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Homeopathic treatment is based on two main principles:
- “Like cures like”, or the “law of similars”. Homeopathic remedies are substances which are capable of producing the same symptoms as those of the ailment being cured. For example, arsenic causes vomiting and diarrhea, so it might be used to treat digestive problems.
- “Less is more”, or the “law of infinitesimals”. Homeopaths believe that remedies are made stronger, not weaker, by being diluted. Remedies are prepared by serial dilution of the original preparation. A “30C” preparation, for example, has been diluted by a factor of 100 thirty times in a row. At each stage, the solution is vigorously shaken by striking, a process called “succussion”.
Homeopaths claim to be able to treat any illness, selecting treatments from a repertory of several thousand remedies. Remedies in use include many botanical extracts and chemical substances, many of which are highly toxic in undiluted form. More exotic remedies found at a major homeopathic supplier include “laser beam”, “exhaust fumes” and “Meteorite”.
Homeopathy fares very poorly when examined scientifically, both in terms of theoretical plausibility and experimental evidence.
When homeopathy was first proposed, Hahnemann could not have known of the germ theory of disease, nor of the molecular theory of chemistry. Given this, it is not surprising that homeopathy is inconsistent with much of modern science. No plausible mechanism has been proposed to explain the claimed effects of the substances used in homeopathic remedies. The law of similars receives no support from modern medicine. The most serious theoretical objection to homeopathy, however, is to the extreme dilutions used in homeopathic preparations.
A single teaspoon of water contains approximately 1023 molecules of H2O. A substance which has been diluted to a strength of “12C” contains one part in 1024 of the substance. A teaspoon of that solution is thus unlikely to contain a single molecule of the active ingredient. At 24C, a volume equivalent to all of the water in the Earth’s oceans would be unlikely to contain a molecule of active ingredient. Yet many homeopathic remedies are sold at dilutions of 30C. There is thus a vanishingly small chance that any such homeopathic remedy contains any of the purported active ingredient.
In response to this fact, some homeopaths have claimed that water has a kind of “memory”, which allows a solution to remain medically active even once there is none of the original substance left. Such a claim is, however, inconsistent with the known physical and chemical properties of water molecules, which are incapable of retaining any structure for even a billionth of a second.
Many studies of homeopathic treatments for various illnesses have been carried out, and a number of these studies appear to show a beneficial effect of homeopathic treatment. However, the quality of these studies varies greatly, and most are of too poor a quality to be relied on. Only a carefully conducted randomized controlled trial (RCT) can provide meaningful evidence concerning the efficacy of a medical treatment. Here, some studies again appear to show a positive effect, whereas others suggest that homeopathic treatment is no better than a placebo. Several systematic reviews of such RCTs have been conducted; the most rigorous of these all conclude that there is no evidence that homeopathy is better than a placebo.
Homeopathy claims to be able to cure a huge array of medical conditions, with remedies so dilute that they contain no active ingredient. However, the principles homeopathy is based on are inconsistent with much of modern physics, chemistry and medicine. Moreover, experimental trials of homeopathic treatments provide no evidence that they are any better than ordinary sugar pills.
“A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy”, E Ernst, Br J Clin Pharmacol. 2002 December; 54(6): 577–582