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Princes, Professors and Poltergeists

Loretta Marron BSc
From a Skeptics Perspective

Issue 73: July 2008
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An urgent message had arrived. A man was dying; there was no time to lose. Late in the 18th Century, Samuel Hahnemann, physician and the father of homeopathy, meticulously prepared his remedy; the correct active ingredient; the correct number of dilutions; the correct amount of shaking. He mounted his horse and travelled at great speed along the highways and byways to his patient. The remedy was administered, but alas, his patient died. What went wrong? Surely it couldn’t have been the formula or the preparation. As he headed for home he realised what had happened. The additional jarring from the galloping horse had over-shaken his remedy. The patient had died of too much ‘Vital Force’.

So does restoring your ‘vital force’ really cure you? And why have attempts to claim a US$1mill reward for a successful clinical trial failed? (1). For this article, I’d like to talk about homeopathy.

Homeopathy is based on three principles. The first is ‘like cures like’. This was around the time when physicians were starting to use cowpox to prevent small pox. Hahnemann reasoned that if something gave a healthy person similar symptoms they experienced during an illness, it could be used as a cure. Chilli, for example, makes you feel hot so it could be used to cure a fever. Other ingredients he used were spider and snake venom, mercury, anthrax, acid – just about anything that a healthy body reacts to. The second principle is dilution. The dose is diluted until only ‘the memory’ of the original active ingredient is left. The third principle involves shaking; just the right amount between dilutions is required. This adds the real healing power to the potion – the ‘Vital Force’.

The theory behind homeopathy is that the fluid used for dilution holds the memory (or imprint) of the original active ingredient. Since the 18th Century we have split the atom, invented computer chips and have some pretty sophisticated electron microscopes. Water has been recycled by nature for billions of years, as I was born in Germany, if it has a memory, does that mean that my 90%+ water-based body has the memory of Hitler or even dinosaur pee in it? And that ‘Vital Force’; is that a supernatural, somewhat forgetful, poltergeist perhaps?

The labelling is very confusing. The higher the number, the lower the amount of active ingredient (and apparently, the more powerful the remedy). Roman numerals are used to describe the number of dilutions; X means 1:10 and C means 1:100. A dilution of 6C, for example, means a dilution of 1:1012. This is about one drop in a swimming pool – in other words there are no active ingredients left in the remedies.

Prof Colin Keay, Conjoint Assoc Prof of Physics when asked stated, “Homeopathy is a fraud because of its total lack of any scientific basis.” A meta-analysis published in LANCET (2) and research undertaken by Emeritus Prof Edzard Ernst (who runs the departments of Complementary & Alternative Medicine (CAM) at Exeter Uni, UK), both conclude that homeopathy is ineffective. Prof Ernst recently reiterated his findings in the Times (3) stating that “it is a placebo” when he demanded that the Prince of Wales withdraw two government funded Guides that had inaccurate information relating to ineffective forms of CAM.

Who to believe; the Prince or the Professors?

A cancer patient gave me a remedy that her pharmacist had recommended that claims to be “a natural and effective way to overcome your physical addiction to tobacco”. It hadn’t worked and sadly, now she has cancer. The active ingredient is 6C tabacum. I asked my pharmacist what the 6C meant to be told that it was the number of “concentrations”. He was wrong. He said he didn’t ‘sell’ homeopathic products but that “it’s on the shelf if you want to buy it”.

The Pharmacy Board of NSW threw out a complaint against a NSW pharmacy that was heavily promoting homeopathy even though their own rules state that they should only be selling evidence-based medicine. Are their pharmacies meant to be helping their customers or exploiting them with placebos and hocus-pocus?

As a cancer patient I visit my pharmacy regularly and it’s on the counter where I put in my scripts, so please tell me, I’d like to know.

1. BBC Homeopathy: the test - programme summary
2. Linde K, Clausius N, Ramirez G, et al. “Are the clinical effects of homoeopathy placebo effects? A meta-analysis of placebo-controlled trials”. Lancet 1997; 350: 834-843
3. Times Online, April 17, 2008

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