Thinking inside the box: a Pox on Homeo-quackery!

10 February 2010 by Jeremy Bentham, posted in Uncategorized

Greetings my dear friends

I was interested to note that a few weeks ago the House of Commons Science Committee investigated the strength of evidence supporting government policy on homeopathic medicines. I learned, to my considerable perturbation, that despite the complete absence of experimental or observational evidence of their efficacy, your National Health Service expended £12 million on such medicines between 2005 and 2008—£12 million poured into a bottomless gulph of quackery, and no Curtius in prospect to seal the fissure! A fortnight since (and in accordance with notice given by Mr Brown upon this very blog) a public demonstration took place, in which some four hundred rationalists swallowed homeopathic pills by the bottleful, with no reported ill-consequences whatsoever.

I can at least understand the maxim, which I seem to recall is to be found in Paracelsus, that similia similibus curentur (or, Anglice : ‘Let like cure like’). Long ago, Mithridates, fearing assassination, took to ingesting small doses of various poisons in an effort to develop immunity against them, and thirty years before I was born the practice of inoculation—viz. the deliberate infection of a healthy patient with, for instance, the small-pox, as a prophylactic against a later fatal attack of the disease—was brought back to England from Constantinople by the intrepid Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and successfully used to treat both her own daughter and the daughters of the future George II. In my own lifetime Dr Jenner discovered that inoculation with the cow-pox, a relatively harmless cousin to the fatal disease, also provided immunity against the small-pox, and thereby paved the way to saving countless lives. Notwithstanding that acquisition of immunity against future attacks of a disease by its deliberate contraction is not strictly to be denominated ‘cure’, there would seem to be some merit in the maxim.

However, homeopathic remedies are apparently produced by diluting an active ingredient with water or alcohol to such a degree that very often not a single particle of that ingredient is contained in the notionally therapeutic dose. This fact is so utterly extraordinary that I first thought my understanding to be erroneous—but no: homeopathic remedies are diluted to such a degree that they are scientifically indistinguishable from the dilutant: they are not simply as close to water as makes no difference, they are water! Homeopaths typically argue that the therapeutic effect of the original ingredient is enhanced by dilution—the weaker the solution, the stronger the effect. It seems to concern them not at all that their remedies contain no active ingredients whatsoever, because, they tell us, the dilutant water retains a memory of the original substance, and it is this memory which is responsible for the therapeutic effect. This assertion seems to me simply the postulation of an effect without cause: not a whit the less reprehensible for being a common practice. Indeed, I am told that water drunk in today’s Metropolis has already been through the digestive tracts of many people, and through the sewers and the sewage works many times, before issuing from your pipes. How many substances, noxious and otherwise, will have been dissolved in the water previous to its consumption by you?—Many. And will the water not retain the memory of all of them, even if they are all removed during the process of purification?—the homeopath’s argument depends on it! Surely then, you ingest a veritable homeopathic pharmacopeia every time you imbibe a glass of water?—undoubtedly! Why, then, expend further money on homeopathic remedies?

If consumers of medical services are credulous enough to dedicate their surplus monies to the purchase of such placebos, there seems to be only a limited rationale for preventing them from so doing. The ground for interference is strongest where homeopathic remedies cause harm directly, as, for instance, in the case where a small proportion of users of an American homeopathic cold remedy lost their sense of smell as a result—a clear case of not sufficiently diluting the active ingredient, zinc gluconate, to prevent it’s having an effect! There are further significant risks of indirect harms arising from the advice given by homeopaths, which too often is to avoid conventional medical interventions for ailments which could be easily treated by mainstream medicine. In such cases, death can be the result of faith in the homeopathic model: a cruel deception indeed.

Even where there are no perceptible risks to health, it is one thing to say that people should be left at liberty to dispose of their income as they wish, but it is quite another to maintain that public money, coercively extracted by government through taxes, should be used to fund such treatments. There are indeed competing priorities in health expenditure between treatments of proven effectiveness for different medical needs. For the government to use public money to supply homeopathic services supported by no clinical evidence whatsoever, the effectiveness of which depends upon contravening the laws of physics, chemistry, and pharmacology, and of which the very best that can be said is that they are harmless, seems to me a scandal of state sponsored Quackery! How did you allow this to happen?

Your obedient, though alarmed, servant,


One Response to “Thinking inside the box: a Pox on Homeo-quackery!”

  1. Stephen Curry Reply | Permalink

    Well said, Mr B. Great to have such a wise and informed historical perspective!

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