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May 21, 2004

Homeopathic mass suicide

I sometimes fall over myself in paroxysms of envy on hearing a fiendishly funny idea that I wish to hell I'd thought of. From this week's What's New, an email newsletter affiliated with the American Physical Society:

HOMEOPATHY: DEMONSTRATORS IN BELGIUM RESORT TO MASS SUICIDE. A special report in the current issue of Skeptical Inquirer looksinto the ultimate protest by a group of skeptics. They objected to a decision by the major health insurance companies in Belgium to begin covering the costs of homeopathy in response to popular demand. Depressed by the willingness of the insurance companies to encourage quackery, the 23 skeptics resigned themselves to committing mass suicide by drinking a cocktail of lethal poisons including arsenic, snake venom and deadly nightshade. To the horror of the homeopathists, they even increased the potency in true homeopathic fashion by preparing a 30C solution of the cocktail. That means the cocktail was diluted one part per hundred and shaken, which was then repeated sequentially, 30times. All newspapers and TV stations were invited to watch the death agonies of the 23 deranged suicides, who included a number of prominent citizens and professors of medicine, "and a few normal people armed only with common sense." The media coveragewas excellent, but the suicide attempt was a failure.

Working in the environmental sphere as I do, I'm continually amazed by the willingness of otherwise extremely intelligent people to believe in things like homeopathy. I tell myself that a lot of folks don't understand the theory behind homeopathy: if they did, they'd start giggling the way I did when it was explained to me.

Please note I'm not talking about medicinal herbs in toto (though check with your veterinarian first), because many plants do have obvious medicinal effects. True, a lot of popular ones don't: echinacea, for instance, which has been depleted throughout much of its native range for herbal medicines. Or ginkgo.

What I'm talking about is the nonsense that a vial of water, which was prepared by taking another substance and diluting it with water so many times that it is nearly mathematically impossible that a single molecule of the substance remains, can cure an ailment that resembles the symptoms of poisoning by the substance in question.

I'm no huge fan of what is snidely called "Western Medicine," though Western Medics have done a nice job of setting my broken bones and treating infections and helping me deal with allergies to pollen. Turns out ill-trained doctors have been burning patients with X-rays for years and aggressive treatment of intestinal parasites might be linked to a rise in irritable bowel syndrome. Doctors have caused lots of illnesses over the years, some through ignorance and some - as in the case of resistant germs being bred when MDs prescribe antibiotics for viral infections - through laziness. And the less said about Satan's minions in the HMOs and pharmaceutical companies the better.

But at least Westrun Medicine has some tendency to self-correct. Homeopathy has what? No peer-review, no double-blind testing, special exemptions for marketing worthless patent "medicines." Just a constant income stream from people who should know better, who let their justifiable distaste for Medicine As She Is Spoken turn into unquestioning acceptance of any alternative whatsoever.

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The point is not that people don't sometimes get better when taking homeopathic medicine. I often get better when taking no medicine at all.

In fact, that is the same thing. My point is that homeopathic medicines are prepared in such a way that it is physically impossible for any active ingredient in them. A dilution at the rate homeopathists call c30 means there's one part medicine to 100 to the 30th power diluent. In a gallon of water, that would be a portion of medicine smaller than an electron. In short: not possible.

This isn't about the amazing power of the human body to heal itself, or about the gaps in western medicine. It's about the abysmal state of scientific literacy among the public that makes belief in homeopathy possible.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 22, 2004 10:06 PM
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I guess you wouldn't believe in accupuncture or chiropractic medicine either. Homeopathy doesn't have the scientific 'proof' that we'd like to have, and that's largely because there's not enough money in it to warrant spending research dough. But I have experienced arnica's incredible relief personally and witnessed it; I have extreme allergy to bee stings and homeopathic medicine has saved me from bad reactions twice; the homeopathic for poison oak is GREAT! It's a pity you are close-minded. I'll admit I've been that way too on occaision. I thought Bach flower remedies were B.S. -- until I tried one. Amazing.

Posted by: patty at May 22, 2004 11:06 PM
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Homeopathy doesn't have the scientific 'proof' that we'd like to have, and that's largely because there's not enough money in it to warrant spending research dough.

First off, it's a multi-million dollar business. They sell rows upon rows of homeopathic remedies in Longs Drugs, for chrissake. Secondly, not all medical research is performed by corporations. Some of it is performed by MDs at training schools. Third, there have indeed been studies performed on homeopathic medicines, and they routinely show that the medicines have no effect beyond the placebo.

I'm really glad that both of you, Patty and Pat, have had ailments go away. But I would suggest that you're not giving your own immune systems enough credit in the stories you tell.

It's a pity you are close-minded.

With regard to things that would require the laws of the universe be completely rewritten to accomodate them, for which there is absolutely no reputable scientific evidence? Yeah, pretty much.

But I do try to be open minded. I actually like it when I find something out that shatters my world view. It happens a few times a year, and usually in the life sciences. There'd have to be something radically new about homeopathy that I haven't heard yet for it to do that for me.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at May 23, 2004 12:03 AM
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Are you saying that you discount acupuncture and the herbal knowledge of many medicine people in older cultures? I'm sure there is a lot of quackery going on in a lot of different kinds of medicine today, including western medicine. But I've seen with my own eyes open heart surgery done with acupuncture and it wasn't just some crackpot practitioners, but trained doctors. There is a lot of resistance to medicines from the rest of the world in the west. When I worked at the Boston Cancer Research Institute I would sit at lunch with the doctors and researchers and they would dismiss even a suggestion of someone spending time researching the validity of Chinese medicine. Without even looking they would pronounce it hogwash. That I found close-minded and mighty foolish... especially in a place like a cancer research institute where new ideas were supposedly in high demand.

Posted by: butuki at May 23, 2004 03:31 PM
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P.S. As someone who supposedly comprehends science, I find it strange that you make this comment:

"With regard to things that would require the laws of the universe be completely rewritten to accomodate them, for which there is absolutely no reputable scientific evidence?"

There is so little we know about how the universe works. The human body is still largely a mystery, in spite of advances in modern medicine. We can't even cure the common cold! And yet the human body, as you should very well know, evolved out of the very same ecology that all the herbs and cures on the planet come from. We simply don't have that great a stash of that "scientific evidence" that you speak of. Science is supposed to be open to any new idea that would help to solve a particular problem. Before writing something off, it ought to be tried, first. Isn't that what scientific inquiry is all about?

I have diabetes. No one knows why it occurs or even how, very well. My doctor prescribes insulin, but it cures nothing. When I ask my hard questions about why this is happening the doctoor never has an answer, and even worse, provides me with no information whatsoever about any new developments. He tells me to "get your exercise" and "chew your food at least 20 times for each morsel", even though I am in much better shape than he is and probably eat a much healthier diet than he does.

Knowledge. There is a lot of it out there. And a lot of it isn't in the sciences. There is even more ignorance, though.

Posted by: butuki at May 23, 2004 03:46 PM
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P.P.S... sorry for the multiple comments. Just wanted to say that I do understand your frustration with people pushing miracle cures on others, though. In her worry about me, my mother, a staunch homeopathy believer, keeps telling me to eat dried blueberries and cinammon powder. While there seems to have been some successful research done about their effects on diabetes, they haven't made an iota of difference in my high blood sugars. I can't really afford to play games with this. And a very close friend of my family died from breast cancer because she refused to submit to western medicine, which might at least have given her a fighting chance.

Posted by: butuki at May 23, 2004 03:54 PM
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Butuki's third comment reminds me of an acquaintance with stage 4 breast cancer who until February refused any western medicine (including surgery), relying instead on homeopathy, positive thinking, and probably a whole range of hocus-pocus. By now surgery is pointless, though they're going ahead anyway; I respect her wish not to have any negativity around her with regard to her cancer, but at some point this is called something else--denial.

Butuki's right: there's a ton we don't know. I for one absolutely do not place acupuncture in the same category as homeopathy. Yet every time I go to the Co-op I see people spending a bundle on things I have no idea even how to pronounce, that are not regulated in any way. When so many dollars are involved, I have instant, well, skeptic-itis.

Posted by: Pica at May 24, 2004 06:18 AM
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I think that to get any scientific "proof" of homeopathy, one would have to investigate it on the quantum mechanics level. I don't think anyone has done that.

I don't think the mysterious deserves to be made fun of. I do agree there is great danger in self-medication, whether western or eastern, in the same way that I would not recommend most people eat the mushrooms they have picked for themselves in the woods after a rainy spell.

For my personal experience, my life has been endangered to a greater extent by fully trained western allopaths than by any alternative methods, such as acupuncture (very effective for pain, without side effects, just a little more expensive, alas, than Ibuprofen), homeopathic (no side effects, usually only one remedy, which covers the "terrain" as opposed to treating just a specific symptom), aromatherapy (did you ever just try some lavender pillow, instead of popping a sleeping pill, when you were all stressed out and tossing and turning?).

There is more to science than we will ever understand fully.

And, yes, the bodymind connection never fails. There is actually no real scientific proof that the effect of "real medicine" is anything but a placebo effect, the effect of the patient grasping at the hope of healing.

Let's face it: most medical discoveries are subject to revision all the time. They used to bleed patients for everything, even those who had fainted for loss of blood due to some wound, until one day they said: Ooops! Le'ts not do that anymore.

Nobody says they made a mistake. They just announce: "We have had a change of paradigm".

Posted by: nobbog at May 24, 2004 07:30 AM
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So far as I know you're right, Chris, and such homeopathic remedies as have been rigorously tested (by people who don't have a financial interest in the outcome) don't do any better than placebos. If the extent of dilution you describe is standard, I'm not surprised.

Of course, the fact that placebos are often effective is interesting, and it ought to tell us, not only that people are credulous, but that there are healing methods we're not availing ourselves of. The assumption of the scientific community that you could only avail yourself of them by believing things that are false seems to me quite unwarranted. All we know is that it's *one* way of availing onself of them.

The history of accupuncture's acceptance shows that there's quite a lot of resistance to accepting perfectly clear data when it runs counter to the accepted scientific wisdom. But it also shows that eventually compelling evidence can compel scientists to change their minds. In my experience, scientific people are slightly more apt to change their minds when confronted with evidence that challenges them than most people are. But not a lot. It's not a common trait anywhere, I think.

Posted by: dale at May 24, 2004 10:18 AM
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I'm finding this discussion because I am both a sceptic about claims relating to homeopathic cures and a recent "cure" myself. I have a chronic, recurrant ear problem (basically it gets clogged in response to changes in pressure) that can cause severe pain. Unfortunately, the standard medical responses are decongestants (to clear up things that might lead to clogging) and antibiotics (on the belief that the pain and inflamation might be caused by an infection). Neither works.

(Plus going to the doctor is expensive and in this case might adversely affect future insurance rates. But that's another rant.)

So, feeling desperate one day (substantial pain that would not abate) I decided to try some homeopathic ear drops. I figured that (a) it couldn't hurt (given the dilution factor you describe well) and (b) if it did help, I didn't care exactly how it did so.

Going into it with an open mind (which is rather impressive for me, as I am highly sceptical of miracle cures and suspicious of medicine in general), I tried the drops. And the ear pain went away.

Now, I'm not going to make any claims as to the exact mechanism by which this occured. There are lots of possible explanations -- placebo effect, reverse pressure from the presence of liquid in the ear, homeopathic cure -- but I don't care. My ear stopped hurting.

What I'm trying to say is that while I think due scepticism is appropriate, and that known, tested approaches should be tried _first_, in the case of recurrent, chronic conditions with no obvious cause or solution, trying something with a long history of safe use like homeopathy can't hurt. And it might help.

Posted by: Rana at May 24, 2004 12:48 PM
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One of the methods a lot of "witch doctors" (often a very biased name, with very little understanding of the whole culture behind them) use is that of tricking their patients into believing the witch doctor's ministrations are having a true effect. The placebo effect. Western medicine would pronounce this as misleading doctoring, but you have to ask why. If the ministrations have the desired effect of curing or alleviating the disease or symptoms isn't that the desired outcome? More and more western doctors, like Andrew Weil, are talking about the effects of positive thinking and the mind-body connection. So many afflictions are mind related, so it would make sense that a doctor who is able to manipulate the way their patients think would achieve a lot of benefit that relying solely on medicine foten misses. I would say, as Rana suggests, that there should be a greater range of inquiry and implementation of knowledge and wisdom from wherever we can find it.

Posted by: butuki at May 24, 2004 04:41 PM
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Years ago the hospital where I work as an RN had a surgeon and an internist who both practiced homeopathic medicine. Their patients believed in their practices of medicine and their recoveries from both surgery and medical illnesses were equal to patients receiving conventional treatments. On many occasions I truly believe it is the patient who is the best judge of their own future as far as their illnesses is concerned. My Aunt Sue had intestinal cancer at the age of 80- after surgery she refused chemo & left it in God's hands- she lived a good 2 years before the cancer spread - but she lived a quality of live rather than be riddled by the side effects of chemo which, in my opinion, does not give a good quality of life, having seen it both with my mother & my sister. Each person with any major illness has to weigh the good & the bad and decide what is best for themselves.....and it always helps to believe in a higher authority, because in the final analysis the dear Lord in heaven is the one who decides when our time on earth is done........

Posted by: Dottie at May 24, 2004 05:31 PM
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Hey Chris - Sorry I'm late, but I just saw this entry and had to put in my 2 cents worth. As I understand it, the theory behind this branch of homeopathy is that if one ingests a much-diluted form of something, it will stimulate the body's immune system to prevent or cure the symptoms that the same thing would produce if taken in its natural form. The theory is similar to that of immunization against disease, only homeopathic remedies are much more diluted. To the point that not even one molecule of the original substance remains.

So. My comments are as follows:

First, if I understand your comments correctly, you're not blasting the use of plants for healing, or other "alternative" medicines, necessarily, just the use of those diluted homeopathic remedies. Your scepticism is understandable. But the article about the demonstrators makes no sense. If they created a 30c "remedy" out of the poisons mentioned, then OF COURSE it wouldn't kill them. If homeopathy works, it would cure them! If they wanted to prove that homeopathy is bogus, they would have to ingest the poison full strength, take the remedy to counteract it, and STILL DIE!

Second, I have to admit that I, your sister, have been going to a homeopathic consultant for 3 years, after having spent a year and many hundreds of dollars within the confines of western medicine, trying in vain to find relief for the pain in my feet (some form of arthritis, I've been told). When I first went to the homeopathic consultant, I was expecting to be told to use certain herbs, or avoid certain foods, or something along those lines. When the consultant explained the theory behind the remedies, I thought, "Um,yeah. Sure." But I also figured, what the hell, I'll try it. The drugs the medical Drs wanted to put me on had major side-effects, including damage to internal organs. Homeopathic remedies did not. I was desperate enough to give it a shot. And it worked. My feet improved dramatically. I take no medicines, have no side-effects, and have spent less money overall (I even saved money on life insurance because I don't use any prescription drugs).

So I have to agree with Rana. I don't know if the remedies help, or if it's just a placebo effect. And I don't care. One way or another it works, and that's good enough for now.

Posted by: Coral Clarke at July 9, 2004 12:54 PM
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