Homeopathy: placebos with bowties

I know a surprising number of people who think homeopathy actually works. Every time I begin asking, “But do you know how it works?” I realize we aren’t speaking about homeopathy but about herbal remedies. Actual ingredients, that is. Homeopathy, properly understood, is a perfect lack of active ingredients. There’s nothing in it but a fancy sounding name and a placebo with a bowtie.

Some of you will grumble, but you haven’t tried homeopathy! I have, and I can tell you it works. And that’s enough for me. And I will grumble back, the plural of anecdote is not data.

Allow me to pass the mic to Ben Goldacre, who writes the Bad Science column at the Guardian (in one of that newspaper’s more noble journalistic endeavors). His writing is as clear as sunlight poking through the London fog.

Homeopathic remedies are made by taking an ingredient, such as arsenic, and diluting it down so far that there is not a single molecule left in the dose that you get. The ingredients are selected on the basis of like cures like, so that a substance that causes sweating at normal doses, for example, would be used to treat sweating.

Many people confuse homeopathy with herbalism and do not realise just how far homeopathic remedies are diluted. The typical dilution is called “30C”: this means that the original substance has been diluted by 1 drop in 100, 30 times. On the Society of Homeopaths site, in their “What is homeopathy?” section, they say that “30C contains less than 1 part per million of the original substance.”

They’ve since apparently deleted these embarrassing numbers, preferring the ambiguous “highly diluted substances” and a long list of celebrity homeopathy users like Jude Law and Tina Turner. Some celebrities use cocaine, too.

This is an understatement: a 30C homeopathic preparation is a dilution of 1 in 100^30 [to the 30th power], or rather 1 in 10^60 [to the 60th power], which means a 1 followed by 60 zeroes, or – let’s be absolutely clear – a dilution of 1 in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000.

That’s an awful lot of zeroes.

To phrase that in the Society of Homeopaths’ terms, we should say: “30C contains less than one part per million million million million million million million million million million of the original substance.”

Wait. One, two, three, four…

At a homeopathic dilution of 100C, which they sell routinely, and which homeopaths claim is even more powerful than 30C, the treating substance is diluted by more than the total number of atoms in the universe. Homeopathy was invented before we knew what atoms were, or how many there are, or how big they are. It has not changed its belief system in light of this information.

Did you get that last point? It doesn’t matter what science discovers about reality, the homeopaths prefer their crackpot dogma instead. This makes homeopathy irrational, akin to voodoo, astrology and flat-earth creationism.

If you “believe” in homeopathy – a locution which should set the alarm bells ringing in your head – you might be upset with me for having made such a brash comparison. Voodoo? I don’t stick little pins into dolls, thank you very much! Astrology? Yeah, like I think the position of Venus in the sixth house and Mars in the ascendant makes me snappy! Go get a haircut, bozo. And I will cite Oliver Wendell Holmes (with homage to Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst):

“Truth is tough. It will not break, like a bubble, at a touch; nay, you may kick it about all day, like a football, and it will be round and full at evening.”

So try kicking homeopathy around a bit and see if it, too, is round and full at the end of the day.

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