6 x 10^23 is about Homeopathy: Overdosing on nothing

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AT 10.23 am on 30 January, more than 300 activists in the UK, Canada, Australia and the US will take part in a mass homeopathic "overdose". Sceptics will publicly swallow an entire bottle of homeopathic pills to demonstrate to the public that homeopathic remedies, the product of a scientifically unfounded 18th-century ritual, are simply sugar pills.

Many of the sceptics will swallow 84 pills of arsenicum album, a homeopathic remedy based on arsenic which is used to treat a range of symptoms, including food poisoning and insomnia.

The aim of the "10:23" campaign, led by the Merseyside Skeptics Society, based in Liverpool, UK, is to raise public awareness of just exactly what homeopathy is, and to put pressure on the UK's leading pharmacist, Boots, to remove the remedies from sale.

The campaign is called 10:23 in honour of the Avogadro constant (approximately 6 × 1023, the number of atoms or molecules in one mole of a substance), of which more later.

That such a protest is even necessary in 2010 is remarkable, but somehow the homeopathic industry has not only survived into the 21st century, but prospered. In the UK alone more than £40 million is spent annually on homeopathic treatments, with £4 million of this being sucked from the National Health Service budget. Yet the basis for homeopathy defies the laws of physics, and high-quality clinical trials have never been able to demonstrate that it works beyond the placebo effect.

The discipline is based on three "laws"; the law of similars, the law of infinitesimals and the law of succussion. The law of similars states that something which causes your symptoms will cure your symptoms, so that, for example, as caffeine keeps you awake, it can also be a cure for insomnia. Of course, that makes little sense, since drinking caffeine, well, keeps you awake.

Next is the law of infinitesimals, which claims that diluting a substance makes it more potent. Homeopaths start by diluting one volume of their remedy - arsenic oxide, in the case of arsenicum album - in 99 volumes of distilled water or alcohol to create a "centesimal". They then dilute one volume of the centesimal in 99 volumes of water or alcohol, and so on, up to 30 times. Application of Avogadro's constant tells you that a dose of such a "30C" recipe is vanishingly unlikely to contain even a single molecule of the active ingredient.

The third pillar of homeopathy is the law of succussion. This states - and I'm not making this up - that by tapping the liquid in a special way during the dilution process, a memory of the active ingredient is somehow imprinted on it. This explains how water is able to carry a memory of arsenic oxide, but apparently not of the contents of your local sewer network.

The final preparation is generally dropped onto a sugar pill which the patient swallows.

Homeopaths claim that the application of these three laws results in a remedy that, even though it contains not a single molecule of the original ingredient, somehow carries an "energy signature" of it that nobody can measure or detect.

Unsurprisingly, when tested under rigorous scientific conditions, in randomised, controlled and double-blind trials, homeopathic remedies have consistently been shown to be no better than a placebo. Of course, the placebo effect is quite powerful, but it's a bit like justifying building a car without any wheels on the basis that you can still enjoy the comfy leather seats and play with the gear shift.

Even some retailers who sell the treatments have admitted there is no evidence that they work. In November, Paul Bennett, the superintendent pharmacist at Boots, appeared before the UK parliament's Commons Science and Technology Committee's "evidence check" on homeopathy. He was questioned by Member of Parliament Phil Willis, who asked: "Do they work beyond the placebo effect?"

"I have no evidence before me to suggest that they are efficacious," Bennett replied. He defended Boots's decision to sell homeopathic remedies on the grounds of consumer choice. "A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious, but they are licensed medicinal products and, therefore, we believe it is right to make them available," he said.

You might agree. You might also argue that homeopathy is harmless: if people want to part with their money for sugar pills and nobody is breaking the law, why not let them? To some extent that's true - there's only so much damage you can do with sugar pills short of feeding them to a diabetic or dropping a large crate of them on someone's head.

However, we believe there is a risk in perpetuating the notion that homeopathy is equivalent to modern medicine. People may delay seeking appropriate treatment for themselves or their children.

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Have your say
Comments 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5

Placebo Power

Thu Jan 28 00:21:25 GMT 2010 by James137

re: "a risk in perpetuating the notion that homeopathy is equivalent to modern medicine."

Many modern medicines and medical procedures don't work any better than placebos in clinical trials but may have serious side effects.

More effective placebos may be the safest medicine to offer when medical practitioners are using a trial and error approach - which is all too frequently the case in practice.

Placebo Power

Thu Jan 28 19:37:28 GMT 2010 by phayes

If you know of specific examples of such serious medical malpractices, James137, you should report them to the appropriate authorities

Placebo Power

Fri Jan 29 16:44:08 GMT 2010 by woundedduck

Trials of many anti-depressants show their effects are no better than placebo. James137 could report it to the FDA, but they're the ones who approved the drugs in the first place

Placebo Power

Fri Jan 29 17:38:55 GMT 2010 by phayes

Our knowledge of certain anti-depressants has been updated recently, yes, and if FDA advice and medical practice didn't - if necessary - alter accordingly, then a complaint would be justified

Placebo Power

Sat Jan 30 03:52:04 GMT 2010 by Think Again

Homeopaths dont view doze as the physical amount of the medication. To them the correct doze could be any amount of the sugar pills as long as its taken at a single time.

So purely scientifically, these people should take several different homeopathic medications and see what happens. Just eating more of the stuff does not address the hypothesis.

Also they could take higher potencies (more dilute).

They could also take different meds that are supposed to conflict or react badly.

So the skeptics have not designed a valid experiment in this case.

Placebo Power

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Placebo Power

Fri Jan 29 15:17:30 GMT 2010 by Sam Cook

You'll find that they do work better than the placebo as that's what they're measured against. They may not work for everyone but they work better than a sugar pill.

And you can't have a more effective placebo.

Placebo Power

Sat Jan 30 00:06:29 GMT 2010 by Conrad

A lot of FDA approved treatments have serious side effects. If the first rule of medicine is "first of all do no harm," the ineffective treatments with negative side effects are not medicine, they are assaults. Of course someone makes a lot of money from these assaults.

Homeopathy Is Grass-root Psychiatry- Pills Are Incidental

Thu Jan 28 00:37:39 GMT 2010 by Bhupat Rawal

Homeopathic healing is a two-step process. First,the patient discloses personality traits and the symptoms to the homeopath- like revealing it all to a psychiatrist. Homeopath is trained to be a good listener- like a psychiatrist. Pouring out what's on one's mind is indeed, healing through stress relief so the body could heal itself. Second, is getting the pills.On the basis of our current knowledge of what these pills are, it is reasonable to credit the Homeopathic pioneers with unwittingly discovering the placebos as therapeutic tools, especially in a era when psychiatry was in its infancy. In a purist sense and on the basis of contemporary knowledge, Homeopathy could be renamed as- Placebopathy. But, would that not deter believers from consulting a Homeopath? The billion dollar market proves the value of such consultations- the pills, as placebos,appear to be incidental but essential component of the therapy.

Homeopathy Is Grass-root Psychiatry- Pills Are Incidental

Thu Jan 28 11:32:41 GMT 2010 by David B.

So a canny homoeopath could undercut his or her competition by using untreated sugarpills and ordinary water in place of the carefully prepared dilutions? I wonder what the BHA would say about that?

Homeopathy Is Grass-root Psychiatry- Pills Are Incidental

Fri Jan 29 18:40:53 GMT 2010 by Chris

But most Homeopaths would claim their medicines, as part of their treatment, is actually do something. This is dishonest behaviour and has no place in medicine. Everybody has a right to know that their pills are no more effective than taking a sugar pill. Yes the placebo effect has merit as a treatment methodology where efficacious medication is not available or appropriate - let's investigate how to deliver this. Yes a treatment regime that includes being listened to and counselled is a worthy aim and no doubt promotes healing and well-being. But packaging those worthy and proven therapies into a profession built on lies and fooling the patient (and often the practitioner themselves) into believing they will get better is pernicious and misleading. Well-meaning people will inflict needless harm on themselves on others where proven efficacious treatments are available. This is why we need to pull publicity stunts to get this issue the attention it deserves. Please, let the debate include the aforementioned useful therapeutic strategies that homeopathy exploits to convince the uninitiated that they offer any more than these. Please let us learn about and exploit the placebo effect to good effect, and the value of listening to and counselling the patient, but no more lies - we know better now.

Homeopathy Is Grass-root Psychiatry- Pills Are Incidental

Fri Jan 29 21:38:08 GMT 2010 by stoffer

Well, but this lie is very important to achieving the placebo effect. Placebo effect works only if we do not know that it is a placebo. What cures us is our mind tricked into thinking that the body is getting medication. The false belief cures us. It sounds strange, but well, world is strange. Think of general relativity and quantum physics. To any "sane" person not exposed to them before, both quantum phyiscs and general realtivity are really bizarre. That is what world really is - bizzare.

Coming back to homeopathy - I am against banning homeopathy, but I am also agains funding it from national health care system.

Quantum Entanglement

Thu Jan 28 07:54:43 GMT 2010 by Amudhan

I know this sounds crazy, but has anyone ever checked whether the molecules of say, arsenic oxide or caffeine, are somehow getting entangled with the water molecules on a quantum level?

Just saying.

Quantum Entanglement

Thu Jan 28 23:56:53 GMT 2010 by Jimbo

...and entangled along with the thousands of other substances that also contaminate the diluent and are held in its memory, but which the remedy magically knows to ignore?

Quantum Entanglement

Fri Jan 29 17:02:28 GMT 2010 by Technobabble is bad

What does 'getting entangled with the water molecules on a quantum level' mean and how would you examine this in a lab?

No, I don't know either.

Quantum Entanglement

Fri Jan 29 18:59:59 GMT 2010 by Twozero

Amudhan, I don't think you fully understand the concept of entanglement

Quantum Entanglement

Fri Jan 29 23:45:30 GMT 2010 by Liza

Who does?

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