Homeopathic medicine is widely used across the world, and many people—including homeopathic doctors and patients—will energetically attest to its efficacy. However, as I will argue here, the theoretical basis for homeopathy is unjustified nonsense, and the scientific evidence, overall, makes clear that there is no good reason to believe that homeopathy is effective. After making my case, I'll finish by taking a look at some counter-arguments made against my position by defenders of homeopathy to see if they withstand scrutiny.
Let's start off by providing some background information about what homeopathy is and how it allegedly works. As Wikipedia writes,
"Homeopathy . . . is a system of alternative medicine developed in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his doctrine of like cures like (similia similibus curentur), a claim that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people."
And as we read on HomeopathySchool.com,
"The . . . principle of ‘like cures like’ can be looked at in several ways. One way is to assume that the body knows what it is doing and that symptoms are the body’s way of taking action to overcome illness. This healing response is automatic in living organisms; we term it the vital response. The similar medicine acts as a stimulus to the natural vital response, giving it the information it needs to complete its healing work.
. . . Before the medicines are decided upon, their curative powers are discovered by testing them out on healthy human subjects and carefully noting emotional, mental and physical changes. This is termed a ‘proving’. . . . Homeopathy treats all your symptoms at all levels of your being – spiritual, emotional, mental and physical and finds the ‘like cures like’ match for them."
Right off the bat, alarm bells should be ringing within the skeptical part of your mind. First off, notice that homeopathy was originally developed in the late 1700s. The importance of washing your hands in a medical environment wasn't discovered until the 1840s. Antibiotics first became widely used a hundred years later in the 1940s. The idea that the sound foundations for an all-encompassing medical science were established in the late 1700s is a very dubious proposition given how much we've learned about human disease and its treatment since then.
Notice also that homeopathy promises a cure-all: Not only will the physical symptoms of your illness be eradicated, but any mental, emotional, and even spiritual problems that you have will also be eliminated with the proper homeopathic treatment. Whenever a person presents you with a utopian panacea like this, you should immediately suspect that they're peddling bullshit. You see large claims like this taking many different forms: "Islam is the solution, and through the teachings of Muhammad, we can shape our entire lives"; "Pray to Christ and whatever you ask for will come true"; "Invest in our multi-level marketing company and you'll become rich beyond your wildest dreams."
Real medicine and real disease is complicated stuff. It's not as simple as "take this pill, and all of your problems in life will wither away." This is the promise of a con-man who makes his living selling snake-oil.
And we see further evidence of this homeopathic over-simplicity in Samuel Hahnemann's concept of "miasms." As Wikipedia writes,
"Hahnemann introduced the concept of 'miasms' as 'infectious principles' underlying chronic disease. Hahnemann associated each miasm with specific diseases, and thought that initial exposure to miasms causes local symptoms, such as skin or venereal diseases. If, however, these symptoms were suppressed by medication, the cause went deeper and began to manifest itself as diseases of the internal organs.
Homeopathy maintains that treating diseases by directly alleviating their symptoms, as is sometimes done in conventional medicine, is ineffective because all 'disease can generally be traced to some latent, deep-seated, underlying chronic, or inherited tendency'. The underlying imputed miasm still remains, and deep-seated ailments can be corrected only by removing the deeper disturbance of the vital force.
Hahnemann's hypotheses for the direct or remote cause of all chronic diseases (miasms) originally presented only three [miasms], psora (the itch), syphilis (venereal disease) or sycosis (fig-wart disease) . . . Hahnemann believed psora to be the cause of such diseases as epilepsy, cancer, jaundice, deafness, and cataracts."
Hahnemann's general viewpoint of how diseases manifest and progress appears to be starkly at odds with the understanding provided by conventional medicine—that is to say, effective medicine (as attested to by mountains of data and double-blind trials.) And that's because sometimes, medication simply does work: For example, if you take the appropriate medication, you will be cured of your tuberculosis.
There is a grain of truth in Hahnemann's analysis, however: Some of our health care system does focus on treating symptoms rather than the underlying causes: for example, prescribing cholesterol-lowering medication rather than simply implementing a healthy diet in the first place. But the thing is, these medications do do the things that they're designed to do, at least to a certain extent.
And Hahnemann's solution to this allegedly faulty approach to medicine isn't actually to get at the root cause of the illness, as he claims; instead, as we'll soon see, his solution is to provide the patient with utterly ineffective junk medicine—which isn't much of a solution at all.
Now in his defense, his ideas were formulated in the late 1700s, and conventional medicine back then wasn't nearly as effective as it is today, so perhaps we can cut him some slack for developing his viewpoints during that time period. But there is no excuse for maintaining these views in the 21st century.
Another thing to notice about these so-called "miasms" is that they arbitrarily classify a wide range of diseases into these neat little categories. We're told that all of these medical conditions have the same underlying cause. Could you imagine visiting a doctor and having him be like: "Well, look: deafness, cancer, cataracts...at the end of the day, it's all the same shit." How likely would you be to visit this doctor again or recommend him to a friend? Not very likely, I imagine. No, you'd be like "This person is talking moonshine and he should be fired!"
Cataracts are caused by the clouding of the lens within the eye; cancer is caused by cell-replication gone haywire; deafness can be caused inner-ear damage, nerve damage, or genetic defects. To group such a wide assortment of medical conditions under the same causal umbrella requires the most extreme ignorance of how these conditions actually develop.
And I should also add, returning to that HomeopathySchool.com quote, that any system of medicine that takes for granted the existence of a literal spirit or soul is a system of medicine that should be distrusted, because anybody who's closely studied the brain can tell you that certain regions of the brain are responsible for certain aspects of our cognition, damaging these regions produces the predictable cognitive defects, and thus, there's no reason to believe that our conscious experience is anything more than the product of our brain.
It's a telltale sign that an alleged treatment is completely ineffective if the person trying to sell it to you promises spiritual healing. This is what the televangelist tells you when he tries to sell you a vial of water from Lourdes; this is what you hear from the New Age crackpot trying to sell you some crystals from Atlantis; you're never going to hear this kind of talk from a respectable, legitimate practitioner of medicine—even if they do have deeply held religious beliefs.
Something else to note about this idea of miasms is that it appears to be unfalsifiable. As we read on HomeopathyTraining.co.uk,
"A miasm . . . rarely has physical symptoms, or at least not symptoms an allopathic doctor would diagnose, and so is never acknowledged and therefore treated."
If it has no physical symptoms, how can you even consistently, reliably detect it, and how can you disprove the existence of something that doesn't manifest in any physical way? If there's no test we could subject this idea to to potentially prove it false, then this idea is flatly unscientific and shouldn't even be taken seriously, because unfalsifiability is the trademark of a bad hypothesis.
Another thing to notice about miasms is how uselessly vague their alleged consequences are. As Homeopathy Training writes,
"A miasm is an underlying disease pattern which when awakened in the body/energy system can imbalance the mind and emotions, contribute to physical disease and misdirect ones life path. . . . Miasms live in the space between the two worlds of energy and matter and their far-reaching tendrils influence our thoughts, our intentions, our life choices and the physical way in which we tell the stories of our lives."
Compare this obscure language to what you would hear from a doctor if you asked him about the symptoms of strep throat. He wouldn't tap-dance around the question and give you answers like "Well, it can cause a general imbalance, uh, it can influence your behavior..."—no, he would give you a straightforward list of symptoms: pain while swallowing, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and so forth.
And "miasms live in the space between the two worlds of energy and matter"? How have you determined this? What instruments have you used to measure and confirm this? And how do you reliably distinguish between imbalances of the mind and emotions caused by miasms and those caused by other factors? For that matter, how do you even quantify some of these consequences? What metric do you use to determine if one's life path has been misdirected?
I could just as easily come forward and say that tiny, invisible demons which live in the space between energy and matter imbalance our mind and emotions, contribute to physical disease, and misdirect our path in life. But if there is no test that we could subject this idea to to prove it false, and if there is no physical evidence of these tiny, invisible demons, what reason do we have to believe that these demons exist?
Let's take a closer look at how homeopathic remedies purportedly act upon the human body. As Larry Malerba writes in an article entitled "In Defense of Homepathy,"
"Unlike drugs, which must often be taken on a regular basis to maintain their suppressive effects, homeopathic remedies act as bioenergetic catalysts designed to provoke a healing response from the life force. Dr. Hahnemann, himself, attributed all genuine healing to the innate wisdom of the 'vital force.' Homeopathy is based upon a stimulus-response model of treatment. An effective prescription acts as a stimulus that initiates a self-healing reaction from the bioenergetic field of the human organism. Once a healing response has begun, there is no need to repeat the stimulus unless its effect begins to wear off."
This is New Age mumbo jumbo 101 right here: "bioenergetic catalyst, bioenergetic field, life force, vital force"—What is this, a fuckin' Star Wars movie or something? These are all terms that sound semi-scientific and somewhat intimidating, but they're really just empty words that have no relation to reality. These phrases are exactly the kind of thing you'd expect to read on the Random Deepak Chopra Quote Generator, which describes itself as follows:
"It has been said by some that the thoughts and tweets of Deepak Chopra are indistinguishable from a set of profound sounding words put together in a random order, particularly the tweets tagged with '#cosmisconciousness'. This site aims to test that claim! Each 'quote' is generated from a list of words that can be found in Deepak Chopra's Twitter stream randomly stuck together in a sentence."
"Your desire comprehends total force fields. . . . The unexplainable drives the flow of facts. . . ."
"Bioenergetic catalysts provoke a healing response from the life force."
It fits right in!
Malerba goes on to chastise critics of homeopathy by writing the following.
"Those who insist that homeopathic medicines are placebos because there is 'nothing there' make the mistake of applying a biochemical model to a bioenergetic therapy. They simply do not know what they are talking about. . . . The great irony is that most diagnostic imaging is energy-based. MRIs, CT scans, ultrasound testing, and thermography all involve energetics."
There are two key differences, however, between homeopathy and these diagnostic imaging tools: Number one, there's abundant evidence that these tools are actually effective, and number two, clear mechanisms explain how these tools work. For example, in the case of MRIs, we read the following on LiveScience.com:
"Water molecules (H2O) contain hydrogen nuclei (protons), which become aligned in a magnetic field. An MRI scanner applies a very strong magnetic field . . . which aligns the proton 'spins.'
The scanner also produces a radio frequency current that creates a varying magnetic field. The protons absorb the energy from the magnetic field and flip their spins. When the field is turned off, the protons gradually return to their normal spin, a process called precession. The return process produces a radio signal that can be measured by receivers in the scanner and made into an image . . .
Protons in different body tissues return to their normal spins at different rates, so the scanner can distinguish among various types of tissue. The scanner settings can be adjusted to produce contrasts between different body tissues. Additional magnetic fields are used to produce 3-dimensional images that may be viewed from different angles."
What is the precise mechanism that expains how homeopathy allegedly works? Not even Larry Malerba, in his valiant and foolhardy defense of homeopathy, has a good answer for you, because as he concedes in his article,
"Just because the mechanism of action of homeopathy is as of yet undetermined does not mean that it does not qualify as a science. No scientist in his or her right mind dismisses an unusual phenomenon simply because it cannot be explained."
Critics of homeopathy, according to him, "simply do not know what they are talking about," but as his own words reveal, clearly he doesn't know what he's talking about either.
As we read on Wikipedia, explanations for the mechanism of homeopathy abound:
"Abstract concepts within theoretical physics have been invoked to suggest explanations of how or why preparations might work, including quantum entanglement, quantum nonlocality, the theory of relativity and chaos theory."
None of these explanations strike me as anything more than taking complex, esoteric ideas in physics and misapplying them to human health and junk medicine. And you have to do more than just present some tantalizing explanation; first you have to demonstrate that there is some actual phenomenon that's taking place, and then you have to prove that your proposed mechanism actually explains what's going on. In both cases, this is something that proponents of homeopathy have utterly failed to do. Yet for some reason this doesn't stop them from using language like "bioenergetic fields" and "life force" when discussing homeopathy. As James Randi once wrote (The Faith Healers, p. 258):
"Until we taste the cake, we cannot discuss the flavor."
Another component of homeopathy worth taking a close look at is the preparation of homeopathic remedies. As we read on Wikipedia,
"The preparations are manufactured using a process of homeopathic dilution, in which a chosen substance is repeatedly diluted in alcohol or distilled water, each time with the containing vessel being bashed against an elastic material, commonly a leather-bound book.
. . . A common explanation for his settling on this process is said to be that [Samuel Hahnemann] found preparations subjected to agitation in transit, such as in saddle bags or in a carriage, were more 'potent'. Hahnemann had a saddle-maker construct a special wooden striking board covered in leather on one side and stuffed with horsehair."
What a silly thing to do at each successive stage of the dilution. Could you imagine something analogous where at the Pfizer manufacturing plant, every time they finished mixing up a batch of drugs, they banged on a gigantic gong or gathered in a circle and uttered in unison some kind of incantation, believing this to have an effect on the quality of the final product? This is superstition in its purest and most ludicrous form, and it shows just what kind of an irrational thinker the founder of homeopathy truly was. This is the same kind of junky logic that led primitive tribes to perform ritualistic rain dances or sacrifice children to the gods in order to ensure a bountiful harvest.
Why even bother with dilutions, you might ask? Wouldn't that just be reducing the potency, and thus the effectiveness, of the homeopathic medicine? This might be a reasonable assessment if we're talking about conventional, Western medicine, but to think this way about homeopathy is to fail to grasp the delicate nuances of what's going on here. In the world of homeopathy, the more diluted the original substance becomes, the more potent the homeopathic treatment. As we read on HomeopathicHealing.org,
"How can it be that the more a substance is diluted, the stronger, or more potent, it becomes? Isn't it a paradox that the highest potencies have the least amount of the original substance? This paradox resolves when we understand that a remedy acts not as a chemical or material factor, but rather as an informational field. Through a process that we are just beginning to be understand, the repetitive dilution and sucussion impart a patterning to the molecules of the diluent. The pattern varies depending upon the nature of the substance to which it is exposed, and apparently carries information related to the nature of that substance. The more the solution is diluted and sucussed, the more the pattern becomes coherent, intense and detailed."
If this sounds like complete and utter nonsense to you, you and I are very much on the same page here! On what grounds do they reach such a startling conclusion about how patterns of information can be somehow imprinted within the solvent to a more and more coherent degree as less and less of the original solute is present? Great question!—and one that's not answered in the article, because not surprisingly, no references to scientific literature which demonstrate this phenomenon are provided.
As we all learned in our K–12 physics classes, the molecules in a liquid are not static; there's actually quite a bit of movement going on. So how, exactly, is information stored within a simple liquid like water? Wouldn't that mean that the movement of the molecules would have to stop so that the molecules could remain arranged in a particular way? And if so, wouldn't the water turn to ice then? If the dilution process truly does impart a patterning to the molecules of the dilutent, then surely this process could be measured and demonstrated in the laboratory? Well, according to the European Academies Science Advisory Council, this claim has been investigated and thoroughly refuted. As they write in a 2017 report:
". . . detailed scientific analysis of the influence of dissolved species on the structure and dynamics of water has refuted the homeopathic claim that water retains a memory even long after the last molecule of homeopathic entity has been removed by serial dilution. The impact of dissolved species on water is short-range (of the order of nanometres, 10 –9 metres), does not extend beyond their immediate hydration layer and does not demonstrate any long-term (nanoseconds, 10 –9 seconds or even shorter) cooperative effect . . . Thus, the homeopathy proposition that efficacy can be explained by a long-term memory of water has been proved scientifically unfounded and implausible (Texeira, 2007; Jungwirth, 2011)."
And they write on HomeopathicHealing.org that the remedy acts as an informational field. What does this even mean? What is an informational field? How does this differ from an electrical or magnetic field? How can we measure this informational field? What device do they use to detect such a field, and where can I read about the laboratory experiments where the characteristics of this field are identified and precisely quantified?
They write that this takes place "through a process that we are just beginning to understand." Translation? We don't have a fucking clue what we're talking about here. And even if we grant that we truly are just beginning to understand this phenomenon, then what rubbish have they been believing for the past 200 years in homeopathy?
James Randi had a pretty good joke about homeopathic dilutions in a lecture that he gave on the subject:
"And another claim that they make—you'll love this one—the more dilute the medicine is, they say, the more powerful it is. Well, wait a minute: We heard about a guy in Florida—the poor man—he was on homeopathic medicine, he died of an overdose: he forgot to take his pill."
And Tracey Moody created this brilliant cartoon about homeopathy:
That is good stuff right there.
The absurdity of homeopathic dilutions reaches new heights when you consider just how dilute we're talking about here. As James Randi points out in another lecture,
"If they take one part of the substance and put it in 10 parts of water and shake it up—it's called succussing, not shaking up, they gotta have a technical term for it—a certain way it's gotta be shaken, and then, what you've got is called a 1 solution. . . . If you take one part of that and put it in 10 parts of water—it's one part in 100 now—that's called a 2 solution. So it's directly related to the number of zeros on the amount of water, the comparative amount of water. So if you have a 5 solution, it's 5 zeroes after the one, and one part of the substance in that.
Now as soon as you get up around 23, 24, 27 and such, depending on the substance, you get to what they call Avogadro's Limit. This guy Avogadro was a trouble-maker way back when, and he came up with this limit which says there's only, at that point, for that particular substance, there's a chance in the solution you now have of there being one molecule of that substance present. If you do it again—you got one more order, one more dilution—there's one chance in 10 of there being one molecule of the substance in this liter or whatever of water.
Well, folks, the homeopathy people start off at a dilution of 10^50th, generally speaking. There are 10^23 stars in the universe. That's what I call dilute! Oh! But you ain't heard dilute yet: They go all the way up to 10^1500. That's extremely dilute. Now look at what that means: I called my friend Martin Gardner and said: 'Martin, I really need something for the layman. I don't know what 10^1500 is. It's a huge number. Very, very, very large number, but how do I illustrate that?' He said 'I'll call you back.'
. . . Martin said 'If you take one grain of rice, crush it up in a teaspoon, you then dissolve that powder in a sphere of water the size of the solar system—with the sun at the center, and the orbit of Pluto at the outside—then you repeat that process two billion times."
And as Stephen Barrett writes on QuackWatch.org,
". . . to expect to get even one molecule of the 'medicinal' substance allegedly present in 30X pills, it would be necessary to take some two billion of them"
But of course, this is only absurd if you're coming at it from a traditional-medicine vantage point. Simply adopt the completely unjustified idea that the solvent somehow remembers the substances that were mixed within it, and that this memory gets stronger and stronger the more dilute the original substance becomes, and presto!, there's nothing to be confused about—except everything!
Recall that earlier we read the following from HomeopathySchool.com:
"The similar medicine acts as a stimulus to the natural vital response"
Presumably if this is the case, we could measure this in some way, correct? Imagine, for example, giving a control group a placebo, giving the treatment group the homeopathic pill, and recording various measurements like their white blood cell count, the level of antibodies in their bloodstream, and so forth. If a clear difference was detected between the two groups, this would lend credence to the idea that homeopathic treatments do, in fact, stimulate this natural vital response. So where are the studies that prove such a phenomenon? I haven't seen them.
And if the homeopath responds by saying that the vital response can't be measured in this way, if there is no metric we can use to detect the stimulation of this vital response, then how could this hypothesis possibly be falsified, and how could you prove that this idea is anything more than the product of your imagination?
There is a reason that homeopathy is described as "alternative medicine"—and that's not because it's so stunningly effective that we had to create a special term for it. As Richard Dawkins once wrote (A Devil's Chaplain, p. 180),
"If a healing technique is demonstrated to have curative properties in properly controlled double-blind trials, it ceases to be alternative. It simply . . . becomes medicine."
So what does the scientific research tell us about homeopathy? As I've made clear in the preceding analysis, the theoretical underpinnings of homeopathy appear to be pure hogwash, but it is possible that the homeopaths are correct, that something mysterious is going on here that we don't yet understand, so it's worth taking a look at the research on the subject. Rather than examining individual studies, we're going to consult some systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which basically consider what consensus can be reached on a particular subject from a large number of studies.
One such meta-analysis was published in April 2000 in the European Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. As we read in its concluding section,
"There is some evidence that homeopathic treatments are more effective than placebo; however, the strength of this evidence is low because of the low methodological quality of the trials. Studies of high methodological quality were more likely to be negative than the lower quality studies."
Another systematic review of the subject, published in 2017 by Robert Mathie et al, reached a very similar conclusion. As they write,
"Forty-eight different clinical conditions were represented in 75 eligible [randomised controlled trials]. Forty-nine trials were classed as ‘high risk of bias’ and 23 as ‘uncertain risk of bias’; the remaining three, clinically heterogeneous, trials displayed sufficiently low risk of bias to be designated reliable evidence. . . . The three trials with reliable evidence yielded a non-significant pooled [standardised mean difference]: –0.18 (95% CI –0.46, 0.09)."
That is to say, there was no significant difference between the control groups and the homeopathic treatment groups in these three trials.
Another publication conducted a systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. (Incredible, I know. How long until we can read the results of systematic reviews of these systematic reviews of systematic reviews?) As we read in a 2002 publication of the British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology,
"Electronic databases were searched for systematic reviews/meta-analysis on the subject. Seventeen articles fulfilled the inclusion/exclusion criteria. Six of them related to re-analyses of one landmark meta-analysis. Collectively they implied that the overall positive result of this meta-analysis is not supported by a critical analysis of the data. Eleven independent systematic reviews were located. Collectively they failed to provide strong evidence in favour of homeopathy. In particular, there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions. Similarly, there was no homeopathic remedy that was demonstrated to yield clinical effects that are convincingly different from placebo. It is concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice."
Something else that Robert Mathie et al discovered is that
". . .There was significant evidence of publication bias in favour of homeopathy."
And publication bias, for those who don't know, is basically a form of bias in the scientific literature where researchers are sometimes more likely to seek to publish, and journals are sometimes more likely to accept for publication, research which yields a positive result with a large effect—research which measures a significant difference between the control group and the treatment group—because this is seen as more interesting. This can ultimately have the effect of inaccurately skewing the research on a particular subject in the direction of "there is something going on here," when in reality, this might not be the case, as would have been made clear if all research on the subject went to publication.
That said, when you take a look at the studies on the subject, collectively, and when you take into consideration the soundness of each study's research methodology, there does not appear to be convincing evidence that homeopathy is an effective treatment—regardless of what advocates of homeopathy will tell you when they cherry-pick individual studies (as opposed to taking a broad look at the research.)
Despite the laughable pile of absurdities that makes up the theoretical foundation of homeopathy, and despite the absence of convincing scientific evidence that homeopathy is effective, usage of homeopathy is shockingly prevalent around the world. As we read in the American Journal of Public Health in 2016,
"Among US adults, 2.1% used homeopathy within the past 12 months."
And as Wikipedia writes,
"By 2007, in the United States, $3.1 billion were spent on homeopathic medicine."
Things are much worse elsewhere in the world. As the Homeopathy Research Institute writes,
"Worldwide, over 200 million people use homeopathy on a regular basis. . . . 10% of people in the UK use homeopathy – an estimated 6 million people. . . . 100 million EU citizens, some 29% of the EU’s population, use homeopathic medicines in their day-to-day healthcare. . . . India leads in terms of number of people using homeopathy, with 100 million people depending solely on homeopathy for their medical care."
Homeopathy is not just a harmless delusion; these are billions of dollars being squandered on junk medicine, and these are tens of thousands of homeopaths dedicating their lives to this pseudoscience when they could instead be doing something to actually make the world a better place. If even a fraction of this money was spent on medical research, what new treatments, what new drugs, what new cures could have been discovered? There is a real opportunity cost here, and this entire industry is responsible for the misusing of an enormous amount of time, energy, and financial resources.
Not only that, but people are harmed in a much more direct way than this when they forego conventional treatment and instead turn to homeopathy. WhatsTheHarm.Net provides the following examples:
"A physician/homeopath advised [Janeza Podgoršek] to use homoepathic preventatives for malaria prior to a trip to Africa. After he returned with the disease she continued to treat him with homeopathy. He died. Her license was revoked and she got two years probation.
. . . Gloria [Thomas] was diagnosed with eczema at four months. Her father, who taught and practiced homeopathy, treated her using that instead. She died of sepsis caused by broken skin due to her eczema.
. . . The mother refused antibiotics for the baby's ear infection, preferring homeopathic advice. The baby grew more ill and was eventually hospitalized with meningitis. The baby died."
At this point, it's worth considering when governments and regulation should step in to put a stop to such nonsense? If it's clear that homeopathy is junk medicine, should we as a society allow it to be sold and prescribed as if it's an effective treatment? If I just started selling inert sugar pills that promised to treat your allergies, your back pain, and so forth, would I not be rightly accused of defrauding the public? And since homeopathic pills are indistinguishable from placebos—at the molecular level and as the scientific research shows—what is the difference?
Practitioners of homeopathy might believe that their treatments are effective, but this is no more an argument in favor of their sale than would be the heartfelt belief that a completely ineffective seatbelt would prevent you from being launched out of your windshield in a head-on collision. There should obviously be some sort of testing and standards that purported medical treatments are subjected to before they're allowed to be sold to the public as an effective treatment, and I can't imagine a world where it's reasonable for homeopathy to meet these criteria.
It's not all bad news, however: There has been a small victory on this front in recent years. As Slate reported in 2016,
". . . yesterday . . . the FTC announced its 'enforcement policy statement' about homeopathic product labeling . . . The rules require packaging to effectively communicate two key disclaimers:
'There is no scientific evidence that the product works.'
'The product’s claims are based only on theories of homeopathy from the 1700s that are not accepted by most modern medical experts.'"
The author of this article, Alan Levinovitz, notes that this might ironically backfire, because if the people who purchase homeopathic products view science and conventional medicine with skepticism, this might not deter them from making the final purchase; indeed, it's conceivable that some people might even view this as a point in favor of homeopathy. That said, (with the exception of some anti-scientific, naturopathic kooks) I think the vast majority of people, if they were made aware that there's no scientific evidence favoring a treatment, would not waste their money on it, making this a step in the right direction.
Let's finish up by taking a look at some of the counter-arguments leveled against my position by defenders of homeopathy to see if they stand up to scrutiny. In his article entitled "In Defense Of Homeopathy," Larry Malerba writes the following:
"Despite relentless criticism from skeptics and fundamentalists, homeopathy has withstood the test of time. . . . Given so much organized resistance from the mainstream, one would think that if homeopathy were much ado about nothing it would not have endured. It would have withered on the vine a long time ago. And yet it has persisted."
What kind of a silly point is this? How long a particular belief has been around has no bearing on the truth or falsity of this belief. We could imagine somebody, 500 years ago, saying "Look, people have believed for hundreds of years that the earth is flat. This belief has withstood the test of time." We could also imagine that some new scientific discovery is made right now at this very second. The fact that the person who just made this discovery has been believing this claim for about 10 seconds doesn't make the belief false. The truth of a claim does not depend upon the amount of time that a particular claim has been believed for; it's instead dependent upon whether or not the claim is in accordance with the way that the world is.
Malerba takes another stroll down Fallacy Lane when he writes the following:
"Today, there are well over 200,000 homeopathic practitioners in India alone. Is it possible that so many doctors and patients could be wrong about a medical therapy that they rely upon for their own personal health and well-being?"
Yeah, actually it is possible! In fact, that is precisely the case. You could make the exact same argument about any number of unjustified claims: "Everybody in the village believes that the rain dance is effective; is it possible for so many of us to be so wrong about a ritual when the very success of our crops depends upon it?" Yes, it's very possible. It's extremely possible that that is the case. Millions of people across the planet believe that prayer is effective or that hell is a real place. The fact that a large number of people believe a particular thing doesn't automatically make that thing true.
Malerba also points out
"the remarkable growth of homeopathy and the testimony of millions of satisfied patients who swear by its effectiveness"
Cherrypicked first-hand accounts are not a reliable source of medical data. As the saying goes, the plural of anecdote is not data. Plenty of people believe that they have been abducted by aliens and experimented upon; the fact that they can present such a testimony is not convincing evidence of extraterrestrial anal-probing.
But if we're going to go down this road anyway, what about the millions of people who have tried homeopathy and found it to be completely ineffective? What kind of a one-sided approach is it that accepts the testimony of those who speak favorably of homeopathy and ignores those who reject it? This is textbook confirmation bias: counting the hits and forgetting the misses. But I will concede that homeopathy does provide some benefit to the world, because its defenders provide countless examples of how not to think rationally.
You don't just ask people how they feel after taking a particular treatment and then draw your conclusion right then and there, because people's conditions can improve for a number of different reasons. For example, if we just sit around and do nothing, given enough time, certain pains or illnesses will go away on their own as the body repairs itself and as the immune system works its magic. There's also the placebo effect, where the belief that one is receiving an effective treatment can produce either perceived or actual improvements in one's condition.
If you give somebody a treatment, they say "I feel better," and you conclude that the treatment is responsible, you are not thinking rationally because you have not exhausted alternative explanations. Maybe the treatment was responsible. That's a possibility. But maybe the treatment is completely ineffective and they just feel better for psychosomatic reasons? Or maybe their body just fought off the infection on its own? This is precisely why we have control groups in scientific experiments: to distinguish between effects brought about by the treatment and effects brought about by other factors. The fact that some people will tell you that a treatment works doesn't actually prove that the treatment works.
He also points out that
"Homeopathic treatment is known for its lack of side effects"
Yeah, and it's also known of its lack of effects. Inert sugar pills aren't exactly notorious for causing people to shit their pants or start convulsing on the ground. James Randi, in his lectures on the subject, has been overdosing on homeopathic pills for years, and somehow, he just hasn't noticed any adverse effects:
"I have to do something now which seems a little bit strange for a magician, but I'm going to take some medication. This is a full bottle of Calms Forte. I'll explain that in just a moment . . . I will take enough of these—*pours entire bottle of pills into mouth and swallows*—indeed, the whole container. 32 caplets of Calms Forte . . . And that's what this is: This is Calms Forte, 32 caplets—of sleeping pills! I forgot to tell you that!
I just ingested six and a half days worth of sleeping pills. Six and a half days, that certainly is a fatal dose. It says right on the back here: 'In case of an overdose, contact your poison control center immediately,' and it gives an 800-number. Keep your seats! It's going to be ok. I don't really need it, because I've been doing this stunt for audiences all over the world for the last 8 or 10 years, taking fatal doses of homeopathic sleeping pills. Why don't they affect me?"
Malerba goes on to write that
"The worst offenders are the ones who call themselves scientific 'skeptics.' Although they claim to speak for science, their willful refusal to consider the facts exposes them as anti-scientific defenders of scientistic dogma. Their pathological disbelief in all things holistic and unconventional is a violation of the open-minded spirit of genuine scientific inquiry."
He gets it completely wrong here. We're not just blindingly disbelieving as a default position; we're not refusing to consider the facts; we've examined the facts and concluded that they do not support the idea that homeopathy is an effective treatment. We're disbelieving because the philosophical underpinnings of homeopathy are ridiculous, and the scientific evidence does not support its efficacy. If the evidence unequivocally demonstrated that homeopathy is a very effective treatment, why would we deny this? Why would we not be racing to the nearest homeopath to cure us of our every illness and defect?
I am open to evidence and I am open to a revision in my beliefs. As the saying goes, keep an open mind—just not so open that your brains fall out.