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Homeopathy Schmomeopathy

Homeopathy is not a natural or herbal remedy: it’s a magical idea with no possible basis in reality

updated (first published 2012)ARCHIVEDArchived pages are rarely or never updated. Most featured articles on PainScience.com are updated regularly over the years, but not archived pages.
by Paul Ingraham, Vancouver, Canadabio
I am a science writer and a former Registered Massage Therapist with a decade of experience treating tough pain cases. I was the Assistant Editor of ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I’ve written hundreds of articles and several books, and I’m known for readable but heavily referenced analysis, with a touch of sass. I am a runner and ultimate player. • more about memore about PainScience.com

SUMMARY

Homeopathy is a 200-year-old medical philosophy that has been thoroughly debunked, and survives today thanks to wishful thinking, ignorance, and because it is too useless to be very dangerous. It is the flagship in the alternative medicine fleet: the most profitable, absurd, and snakey of all snake oils.

Most people have no idea just how strange homeopathy is. The deal-breaker for many consumers is the discovery that it’s not just an “herbal” or “natural” remedy, but a “magical” one, based on a principle that reeks of flaky physics and old-timey snake oil flamboyance—much farther out in left field than herbs. Some people, of course, are quite happy citing quantum physics to explain alternative medicine, but you really have to be a card-carrying new age sort to go there. For most people, that crosses a line.

But they have to find out first! Fortunately, doctors, scientists and skeptics are unanimously and harshly critical of homeopathy, and have published many good quality critical reviews. For instance, see my own article about homeopathic arnica — the most popular of all homeopathic products, intended to treat inflammatory pain.

full article 1500 words

Homeopathy is a 200-year-old medical philosophy that has been thoroughly debunked. It survives today thanks only to wishful thinking, ignorance, marketing, and because it is too useless to be all that dangerous.1 Unless it’s being sold by corrupt profiteers with no regulation and product contamination is common, contributing substantially to a 50% rise in supplement-related calls to poison centers from 2005 to 2012.2 That would be dangerous.

It is the flagship in the alternative medicine fleet: the most profitable, absurd, and snakey of all the major snake oils. Selling homeopathic remedies is unethical, and buying it is foolish. It’s legitimacy is on par with faith healing and psychic surgery.

This is not a detailed and referenced review of homeopathy — there are plenty of other pages for that. This page exists to emphasize one key point, what I believe is the most important thing people need know…

Homeopathy is much more bizarre than most people realize

Most people have no idea just how strange homeopathy is. They accept it — or don’t reject it — because they assume it’s herbal medicine.

The deal-breaker for many consumers is the discovery that it’s not an “herbal” or “natural” remedy, but rather a “magical” one. It’s based on a principle that reeks of flaky physics and old-timey snake oil flamboyance: the idea that a substance can convert water into a kind of medicine through a process of exotically extreme dilution. Most homeopathic remedies have literally no active ingredient, or in such low concentrations that you could drink a swimming pool of it and only get a few molecules. Most homeopathic remedies have literally no active ingredient, or in such low concentrations that you could drink a swimming pool of it and only get a few molecules.

And then there’s the ingredients they choose to dilute. Most are deliberately counter-intuitive: you use something that, in normal concentrations, would cause the symptoms you want to treat. Many examples don’t make any sense in those terms, and many more are completely fantastical: homeopathic volcano? Dinosaur? And bubonic plague, black hole, plutonium, and so on. I’m not joking. The things homeopaths have supposedly turned into medicines is truly stranger than fiction, and their explanations are as pseudoscientific as it gets.3

None of it works, of course,45 and the principles of homeopathy are completely at odds with centuries of chemistry and physics. Some people, of course, are quite happy with vague references to quantum physics to explain alternative medicine, but you really have to be a card-carrying new age sort to go there. For most people, that crosses a line — it’s just too far out in left field.

But they have to find out first! And many people never do.

Fortunately, doctors, scientists and skeptics are unanimously and harshly critical of homeopathy, and have published many good quality critical reviews. For instance, see my own article about homeopathic arnica — the most popular of all homeopathic products, intended to treat inflammatory pain.

Darryl Cunningham’s entertaining illustrated tour of homeopathy.

The FTC finally goes after homeopathy

In November 2016, the American Federal Trade Commission issued a statement promising to (finally) hold homeopathy products to the same efficacy and safety standards as other products.6 For historical and political reasons, the FTC has always failed to protect consumers in this way, and the policy change is welcome but long overdue.

“I love to see a regulatory agency actually do its job,” writes Dr. Steven Novella, a prominent critic of homeopathy. “In essence, the net effect of the labeling on the product cannot be misleading to the consumer. I think this is giving some wiggle room for homeopathic manufacturers to try their best to mislead their potential customers, but this is probably the best the FTC can do within its mandate. The new FTC policy only really works if the public has a basic level of scientific literacy. That is a much longer struggle.”


About Paul Ingraham

Headshot of Paul Ingraham, short hair, neat beard, suit jacket.

I am a science writer, former massage therapist, and I was the assistant editor at ScienceBasedMedicine.org for several years. I have had my share of injuries and pain challenges as a runner and ultimate player. My wife and I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada. See my full bio and qualifications, or my blog, Writerly. You might run into me on Facebook or Twitter.

Related Reading

What’s new in this article?

JulyAdded reference about contamination of homeopathic products.

2016Additions: a very substantial related reading section, and a new section about the FTC’s new crackdown on homeopathy products.

Notes

  1. Although useless medicine is never completely harmless, because it greatly increases the chance of delaying correct diagnosis and treatment. See Quackery Red Flags and Missing Serious Symptoms. BACK TO TEXT
  2. Rao N, Spiller HA, Hodges NL, et al. An Increase in Dietary Supplement Exposures Reported to US Poison Control Centers. J Med Toxicol. 2017 Jul. PubMed #28741126. BACK TO TEXT
  3. There’s a classic typical example: the Werner video, in which a daft homeopath earnestly makes a case for homeopathy on the basis of a string of appalling misunderstandings of physics. If you know nothing about physics, trust me … neither does she. Dr. Steven Novella writes:

    Werner may be more clumsy and fumbling than more eloquent homeopathy proponents, but when you strip it down, magical vibrations is what you get. But Werner does a fabulous job of exposing the gaping holes is homeopathic nonsense.

    BACK TO TEXT
  4. Not even according to the most alt-med friendly institution there has ever been:

    Most analyses of the research on homeopathy have concluded that there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition.

    Homeopathy: An Introduction, National Center for Complementary Medicine (NCCAM.nih.gov)

    BACK TO TEXT
  5. Ernst E. A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology. 2002 Dec;54(6):577–82. PubMed #12492603. PainSci #55777.

    This review attempted to look at the studies that are available about the efficacy of homeopathic remedies.

    Seventeen articles were studied and assessed.

    Looking at all of these articles, “there was no condition which responds convincingly better to homeopathic treatment than to placebo or other control interventions. Similarly, there was no homeopathic remedy that was demonstrated to yield clinical effects that are convincingly different from placebo.“

    The author concluded: “The best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.”

    BACK TO TEXT
  6. FTC.gov [Internet]. United States of America, Federal Trade Commission. Enforcement Policy Statement on Marketing Claims for OTC Homeopathic Drugs; 2015 Nov [cited 16 Nov 19]. BACK TO TEXT