Monday, 8 February 2010

I'm going to end it all - pass the homeopathic pills

Just over a week ago there was a mass overdose of medication sold by responsible companies like Boots. Across the world people took vastly more than the recommended dose. And nothing happened. The reason? They were overdosing on homeopathic medicine.

The campaign was known as 10:23. The rather strange numbering refers to Avogadro's number. This is a number that delights chemists - it's the number of atoms in a mole of a substance. The actual number is around 6x10^23, where 10^23 is 1 with 23 zeroes after it. The reason this is of relevence to homeopathic medicine becomes clear when you realize how these medications are made.

The idea of homeopathy, which has no scientific basis whatsoever, is that you treat an ailment with a poison that produces a similiar effect. But to avoid finishing off your patients, you dilute that poison with water. In fact you dilute it over and over again, so much so, that you have reduced it by more than Avagadro's number. The chances are there is not a single molecule of the poison left - it's all water. You then drip the water onto a sugar pill, and that's your homeopathic remedy.

When homeopathy was first devised this wasn't a problem, as no one knew about atoms or Avogadro's number, but now we do, homeopaths have had to devise a reason for the medicine to work. They say it's because during the dilution process they bash the container against a leather strap, and this, in some mysterious way, enables the water to have a memory of the poison even after it has entirely gone. (You couldn't make this stuff up.)

So homeopathic remedies are sugar pills with no active ingredient, and all the evidence is that the positive results some people ascribe to homeopathy are down to the placebo effect. I was very careful not to say 'only the placebo effect', because placebos can really deliver results, particularly on the supression of pain. A good example is the internal mammary artery ligation operation. This used to be regularly performed to reduce chest pain as a result of angina.

It was an invasive procedure involving opening the chest and tying off the artery. Pain was reduced for a number of months. But in the 1950s, a surgeon tried a series of placebo operations. As far as the patients were concerned, they were undergoing the procedure, but in fact the surgeon just made an incision and closed up again. The result was exactly the same. The pain relief was not due to the operation, but to the natural painkillers released by the body when the brain assumed there would be pain relief - it was a placebo.

This same thing can happen with homeopathic remedies, to the real benefit of patients. But there is no active ingredient causing the outcome. While it's clearly totally unacceptable for homeopathy to be used for anything life threatening in place of real medicine, there's a difficult moral decision when it comes to, for instance, pain relief. Is it acceptable to lie to someone in order to make them feel better? We certainly do this all the time, but most would argue it's unprofessional to do this for medical reasons. And hence the 10:23 protest.

You will almost certainly have heard people say 'Yes, but there is scientific validation of homeopathy. It has been tested.' I'm afraid there is some misleading information floating about. See this article on the misrepresentation of scientific evidence on homeopathy to a House of Commons committee.

The sad thing is that most homeopaths won't accept reality and continue to insist that their medications do have a non-placebo effect. I want to leave you with a quote from a homeopathist in response to the 10:23 protest. You can read the whole response here, but this is arguably the best bit. Try not to fall off your chair.

Of course homeopaths know that one dose of however many pills taken together in one go, is the equivalent of only one dose, because it is the time frame that counts.  So if they had repeatedly taken a dose every hour for the rest of the day, the skeptics would most certainly have felt the effects.  Therefore this little stunt ‘proves’ little, although I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them sheepishly confess that they did experience some symptoms later, because after taking a homeopathic remedy, especially 30c or above, the effects can be felt for days afterwards.

'It's the time frame that counts.' Oh, that'll be okay, then. Sigh.


  1. Very interesting, I didn't know this story!
    Remember the idea that a water molecule had a memory?
    Amazing to think that it made it into Nature. Even for a bit! I remember how we all crowded round that issue in utter amazement and disbelief.

  2. Yes, it's the memory of water that is supposed to be stimulated by those leather strap bashings.

    I have real problems dismissing memory of water out of hand because it was supported by Professor Brian Josephson, who I've spoken with in the past and, as a Nobel prize winner I think deserves to be listened to, even if you don't subsequently agree with him.

    I think it's important to be open-minded, but equally, as is the case here, to accept it when it seems vanishingly likely that something is true. (And Josephson's version of water memory still didn't justify homeopathy working.)

  3. This is the comedy sketch by Mitchell & Webb which lampoons Homeopathy :