The illogic of Homeopathy – Part 1
Homeopathy is hugely popular in India and from what I hear, there are other countries too, like the UK, where this is widely trusted. My grandfather was a self-learned Homeopath and so I have been brought up in a family which trusted Homeopathy completely. But to my complete surprise, I learnt a few years back that Homeopathy doesn’t work. Its efficacy is just another myth like many others. I was shocked to learn that Homeopathy is no medicine at all. In this 2-part post, I want to briefly explain why Homeopathy is not medicine, why it cannot work and also look at why it is important to realise this and act accordingly.
Let me make one thing clear upfront. Since I have been a staunch believer of Homeopathy till a few years ago, there is no reason for anybody to suspsect me of having any bias. If there is any bias at all, It would be on the side of establishing that Homeopathy works. After all, who would want to face up to the fact that what he/she believed for close to 25 years, is wrong.
First let us see why Homeopathy cannot and will not work by looking at the basics of Homeopathy. Homeopathy works on two important principles taken from a homeopathy website.
1. Like cures like – This statement means that Homeopathy works on the principle that the very substance that causes the set of symptoms that is being seen in the patient, will help in curing it too.
2. Extremeley high dilutions – The substance, “remedy”, identified using the first principle, has to be diluted immensely, and then given as medicine to the patient, and this will act as a cure for the symptoms.
Let me start with the second point of high dilutions as this is the one that shook me, and completely distanced me from Homeopathy. If you have heard about Homeopathic medicines, the dosage of the medicines is represented using a number followed by x or c. Something like, “Kali Mur 30x”, “Natrum Phos 10c”. “Kali Mur” and “Natrum Phos” are medicine names. 30x and 10c are, what are called, potencies. The higher these numbers, the stronger the medicine is supposed to be.
X and C, are the roman numerals, that represent the numbers 10 and 100 respsectively. Now take the medicine Kali carb. This is prepared from Potassium carbonate. When they want a dosage of 1x of Kali Carb, they need to mix 1 gram of this compound Potassium Carbonate in 9 grams of water. That is, the ratio of the theraupetic substance to water is 1:10. Similary for dosage of 1c, they need to mix 1 gram of the substance in 99 grams of water. The ratio is 1:100.
So far so good. Moving ahead, if you want 2x, what you need to do is to take 1 gram of the 1x solution, which is already in the ratio of 1:10, and then mix it again with 9 more grams of water. Thus the already diluted 1x solution with a ratio of 1:10, is again diluted with 9 more grams of water. Now you have a 2x solution where the ratio is 1:100. So, a 2x potency is same as 1c. In a dosage of 2c potency, the medical substance to water ratio is 1:10,000 (1:100*100).
Do you already see why the system is all messed up? Normally, if you want higher dosage of a medicine, higher concentrations are given. But in Homeopathy, the more diluted the substance is, the more effective it is supposed to be. If this does not surprise you, try this. Just imagine, what your reaction would be if I told you that the less sugar you put in your milk, the more sweet the milk will be. You would be right to call up a mental hospital and have me admitted there. But that is precisely what homeopathy says, and so many people believe it.
The dilutions problem does not end there just with that. The dilution is taken to ridiculous extremes. Continuing with our dilutions let us look at the decreasing ratios. Oops! I shouuld say, increasing potencies.
1c = 2x = 1:100
2c = 4x = 1:100*100 = 1:10,000
3c = 6x = 1:100*100*100 = 1:1000,000
4c = 8x = 1:100*100*100*100 = 1:100,000,000
5c = 10x = 1:100*100*100*100*100 = 1:10,000,000,000
As wikipedia notes, 4C, is the allowable concentration of arsenic in drinking water in the U.S. Now, if arsenic cannot do any harm at such concentrations how would these medicines have effect? I myself remember my grand father giving me 30x frequently, which is 15c. To get that concentration, you need to take all the water in the oceans of the Earth and mix 1 thousandth of a milli gram of the medicine in it. Then take the medicine, and that is it, you will be cured. Looking back at it, I dont know whether to laugh or cry.
I should laugh, I guess, the way somebody has done here in this hliarious video below.
There is an even more illuminating fact in the wikipedia article.
A popular homeopathic treatment for the flu is a 200C dilution of duck liver, marketed under the name Oscillococcinum. As there are only about 10^80 atoms in the entire observable universe, a dilution of one molecule in the observable universe would be about 40C. Oscillococcinum would thus require 10^320 more universes to simply have one molecule in the final substance. The high dilutions characteristically used are often considered to be the most controversial and implausible aspect of homeopathy.
10^320 universes. That is 100000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 universes. It is more than obvious that none of the medicines at such concentrations will have any atom of the original therapeutic substance in it. If the medicine does not have the original substance at all, how the hell is it supposed to work.
The homeopaths of course, try to justify this. They say that water retains memory of the atoms it came in contact with. That is, if the water, at some time during the medicine preparation process, came in contact with the medical substance, it “remembers” it. Now they enter complete fantasy territory. This reminds me of Richard Dawkins saying the following in a famous talk (although in a completely different context).
Every time you drink a glass of water, you are probably imbibing at least one atom that passed through the bladder of Aristotle. A tantalisingly surprising result, but it follows by Huxley-style organized common sense from Wolpert’s observation that “there are many more molecules in a glass of water than there are glasses of water in the sea”.
Going by the water-molecules-have-memory logic, each atom of the homeopathic medicine, will have memories of Aristotle’s urine, among so many things, and in all probability will have the memory of all the other homeopathic remedies too. How then will you distinguish one remedy from another?
I think I will stop there, as the madness is getting out of hand. I hope there is no need to say anything more on the implausibility of homeopathic medicines working. I remember listening once to James Randi on Homeopathy. He started his talk with this joke. The joke itself might take some time to sink in as it is very subtle. It goes like this. It has been reported that a person died of an overdose of a homeopathic remedy. He forgot to take his medicine the previous night.
In the next part, I will talk about the other basic principle of “Like cures Like” and see why that too does not have any basis.