Words used by skeptics and many physical scientists in describing homeopathy have always included terms such as quackery; the latest addition to this set is:“witch-craft.” Any success obtained in the clinical practice of homeopathy has been either dismissed or explained away in reference to the placebo effect.
From a theoretical viewpoint, the most severe objection to homeopathy rests on the argument that the homeopathic solutions are so diluted that not even a single drug molecule may be present in it. Since we will have much occasion to use the term, let’s give it a short-form: ANBO (Avogadro’s Number-Based Objections).
There are two distinct processes involved in homeopathy: (i) conducting the provings, and (ii) selection and application of a suitable remedy. Obviously, the ANBO applies in both the cases.
As an aside, observe that all the randomized double-blind tests to which physical scientists/allopaths/skeptics refer, are always been conducted in the context of application but not of provings. Further, the method of application considers as standard, and therefore mimics, the kind of specifics which are rather suited to administering allopathic medicines. Thus, these tests have a certain built-in bias in favor of the allopathic paradigm, not for the homeopathic one. We shall examine such issues in somewhat more detail later on.
For the time being, let us first briefly state the purpose of this series of posts.
The purpose of these posts is not polemical but explanatory. I wish to put forth a hypothesis (more like a broad, qualitative schematic for a hypothetical mechanism) which I think is capable of explaining the efficacy of the homeopathic action.
A couple of comments concerning the nature of assumptions behind any hypothesis that claims to explain efficacy of homeopathy, are in order.
First, any subjective effects such as those arising due to psychic abilities, hypnosis, telepathy etc. are assumed to be absent. These effects may exist, but it is assumed that in a properly designed and conducted randomized double-blind test, the differences arising in the control- and test-group would be similar in magnitude, and hence their effects would cancel each other out in an overall and statistical sense. Also included in this group is the placebo effect. For the aforementioned reason of mutual cancellation, we shall no longer concern ourselves with this set of factors. Thus, we shall not henceforth concern ourselves with the placebo effect either.
Second, it is assumed that homeopathy is efficacious, namely, that it produces a certain “real” effect, i.e. one that exists over and above the placebo effect. It is obvious that if this premise itself is wrong, then any implications drawn using it would also be wrong. The last can in principle be caught during empirical testing. Here, or the sake of advancing the argument, we shall assume that homeopathy does have efficacy.
What the Hypothesis Must Be Able to Explain:
Now, if homeopathy is assumed to be efficacious, what are the most troublesome implications?
Naturally, the first and foremost answer is: ANBO. To explain homeopathy, we have to be able to tell at least a broad nature of the mechanism which is both plausible and not in contradiction with any part of the rest of our knowledge. We should not only be able to explain why water or alcohol retains a certain kind of “memory,” but we should also be able to put forth a good argument as to why a direct evidence of the same is so hard to obtain.
Apart from the ANBO, there are several other considerations which we list below. The list is given in a roughly decreasing order of importance.
As the second most important implication, we have to be able to explain the curious feature called the principle of “the like cures the like.” This principle seems to be completely at odds with our common sense concerning the physical world as well as the paradigm followed in allopathy.
Thirdly, we should be able to tell how the same hypothetical mechanism works at both the stages: provings and clinical administration.
Fourthly, we must be able to explain why homeopathy does not always seem to work in clinical practice—why there is this “hit or miss” character to it, why finding the suitable remedy almost always involves the trial and error.
Fifthly, we also must be able to explain why homeopathic drugs often do not produce any observable effect on a “third person.” Anecdotes have been put forth of people popping in someone else’s homeopathic drug and yet not getting affected in any way at all. In a way, this is, potentially, a very serious issue. If an allopathic drug is found to be efficacious, we also immediately recognize the potential danger that goes with it. We attach great importance to its proper administration. Why shouldn’t the same considerations apply also to homeopathic remedies if they too are efficacious?
The answers provided by homeopathic practitioners in this regard are not at all satisfactory. Certain very dangerous ideas such as ascribing consciousness to the homeopathic remedies also have been put forth. As mentioned earlier we reject this particular idea out of hand. Further, even if we do admit the plausibility of ideas such as psychic abilities etc., for the reason of mutual cancellations mentioned earlier, we consider them not to be present. Consequently, our hypothesis will have to be capable of explaining also this curious set of observations pertaining the “no side-effects” feature of the homeopathic drugs.
Sixthly, we should be able to offer a solution to a certain objection which is best described as “homeopathy in nature” or what I call “the stream-effected homeopathy.” The objection is something like this. If homeopathic effect is real, then it must occur anytime there is succussion and dilution. Water flowing through natural streams/rivers (and even the municipal pipes and taps) always is in contact with the materials that are potentially (or actually) homeopathic remedies. If so, why doesn’t the river-water (or the tap-water) get homeopathically potentiated?
Finally, we should be able to provide at least plausible explanations for certain other curious aspects of homeopathy: why alcohol? why glass bottles? why potentiation in a certain way? why the desirability of the single dose? why are coffee and wine antidotes to homeopathy but not tea and beer? Many of these things look whimsical, don’t they? Could our hypothesis accommodate at least schematics of explanations?
What We Shall Cover Next:
We shall not try to address all the details of all the issues raised by the above questions. What we shall do is provide a sketchy outline of the nature of the answers involved. Indeed, most—if not all—of the answers have already been provided by other people; some of these sources are noted below.
Overall, what we propose to do here is to give a pop-science kind of account as to why homeopathy might work. In doing so, undoubtedly, some new ideas or ways of looking at things would also get mentioned. If I find that I am stating an essentially new idea (as contrasted with a more coordinated description of something that has already been said) then I will be sure to say so. If you too find some idea here to be truly new, please drop me a line so that I could think of writing a more serious account of the same later on.
There is a lot of skeptical material too, but I am not going to specifically suggest any, not at least today. On the other hand, if you find me mentioning a new critical point, do let me know of the same too.
My plan is to first finish writing this series of blog posts and then edit and convert them into a PDF article. The next post will follow after a few days, definitely within a week or so.
In the meanwhile, do go through a few references suggested below, most of them, in favor of homeopathy. Comments are welcome!
Links to my earlier posts on this topic:
A comment on homeopathy [^]
Bellavite, P. (2003) “Complexity science and homeopathy: a synthetic overview,” Homeopathy: The Journal of the Faculty of Homeopathy, vol. 92, no. 4, pp. 203–212. doi:10.1016/j.homp.2003.08.002
Hutchinson, Sarah Lyn (2008) “The memory of water: a critical analysis of the science behind a homeopathic theory,” An independent research project dated 25 April 2008, Toronto, Canada:Toronto School of Homeopathic Medicine
Bellavite, Paolo and Signorini, Andrea (2002) “The Emerging Science of Homeopathy: Complexity, Biodynamics, and Nanopharmacology (rev. ed.),” trans. by Anthony Steele. Berkeley, CA:North Atlantic Books
Chaplin, Martin (2010) Web site: “Water Structure and Science,” maintained at the South Bank University, London. URL: http://www1.lsbu.ac.uk/water
Benveniste, Jacques: Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacques_Benveniste. Also see the Web site in French: http://www.jacques-benveniste.org/ and another Wiki article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_memory
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