Homeopathy is one of the most enduring forms of snake oil available to consumers; it has been duping people since 1814. But the United States government only recently decided to clamp down on these bogus treatments, with a new policy from the Federal Trade Commission.
The FTC’s policy statement explains that the agency will now ask that the makers of homeopathic drugs present reliable scientific evidence for their health claims if they want to sell them to consumers on the US market.
Mustering that evidence is likely to be difficult given that homeopathy is a pseudoscience.
The main idea behind homeopathy is that an animal or plant extract that causes symptoms similar to the ones a person is suffering from can cure the symptoms. An example: Because onions make eyes tear and noses run, diluted onion extract is thought to cure cold and hay fever. So homeopathic remedies on the market are just extremely diluted versions of plant or animal extracts believed to bring relief to symptoms.
The trouble is that whenever researchers have looked at the homeopathic treatments, they find they do not actually contain traceable amounts of the original plant or animal material they were supposedly diluting.
By Emiliano Tatar, MD via philly.com
Unfortunately, it is essentially nothing more than distilled water and its use as a replacement for conventional medicine can, in some cases, be dangerous and even fatal. Last March, Hope Delozier, an 18-month-old Pennsylvania resident developed an ear infection. Her parents, who avoid conventional medical practices, tried to treat her with Homeopathic remedies. Hope soon died after the infection spread to her brain. Most tragically, this was completely preventable with inexpensive antibiotics.
The practice of homeopathy has been around since the early 19th century (invented by Samuel Hahnneman). It relies on several basic tenets. The two most important ones are “like cures like” and “potentiation.” Like-cures-like is the idea that, for example, if I eat plant X and it makes me feel warmth, then the plant has a substance that can cure a fever. Potentiation is the idea that the more dilute a substance is the more powerful it becomes medically. There is no other place in modern science where these principles are accepted except for in homeopathy. There is no reason to believe that “like cures like” and the idea of ultra-dilution making something more powerful flies completely against the laws of physics and chemistry.
I intensely dislike all forms of medical quackery. Of course, my passionate, full-throated, defense of the scientific consensus on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines is fairly obvious. There are literally mountains of evidence that support my skepticism of the antivaccine beliefs.
But there’s more junk medicine out there than the pseudoscience pushers running around the vaccine world. One of my favorite ones is homeopathy. It is a scam that tries to convince people that a vial of nothing more than water (and sometimes ethanol) has some magical medical properties. And it’s expensive water, much more expensive than some bottled water that claims it’s bottled at the source of some glacier in the Alps.
What is homeopathy?
But let’s back up a bit, and explain the “science” of homeopathy, because a lot of people, mostly Americans, conflate homeopathy with natural medicine, like herbal medicine. It isn’t. Basically, homeopathy, known as the “law of similars”, relies on belief that “let like be cured by like”, and is a term coined by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician who was appalled by the state of medicine at the time, the late 1700’s. And frankly, the state of medicine at that time was pretty bad, so any new idea might have been worthy of trying. However, when Hanneman was alive, basic scientific knowledge was missing. Cell theory and germ theory were a few decades from even a basic understanding.
Homeopathic potions are prepared by serially diluting the original substance (could be anything from diseased tissue to arsenic to snake venom plus mercury) with shaking and forceful striking on an elastic body, which they term succussion. Each dilution followed by succussion is assumed to increase the effectiveness. Homeopaths call this process potentization. So far, it’s just merely diluting and shaking, so nothing much there. But the level of dilution is such that there is only a tiny possibility of any molecule of the original substance showing up in solution.
The dilution is precisely described by Hahnemann. The first dilution is one part to 99 parts water. Then, one part of that first dilution is then diluted in another 99 parts water. Each of these dilutions is called 1C, so two dilutions would be called 2C, with one part of the original similar diluted in approximately 10,000 parts water.
But it doesn’t stop there. Homeopathy uses >30C dilutions, which means that the final dilution is simply water with an almost 0% probability of including even 1 molecule of the original similar.