Curing the Soul with Water
by Francois Tremblay (e-mail: FTremblay@liberator.net) [April 28th, 2000]
There seems to be a rash of positive new stories about a certain kind of medical quackery recently. Public support is rising for an "alternative" treatment called homeopathy. Homeopathy, as you may know, is the practice of curing illness by drinking extremely diluted versions of a substance that causes the same effects.
Homeopathy is especially popular in Europe -- 40% of people in France use it for minor illnesses, and India has more than a hundred homeopathy schools. It is also gaining tremendous acceptance in North America. Homeopathic "remedies" are the only quack products accepted as "drugs" by the FDA, and spawned a 400-million-dollars-a-year industry.
This technique was founded in the 19th century by a German doctor called Samuel Hahnemann, on the principle that "like cures like." At that time, the medical techniques then used, like bloodletting or purging, did more harm than good. At least homeopathy didn't do anything at all, which was a big improvement. That explained the rise of homeopathic practices at the time. Nowadays the situation has slightly changed.
“Seriously, one can easily see how ridiculous this principle is. In fact it is so obvious that homeopaths themselves are constantly trying to find new pseudo-scientific justifications for it. They come and go, like fads.”
The notion that smaller doses make for bigger effect was labelled "law of infinitesimals." It is an odd notion indeed. Perhaps you know the joke, a version of which I read on the Stand-Up Skeptic. At a party, two people discuss their host.
HE : "What does he do?" SHE : "He's in alternative medicine, but I don't know which field." HE : "Homeopathy, I'd say." SHE : "What makes you think he's a homeopath?" HE : "I tried the gin punch."
I don't see why homeopaths don't ask for minute quantities of money in exchange for their cures. After all, the smaller the amount of money, the more buying power, right? Hypothetically, if you only give a microscopic part of a dime as payment, he should be able to buy millions of dollars' worth with it.
Seriously, one can easily see how ridiculous this principle is. In fact it is so obvious that homeopaths themselves are constantly trying to find new pseudo-scientific justifications for it. They come and go, like fads. An earlier one was called "the memory of water," now the newest refinement is called "digital biology." They are all gobbledegook, couched in chemistry terms.
So then, why is homeopathy taken more seriously than any other quack treatment like touch therapy or candling, to the point of being dangerously accepted in the mainstream? Perhaps it is due to its ancestral popularity.
There seems to be a surge of support for homeopathy even today. Three recent articles from so-called reliable sources chant the greatness of minute amounts of illness to cure the same illness. Not surprisingly, their articles also happen to contain little more than minute amounts of good sense.
The pretentious e-zine Salon ran an article on March 16th called Homeopathy. But brace yourself for this, the subtitle is It's not wizardry; in fact, it's based on the same principle as vaccination. I don't need to tell you how much I laughed at that sentence. How is homeopathy like vaccination? According to "health reporter" Debra Ollivier, they are alike because they are both based on the premise "that it is possible to cure a patient of a disease by administering the same substance that would induce that disease in him if he were well." As an analogy, that's like saying a molecule is "much like" a human being because they are both alive: there's a little problem of scale here. Not only that, but the homeopathic choice of substance to use is based on resemblance of effects, not on any scientific observation that this is indeed the substance that causes the disease.
Of course, the quacks she interviews are quick to dismiss these considerations as not worthy of consideration. They claim it works, like all other quacks do when they're cornered. Well, does it work? Unfortunately, our intrepid "reporter" glosses over the subject by saying that "numerous research studies, including double-blind and placebo tests done in conjunction with large health institutes" confirm the greatness of these microscopic miracle cures.
That is really too bad. Perhaps the article published by another famous "hip" e-zine, called Wired, can give us more evidence. One day before the Salon article, they published an article with the optimistic title of Homeopathy -- Dilute And Heal. Was the medical community shaken by the news? Not really. More claims are made without any evidence. A homeopath called Bill Gray, generously called "doctor," explains his newest theory for "water memory" in this way: "(...) now that modern research shows that water that's prepared homeopathically is altered in its structure, this water does actually alter tissue cultures, organ function, and entire animals." Where is the research? A researcher called Shiu Yin Lo is called upon to testify that he has found that shaking water vigorously forces water molecules to form clusters when substances are added to it. Where are the independant scientific tests? The medical tests? None are provided, sadly. I'm beginning to see a pattern here.
It is with a heavy heart that I set about to read the last article of this series, from Anchorage Daily News, on March 21st, bearing another optimistic title Homeopathy is controversial but effective. At first, we see the same blabbering ideas as the first ones: it's like vaccination, shaking makes water change in a weird way, and such. But lo! Here we find evidence!
We read the fascinating story of a "Scottish physician" called David Reilly. Supposedly he set about to prove that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo effect, but his first study, made on allergic responses and made with proper scientific methodology, revealed that the remedy did have an effect. He was published in medical magazine "Lancet," received a grant, and got more positive results. Of course there is no mention of the substance used and how diluted it was, how these allergic responses were measured, subjectively or otherwise, nor is there any independent confirmation of this study. Similar claimed positive studies were replicated by magazine Nature and James Randi, showing negative results, as did other independent studies. As a curious (and perhaps not completely unexpected) aside, the archive of Lancet magazine reveals no article on "Reilley's Challenge," or any specific study made on homeopathy, but uses instead the very dubious and controversial practice of meta-analysis.
It is sad that such paragons of public opinion parade the opinions of quacks as true medicine. As Prescribe International concluded in its 1996 update on the examination of homeopathic trials, "[p]ending further evidence, homeopathy remains a form of placebo therapy." That is perfectly normal, since it is literally nothing more than water.
Missing links on the causal chain
Surely I must be exaggerating when I say homeopathic remedies are "nothing more than water"? Not really. For example, there is a homeopathic remedy called "Oscillococcinum," which purports to treat colds and flu symptoms. It is fabricated thanks to a most unlucky fowl called "the twenty million dollar duck." The reason for this is that only one duck is killed to make one whole year's worth of this substance! And this year's worth is estimated at above twenty million dollars. The concentration of this remedy is 1 in 100200. If you don't see how big 100200 is, it's 10400 or a one with four hundred zeros. This is way above the number of molecules in the whole universe. This means that, to have one molecule of this poor duck's liver in such an encapsuled remedy, you'd need a capsule bigger than the universe. Problem is, such a concentration in a smaller and digestible capsule is impossible, because of Avogadro's constant. That means that there is no molecule of liver at all in the remedy sold in stores -- it's been diluted to annihilation. "Oscillococcinum" is 100% water.
Homeopaths call this level of dilution 200C. Avogadro's constant dictates that the maximum dilution possible is approximately 12C. Most homeopathic remedies today range between 3C and 15C, but some go beyond 30C. So we can safely say that, chemically speaking, a large proportion of these remedies are pure water.
This is where "water memory" comes in. You see, when you dilute the substance, the water molecules "remember" the substance that was there before in large quantities, making the vial as potent as a real remedy. There are some problems with that. The most obvious is, if the water in the vial keeps the properties of the substance, then it's not really a dilution isn't it? It would be simpler to just sell vials of the substance. But that's also problematic, since these substances are supposed to reproduce the bad effects when ingested in full. So either they are selling water, or they are selling a harmful substance. Both alternatives are a problem.
“It is claimed that personal testimonies and badly designed or irreproducible results prove something, regardless of the fatal gaps in the causal chain proposed.”
The standard answer to this paradox is to say that it is not as much the properties of the substance that are "memorised" as much as its "electromagnetic signal." Unfortunately, this explanation makes little sense at all, even theoretically -- it is physics-babble. Electromagnetism refers to the magnetic effect of electric currents. Perhaps you remember an experiment in your physics class where a compass placed near electric current moves under its effect -- that is an instance of the electromagnetic effect. But different substances don't have "different electric currents" in nature. Unless you put some volts thru your solution, there are electric forces but no current. Shaking vigorously to produce electric currents is as ridiculous as shaking your computer box to start it up.
But even if it were possible in theory, it would completely demolish the germ theory of disease, on which modern medicine is based. I don't mean to be Master of the Obvious here, but I think we would have heard about any scientific paper successfully refuting the germ theory of disease.
And what about impurities in the water? What about the air around it, or the water's container? Don't these molecules get trebled thru the whole vial too? How can we say that a very small concentration of substance in the water gets trebled, while the abundant air molecules around it don’t? What about the water molecules themselves? Why don't they treble each other? See where I get when I start thinking... I start asking all these silly questions. Since I don't have a PhD, I should probably defer to all these serious homeopaths with diplomas and stop asking questions.
The notion of digital biology is simply an extension of this concept, but using the notion of frequencies. Molecules communicate by frequencies, and that is how they transmit information, supposedly like adrenaline makes the heart beat faster by combining with its receptors. According to the author of this theory, "(...) if you ask even the most eminent biologists what the physical nature of this signal is, they seem not even to understand the question, and stare at you wide-eyed." That's odd, I remember molecular signals from my high school classes. But then again, it does mention that "it tries to explain to laymen, in the simplest terms, this radically new approach to biology." It may be a radical new approach, but it's not very well thought-out.
As for any other quackery, we observe a separation of causal chains from actual effect. It is claimed that personal testimonies and badly designed or irreproducible results prove something, regardless of the fatal gaps in the causal chain proposed. Without failure you will observe this in all medical quackeries, and some other types of nonsense as well -- especially pseudo-scientific ones. Before accepting homeopathy as valid, even after serious studies, one must consider other causes that are much more likely than revising the whole corpus of the laws of physics and chemistry. But so far there is no reason to believe that we will ever have to consider such a thing.
[Visit Francois Tremblay's personal pages at www.objectivethought.com.]
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