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The energy produced by the atom is a very poor kind of thing. Anyone who expects a source of power from the transformation of these atoms is talking moonshine. Ernst Rutherford, 1933

13. HOMEOPATHY Previous | Next

It’s patently absurd, so why won’t it go away?

SIR John Forbes, the physician to Queen Victoria’s household, called it “an outrage to human reason.” Homeopathy’s claim is that you can take a substance of dubious properties, dilute it to the point where there are no molecules of the original substance left in the sample you have, and your sample will nevertheless have retained healing properties related to the original compound. There is no justification in all of science for this idea -- and yet there remains some slim evidence that homeopathy works.

The key word here is slim. But even the slimmest of evidence makes this scientifically tantalising. Are we missing something about the properties of water? Could there be ways to heal that involve ultra-dilution – possibly avoiding the nasty side-effects of certain drugs?

After months of investigation, my conclusion is a sour and muttered “probably not”. But even after a long journey into the heart of homeopathy, where I saw, among other things, a pharmacy whose shelves contained homeopathic remedies made from flapjack and musical harmonies, I still cannot be 100 per cent sure homeopathy is all bunkum. Part of the reason for that came as I sat in the botany library of the Natural History Museum reading a rigorous scientific analysis of the roots and efficacy of homeopathy, an analysis that might even be able to rescue homeopathy from the clutches of the cranks who currently run the show.

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#1 - Posted: 20/08/2008 21:49

double-blind studies are the gold-standard for establishing the validity of a given treatment.  this involves giving the treatment under consideration to a cohort of patients and comparing the results to an untreated or standardly treated group which serves as a control cohort.  in order to have a meaningful control group, the treatment must confine itself to a single medical condition, for example ovarian cancer.  the problem with applying this to homepathy is that the choice of a medicine for a given condition in homeopathy is not simply based on the syndrome or pathology of the disease.   instead, individual idiosyncratic symptoms of the patient which seemingly have no bearing on the pathology, like whether or not he has hot feet in bed at night, or whether his nose bleeds black blood instead of bright red blood, can strongly influence the choice of the medicine for a given patient. 

according to the homeopathic literature there are between 10 and 20 homeopathic medicines that have been successfully used to treat ovarian cancer.  we will not debate here how the diagnosis was made, what kind of pathological confirmation was used, or how clinical success was determined.  the point here is that any of the 10 or 20 choices could and should be used, as dictated by careful case taking and examination.  limiting the study to a single homeopathic regimen flies in the face of the actual theory behind homeopathy.  if you contradict the theory in trying to study the theory's application, you have learned nothing.

let's say that we wanted to compare allopathic  (that's regular medicine for you folks) to homeopathic treatment for ovarian cancer for example.  for the allopathic treatment regimen we would choose the currently accepted best combination of chemotherapy, radiation and surgery for whatever cell type and stage of pathology that we want to include in our study.   that regimen would be applied across the board to all the cohort.   when it comes to applying this to the homeopathic cohort, it cannot be done.  there is no one medicine in homeopathy that should be used in all patients with ovarian cancer.  instead we will need  one or more homeopaths applying his skills to find the unique medicine for each of  the patients in the cohort.  to rule out, if possible, the bias created by the level of skill of the homeopathic presciber, we would hopefully find the best homeopath in the land to conduct the study. 

so now we see how unavoidably we have introduced too many variables into our study.  all the studies of homeopathic effectiveness that i have seen in the literature have looked at one medicine for the treatment of a given condition, as if it would be so simple that we could go to the homeopathic pharmacy and pull the medicine for our condition off the shelf, and it would work.  the ones who designed these studies either knew nothing of homeopathy or didn't want it to work. 

sure there are "homeopathic" combination products availble that claim to be good for certain conditions.  similarly  you can go to any pharmacy and get over-the-counter antihistamines and other non-homeopathic medicines for a variety of conditions.  but that does not represent real medicine any more than it represents real homeopathy.


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