Awesome Takedown of Homeopathy

I have written about it before, but here is Matt Parker:

I have just purchased a packet of Boots-brand 84 arnica homeopathic 30C Pills for £5.09, which Boots proudly claim is only 6.1p per pill. Their in-store advice tells me that arnica is good for treating "bruising and injuries", which gives the impression that this is a very cost-effective health-care option.

Unlike most medication, it didn't list the actual dose of the active ingredient that each pill contains, so I checked the British Homeopathic Association website. On their website it nonchalantly states that to make a homeopathic remedy, they start with the active ingredient and then proceed to dilute it to 1 per cent concentration. Then they dilute that new solution again, so there is now only 0.01 per cent of the original ingredients. For my 30C pills this diluting is repeated thirty times, which means that the arnica is one part in a million billion billion billion billion billion billion.

The arnica is diluted so much that there is only one molecule of it per 7 million billion billion billion billion pills.

It's hard to comprehend numbers that large. If you were to buy that many pills from Boots, it would cost more than the gross domestic product of the UK. It's more than the gross domestic product of the entire world. Since the dawn of civilisation. If every human being since the beginning of time had saved every last penny, denarius and sea-shell, we would still have not saved-up enough to purchase a single arnica molecule from Boots.

The amazing thing to me is that the folks lining up to be fleeced by this industry, and who will vociferously defend that they are not being fleeced, are the types of folks who are typically the first to throw up the barricades in the street when gas prices rise by 5 cents.

By the way, Arizona has a state board of homeopathic examiners to check ... what, exactly?  To guarantee no active ingredient made its way into the product?

Here is a funny related video:

  • DMac

    Not a high risk of OD-ing, though...

    30C 10−60 Dilution advocated by Hahnemann for most purposes: on average, this would require giving two billion doses per second to six billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.

  • workingman

    What I find weird is the statement that something diluted down 30 times (The 30c version) is stronger than something diluted down only 6 times (The 6c version).

    I must try watering down my beer 30 times and see if that improves the flavour of it. Of course with a Bud it would not make a lot of difference. :-)

  • Plungerman

    As always you make fun of what you don't understand. I understand it to be one of the acmes of bunk.

    The point of Homeopathy is that it is the lack of the molocule that is doing the treating. Seriously. Once the molocules have been present the are then removed (?) and what remains is a shape/pattern/footprint-in-the-sand that mirrors the active ingredimant.

    The routine was given new life some years ago when a reasonable test of it had barely positive results, just within the limits of statistical probs. Victory was declared and they never looked back, even when the same test was done again ("No fair! What kind of science gets repeated?") and the results were similarly dismal with no chi-square mirage.

    Related cures/causes/crud speak of "reverse-causality". There's a concept.

    P

  • rxc

    I can report that homeopathy is quite popular here in France, and I believe that it is even supported by the excellent French health system (don't quote me on that, however - I don't use it and certainly my BCBS does not cover it - yet).

  • roger the shrubber

    even though i disagree with the specifics of homeopathy that plungerman spells out for us, he has a point. sure, it's easy to poke fun at the notion that ingesting a trillionth of a molecule of a given substance will have a positive or curative effect on you when you're sick. it's even easier to call those who champion this stuff "frauds".

    but real-life, actual medical "science", the kind that wears white coats and $100 ties, hasn't exactly covered itself with glory these last 20 or 30 years, either. in that time, they've assured us that coffee was essentially poisonous; eggs were deadly cholesterol bombs; phen-fen would help you lose weight and was perfectly safe; bextra, vioxx, and celebrex were the greatest thing since sliced bread; AIDS would kill hundreds of millions, leaving vast swaths of america and the world empty and abandoned; SARS would depopulate asia; aaaaaand the H1N1 virus would kill pretty much everybody else.

    wrong in every case. had to issue statements *admitting* they were spectacularly wrong in every case. that being the case - and it is - why shouldn't those who want to, be encouraged to at least try homeopathy or similar wacky notions? which will destroy your liver faster: boots homeopathic arnica solution, or tylenol?

  • traderpaul

    "The amazing thing to me is that the folks lining up to be fleeced by this industry, and who will vociferously defend that they are not being fleeced....."

    While I'm also skeptical about the usefulness of homeopathic products isn't your statement more applicable to the the multi-billion $ demand for flu shots, statins and anti-depressants?

  • me

    @roger

    Personally, I find the argument that medical science has had some failures not convincing. It works too well in favor of hitting you head against a wall every morning as well.

    The more interesting thing is that modern medical science has had more spectacular successes than failures (antibiotics, surgery, hygiene to name a few).

    It's also worth distinguishing between medical science (ie the process of induction from facts combined with demonstrated and repeatable verifiability) and individual studies published by folks with an agenda.

    I find the criticism of homeopathy as bogus on account of ensuring that it delivers no active ingredients at all wholly convincing. Personally I prefer to take my homeopathic medicine in the form of Segura Vida or a nice Red, both of which also contain no arnica, but less alcohol while offering better taste.

  • LoneSnark

    I suspect homeopathy should work, it's called the placebo effect.

  • Plungerman

    for Roger T.S.
    I can't disagree on how science has not had all the answers but must agree with me: that it is surely the best game in town. The best reference for that entire show is the following book, for which I have grabbed a part of one of the better reviews.

    The Rise and Fall of Modern Medicine by Le Fanu

    Le Fanu believes that medicine experienced its Golden Age during the fifties and sixties, and is now in decline. He provides compelling evidence in support of this claim, and his discussions on the false hopes brought about by genetics, and the falsity of the Social Theory (the theory that most of our health problems are caused by environmental factors) are great, and probably largely correct.

    Plungerman again, This is a great book, I have given out copies both to friends who think science is a failure and to those who think it will solve all our problems. It is a great, unbiased, good-news and bad-news history.

    P

  • Bipolar baer

    Ben Goldacre wrote a whole book about this - Bad Science. Easy read, great for plane trips.

  • jay

    How do you discard old homeopathy bottles? the more you wash them, the stronger they get ...

  • roger the shrubber

    @jay: LOL. that's just *funny*, dude. i will of course be stealing that for later use.

    @plungerman and me: i'm no particular fan of 'alternative treatments', 'eastern medicine' or any of the rest of that ooga-booga stuff, but i do have some knowledge about the efficacy of western medical "science" and practice. i'm a chronic pain guy: cluster headaches. considered to be one of the top 2 most painful conditions known to humankind. (mothers say childbirth is *nothing* compared to cluster pain.) started having them at age 18. saw *dozens* of docs - not one of them took me seriously. "they'll go away eventually"; "you're too young to behaving those kinds of headaches"; and, my personal favorite, "i *can tell just by looking that you're healthy* and you're just here to score vicodin. get the hell out of my office." that was the results of being "examined" in 3 to 5 minutes by the white-coated demigods, knowers of all things medical. so i suffered, how do you say, "indescribable" pain for 25+ years.

    of course, i tried all the usual alternatives. chiropracty; acupuncture; acupressure; massage; fasting/cleansing; even had a swami gal chant prayers over me while i lay on a sacred rug and incense burned. no results. but to put it another way, i got the identical results i'd gotten from "real" docs, only it cost less. eventually, FINALLY, i got a doctor to pull his head out of his self-important, all-knowing ass and *LISTEN*, and i got some help in the form of strong pain meds. opoids, etc. didn't stop the pain, because clusters are incurable, but did an adequate job of masking it, so i could at least function. this went on for several years. never improving, but the meds kept the pain at bay, although i'm sure the DEA has an inch-thick file on me.

    then i heard about a very specialized kind of chiropractor. one who works exclusively on c-1 and c-2: the bones that will kill you if you mess with them. was going to ignore it - tried chiropracty, don't believe in it - but i had a success story from a personal friend as a reference. so i went. long story short: within 2 months, my 25+ years of cluster headaches has been - it seems - *cured*. i've also met a man with trigeminal neuralgia - the other entry on the "top 2 kinds of pain" scale, and also considered to be equally incurable - who's ALSO been (it seems) cured by this treatment.

    so, seen in that light, what is quackery and what isn't? i can make a case that the manufacturers of vioxx and phen-fen are guilty of criminal misrepresentation and fraudulent medical practices ("quackery"), as are all the docs who "read the peer-reviewed literature" (LOL) and pushed them on their patients. tylenol WILL destroy your liver quicker than any homeopathic medicine i'm aware of. and the ridiculous, laughable notion of "bone adjustments lead to better health" has resulted in a cure (up to now, anyway) of at least 2 "incurable", astonishingly painful ailments. ailments whose victims are among the most likely in all of (non-psychological) medicine to commit suicide from the intractable, "incurable" pain. how'd that happen?

    lastly, "me", correct me if i'm wrong, but of the 'triumphs of medical science' you mentioned - antibiotics, surgery, and hygiene - didn't the established medical poohbahs ridicule and fight these improvements when they were introduced? specifically in the area of hygiene, weren't the great pioneers, lister and semmelweis, mocked and ignored when they announced their findings? didn't it take some 20-odd years before their practices were put into place? how many died because of the arrogance and intractability of the medical profession while they continued wiping their bloody hands on their aprons and then starting a new surgery? tens of thousands? more? don't get me wrong: i'm willing to admit modern medicine can do great things, when practiced properly. but - occasionally - **so can some of the alternatives**. it's easy to mock the alternative med types: hippies, scam artists, ne'er-do-wells. not REAL doctors, by any means. OTOH, it WAS "real" doctors who prescribed thalidomide to pregnant women in the late 50's. how'd that turn out?

  • me

    @roger

    Ouch - I think I understand better what you wanted to say now. And my condolences on years wasted dealing with uncaring/stupid doctors while dealing with chronic pain. No fun. And: you're completely correct in pointing out that the medical establishment fought tooth and nail against every single novelty.

    That said, and this is the thing near and dear to my heart: these are people problems, specifically the abundance of morons everywhere. Having a title and an office says nothing about ones qualifications; most importantly, these folks have absolutely nothing to do with medical science, and *science* - ie a process driven by facts not opinions is the reason why the aforementioned novelties won out in the long run. So, I believe we agree after all.

    Blame the morons, not the process.

    PS: Chiropractors are an interesting case study - they get the job (removing pain for a while) done, but they have the most nonsensical theories and accompanying assumptions. So, we're left with two groups of morons - the Chiropractors themselves (I had one seriously argue with me that in theory, the correct spinal adjustment could fix and regrow a severed arm. Go figure), who are doing something right but don't know how it works and the establishment (which argues that Chiropractic treatments can't really work, but, crucially, also have no solid understanding of when and how they do succeed sometimes). Some day, some smart soul will come up with a scientific theory of exactly how chiropractic care works and a decade or so later, it'll be applied exactly when it is useful. Sucks to have to wait and get upset with both sides in this debate, though.

  • epobirs

    Me,

    There is no mystery to what chiropracters are dong correct. It's called massage. Done right, it feels great, has lasting benefit, and often just the attention from another human being has benefits. It makes an argument for the legalization of prostitution.

    This has been known for centuries. The founders of chiropractic just made up a scam infrastructure to allow higher prices and protection from legal systems. On the downside, there are some bad chiropracters who have inflicted crippling injuries with their bizarre interpretations of 'therapy.'

  • epobirs

    Roger,

    It should be kept in mind that Lister and Semmelweis did their work in the era before the formalization of science as a process, especially in the field of medicine. Things aren't perfect today but the situation is nothing like what they had to fight against.

    It was also real doctors who raised suspicions about Thalidomide and greatly reduced the usage of it before its effects in pregnancies became known. The modern regimes of testing evolved as a direct result. Things happen for reasons. Testing for teratogenic issues didn't happen until there was an even that provide motivation. It is unlikely that there could ever be another Hitler in the Western world but this is only because the legacy of the original looms so large.

    The problem with the two 'cures' you mention is the lack of any well understood mechanism for how they worked. This makes reproducing those befits for other patients very difficult, at best. Without that understanding it is impossible to prove you couldn't have gotten the same benefit from falling down a flight of stairs. But we need some really solid research before we start recommending 'staircase gravity therapy' be widely applied.

    We are still just getting started with understanding our bodies, how they work, how they fail, and how to intervene in a desirable way. I'm only 45 but the world of medical science offers a vast range of effective treatments that were only speculative or not yet dreamt of at the time of my birth. Yet my grandparents felt they were living in an age of miracles back in 1964 because of all the advances they'd seen in their lifetimes. It keeps getting better all the time and will continue (if we don't destroy the conditions for innovation) but that will never feel like enough of you have a serious ailment that defies treatment right now.

    I'm reminded of this Louis C.K. rant: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOtEQB-9tvk

  • IgotBupkis

    Homeopathy sounds like a good excuse for a Gay Pride "Take Back the Night" March on Washington...

    Just wanted to point that out.

  • Plungerman

    @roger: My sympathies go to you and your terrible struggle. I've never heard anyone with more reason to be jaded about 20th century medice. I went to chiropracters for a time until I found even they had no idea of what they were trying to do. My last attempt was with the accupuncturist, whose helper encoraged me by saying, "See, you can't even feel the needles now." My response of course, "I'm here for peripheral neuropothy" shut him up. My search through the medical and voodoo folks finally landed on m.s. Wish I'd spent less time and money on the voodoo.

    The best chiropractic care is given by osteopaths. I've heard of cures (two at least) to blindess by neck or back popping from both of them, but an osteopath is at least doctor enough to see that you are at the early stages of cancer rather than in need of an adjustment.

    @me: quite right about the context of science as a human activity. You can't always expect the best advice from a guy just cuz he wears a Scientist hat.

    Whatever gets discovered or practiced you need to get ready for it to be thrown over board in the next hundred years.

    P

  • roger the shrubber

    ladies and gents -

    many thanks and my compliments on one of the most enjoyable comment threads i've ever been involved in - and not just 'cause i got to whine about my bad medical luck. differing opinions discussed respectfully! intellectual discourse without somebody getting mean and/or snide! rare stuff on the web - rare stuff indeed. see, THIS is why i come here, along with coyote's unusual and interesting choice of topics. (would LOVE to hear from the chiropractor who thinks he can re-grow a severed arm. i'm fairly open-minded about that stuff, but....MAN. what's next? magic beans?)

    hell, if he'd just have nekkid women to illustrate his posts, it would be *perfect*. ("global warming results in swimsuit models going nude in an effort to stay cool. see accompanying photos.") then too, how many blogs can claim a comment from 'marla' of 'zerohedge'?

  • Plungerman

    @roger Glad to participate.
    Now back to our regularly scheduled program.
    If only would shut up for a second, and where the hell are the accomanying photos?

    P

  • ADiff

    "[T]ylenol WILL destroy your liver quicker than any homeopathic medicine i’m aware of"

    That's true, simply because effective medicines actually DO things and must be taken with care in correct dosages, whereas homeopathic 'medicines' aren't medicines at all, at least in the sense that don't DO anything at all. They're clinically inert, and hence, in themselves, completely harmless...as they're totally ineffective. The same thing is true of chiropractic treatment (at least to the extent they're really 'chiropractic'), except these can actively cause damage if applied carelessly. Homeopathy has the sterling advantage to all quacks that it's totally INERT, and hence cannot cause any harm, or anything else for that matter (unless, of course non-homeopathic components are added, such as herbs, 'supplements' and so forth that might actually have clinical effects).

    Of course they can do great damage by making their takers think they've actually done something, when they've actually done nothing at all, and hence miss the chance for actual effective treatment. A lot of times this really doesn't matter, as the remedies are intended for untreatable 'illness' or those which can be latter addressed effectively later....but in some tragic cases where time is of the essence, quackery like homeopathy and chiropractic can be real killers.

  • ADiff

    All the real scientific studies I've seen of acupuncture made it pretty clear it was a total sham. In some studies it was shown that acupuncture worked just as well when needles were inserted at random as when they were applied to the appropriate acupuncture points. Others demonstrated that as far as effect was concerned it didn't matter one bit it needles were used or just slight pressure simulating puncture. And in all cases it was demonstrated the results were no better than any placebo.... So much for acupuncture. Along with Chiropractic, homeopathy and magnetism, it's just another 'Woo' sham.