On Homeopathy

I got a reader who said he/she had been a skeptic of homeopathy, but was convinced by this article that it worked.

I normally don’t respond to stuff like this, but this person seemed to be on the fence, so I hoped to make a difference. My response ended up being enormous, so I thought I might post here as an article for anyone to read. Enjoy!

First, this is argument from authority. And you should consider that even if you accept Montagnier’s authority, he is not an authority on chemistry. And, even if you accepted him as an authority on chemistry, you’d have to ignore all the other Nobel laureates who think homeopathy is hogwash. Additionally, consider that many Nobel laureates have said crazy shit! Linus Pauling, a great man, spent the latter part of his life advocating vitamin c megadoses, which do nothing substantial for your health.

Second, the fact that homeopathy was popular in the 19th century proves nothing. It’s argument from popularity. Here’s a list of theories that have been popular and wrong: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obsolete_scientific_theory

Third, there is conspiracy theory logic in here – skeptics spread misinformation to protect the medical establishment? By the same logic, you could claim phrenology was true, and only covered up by a covetous neurology community who stand to make financial gain.

4th, homeopathy doesn’t even make logical sense. If water has a memory of past interactions, whenever you drink water from a river, you should get a dose of all sorts of memory effects. You don’t.

5th, as many have demonstrated, taking a megadose of homeopathic sleeping pills produces no effect.

6th, many of the journals cited, such as “Human and Experimental Toxicology” are extremely low ranking journals. This doesn’t prove them wrong, but the fact that they are peer reviewed doesn’t make them right. Indeed, if you believe that being reported in a journal proves something true, homeopathy is definitely wrong.

7th, this article claims that a single journal issue could “verify the power of homeopathic doses of various substances.” No medical journal of repute would ever make such a strong claim without a massive massive study. Medical science is extremely difficult – even among respected journals, many experiments are very hard to reproduce, and almost none make it past phase II.

8th, there are clearly shenanigans in presentation here. For example, consider this sentence: “Researchers have demonstrated by Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), electron diffraction and chemical analysis by Inductively Coupled Plasma-Atomic Emission Spectroscopy (ICP-AES), the presence of physical entities in these extreme dilutions. (24)”

Sounds pretty fancy, right? That is, until you see that (24) is cited from a journal called “Homeopathy.” If I cited a journal in this response titled “Homeopathy is bullshit” would you say that’s an unbiased source?

This is plain and simple nonsense. I don’t usually take this much time to reply to reader emails, but this stuff matters. Against homeopathy, you have a mountain of evidence saying homeopathy not only doesn’t work, but can’t work. In favor of homeopathy, you have a few odd citations in low level journals combined with argument from authority and unreasonable sentences like “further evidence for homeopathy resides in the fact that they gained widespread popularity in the U.S. and Europe during the 19th century.”


Please, please do not fall for it.




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16 Responses to On Homeopathy

  1. Pieter Bos says:

    I think it’s really nice to put it in such a decent way. Nicely done.

  2. weezmgk says:

    Thorough & concise, Zach. You’ve put a lot more effort into addressing an prima facie nonsense than I would have. Well done.

  3. rone says:

    Reading Dana Ullman is just asking for a repetitive facepalm injury.

  4. Excellent. I would have not argued half as well.

    But I would probably have added the basic questions to be applied whenever you read something, anywhere, which claims to be true:

    1) Who is saying this? Who, if anyone, is paying them to say it?
    2) If I believe them, what do they have to gain by this?

    • ZachWeiner says:

      I don’t usually like to argue that way, in that “cui prodest?” is not an argument, and is often employed as such by conspiracy theorists.

      • Shadow Firebird says:

        Fair point. It’s not so much an argument against, as it is good advice.

        We’re wired to be bad at judging whether to trust written sources; the “who is that is saying this and why” thing is just a basic objective checklist that everyone should use, I think.

  5. namesRhard says:

    The problem with homeopathy is, the more evidence your surmount against it, the stronger it becomes!

  6. Telanis says:

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on the “water memory” argument, Zach. I remember hearing that the memory effect was on the order of nanoseconds, but that article implies it’s longer; I would assume the famous scientists, at least, wouldn’t support it unless it was longer. It’s also extremely unclear what the mechanism of action would be — water in a special shape still can’t stand in for various medicines, and if it did, what’s the advantage over actually just taking the normal medicine?

  7. Douglas says:

    Dawkins did a special on Homeopathy and new age religion. Apparently a 30C homeopathic remedy contains 1 : 1 x 10^30 (medicine : water), or roughly 1 molecule of “medicine” for every other molecule in the solar system.

    All Hail Lord Dawkins!

  8. LukasB says:

    Thank you, kind sir.

    It is important that people like you, who know enough to argue well, do exactly that.
    I know a lot of people who know very well why homeopathy and other pseudoscientific stuff is simply not worth considering, but are much too annoyed by the mere topics (or the people who support them without even thinking about it or knowing better) that they don’t wan’t to or can’t explain why they’re wrong in a descent, respectful way.

    So… thanks a lot.
    Sutff like this matters.

  9. Dave says:

    Don’t know if you’ve looked at the Wikipedia site for Montagnier, but apparently he’s not actually that enamoured with homeopathy anyway:

    When asked by Canada’s CBC Marketplace program if his work was indeed a theoretical basis for homeopathy as homeopaths had claimed, Montagnier replied that one “cannot extrapolate it to the products used in homeopathy”.

  10. Jane says:

    I used to feel the same way until I observed many instances of homeopathy working pretty amazing things in my son.

    Also vitamin C does a great deal. I no longer have pretty severe hay fever (twice year since puberty) because of it.

    This book is excellent.

    • Scutterman says:

      I’ve recently been told that hey fever goes in 7-year cycles. Having had pretty severe hay fever since 2005, I’m finding this year I’m not so affected by it as I usually am at this time of year. Correlation doesn’t imply Causation, and there are often external factors.
      Also, I’m sure you can find plenty of evidence for placebo effects – the positive attitude generated by believing something is working will often help the body. That’s why double blind studies are so important when it comes to medicine.

  11. Joshua Buergel says:

    I don’t have time to look at all the references in the article for trials that show positive benefits for homeopathy, but I took a look at the first reference (stated as: Linde L, Clausius N, Ramirez G, et al., “Are the Clinical Effects of Homoeopathy Placebo Effects? A Meta-analysis of Placebo-Controlled Trials,” Lancet, September 20, 1997, 350:834-843.) That seems to be here:


    This seems to be the most widely cited article that I’ve seen, and the conclusion is “The results of our meta-analysis are not compatible with the hypothesis that the clinical effects of homoeopathy are completely due to placebo. However, we found insufficient evidence from these studies that homoeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition. Further research on homoeopathy is warranted provided it is rigorous and systematic.” However, later correspondence from the Lancet says: (according to http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(08)60448-1/fulltext): “Most notably the same researchers, working on the same set of 89 trials4 in 1999 concluded that their own reanalysis “weakened the findings of our original meta-analysis… it seems, therefore, likely that our meta-analysis at least overestimated the effects of homeopathic treatments.”

    The closer you look at any of this evidence, the sparser it gets.

  12. Adis Hamzić says:

    Every time someone mentions homeopathy, I am reminded of a beat poem by Tim Minchin called Storm. In the poem he says:

    “Take physics and bin it, water has memory
    And while its memory of a long lost drop of onion seems infinite
    It somehow forgets all the poop it’s had in it.”

    Always makes me chuckle. Here’s a video with an animated version of the poem. A must watch: Tim Minchin’s Storm the Animated Movie.

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