One of the most popular forms of alternative medicine, and one of the least plausible, according to skeptics, who generally attribute its results to placebo effects and consider it a poor substitute for medical care. Skeptics insist that, not only is homeopathy contrary to our knowledge of physics, chemistry, and biology, but it has never produced results which cannot be accounted for by the placebo effect.

Developed by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician.

Interestingly, there are a few lonely scientists who do believe in Homeopathy as Science. Not as medicine, but based on real scientific principles. The distinction may seem subtle, but it's important. There are many 'alternative' therapies that are not based on (western?) science (herbal medicines, acupuncture, crystal healing) yet can have a noticable effect. Whether this is a placebo effect or a real one is unimportant - if you get better, it's a useful technique.

All well and good - but not scientific, surely. Well, at least two physicists (what do they know? :-) believe in the 'memory of water' principle. The two main homeopathic rules are:

  1. Like cures like.
  2. Infinite dilution.
This second principle involves diluting the medicine so many times that (effectively) there is practically zero possibility of any molecules remaining in the solution. A drop of this 'mother liquor' is then added to a bottle of sugar pills and the bottle shaken to distribute the drop around the pills. The liquid medicine is also shaken (or 'potentiated') during the dilution process, at each stage.

Now this all sounds rather silly to me; not so Brian Josephson (who invented the 'josephson junction'). He is convinced that the structure of the drug is recorded in the shape of the water left behind. A sort of 3D footprint. This sort of meshes with ideas on clathrates and solvent shells which form around molecules in solution. However, these structures depend on the molecule and would surely collapse when it is diluted out.

A Parisian researcher tried to replicate the effect in the lab, with apparent sucess. Last time I heard, he was claiming to be able to email molecules...

No one seems to have noded the reasons why homeopathy makes no sense to thinking people.

Homeopathy involves adding some "active ingredient" that is supposed to cure a problem. The idea is that if too much of a substance causes a problem, then a little of it will cure the problem. But the homeopathic part is that they dilute the heck out of it. They dilute it a lot. To the point where some elementary high school chemistry will tell you there isn't even one molecule of whatever was being diluted left in the solution.

The believers would tell you that the water "remembers" the presence of the stuff, so that the water itself is the active agent. This explanation arose after people figured out chemistry enough to figure out that homeopathy made no sense.

If you take their explanation of water "memory", you all out there are drinking water with "memory" of my urine that has been diluted several quadrillion-fold over the last couple of years. And I'm sure my urine is no good for curing anything.

The Parisian Researcher mentioned in the above node is Jacques Beneviste. His research in homeopathy was once published in Nature, a serious scientific journal, mainly to get his claims in print so people could refute it. He is widely considered a crank.

Homeopathy: An Alternative Medicine

Homeopathy is a system of medicine whose name is derived from Greek roots meaning "similar suffering". The principles of homeopathy are that like cures like; that only one medicine should be given at a time; that the medicine must be potentized - extremely diluted - and given in the smallest possible dose; and that remedies must have been "proven" on healthy people. Homeopathic medicine works quite differently from modern western medicine or allopathy. Allopathy aims to manage isolated symptoms of physical illness, while homeopathy aims to stimulate the whole body to heal itself. Allopathy blocks symptoms, while homeopathy aids the body's immune system, giving it something it recognizes and allowing the immune system to work naturally to reduce symptoms.

Homeopathic remedies should be prescribed by a homeopath or naturopath who has been trained in homeopathy, preferably in a country which has a national body which regulates homeopathic education. A diagnosis will take into account much more than just physical symptoms: the homeopath takes a detailed case study which involves the patient being examined and listened to while they explain in detail their symptoms, thoughts and feelings and the history which has led up to the present consultation. The homeopath will then analyze the whole picture and compare the symptoms to the compendium of known remedies, the materia medica. The practitioner's aim is to find a single remedy which best covers the patient's expressed symptoms - mental, emotional and physical. The dosage and length of time of treatment will vary according to the condition for which help is being sought.

The prescribed homeopathic remedies are drugs produced by homeopathic pharmacies from substances derived from plants, minerals, and animals. These substances are subject to a process called potentization, which dilutes them till only miniscule traces of the original ingredient remains. To treat a particular set of symptoms, the practitioner chooses a medicine consisting of a substance which, if given in large doses to a healthy person, would cause symptoms similar to those being experienced by the patient. Homeopathic medicines are usually taken in the form of small sugar globules which should not be touched by the hands, instead being dissolved under the tongue; they may also be taken in a tincture. Homeopathic remedies, because they deliver such tiny quantities of substances, have no side effects and are not addictive.

While the idea that like cures like might make some intuitive sense, the principle of potentizing - diluting till almost none of the original substance remains - often incites ridicule, and as the writeup below describes, is incompatible with western chemical principles. Thus people charge that homeopathic remedies are merely placebos, and that any healing that occurs happens only because people believe that it will. Homeopaths "prove" their methods by practitioners taking a remedy and documenting the results, which is not "scientific" in the western sense. Nevertheless, homeopathy has achieved positive results on many patients, as well as on children and animals who lack the faith of adults. I myself have had some rather dramatic successes with homeopathy, prescribed by a skilled naturopath. If you're wondering if homeopathy might be for you, consider that it can't hurt you, so if you're struggling with a condition that allopathic medicine can't cure, you might try it. After all, a harmless placebo which is potentially effective is better than an ineffective medicine with potential side effects.

The Founder of Homeopathy

Samuel Christian Frederic Hahnemann (1755 - 1843) was a formidable Renaissance man, son of a poor German porcelain painter who was able to gain an excellent pre-medical education through scholarships earned by virtue of his brilliance. Then he began to study for a medical degree in Liepzig, supporting himself by teaching French and German and translating treatises on medicine, botany, and chemistry. (Hahnemann spoke seven languages fluently, including English, Latin, and Italian.) He graduated in 1779 and practiced medicine for a time, but eventually gave it up, declaring that his patients were as likely to thrive or perish on their own as with his help. He would return to the practice of medicine many times over the next few decades, only to give it up in dissatisfaction with the treatments available at the time and the difficulty of extracting payment from his patients. Settling in Dresden, he supported himself and his growing family with writing and chemistry; he published a celebrated treatise on arsenic poisoning and one on the treatment of syphilis with a preparation of mercury which still bears his name (Hahnemaniann soluble mercury).

Soon Hahnemann began to gain notoriety. He publicly denounced the practice of bloodletting after Emperor Leopold of Austria died unexpectedly in 1792 after having been bled four times in 24 hours for fever and abdominal distension. He began to espouse a healthy lifestyle, giving up smoking and advocating a diet low in meat. Around this time he began to experiment with substances on himself, discovering, for example, that cinchona bark, from which the antimalarial quinine is made, could induce in him the same symptoms that it would cure in a sick person. Around this time too he opened the first asylum for mental patients which aimed to cure, not imprison, the insane, and in this endeavour he had some success. Still poverty-stricken, he travelled from village to village, selling medicines of his own manufacture, to the ire of local pharmacists who resented him taking their trade. He caused a sensation in 1800 by dealing with a scarlet fever epidemic by dispensing potentized belladonna. In 1810 he published his seminal work, Organon of the Healing Art, which laid the foundations of homeopathy. In 1813 he treated an outbreak of typhus using his principles, but was forced out of Leipzig by pharmacists who were outraged at him encroaching on their privileges; he settled in Köthen, where he worked on a theory of miasm and chronic disease, and had another success in treating a virulent cholera epidemic with camphor, cuprum and veratrum.

In 1835, when Hahnemann was 80 and five years widowed, a young Parisian travelled to meet and consult with him; she swept him off his feet, and he moved with her to Paris. Here he perfected his techniques, compiling the sixth revision of Organon. Hahnemann was a brilliant man, for besides his development of an entire system of medicine and his proving of about a hundred remedies, he wrote 70 original works on chemistry and medicine and translated 24 works into German from other languages.

See also Samuel Hahnemann.

A mathematical explainantion why homeopathy is incompatible with our understanding of chemistry

Central to homeopathy is the concept that a substance becomes better at healing the more dilute it is. Homeopathy uses the notation Dn to describe dilutions, where one part of the substance is diluted in nine parts distilled water, n times.

Central to chemistry is the concept of the atom, the molecule, and the mole. Atoms are the smallest things that interact in chemical reactions. Atoms are composed of smaller particles, but their interaction is the realm of physics. Atoms bond to each other to form molecules, groups of atoms with definite chemical properties. When atoms change their groupings to form different molecules, a chemical reaction is said to have taken place. A mole is a precise number of molecules - avagadro's number. It is approximately equal to 6x10^23 .

If we consider homeopathic dilution to D25 (one of the lowest dilutions commonly used in homeopathy) of a mole of a substance that (for simplicity's sake) has the same number of molecules per litre as water does1. Before the first dilution (D0), there are 6x10^23 (600,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) molecules of the substance, and no molecules of water. We add 9 moles of water, mix well, and throw away 9 moles of the mixture. There are now (assuming the mixture was well mixed) 6x10^22 molecules of the substance to 5.4x10^23 molecules of water. We have thrown away an amount of the substance equal to the amount of water that is present, and are left with a D1 solution.

After ten dilutions (D10), we have 6x10^13 molecules of substance, and 5.9999999994x10^23 molecules of water.

Problems arise when we try to make a D24 solution. Our D22 solution had (approximately)60 molecules of substance in it. We added nine moles of water, mixed well, and threw away nine parts of the mixture. This leaves us with a D23 solution with only six molecules in it. Now we try to make a D24 solution: we add 9 moles of water, mix well, and tip out 9 moles of the mixture. There's a 10% chance that each of the 6 molecules of substance will be in our 1 mole of solution, rather than tipped down the drain. The odds of us having no molecules at all of our substance are 90%^62, or 53%.

There's some complicated maths involved in calculating the probability of having no molecules left if we dilute again from D24 to D25, as we can't say with much certainty how many molecules we're starting off with. Let's instead consider what would happen if we dilute straight from D23 to D25. We take our D23 solution (6 molecules of substance), and add 99 moles of water, mix well, and throw away 99 moles of the mixture. Each molecule of substance now has a 1% chance that it will be in the 1 mole of solution, rather than the 99 moles we threw away. The odds of us having no molecules at all of our substance are 99%^6, or 94%. At D30, the odds of us having no molecules at all are 99.99994%, at D35 99.9999999994%

Every time the solution is diluted past D23, the odds of there being any molecules at all of the substance decrease by a factor of ten. At D30, you're more likely to win the lottery than find a molecule of active ingredient, at D37 you're more likely to win the lottery twice in consecutive weeks. And yet we see homeopathic remedies with dilutions of D50 and over.

If homeopathic remedies do have an effect (something I don't presume to prove one way or the other), then it means that either our understanding of the behaviour (or even existence) of atoms is fundamentally wrong, that dilution works differently to how we'd expect, or that water has some previously unknown property that's causing pills made from sugar and pure water to heal people.

1 - For it to have any effect on the calculation, we would have to be wrong by at least a 10 times. For the pedants and chemists amongst us, let's assume we're doing this at standard temperature and pressure.

2 - See probability for why this is the case.

"Homeopath" may sound like a cool new portmanteau to describe gay serial killers, but homeopathy is actually a very old and widely disproven form of alternative medicine. Don't feel too disappointed about the lack of serial killing; encouraging people to shun medicine that works in favour of alternative medicine that doesn't can occasionally result in the patient dying of a disease which is curable, or at least treatable, such as asthma, food poisoning and even fatigue. It's also a great example of what can happen if you try to develop a system to solve a problem (in this case, ill health) without using logic or science. There are two main ideas to homeopathy, both of which are completely wrong.

The first is that "like cures like." Homeopathy teaches that if one thing has a certain effect on you, and another thing has a similar effect on you, then you can use one of these things to cure the other. For example, say that staying up all night makes you tired, and that listening to your aunt's tales of her childhood also makes you tired. Someone with this faulty sense of logic might jump to the hasty conclusion that listening to a little bit of one of your aunt's tales might make you immune from feeling tired after staying up all night.

Obviously, it doesn't work that way. Just because two things might have similar properties or cause similar effects doesn't make them interchangeable or interlinked in any way. The closest this line of reasoning comes to the truth is that it's superficially similar to a vaccination, which actually does consist of a weakened, inactivated or dead pathogen that would otherwise make you ill. In the case of the vaccination, however, it works because it's a safe way of giving you exactly the same thing that makes you ill, not something a bit like it. This allows your body to produce antibodies that learn how to fight off the disease injected into you because, after billions of years of evolution, you've developed a totally awesome immune system.

The second completely wrong main idea of homeopathy is that watering something down more makes it more potent. Again, this may look superficially similar to a vaccination, but the watering down goes even further than that. The dose of the unrelated item that causes vaguely similar symptoms to your own is watered down so much that there would only be one drop of the substance in all the water on Earth, the Sun, Venus, and all the empty space between them, if all that space were nothing but a big ocean of pure water. This is, of course, impossible. "Stronger" (actually weaker) doses have only one drop of the substance in question in amongst more water than there is tangible stuff in the entire universe. These doses were, naturally, dreamed up before we knew what a molecule was, and before we knew how many there are in the universe.

As you may have noticed while idly forgetting to take some real medicine, taking less of it does not make its effects more pronounced.

Advocates of homeopathy claim it works and that scientists have either ignored it, or proved it works, or want to keep it hush-hush and so on. There have been hundreds of experiments performed on homeopathy, and all the carefully executed ones show that its effect is the same as a placebo. So although it can cure anything that any other placebo can cure (such as depression and gastric ulcers), it's clearly not the homeopathy itself doing it, but the placebo effect. The placebo effect is a fascinating thing, and I'd recommend reading about it just because it's so counter intuitive. However, it doesn't make homeopathy any better than eating sugar pills.

On the subject of sugar, it's worth noting that some homeopaths don't even directly give patients the water that used to have something in it that causes similar symptoms to their own. Instead, they pour the water over sugar, wait for the sugar to dry out, then give them that. No wonder homeopathic treatments fare no better than sugar pills -- they are sugar pills.

Naturally, some people feel like homeopathy, along with any other alternative medicine, has worked well for them in the past. This is sometimes caused by the placebo effect, but sometimes it's simply a case that they were going to get better then anyway. Most ailments only last a few days, and no matter what you do in that time, you can easily convince yourself that the thing you did caused the symptoms to disappear. Only with large groups of people, half doing the same thing as you, and half not, can we weed out the background noise of coincidence and observe whether the thing being done differently has actually caused the symptoms to disappear or not. This is exactly what a scientific experiment does, and as previously mentioned, all carefully performed scientific experiments have proved homeopathy not to work.


Ho*me*op"a*thy (?), n. [Gr. likeness of condition or feeling; like (fr. same; cf. Same) + to suffer: cf. F. hom'eopathie. See Pathos.] Med.

The art of curing, founded on resemblances; the theory and its practice that disease is cured (tuto, cito, et jucunde) by remedies which produce on a healthy person effects similar to the symptoms of the complaint under which the patient suffers, the remedies being usually administered in minute doses. This system was founded by Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, and is opposed to allopathy, or heteropathy.

[Written also homepathy.]


© Webster 1913.

Ho`me*o*path"ic, a., Ho`me*op"a*thist, n., Ho`me*op"a*thy, n.

Same as Homeopathic, Homeopathist, Homeopathy.


© Webster 1913.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.