Robert Todd Carroll
Homeopathyis a system of medical treatment based on the use of minute quantities of remedies that in massive doses produce effects similar to those of the disease being treated. The term is derived from two Greek words: homeo (similar) and pathos (suffering). The 19th century German physician, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), is considered the father of homeopathy, allegedly being inspired to the notion that like cures like from the treatment of malaria with cinchona bark. The bark contains quinine, which helps in the treatment of malaria but also causes fevers. Advocates of homeopathy think that concoctions with as little as one molecule per million can stimulate the "body's healing mechanism." Critics maintain that such minute doses are unlikely to have any significant effect on the body.
Homeopathy is very popular in Europe, especially among the Royal Family of Britain. It is also very popular in India, where there are more than 100 schools of homeopathy.
Homeopaths tend to believe in such things as "vital forces" being in harmony (health) or out of harmony (disease). And they tend to advocate holistic medicine, treating "vital forces," "spirits," "minds", etc., as well as the body. Homeopaths like to say that they treat "persons" not "bodies" or "diseases."
One criticism of homeopathy is that it takes the "cookie cutter" approach to treatment: one-size-fits-all. No matter what ails you, treatment with a diluted like agent is the cure. Experience teaches otherwise. For example, the treatment for scurvy is not more scurvy but vitamin C; the treatment for diabetes is not sugar, but insulin. There seem to be countless examples one could come up which would contraindicate homeopathy as a reasonable approach to the treatment of disease. Thus, simply because it is sometimes reasonable to treat like with like (e.g., polio vaccines), it does not follow that it is always reasonable to treat like with like. It is misleading, however, to compare the use of vaccines in medicine to homeopathic remedies; for, medical vaccines would be ineffective if they were as diluted as homeopathic remedies.
One of the stranger tenets of homeopathy, proposed by Dr. Hahnemann himself, is that the potency of a remedy increases as the drug becomes more and more dilute. Some drugs are diluted so many times that they don't contain any molecules of the substance that was initially diluted, yet homeopaths claim that these are their most potent medications! It is not surprising to find that there is no explanation as to how this happens or is even possible, though some homeopaths have speculated that the water used to dilute a remedy has a "memory" of the initial substance.
Homeopathic advocates give ardent testimonials to the curative powers of their remedies. How can so many case histories be dismissed? Easily: the "cures" are probably the result of (a) misdiagnosis (the patient wasn't cured since the disease it "cured" wasn't present); (b) spontaneous remission (the body healed itself) or (c) the placebo effect. The many testimonials given as proof that homeopathy "works" are of little value as empirical evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathic remedies. Even so, such "cures" are not meaningless. Left alone, the body often heals itself. And, unlike traditional medicine with its powerful drugs and antibiotics, the likelihood of an adverse reaction to a homeopathic remedy is remote. The main harm from homeopathy is not likely to come from its remedies, which are probably safe but ineffective. One potential danger is in the encouragement to self-diagnosis and treatment. Another is not getting proper treatment by a traditional medical doctor in those cases where the patient could be helped by such treatment, such as for a bladder or yeast infection, or for cancer.
In short, the main benefits of homeopathy seem to be that its remedies are not likely to cause harm in themselves, and they are generally inexpensive. The main drawbacks seem to be that its remedies are most likely inert and they require acceptance of metaphysical baggage incapable of scientific analysis. Homeopathy "works", just as astrology, biorhythms, chiropractic or traditional medicine, for that matter, "work": i.e., it has its satisfied customers. Homeopathy does not work, however, in the sense of explaining pathologies or their cures in a way which not only conforms with known facts but which promises to lead us to a greater understanding of the nature of health and disease.
Homeopathy is said to be $200 million a year industry in the United States. Donald Driscoll, an attorney in Northern California, and Dr. Wallace Sampson, a cancer doctor, want to reduce that amount to zero. They are suing the manufacturers and distributors of homeopathic remedies, claiming the homeopathic products are being pushed in violation of a California consumer law against unfair business practices and false advertising ["Homeopathic remedies besieged by lawsuits," by Tom Philp, Sacramento Bee, Dec. 16, 1996]. If Driscoll and Sampson win, they will do in one year what science and logical argumentation could not accomplish in 200 years: wipe out a pseudoscience. Frankly, I don't approve. If people want to buy and drink lemonade which some aquatic entrepreneur has called a tonic that can cure warts, boils and cancer, let them. As long as their products aren't dangerous in themselves, and the government isn't using tax dollars to subsidize the fiasco, then let the buyer beware and let the lawyers be quiet.
See related entries on alternative medicine.
Barrett, Stephen and William T. Jarvis. eds. The Health Robbers: A Close Look at Quackery in America, (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1993). $28.95
Barrett, Stephen and Kurt Butler (eds.) A Consumers Guide to Alternative Medicine : A Close Look at Homeopathy, Acupuncture, Faith-Healing, and Other Unconventional Treatments; edited by (Buffalo, N.Y. : Prometheus Books, 1992). $15.96
Barrett, Stephen. "Homeopathy: Is It Medicine?," in The Hundredth Monkey and Other Paradigms of the Paranormal - A Skeptical Inquirer Collection, ed. Kendrick Frazier (Buffalo, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1991), pp. 271-277.
Raso, Jack. "Alternative" Healthcare: A Comprehensive Guide (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 1994). $19.57
David Reilly, Morag A Taylor, Neil G M Beattie, Jim H Campbell, Charles McSharry, Tom C Aitchison, Roger Carter, Robin D Stevenson. "Is Evidence for Homeopathy Reproducible?" The Lancet, Vol 344 . December 10, 1994 . Pages 1601-1606.
Robert Todd Carroll
|Last updated 11/13/98|