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The Facts about Homeopathy January 23, 2012

Posted by Ian in Pseudoscience.

I was shocked to see a recent UMR pole suggesting that 51% of people think homeopathy is “scientifically proven” [source].  I’d expect a number like that if the question was something like “can have a positive effect” but “scientifically proven” is much more concerning.

In the interest of making the reality more widely known, in this post I’d like to clarify some of the facts about homeopathy in case anyone reading this isn’t aware.  This post is not about whether it works or not (although in my opinion it is nonsense) but simply to clarify what it actually is.

  1. It is not a form of conventional medicine
    Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine and regardless of your views about alternative medicine, homeopathy is unambiguously not part of conventional western medical practice.  It is not prescribed by your doctor and is not practised at medical school.
  2. It is not another word for natural remedies
    A common misconception is that the term “homeopathy” refers to any natural or alternative medicines such as various so-called natural remedies.  This is unambiguously not the case – homeopathy refers to a very specific form of alternative medicine involving highly diluted substances.  Even the NZ Council of Homeopaths makes this point clearly:”Homeopathy is not herbalism or naturopathy. While we do use many of the same natural substances homeopathic medicines are uniquely different from naturopathic products because of the way they are made.” [Source]
  3. It is based on the like-cures-like principle
    There are two key concepts that underpin homeopathy.  The first is that like cures like.  In other words if you have an itchy symptom then most likely something that causes itchiness will cure it.  If this sounds (to be kind) counter-intuitive to you then you are right to be confused – it goes against conventional scientific understanding of chemistry, biology and medicine (not to mention common sense).  Some people point to vaccines as an example of like curing like but vaccinations are about the immune system, not a direct cure.  Some modern homeopaths have drifted from this principle but most stick to it directly or indirectly.
  4. It is based on high dilutions
    The second odd idea is that substances can be made more effective via a process of potentization.  This process involves dilution – not just any dilution but an insane level of dilution in many cases.  Common dilution levels include 30C, 100C or even 200C.  To understand this level of dilution we need to understand what C means:A 1C dilution requires taking one drop of a substance and adding it to 99 drops of pure water then mixing thoroughly (or succussing to use the technical term – although this involves banging/knocking it in some form).  Already this is a fairly dilute mix (your average cordial mix would be about 25 times stronger than this).  2C involves taking one drop of the 1C mixture and adding that to 99 drops of pure water.  30C means doing this process 30 times.

    So how dilute is a 30C dilution?  Well there will be one drop of original solution in every 10^60 drops of water.  10^60 drops is not an insubstantial amount of water.  In fact is it massively more water than there is in the known universe…  in other words a 30C solution means you will not have any of the original substance left.  I’ll leave you to imagine what a 200C solution means…

These four basic facts are not in contention and you’d hear roughly the same story from most homeopaths.  Take that as you will 🙂


1. Donovanable - January 24, 2012

The last fact–or rather, the explanation of the amount of water in the known universe vs. the amount of the original substance was never explained in the long form to me, and would have taken me towards real medicine much earlier. I was raised entirely with alt. med. (most of what I blog about relates to this), and always just thought that ‘really diluted’ was something like one drop per swimming pool. It wasn’t until I had already begun to avoid homeopathy that I had this explained to me…though never quite so precisely.

2. Ian - January 30, 2012

Thanks for the comment. It is kind of crazy how little attention well-meaning intelligent people pay to the claims of alternative medicine – almost like it doesn’t matter. A little bit of knowledge makes a lot of difference!

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