The new British minister of health has recently become the target of scorn and mockery, after a science writer with The Telegraph noted that he supports homeopathy, a branch of alternative medicine most health experts view as quackery. But just how quackish is it?…
The form of alternative medicine known as Homeopathy was developed by a German physician around the turn of the 19th century. For two and a half centuries, it has sustained a solid following: According to the National Center for Homeopathy, over 100 million people worldwide use homeopathic medicine. There are—according to the Center’s website—eighteen homeopathic doctors within a ten-mile radius of Popular Science’s office in New York. Could it be that the practice of homeopathy is simply untested and unfairly stigmatized, or is it truly implausible?
To answer that question, let’s first set aside some of the more philosophical/hypothetical principles of homeopathy. Let’s ignore, for example, the homeopathic notion that illness is caused by a disturbance in an individual’s “vital force” rather than something external, like a bacterium or virus. Let’s focus instead on what matters most: whether or not the medicine makes people better. Homeopaths do, after all, use medicines, often in the familiar form of tablets and pills.
Those medicines are formulated according to a number of what we may loosely call “laws.” The first of those laws states that “like cures like” — an agent that causes certain symptoms in a healthy person will cure anybody suffering from those same symptoms. The theory behind why the law works is pretty mystical in nature, but the basic idea is central to mainstream medicine: most vaccines consist of at least part of the thing they’re meant to vaccinate against.
Another thing homeopathy has in common with Western medicine is its strict attention to how treatments are dosed. All homeopathic remedies are available in a huge range of concentrations. But there’s a big difference: those concentrations are really small. In homeopathy, less is more, so homeopaths think of a large dose as a high dilution, instead of a high concentration.
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