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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: 24/08/2008 13:34

here i will present a brief history of homeopathy, one pertinent to our discussion here.  my apologies if this material is covered already in the author's book.  my suspicion is that it is not so, that he didn't actually try to get inside homeopathy by interviewing homeopaths themselves or reading some of the classical homeopathic literature. 

the first great age of homeopathy was over a hundred years ago.  in those days nearly all homeopaths were MD doctors.  medical education was not regulated and standardized, so there were actual medical schools that taught homeopathy.  one of the reasons homeopathy went into decline was that standardization was forced on medical education by the flexner report in the united states.  when it could no longer be taught in medical schools, the number of doctors properly trained in it greatly decreased.  this movement was a part of the rise of the american medical association.  the AMA was vehemently opposed to homeopathy, indeed combating homeopathy was a main reason it came into being in the first place.  soon one had to belong to the AMA to be a licensed physician.   most people are not aware of this, but the attempted suppression of homeopathy was so bitter that a doctor could lose his license if he: 1. referred a patient to a homeopath. 2. accepted a referral from a homeopath.  or 3. himself or any member of his family was treated by a homeopath.  hard to believe isn't it.  if it was all placebo what were they so afraid of?  after this of course homeopathy nearly died out as it left the realm of institutionalized medicine.

some of the great names of homeopathy of that era, whose works we still use in clinical practice today, were doctors of considerable repute who set out to debunk homeopathy and in the process actually became converted to it.  james tyler kent and constantine hering come to mind, but there are others.  i am aware of no physician who went the other way, practicing homeopathy then giving it up because they couldn't get it to work.  my own conversion to homeopathy was somewhat similar.  i sneered at it till i saw it work.

one of the most difficult things to accept about homeopathy is the use of immaterial doses, ie doses of medicines so miniscule as to no longer contain matter of the original substance.  the preparation of homeopathic medicines is more complicated than that and we will not go into it here.  but it might be of interest to know that the early homeopaths of the 1800's had the same problem with accepting such small doses. 

hahnemann had at first simply established that the doses used in medicine were too high because they caused such side effects that they actually mimicked the disease itself.  he said, "the drugs are fine, just the dose is too high."  so began an experimental process that spanned decades whereby the dose was gradually reduced further and further.  at first the medicine was diluted 1 to 10.  then 1 to 100, 1 to 1000 and so on.  oddly the more it was refined by dilution the better it work, but the more exact its application had to be.  that is the symptoms that were specific to the medicine being used had to present exactly in order for it to work at the higher dilutions.  when the doses got out 10 to the minus minus 8 some homeopaths drew the line.  they weren't interested in any further experimentation as it strained their credibility too much.  but others continued, curious as to where nature would draw the line.  remember this was a gradual experiment in clinical practice that spanned most of the 1800's.  when centesimal potencies were used, at a 8C dilution, ie 100 to the minus 8, there was mathematically no more of the original substance present, conflicts arose within homeopathy at such great dilutions.  eventually however, the high dilution prescribers somewhat won out because it seems their clinical effectiveness was greater.  both schools however still exist in present day homeopathy.  eventually the dilution was pushed up to 30C, 200C, 1000C and beyond.  these are the most common dilutions used by classical homeopaths today.

in the last 25 years homeopathy has been having a renaissance.  mostly this is the result of the computer, which allows the retrieval and collation of data from homeopathic repertories and literature.  nearly every homeopathic case in clinical practice requires careful sifting and analysis of symptom data, that is so easily done by computer.  in the intervening years, before this renaissance, however, homeopathy did not die out.  a significant contributor toward its survival was that it took root in third world countries, most notably india, but also south america.  the affordability of homeopathic medicines and their ease of administration made them ideal in third world situations.   as inflation targets western economies and modern medicine begins to price itself out of existence, homeopathy will naturally step in as an alternative.


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