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Why Homeopathy is Stupid and Dangerous

July 13, 2010 2 comments

There are a lot of quacks out there. People will do, say or sell anything for a buck. And unfortunately, the field of “medical therapies” has long been victim to such quackery.

Homeopathy is one of the more prolific of these pseudosciences. It operates on a principle that by diluting a remedy in water, you can make it more effective. In fact, homeopaths claim that the remedy gets more effective in smaller concentrations. This is what homeopaths call the “Law of Infinitesmals”.

Now common sense should already be telling you that this is bogus. But lets do some history, and then science will blast apart homeopathy.

From xkcd

In the late 1700s a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843) developed the underlying theories of homeopathy. He believed that symptoms of disease could be cured by administering small amounts of substances that would cause the same symptoms in healthy people. This is called the “Law of Similars”. He further believed that chronic diseases were caused by the presence of evil miasmas or spirits in the body.

Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843)

So, homeopaths have a text called the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia. Within, you will find over a thousand homeopathic “remedies”. Which remedy, and in what concentration, to use on a certain patient is evidently at the discretion of the practitioner. Basically this means you could see two different homeopaths and receive two different treatments for the same illness. Hmmm…..

To show you how dumb this stuff is, consider the following:

A “remedy” called Oscillococcinum is prepared by diluting freeze dried duck heart and liver. The dilution is supposed to be what homeopaths call 200C, which means the concentration is 1 part in 100200

For the non-scientific, this number is a 1 followed by 400 zeros. That this small concentration could have any effect at all is mind boggling.

In fact, the laws of chemistry state that there is a limit to how far one can dilute a solution (about 1 part in 10012, which is far greater than that of Oscillococcinum). Hahnenmann was aware of this, but proposed that by vigorously shaking the solution the water will retain a kind of “memory” or “essence” of the active ingredient. Thus, even if none of the active ingredient remains in the water, the water will somehow “remember” it was there and give the same effect.

Homeopathy has never been shown to do anything greater than a placebo effect. There are many studies and reviews looking at the scientific evidence. One such review noted that:

Homeopathy has been the subject of at least 12 scientific reviews, including meta-analytic studies, published since the mid-1980s….[And] the findings are remarkably consistent:….homeopathic “remedies” are not effective.

In addition, at a meeting of the British Medical Association’s junior doctors in May 2010, Dr. Tom Dolphin, deputy chairman, said:

Homeopathy is witchcraft. It is a disgrace that nestling between the National Hospital for Neurology and Great Ormond Street there is a National Hospital for Homeopathy which is paid for by the [National Health Service]. (emphasis mine)

In should be noted that there has been a small smattering of studies suggesting a statistically significant effect of homeopathy over a placebo. However, these studies have never been shown to be reproducible and are heavily criticized for their poor scientific methodologies. Homeopathy proponents will tout these studies proudly; but a simple bit of research, or even just reading the papers will show the weaknesses in any of these studies.

So why do people continue to believe in this stuff? Well there are a couple of reasons.

The first is that when Hahnemann began developing homeopathy, treatments such as bloodletting were ubiquitous. Bloodletting, if you didn’t already know, is extremely dangerous and ineffective as a medical treatment.

So when someone arrived on the scene offering medical “remedies” which don’t involve opening people’s veins, and sometimes even make the patient feel better (the placebo effect) it garnered a lot of attention.

Secondly, the placebo effect can be significant. And word of mouth is a powerful force. So when one person says they feel better after seeing a homeopath, people start to listen. In fact, studies have shown that people are more likely to listen to a friend than read the scientific evidence.

This is dangerous.

Touting the placebo effect as a medical treatment is wrong and terrible. It causes people to choose pseudoscientific treatments over science-based medical treatment, which can lead to disastrous results and even death.

Furthermore, it leads to unscientific thinking. Once we start believing in homeopathy, whats next? Faith healing? Aliens listening to our thoughts? Its a very slippery slope and it needs to be stopped.

Thirdly, some insurance companies cover homeopathic treatments and some governments cover it in their public health plan. So we are all footing the bill in our insurance premiums or taxes for a therapy that simply does not work.

So my final words? Homeopathy sucks. It doesn’t work. It steals money from sick people who believe they are being treated for their illness. It takes advantage on the hopes of sick people to make a profit, and it is disgusting.

The Myth of Acupuncture

June 4, 2010 Leave a comment

Acupuncture has been around for a long time, most say around 4000 years. It evolved in China and has since become quite prolific in Eastern and Western culture.

Western medicine has been quite skeptical as to the efficacy of acupuncture, however. And with good reason. The scientific evidence does not support the improvement of conditions treated with acupuncture.

More accurately, no study has conclusively shown that acupuncture provides any added benefit other than the placebo effect. In fact, “sham” acupuncture, in which needles are placed at random places in the body, has been shown to be just as effective as “real” acupuncture. Hell, even just jabbing someone with a toothpick has demonstrated the same effect.

Traditional acupuncture is supposed to work by manipulating the body’s energy, the Qi (pronounced ‘Chi’). The Qi flows through the body in pathways known as “meridians”. When the energy flows are out of balance, this causes pain. By placing needles in the body at certain places in the body, the energy flow through the meridians can be corrected, and cure people of chronic pain.

This is a crock. You can’t blame people in 2000 B.C. for thinking that acupuncture would work this way, since they didn’t know any better. But people, this is 2000 A.D., and we know how the body works. And it doesn’t work this way.

But is it possible that this ancient explanation is wrong, but acupuncture could still work somehow?

Well this has been debated for a long time now. As I said above, evidence does not support the traditional practice of acupuncture, and most Western doctors are skeptical.

But there may be something more going on. When the body experiences pain, it releases pain fighting chemicals, such as endorphins. The same thing happens when we eat spicy food, and this is why we like it so much. The body feels the pain on the tongue and responds with a pleasurable release of endorphins.

It is conceivable that something similar could be happening during acupuncture treatments. But, is this truly “Acupuncture”? Does it really matter where you stick the needle? The current scientific evidence points to either just a placebo effect, or the same process occurring in both sham and real acupuncture treatments. Therefore, either nothing at all is happening, or it just doesn’t matter where you stick the needle or what type of pain stimulus you use. The effect is the same.

You may have heard about a recent study published in Nature. It seems that a neuromodulator called adenosine was released in mice when they received “acupuncture”. In this study, the scientists placed needles near the knee of mice in which pain was earlier induced in the foot. It seems that twisting the needles released the adenosine, causing a reduction of the pain in the mouse foot.

There are a few problems with the way this study has been reported. It is not acupuncture. They stuck the needles in the mice, and twisted them. The traditional practice of acupuncture has nothing to do with this study. Yet, the paper itself, and the way Nature is reporting it on their website, is that it is directly related to acupuncture, which is not the case. I find it disturbing that a prestigious, perhaps THE most prestigious journal in the world, would report the study this way. It complete and utter pandering.

The media touted this study as evidence that acupuncture works. But does it really? Does acupuncture have absolutely anything to do with mice? Certainly not in the traditional form of acupuncture involving the treatment of Qi.

My opinion is that acupuncture has nothing at all to do with this study. The pain stimulus could have been anything. Just because they used needles does not make it acupuncture, and certainly is not evidence that acupuncture works in humans.

At best, this study demonstrates a new method of controlling pain in the body in response to a stimulus. Which is interesting, but certainly not any sort of definitive proof that acupuncture in its true form, actually works.

Be careful with what the headlines you read, and even what the article states. It does not take an advanced science degree to note that what happens in mice, may not necessarily translate to humans. Particularly, when it comes to a 4000 year old supposed pain remedy designed specifically for humans.