration, that despite being a teacher (and used to being listened to), I can’t get people to take me seriously. I’ve even been told “Oh, you’re so skeptical!” (meant in a bad way)!


  2. I agree in principle 100% Troy. However, I think you know, and I hope your readers know, that this doesn’t mean all homeopathic remedies are hogwash. I almost never use them, nor do I use herbs much (except for “Wellness Pills” which DO work quite well), but I must say I did use a homeopathic remedy recently and it worked excellently for me. Actually, I used it in conjunction with an herb, so truthfully I don’t know where the efficacy is coming from, the remedy, the herb, or a combination. Anyway, the problem is I had enough for about a month, and about two weeks after I ran out, the condition started to come back. I got another month’s worth, and the same thing happened again, pain-free for the month plus two weeks after it ran out. To be fair, I don’t know if there are any studies which support or deny the efficacy of this remedy. But assuming there are none, I don’t much care. The fact is it works, and it works repeatedly, for me individually. While science is great tool, it has it’s limits. It can only say whatever it can, about it’s specific domain, and nothing further. Studies can indicate that this treatment doesn’t work for 96% of the subjects, but if I’m in the 4% then Woo Hoo! I’ll use that homoeopathic remedy, and I’ll tell others about it.

    I think another way to say this is in relation to the comment above mine by “Kitty” the science teacher. I, too, teach at the university (I’m an adjunct, not tenured) and my problem is the opposite of yours: people think I’m too open-minded. So I generally stick to actual trials: I tell people (and I do so myself) to try stuff out in physical realtiy rather than taking intellectual stances against or for things solely based on the category into which they fall. Got a headach? Try a homeopathic remedy. (Oh, BTW, that’s another thing which works for me repeatedly, “Head-On”–I have problems with normal headaches and wih migrain headaches Head-On works wonders). But if you try it, and it doesn’t work for you, then it doesn’t work for you (it may work for someone else–the human body is the most complex and mystifying thing in our known universe). But, if it DOES work, then it does. No amount of scientific evidence against it makes any difference to you. It certainly does if you’re in the medical treatment field. My naturopath (has a Ph.D. from some well-known American university, can’t remember which one right now) has a responsbility to inform me that “X” has been shown to be ineffectual for 96% of patients.

    Proper skepticism is healthy. But the charge of being a “closed-minded scientific skeptic” sometimes comes from eschewing things based on a label (such as “homeopathy is nonesense” or “spirituality is nonesense”), and thus may be a well-deserved charge. On the other side, the charge of being “gullible believer” sometimes comes from uncritically accepting whole classes of things which don’t have evidential support, and thus this too may be a well-deserved charge. Our task (or I should say “my task” so as not to imply I’m preaching to anyone) is to find the middle ground.



  3. well the question i always had was why anyone would need to buy a second dose of a homeopathic product rather when they could simply continue to dilute the first … continue this thought process and you get an idea of what a sweet deal this particular approach to medicine must be for the practitioner only ever having to continue to dilute ingredients and you might very well come to the conclusion that the practice is, needless to say, completely fraudulent … largely taking advantage of the placebo effect in my option … and yes it can be harmful though it is undoubtedly the benign form alternative medicine in my opinion due the simple fact that the extreme dilution makes it unlikely to produce toxic side effects or interfere with legitimate treatments … also, while it can be harmful, it’s certainly no where near as harmful as something like smoking … again just my opinion


    • I would suggest that any perceived benefit from a homeopathic remedy would be due to the placebo effect, though with the caveat that some recent research would seem to suggest that placebos work even when you know they are placebos, which is really interesting and this may lead to more widespread and open prescribing of placebo medication for some.

      I don’t anticipate that working for my treatment plan though…

      This is what I love about blogging as a form of learning experience: Gentlemanly (and Ladylike), often vigorous, discussion without the shedding of blood even in the metaphorical sense. Valid criticism when it comes does one a favor, and I don’t know what I would do without peeps like you to point out things I hadn’t considered in a post and set me straight when I err. Thanks.


  4. Skeptic Cat: I don’t know if that’s a rhetorical question b/c the answer seems obvious. My time is valuable, but here goes: Skeptic Cat said: “… why anyone would need to buy a second dose of a homeopathic product rather when they could simply continue to dilute the first …”

    The answer is because the dose is cut in half and then in quarters, etc. and it’s then ineffectual. But as I said I’m not into homeopathic remedies, so maybe you know more than me about it. Is it standard practice to dilute ad infinitum? I doubt it. I’ve never had a treater say that a fraction or portion of a dose would do the same thing as the full amount. (Actually, I’ve only had one naturopath in my life). I agree, Skeptic Cat, if I was told this, I’d probably conclude the person wasn’t trustworthy or was incompetent. So in that sense I agree with you. But, on the basis of one untrustworthy person (or 10 or 20), to conclude that the whole practice is completely fraudulent doesn’t make any sense.

    I don’t know how old you are (I was born in 1961), but when you start to get older and your body goes through radical changes, and you find a drug like Relpax works wonders, or that a homeopathic remedy cures you, or acupuncture cures your debilitating carpel tunnel syndrome (as happened with my wife), or a placebo provides relief, or whatever, it doesn’t make any difference which category of medicine (or non-medicine) it falls into. You appreciate what works, and throw away what doesn’t. As I said, to reject something as nonsense because it falls into one category or another is unempirical. Over the years I’ve tried alternative therapy, which did nothing, then I got prescribed an orthodox therapy which worked wonders. Many times the opposite happened, the alternative therapy worked while the physician-prescribed one failed. The point is to find what works for you.

    The way one comports oneself toward anything in life makes a big difference in their experience. Look at William James’ “Will to Believe.” My good friend and spiritual brother just spent 7 weeks in intensive care, the first week hanging on for his life. The doctors said he should have died, based on their extensive experience with these cases, and the extent of his injuries, and the results of the tests they were running. They said the only thing that kept him alive was his will to live, and his will to believe he could make it. At one point they just stood back and said medical science couldn’t help him any more. It was up to his will and his attitude. That’s an example of MASSIVE placebo effect across all systems of the human body (he was in a motorcycle accident).

    As for the placebo effect, this is something which is quite interesting, even remarkable. This is more proof that the body heals itself and the mind has real power. What’s more believable, that metabolic pathways get significantly altered with a very small dose of material, or that they get altered with nothing at all except thought? The subject always has to have knowledge of the material (as well as the route) for the treatment to be efficacious, BTW.



  5. Also, I forgot to mention, I’m not arguing for or against homeopathy. I don’t really care much about it. The main point in all my comments here has been we have to use critical thinking and our experience to judge what works or doesn’t work, not our personal preferences for certain lables. Yes, I agree, certain things like “Electric Universe Theory” are blind stupidity, and always will be.



    • I’m currently reading a book I recently picked up titled Trick or Treatment: the undeniable facts about alternative medicine by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst, Singh being the science writer who recently won the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association, and Ernst being the world’s first professor of complementary medicine. It’s a good read, and I highly recommend it.

      (Updated 2011/03/04)

      Hey, guys. I was doing some reading of the book referenced above, the chapter on homeopathy, and I did find out that it does use not just small amounts of active ingredients, but virtually nonexistent amounts, at least in ‘true’ homeopathic remedies.

      Typically, multiple dilutions by factors of 10-100 or more are performed, and the time and labor taken to make these preparations add substantially to their expense, until in many cases not even a single molecule of the active ingredient is present.

      Supporters claim that the water has a sort of ‘memory’ of whatever is dissolved in it, but considering everything that has ever been dissolved in any given water source, this ‘memory’ must be magically selective in what properties it retains.

      This is not only implausible, but more importantly also not supported by any reliable empirical data.

      Also, I my suggestion of the viability of placebo effects without the need for deception has been called into question, and is probably wrong (See Here).


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