Healthy scepticism is good, dogmatic scepticism prevents scientific progress
This page responds to the criticisms of homeopathy made on the Sense About Science website. These criticisms are not valid, and it is unfortunate that a website presenting itself as scientific and sensible can be so unscientific, and so insensible of its subject. The website is criticising nothing but its own mistaken understanding of homeopathy, not homeopathy itself. The same applies to the Nightingale Collaboration website. (Some parts of the account of homeopathy given on that website are exactly the same.)
Like Cures Like The first inaccurancy on the site’s homeopathy page is this, in the second paragraph; "First homeopaths choose a substance that causes the same symptoms as the disease they want to treat."
There is a mishmash of misinformation hiding inside that short sentence. It reveals a lack of understanding of the difference between conventional medicine and homeopathy. The first thing you have to do to understand homeopathy is step outside conventional medicine into a different landscape. That sentence gives a distorted version of homeopathy by viewing it through conventional spectacles. Untangling it will disarm the criticism as well as describe a central feature of homeopathy.
The problem lies in implying that the disease causes the symptoms. In homeopathy it is the patient, or rather the patient’s whole system, that produces the symptoms. This distinction is crucial to understanding homeopathy and how it differs from orthodox medicine. Potentisation and the law of similarity are well known but misunderstood features of homeopathy. This principle of treating the patient not the disease is less well known but equally important, and equally misunderstood.This initial misunderstanding leads the website into further misrepresentations later.
For anyone who is uncomfortable with the terms orthodox or conventional medicine there is an alternative terminology: homeopaths call orthodox medicine allopathy [from the Greek word allos, meaning different] because it treats with opposites – it gives a medicine that causes symptoms opposite to those caused by the disease.) The conventional view is that the disease produces the symptoms, in homeopathy it is the patient. The patient produces the symptoms in reaction to the "disease". Homeopaths treat the patient, allopaths treat the disease. Homeopaths read the signs and symptoms and diagnose the type of patient they are treating, allopaths diagnose the type of disease. In homeopathy the patient has the power to get better. In orthodox medicine the disease has the power to make you worse. In homeopathic prescribing the patient is more important than the disease, in orthodox prescribing the disease is more important than the patient. It is a mistake is to assume that homeopaths treat diseases directly. Homeopaths treat patients and, in response to the treatment the patient’s whole system heals the disease. Allopaths treat diseases and bypass the patient, because they believe that the disease is separate from the patient.
So the “substance” that homeopaths “choose” doesn’t cause the same symptoms as the disease. It causes, when tested on healthy people, the same symptoms as the whole organism of the patient produces in its attempts to heal itself. The sentence should read: "Homeopaths prescribe a medicine that can cause a set of symptoms similar to the patient’s symptoms." This is a crucial difference - the inaccurate version says the disease is the source of the symptoms. Homeopaths say the patient's defence system is the source of the symptoms, and the defence system's reaction is assisted by the similar medicine.
The same mistake is made in the next paragraph: "The principle of like cures like holds that only the symptoms of the disease and treatment need to match…" Once again the disease is being confused with the patient: really it is the symptoms of the patient, not the disease, that need to match the symptoms that the remedy can produce. Here is a description of this principle of homeopathy - the importance of directing the treatment to the patient not to the disease: Homeopathic remedies treat the patient, not the disease - or, to be more accurate they treat the whole system, the whole organism, not the disease directly. The whole organism then responds to the remedy, and in the process heals the disease.
The Sense About Science misunderstanding of homeopathy continues in the next sentence: "This is not a theory that fits with how the body works…" If the distinction between patient and illness is made, this is a theory which fits exactly with how the body works. The whole organism can be assisted to respond to the illness by giving a remedy that matches the symptoms of the patient (not the disease!). This is how like cures like - the similar medicine stimulates the responses of the organism, enabling it respond to the disease. Living organisms are always trying to keep themselves healthy, and they usually succeed. When they cannot maintain health, a state of inner dis-ease begins. This is not the same as the conventional disease, but is a dysfunction of the whole system which makes diagnosable disease possible. When the organism reacts to the similar medicine it also reacts to its own state of dis-ease. The similarity of the remedy provides exactly the right stimulus to activate the healing powers of the organism. If this conception of disease as a condition of an organism is properly understood, the logic of homeopathy begins to become clear. Ultimately the problem is not the disease itself but the organism's inability to heal it! This shift in emphasis makes the homeopathic law of similarity - like cures like – easier to understand. The medicine stimulates healing because of its similarity to the patient’s attempts at self -healing.
There is very little overlap between homeopathy and vaccination, but thinking of vaccinations can sometimes help to give a crude insight into how homeopathy works.
Minimum Dose (Potentisation) The next paragraph on the website is an incomplete description of potentisation, so we soon run into trouble again - in the following paragraph: "If water had [a memory] it would also remember the other substances that have been diluted into it over time, such as human and animal waste." A full description of potentisation reveals that homeopathic remedies are diluted and shaken in a special way in a sealed container. No doubt human and animal waste go through some interesting processes in sewerage works, but they are not potentised as homeopathic remedies are. "…It would remember the test tube in which the homeopathic preparation was made." No the water would not, simply because the test tube is not being diluted in the water it contains. The water is in the test tube, the test tube is not in the water! When analysed properly the Sense About Science attack on homeopathy collapses in disarray.
Evidence There are just two big invalid criticisms left to deal with now - first the question of evidence. "Over 150 clinical trials have failed to show that homeopathy works." This sentence is significant for what it does not say. It does not say that over 150 trials have shown that homeopathy does not work! It merely says they failed to show that it does – and even that statement is wrong. It appears to say that all 150, or perhaps the majority of them, failed to show that homeopathy works? That is simply not so. The truth is that out of 188 research papers, 82 (44%) were positive, 10 (5%) negative and 89 (47%) non-conclusive (www.facultyofhomeopathy.org). That sentence from Sense About Science is not accurate and appears to be deliberately misleading. The truth is that over 80 trials have shown that homeopathy does work
The next offending statement is this: "A recent Lancet paper…found…no evidence that homeopathic preparations work." Again this is incorrect. Commenting on the same study, the Faculty of Homeopathy website states; "In 2005, Shang et al. published a meta-analysis comparing 110 placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy and 110 matched trials of conventional medicine. Homeopathy and conventional medicine showed a similar positive treatment effect overall."
So there is evidence that homeopathy works, and this evidence shows it works as well as orthodox medicine. The Sense About Science website's assessment of the evidence on homeopathy is wrong.
The Placebo Problem And now finally the accusation that homeopathy is no better than placebo, which is made at length in the rest of the website's page on homeopathy. A rebuttal of this accusation comes from the Faculty of Homeopathy website: “A meta-analysis published in The Lancet in 1997 included 186 placebo-controlled studies of homeopathy. The main conclusion was that the results “were not compatible with the hypothesis that the effects of homoeopathy are completely due to placebo”.
Homeopathy is winning the scientific argument.
Evidence And Explanation The evidence in favour of homeopathy is good, despite statements to the contrary by Sense About Science and others. These statements are not supported by actual examination of the evidence. The Swiss government recently did one of the most extensive studies of homeopathy ever undertaken and concluded that homeopathy is both effective and cost-effective. For example it found that some patients having homeopathic treatment are six times less likely to be hospitalized. Also modern science is providing an explanation of how homeopathy works. The process of dilution and shaking called potentisation is being explained by emerging research on the properties of water. This research show that water does have a memory. Nobel prize winner Professor Luc Montagnier says “High dilutions of something are not nothing.”
Science is changing, and homeopathy is becoming scientific. The truth is that homeopathy is becoming accepted, but there are some people who are not happy about this.
Conclusion At first sight homeopathy seems bizarre and implausible, and it is difficult to explain because it involves a different understanding of what health and disease are. Careful study reveals a tantalising logic and a coherent and effective system of medicine. Homeopathy was created by experimentation, not from theory. The theory is still catching up with the practice, but the practice of homeopathy is rigorously scientific in its method. Sense About Science and The Nightingale Collaboration do not present an accurate description of homeopathy and their criticisms are not valid. They are misrepresenting homeopathy to the public.