Thursday, August 25, 2011

Reality on Trial: Homeopathy v. the Blogosphere

Homeopathic remedies have a few things going for them - they're natural, safe, have no drug interactions and no side effects. The only drawback that I can think of is THEY DON'T DO ANYTHING AT ALL.

UPDATE: Boiron has dropped the suit against Riva. Smart move on their part, I imagine - even in these odd times I think it would be difficult to make a case for the legitimacy of their products. It's too bad, I'd hoped that the suit would be covered widely and help to educate people about the absurdity of homeopathy.

French homeopathic manufacturer Boiron is suing Italian blogger Samuele Riva for having the audacity to point out that the one thing you're least likely to find in in their flu remedy Oscillococcinum is a single molecule of active ingredient. It's a good thing that the supposed source of the medicine is probably fictional, because otherwise you'd be likely to get many times the recommended dose every time you take a drink of water.

[Teething treatment? Or child neglect in a bottle?]

In case you find my previous statement a bit confusing here's a little primer on homeopathy: Homeopathic "medicines" are made by diluting various chemicals to extraordinary levels, in some cases (including Boiron's flu treatment) to the point that you're unlikely to have any of the original chemical in the so-called drug. Here's the math to prove it.

Take a reasonable amount, let's say one mole, of some substance like the main ingredient in Oscillococcium, which happens to be an imaginary duck liver extract called oscillococcus. That's about 600 billion trillion (600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) molecules. It may sound like a lot, but chemists often deal with these sorts of quantities - they're convenient because they typically fit in a lab beaker or test tube on account of the fact that molecules are so small.

Boiron starts by diluting the main ingredient in their medicine a 100 times by mixing it with water. Let's assume they keep a hundredth of the remaining solution and store the rest somewhere else. Now they have a solution with only 6 billion trillion (6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) oscillococcus molecules and about 594 billion trillion (594,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) molecules of water.

Is that the medicine that Boiron sells? Nope it's still way too strong for them. So they dilute it again by a factor of 100, leaving only 60 million trillion (60,000,000,000,000,000,000) molecules behind, or roughly one part in ten thousand solution. But that's still too strong, so Boiron does the same thing 198 more times.

Here's how many molecules of oscillococcus you will find in a bottle after only 15 dilutions.

Start 600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules
Dilution 1: 6,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules
Dilution 2: 60,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules
Dilution 3: 600,000,000,000,000,000 molecules
Dilution 4: 6,000,000,000,000,000 molecules
Dilution 5: 60,000,000,000,000 molecules
Dilution 6: 600,000,000,000 molecules
Dilution 7: 6,000,000,000 molecules
Dilution 8: 60,000,000 molecules
Dilution 9: 600,000 molecules
Dilution 10: 6,000 molecules
Dilution 11: 60 molecules
Dilution 12: 0.6 molecules
Dilution 13: 0.006 molecules
Dilution 14: 0.00006 molecules
Dilution 15: 0.0000006 molecules

What does it mean to find 0.0000006 molecules of oscillococcus in a bottle? It means you'd have to buy nearly 2 million bottles to guarantee that you have bought even one oscillococcus molecule, and the chances that you have no oscillococcus in a given bottle are better than a million to one.

Boiron, however, prefers to play things safe by diluting the solution 185 more times, which means that if the entire Universe was made of their flu "medicine", it would probably still not have a single molecule of oscillococcus in it.

If oscillococcus were real, on the other hand, then you'd think that there would be at least some in the actual universe. In fact, if there were any at all on the planet Earth it would mean that you are consuming millions of times more oscillococcus just by eating, breathing and drinking normal food, air and water than you would get in the medicine Boiron sells. Why pay $14.49 for something you get for free (at much higher doses) just by being alive? If you assume that such a thing as oscillococcus exists, I can guarantee there's more in your body right now than in all the flu medicine Boiron has ever sold.

But oscillococcus doesn't exist. And homeopathic medicines are no more effective than placebos. You might argue that the placebo effect is as good as any real cure because it's real to the people experiencing the effect. Who am I to stand between anyone and whatever gives them relief? Well, for one thing, I have a problem with shysters selling water and sugar at hyper-inflated prices simply by claiming it's a medicine. For another, some of the victims of homeopathic snake oil salesmen are truly innocent victims, including children.

The delightfully packaged teething medicine I found on sale at my local flea market is nothing more than flavored water (see the picture at the top of this post). It's a placebo for babies. Unfortunately, placebos only work on suggestive folk who strongly expect them to work despite the fact they have no active ingredients. But babies have no such preconceptions, so homeopathic cures can't offer them even psychosomatic relief. What kind of a parent would treat their infant's pain with a placebo? Sadly, I'm afraid too many do, thanks to homeopathic medicine manufacturers that use legitimate-looking packaging to sell you bottles of nothing.

I have no idea how Riva will fare in court. As so many cases have shown, including the Scopes monkey trial, science does not always prevail in the legal system. At the very least, I hope the lawsuit will shine a light on homeopathy and help more people to understand that it's not an alternative form of medical treatment - homeopathy is simply no treatment at all.





20 comments:

  1. Discussions about homeopathy are frustrating. I am a biologist. I originally thout homeopathy was preposterous. Then I did some homework and studied it carefully. Here are the facts:
    Homeopathy is a 210-year-old system of medicine used successfully by over 200 million people worldwide. It has a laudable and extensively documented clinical record and there are literally hundreds of high quality, peer-reviewed basic science, pre-clinical and clinical studies showing its effects.
    For more information on this system and the extensive research supporting efficacy, please visit
    http://www.nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org/articles-research

    I always say to folks - dare to know. And don't be afraid to think outside the box.

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  2. I have no doubt that homeopathy works as well as a placebo. Psychosomatic effects can be powerful. The nice thing about actual medicine is that aspirin, for instance, has real effects in addition to any imaginary ones.

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  3. ". . . the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice."

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1874503/?tool=pmcentrez

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  4. Peter, did you read the article? 210 years and 200 million people can in fact be wrong. High quality science backing up homeopathy…? Sorry, I just threw up a bit in my mouth. I don't doubt your qualifications, just those of the institution that gave any to you.

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  5. I am sick to death of people like Peter trundling out the same non-arguments in support homeopathy. Apparently we should be open mined and think "outside the box" because... why? Because homeopathy is very popular. And ooh, homeopaths have done some "research". Whooptie-doo Peter! Homeopathy is nothing more than a magic water phantasy and none of its so-called research is better than toilet paper. The box you would have us think outside of is marked: "Sane and rational".

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  6. I'm thinking of suing Madonna.
    There's not a single trace of her on my CD, not one molecule. Apparently her music has been 'encoded' in some kind of energetic way onto the 'disc'. All I can see is it's aluminium and plastic. It's a disgrace!

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  7. The nice thing about CDs is that you don't need to invoke pseudoscientific nonsense to explain how they work. Also, I'd bet a double blind study would show that people can clearly distinguish between a Madonna CD and a blank disc

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  8. It really bugs me that physicists dare to comment on medicine. Do I give them a hard time about chasing HIggs or the billioins spent at CERN? Medicine is subtle, should be holistic and does not fit in a test tube. Stick to physics and let us get on with healing. Please.

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  9. When people make medical claims the violate basic physics, or common sense, then physicists should absolutely get involved.

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  10. Homeopathy, or homeopathic medicine, is a holistic system of treatment that originated in the late eighteenth century. The name homeopathy is derived from two Greek words that mean "like disease. www.1wallmart.com/category.php?id_category=27 The system is based on the idea that substances that produce symptoms of sickness in healthy people will have a curative effect when given in very dilute quantities to sick people who exhibit those same symptoms. Homeopathic remedies are believed to stimulate the body's own healing processes. Homeopaths use the term "allopathy," or "different

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  11. That's right. It's a very Aristotilian idea. Unfortunately, we now know that lots of nineteenth century medicine was bunk, and frequently dangerous. Homeopathy is one of those flawed schools of medical thought.

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  12. Homeopathic remedies comes in many potencies. From lower X potencies (1 to 10) to higher C potencies (1 to 100). Most remedies bought over the counter are lower X potencies.

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  13. Correct. But regardless of the concentration, homeopathic "remedies" are all based on a bizarre misunderstanding of basic physics, chemistry, and biology.

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  14. About homeopathy ,It is slow process in curing. so many people does not show that much interest.

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  15. A must try for my teething 7 month old Tanya. Sometimes homeopathic medicines really ease up the pain and discomfort.

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  16. No, no they don't. Not unless you are falling for the psychosomatic effects. Unfortunately, 7-month-olds have no such preconceived notions. You're just letting your child suffer unnecessarily. Shame on you.

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    Replies
    1. That is a really nasty thing to say to a parent. Since parents know their own children better than you know their children who are you to decide that it didnt work. The fact that there are amazing results using homeopathic remedies on children and on animals proves that they do work. If you give a child suffering from teething pain a homeopathic remedy for it and they stop crying, calm down, redness disappears etc.. then clearly that remedy is working!!!! Wow, just wow. For 'smart people' most of you come across as stupid.

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    2. Correlation does not imply causation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correlation_does_not_imply_causation

      Sometimes the truth hurts.

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  17. no one has mentioned healing here, the consciousness around homeopathy is that 1. materials have consequence. 2. depending on the scale of consequences 3. the severity of the effect of these consequences upon the individual or the group or the local or world environment....without needing any nuclear bombs at all we can and almost have irradiated ourselves to the point of destruction in the short matter of 80 years or so and that there are other great layers of toxicity that are beginning to prove overwhelming, like mercury, or aspartame or round up ready gmos or trillions of units of chemical medication that pollutes and does a great deal more harm than good....... in this respect we must encourage and use more the likes of homeopathy for the health of people, plants, animals and planet.... all current conventional culture is clinging insanely to continuous expansion and growth without factoring the environmnet as fundamental. We are tough.. yes but not so tough so that almost all living things will succumb to cancer because we insist on this material life which is so patently against nature. Homeopathy goes WITH nature as do other alternative therapies. All our conventional industries especially allopathy are toxic, wasteful and destructive.... this is because those in control of these monopolistic corporate corruptocracies are insane and can only make money from destruction and they are the ones who employ thousands of ghost writers and natural logical skeptics who are always attacking the likes of homeopathy. I REFER YOU TO THE BIRTH AND GROWTH IN POWER OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION AND THE MONEY GIVEN TO THEM BY THE LIKES OF CARNEGIE AND ROCKERFELLA AND HOW THEY USED THIS MONEY TO BUY INFLUENCE IN THE SENATE and other major governments TO CONTROL LEGISLATION AND THEREFORE TO REGULATE OTHER PERFECTLY USEFUL THERAPIES OUT OF EXISTENCE HOW IT WAS UNDERSTOOD THAT HOMEOPATHIC MEDICINE IS NOT PROFITABLE BUT PHARMACEUTICAL MEDICINE IS EXTREMELY PROFITABLE BUT HOW ROCKERFELLA WAS TREATED ALL HIS LIFE BY A HOMEOPATHIC PHYSICIAN. There are other worlds other than the material. We are so easily brainwashed into thinking that all the destruction we wreak as a species is a necessary consequence to the needs of greedy humans and this is mostly completely avoidable, but for the puppeteering agendas of the rich, and their firms of lawyers and their advertisers, and hollywood of course.

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