The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Suicide by Homeopathy?

Posted by mattusmaximus on January 24, 2010

If you’ve been running around in skeptical circles for any amount of time, then you’ve no doubt heard of the quackery called homeopathy. According to the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry on homeopathy…

Classical homeopathy originated in the 19th century with Samuel Christian Friedrich Hahnemann (1755-1843) as an alternative to the standard medical practices of the day, such as phlebotomy or bloodletting. Opening veins to bleed patients, force disease out of the body, and restore the humors to a proper balance was a popular medical practice until the late19th century (Williams 2000: 265). Hahnemann rejected the notion that disease should be treated by letting out the offensive matter causing the illness. In this, he was right. On the other hand, he argued that disease should be treated by helping the vital force restore the body to harmony and balance. In this, he was wrong. He rejected other common medical practices of his day such as purgatives and emetics “with opium and mercury-based calomel” (ibid.: 145). He was right to do so. Hahnemann’s alternative medicine was more humane and less likely to cause harm than many of the conventional practices of his day. …

Homeopaths refer to “the Law of Infinitesimals” and the “Law of Similars” as grounds for using minute substances and for believing that like heals like, but these are not natural laws of science. If they are laws at all, they are metaphysical laws, i.e., beliefs about the nature of reality that would be impossible to test by empirical means. Hahnemann’s ideas did originate in experience. That he drew metaphysical conclusions from empirical events does not, however, make his ideas empirically testable. The law of infinitesimals seems to have been partly derived from his notion that any remedy would cause the patient to get worse before getting better and that one could minimize this negative effect by significantly reducing the size of the dose. Most critics of homeopathy balk at this “law” because it leads to remedies that have been so diluted as to have nary a single molecule of the substance one starts with.

And this is the real rub with a notion as loony as homeopathy.  We already know from modern science-based medicine that, in the case of drugs, there must be a certain amount of active ingredient in the drug in order for it to have the desired effect.  Of course, there are dangers from using medical drugs: one of the most common is that of over-dosing.  If someone takes too much of a certain active ingredient, it can be harmful or – in the worst case – fatal.  For example, we all know about stories of people committing suicide by over-dosing on sleeping pills.

However, with homeopathy, this is all turned completely on its head.  Homeopaths, invoking their magical “law of infinitesimals”, insist that by diluting the active ingredient to the most ludicrous extreme (i.e., imagine diluting a solution so much that only one molecule of active ingredient remains in it) this will somehow transfer the healing power of the ingredient to the patient and actually make the solution more potent.

A classic example of debunking this particular woo-woo claim has been performed numerous times by James Randi as he lectures on the topic of homeopathy & other quackery.  As he lectures, usually for roughly an hour, Randi will consume an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills that he’d purchased earlier from a nearby pharmacy.  Needless to say, despite performing this feat numerous times, James Randi has yet to die from such an “over-dose”.

Another good example of this very exercise in skepticism of homeopathy is outlined at this Youtube video by Ziztur. I wonder what happened to her?…

In an effort to illustrate the silliness behind these nonsense homeopathy claims more broadly in the public eye, an organization calling themselves the 10:23 Campaign: Homeopathy, There’s Nothing In It has designated that they will be conducting a “mass suicide by homeopathy” on January 30th.  The whole “10:23” bit is a play off of Avogadro’s Number (6.022×10^23 particles per mole) that one learns about in basic chemistry class – the idea being that if you have an entire mole’s worth of solution (not unreasonable) that, by homeopathic standards, there is likely only one molecule of active ingredient in it.

To sum up, I shall finish with a joke:

A man is walking naked down the street when a police officer pulls him over.  As the man is being placed into the back of the squad car, having been arrested for indecent exposure, he protests, saying: “But officer, you don’t understand!  I’m wearing my homeopathic pants!” 🙂

13 Responses to “Suicide by Homeopathy?”

  1. You’ve really gotten at something here, and I don’t just mean about homeopathy which is an important issue, and a growing superstition. I didn’t realize it before you mentioned the fact that homeopaths rely on the ‘law of the infinitesimal,’ but what we are dealing with here is a revival of Heracliteanism. Heraclitus believed that everything was made out of fire, yes, and Hahnemann’s ‘vital force’ might be a mutated version of this, but what I am primarily referring to is Heraclitus’s basic cosmological assertion that all things are composed of smaller and smaller similarities of themselves—so that in his universe an apple is composed of smaller and smaller particles that are simulacrums in some sense of the macro object, a process of regression to near infinitude. Of course this is a precognition of the ‘regression’ of multiplicity within the Self (a mistakenly homogeneous one), and not any property of the universe as such. Fortunately for us Epicurus, Lucretius and the other atomists eventually won out.

    But Heracliteanism never entirely went away. One can see it still influencing theology, for instance, in the early 20th century, in the concept of the soul as ‘fire,’ the ‘fire’ of the living spirit etc., in fundamentalist preaching. And his concept of regression of similarities sticks around, too. It is the basis, to some extent, of the belief that all things reside in themselves and in God at the same time, a major tenet of Catholicism right up to Vatican II when things are allowed finally to be things, and the material world is recognized as existing in-itself. Since theology and philosophy had no separate existence until about a hundred years ago in the West, I would suppose that this is where the Heraclitean influences in homeopathy derive many of their ‘laws’ from, an ancient, discredited, but not entirely extinguished subterranean belief system.

  2. Real (Homeopathic) medicine cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails

  3. DrJen said

    Okay…I still have to listen to the rest of the linked video, but at the point that Ziztur read from the bottle that this “homeopathic sleep aid” was a “non-drowsy formula”…I just couldn’t contain my laughter!

    Interesting instructions on a homeopathic pediatric “cold remedy” that a patient’s dad brought to the office:
    At first sign of cold or flu, take 1 tablet every hour and 2 or 3 tablets before going to sleep. As symptoms subside, take 1 tablet every 2 or 3 hours. Just as Ziztur pointed out when she mentioned that the children’s dose should be half the adult dose…this flies directly in the face of what homeopathy preaches…why would you take less when you’re feeling better? Less is more potent! That’s why the glass of tap water that I just drank is protecting me from all the diseases in the world!
    And as Ziztur…if she really wanted to OD on those pills, she should have just taken a crumb. Dose response curves be damned!

  4. […] meaninglessness of life (or by realization of the eternal gullibility of human beings) attempts to commit suicide with a homeopathic sleep aid. An entertaining and instructive, if futile gesture! Finally, The Teach also brings us a clip of […]

  5. […] Suicide by Homeopathy? […]

  6. […] 2005Related blog postsHomeopathy: There's nothing in it (Oxford) | Hurtling Through SpaceSuicide? by Homeopathy?Homeopathy In DogsHomeopaths Admit Expensive Concoctions Just Water ? Scoop … _uacct = […]

  7. m said

    I laugh

  8. I dare you to make this experiment yourself. Do not use mixtures of homeopathic remedies such as one finds in the market. These are mixtures of different remedies that usually cancel each other out, and they are made by people who only want a profit. The remedy you are testing must be taken all by itself. That is one of Hahnemann’s guiding principles, by the way, “the single remedy.” Otherwise, you have no idea what happened to you. You need to restrict some factors so you know what you are actually experimenting with. The “suicide experiment” only proved that bottles called homeopathic sleeping pills (mixtures) don’t work, and any classically-trained homeopath already knows this.

    Now for your experiment. Get a little bottle of Glonoine 1M and, without touching them with your fingers, put a couple of pills in a little glass of water and let them dissolve, and then drink it. Let us know what happens to you. I suggest you look up the symptoms first in a reliable book such as “Guiding Symptoms of Our Materia Medica,” by Constantine Hering. Look under Glonoine, then look under “head.” Then you can make the experiment. Be sure and read Hering first, though. This is important. You might want to provide yourself with the antidote first, also, which is a little bottle of Glonoine 6C, from which you may prepare a similar glass of water. Don’t get your glasses mixed up. Label them well. In fact, use plastic ones, so you can throw them away afterward. This may sound stupid, but I’m telling you for your own good. These are not remedies to play with or to be taken lightly. I am not telling you to read Hering first because I want to influence you by suggestion; I am telling you to read it because it may make you not want to make the experiment. But you’re scientifically-minded, I think, so you might be willing to demonstrate this on yourself. In fact, like a true scientist, you ought to be willing to do it three or four times to see if the effect was just a coincidence or not. As I said, please let us know what happens.

  9. […] be very dangerous.  If it did not induce death, it would at least induce drowsiness or illness.  Here’s a video of such a stunt; you can see the results for […]

  10. Ravi said

    It’s not fake. Homeopathy works I have used it.

  11. Richard Schwartz said

    Some of the comments here are totally unreasonable. I know of at least one ailment that can be successfully treated with homeopathic solutions, and my MD doc, member of the AMA, conspirator with big pharma actually agreed that this is an excellent treatment. The ailment? Moderate dehydration, of course.

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