(Investigator 140, 2011 September)

Homoeopathy is a system of therapeutics based upon the "law of similars", introduced by Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a physician and chemist of Meissen, Germany.

Many points of Hahnemann's system were borrowed from Hippocrates who over 2,300 years ago wrote, "Through the like, disease is produced and through the application of the like, it is cured", and from Paracelsus (1490-1541), "You there bring together the same anatomy of the illness into one order. This simile gives you understanding of the way in which you shall heal." The complex modern system of homoeotherapeutics was expanded by Hahnemann into a systematic, empirical health practice and today attracts a wide "New Age" following.

The Holistic approach was also given a boost in 1926, with the publication of Jan Christiaan Smuts' philosophical treatise Holism and Evolution, which attracted the attention of philosophers worldwide.

The essential tenets of homoeopathy are that the cure of disease is effected by drugs that are capable of producing in a healthy individual symptoms similar to those of the disease to be treated, and that to ascertain the curative virtues of any drug it must be "proved" upon healthy persons — that is, taken by individuals of both sexes in a state of health in gradually increasing doses.

Hahnemann's "Law of Similia" that treated "like with like" is believed to have originated after he ingested a dose of cinchona bark (the source of quinine) and experienced symptoms similar to those of malaria. He reasoned that as the symptoms were similar to the condition it was used to treat, his Law of Similia could be used to evaluate the efficacy of a particular medicine. This process is known as "proving" a medicine. Hahnemann's theory appears to have been based on a revival of Paracelsus' Doctrine of Signatures, which declared that herbs would cure conditions or the anatomical parts they resembled — snakeroot for snakebite for example. Much the same as the primitive view of monism, where the ancient practice of eating various organs of animals and humans were believed to endow the consumer with the qualities they associated with them — a lion's heart for courage for example.

A feature of homoeopathy is its theory of dose. Most homoeopathists believe in the action of minute doses of medicine which are prepared as follows: If the medicinal substance is soluble, one part is diluted in 9 or 99 parts water and/or alcohol solution and shaken vigorously; if insoluble, it is ground and mixed in similar proportions with milk sugar. One part of the diluted mixture is diluted and shaken again in proportions ranging from one tenth to one millionth. Most remedies today range from one millionth to one sixth of one millionth part compound to water. Although according to the laws of chemistry there is a limit to the dilution that can be made without losing the original substance altogether, Hahnemann believed that the vigorous shaking with each step of the dilution (Succussion, or Trituration in the case of non-solubles) leaves a spirit-like essence that allegedly cures by reviving the body's "vital force." He further believed that dilution increases potency, a remarkable conclusion when one considers things such as pesticides or poisons where it could be claimed that a lesser rather than a greater amount is the more potent. I doubt too, that one would be more likely to become intoxicated by drinking a greater quantity of soda water with one’s whiskey than less.

As homoeopathic remedies do not have the side effects caused by some modern drugs and because of the current disaffection with and the scepticism of the efficacy of brief and hurried visits to conventional physicians, the popularity of homoeopathic practitioners and homoeopathic medicines has increased dramatically in the past two decades or so. Currently, Homoeopathy seeks to be accepted as a viable medical practice.

In an attempt to answer the obvious question, "how can a sub-molecular compound possibly have any effect?" homoeopaths believe that the pounding and vigorous shaking with each step of the dilution imparts a memory which helps revive the body's "vital force." However, while many hypotheses have been put forward to explain "vital force", none have stood up to scientific scrutiny.

A recent attempt to validate homoeopathy came from the French Institute of Health and Medical Research at the South Paris University in 1988, where Dr Jacques Benveniste put forward experimental results supporting the idea that no matter how small the dilutions of a substance, it would still have an effect.

Dr Benveniste found that human white blood cells respond to a solution of antibodies, even when the solution is so dilute that it no longer contains a single molecule of the antibody. Dr Benveniste and his colleagues estimated that less than one molecule of antibody remains present when the solution is diluted to 1 x 1014 yet in this instance the dilution procedure was taken to 1 x 10120  and there was still an apparent effect. This claim was taken as proof of homoeopathy and its "law of infinitesimals."

The scientific community was agog and incredulous, for if the results were confirmed it would question the entire basis upon which molecular scientists work. However, an investigation instigated by Nature in conjunction with sceptical investigator James Randi, Walter Stewart of the US National Institute of Health and John Maddox, editor of Nature, found that the results of the experiments were due to wishful thinking and were "a delusion."

Consumer Reports concluded in its January 1987 issue:
"Unless the laws of chemistry have gone awry, most homoeopathic remedies are too diluted to have any physiological effect... CR's medical consultants believe that any system of medicine embracing the use of such remedies involves a potential danger to patients whether the prescribers are M.Ds, other licensed practitioners or outright quacks. Ineffective drugs are dangerous drugs when used to treat serious or life threatening disease. Moreover, even though homoeopathic drugs are essentially nontoxic, self-medication can still be hazardous. Using them for a serious illness or undiagnosed pain instead of obtaining proper medical attention could prove harmful or even fatal."

The last warning is not to be taken lightly. In 1954, a four year old Long Island boy, Jerald Winston, died of leukemia. For 16 months he had been treated only with a homoeopathic remedy by his mother, the daughter of a homoeopathic doctor. The parents were charged with manslaughter. Among the latest whose death can be blamed on alternative therapies is that of a fourteen year old Canadian resident Rachel Brarsky, who died of asthma in January 1989, after being treated by "chemicals and various therapies from a chiropractor." The coroner's jury found that Rachel's condition was reported to be treatable by conventional means and that her health care had been inadequate.

A comment from a reputable Fellow of the Royal Pharmacological Society draws attention to the fact that after brushing one's teeth with fluoride toothpaste and thoroughly rinsing your mouth, you will still ingest a dose of both fluoride and flavouring in quantities of the order of a homoeopathic dose. Also many foods and beverages contain flavours, colouring, preservatives and impurities in small amounts, so that the quantity ingested approximates to a homoeopathic dose. Many of these factors could influence human physiology at least as much as homoeopathic medicines.

There have been many controlled studies of homoeopathic remedies (Kleijen 1981, Scofield 1984) and while the evidence of clinical trials is positive it is not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias.

In view of the absence of scientific evidence of the efficacy of holistic medicine, why are people flocking to alternative practitioners?

A 160 page report completed by the British Medical Association in May 1986, points to a paradox, that along with the great modern developments in rational therapeutics and the diagnostic techniques which have revolutionized the effective expectations of medical science, there has also been a significant change in patient/doctor relationship — less time to counsel and to support the patient. In bygone days when there was little else to offer, a long personal chat was in many cases a therapy in itself. Alternative practitioners, who according to a Council of Europe report, spend up to eight times longer over a consultation than an average general practitioner, seem to fulfill the personal attention and support expectations of many patients.

Due to the incredible increase in the number of effective drugs that have become available since the end of World War II, patients expect and demand instant cures. If conventional medicine cannot supply one, then maybe alternative, albeit irrational cures can. The very efficiency of modern medicine too, turns people away. Those afraid of organic disease, especially of a malignant nature, may prefer to go to an alternative therapist because they are afraid what the orthodox diagnostic process might reveal.

What of the testimonies of those who claim to have been cured by fringe medicines? First there is the natural variability of all diseases where the pain or symptom has important points of remission. The patient may feel as though the pain is diminishing or getting worse. It doesn't matter whether the patient starts treatment (and the treatment can be anything from a sugar pill, glass of coloured water or a "healing crystal") on a worsening slide or an improving climb, the result will eventually be one of perceived improvement. The important point is the way we perceive illness — we tend to ascribe cause and effect where none exists.

Finally there is the placebo effect. Many of our ill-effects are psychosomatic — a variety of problems, particularly headaches, brought on by tension, anxiety or depression and which, if they arise for psychological reasons would probably go away for the same reasons. Therefore, belief in a therapy, regardless of what it may be, and in the therapist whether genuine or a quack, will lead to an affect on the mind which in turn will produce an effect on the body.


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From: Edwards, H. A Skeptic's Guide to the New Age