Believe in the impossible and defy science if you think homeopathy works


Question all you are asked to believe in and make sure you have a skeptical attitude before using homeopathy, says Paul O'Donoghue

'I can't believe that!" said Alice.

"Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath and shut your eyes."

Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

"I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

When considering homeopathy, I often feel like Alice in the above scene. Maybe I just haven't practised enough, but I find many of the claims made by homeopaths to be bordering on the impossible. Let's take a look at some of the things we are asked to believe about homeopathy.

Homeopaths claim that a substance that has been diluted in water to such an extent that not a molecule is left, results in a solution that is highly potent. Chemists tell us just the opposite. According to science, the more of the substance that is present, the more potent it is. No molecules means no effect! Yet, many people believe the homeopath.

You may well ask, how come the very dilute homeopathic solution is so potent and can defy the laws of chemistry. Well, to arrive at this conclusion, all you need do is accept another impossible belief. The homeopath "potentises" the solution by shaking it vigorously in a very special way called "succussion".

According to homeopathy, this causes the water to perform some truly magical feats. It remembers the particular substance that had been dissolved in it. It forgets all other substances that had ever been dissolved in it. It has the remedial properties of the original substance, but it forgets any possible side effects associated with it. Homeopathic remedies are perfectly safe in that they will cause you no direct harm.

The last sentence is the only truly accurate one. It is true, not because of the magic of succussion, but because homeopathic remedies contain nothing whatever except water! Homeopathy has accurately been termed the "no medicine medicine". Sometimes homeopathic products are sold in tablet form, in which case a drop of homeopathic solution is placed on a sugar pill.

Because there is no evidence of efficacy for these products and there is no active ingredient in them, their boxes and bottles provide no specific list of contents and no statement as to what ailments particular products are used for. To do so would constitute a medical claim and is therefore prohibited.

Given the above, can homeopathy harm you in any way? The answer is an unequivocal yes. It can harm you indirectly. If you have a significant illness or a harmful organic condition and you try to treat this with homeopathic products alone, you may place yourself in great danger. Extreme cases have been reported in recent times in which patients have died due to failure to seek appropriate medical help or they stop taking appropriate mainstream medication while being treated with homeopathic products.

Another potentially harmful practice in homeopathy is the provision of "nosodes" or homeopathic vaccines. These are diluted to such a degree that they do not work. They have been provided to vaccinate against MMR and meningitis and have been administered to people travelling abroad.

Parents who have been frightened by the erroneous association between MMR vaccination and autism might be tempted to go the homeopathic route. This could prove very costly in terms of their child's health. People who receive only homeopathic vaccines are not, in fact, vaccinated.

A report in the British Medical Journal in 2002 found that 40 per cent of a sample of homeopaths surveyed advised against MMR immunisation. Only 3 per cent advised in favour. The British Faculty of Medical Homeopathy advises that with regard to vaccination, patients should follow the conventional route.

The position of the Irish Association of Homeopaths as stated on April 18th last in the Irish Medical News is that parents should decide and that the society would support them in whatever decision they might make. Parents can only decide when properly informed. The evidence is clear. Homeopathic vaccines do not work. The position of the Irish Society of Homeopaths is untenable.

In order that society as a whole be protected against diseases such as measles, mumps and rubella it is necessary that the uptake of vaccination be above 90 per cent. In the UK uptake has dropped significantly below this and in Ireland current uptake is just 83 per cent.

Believing in the impossible can be fun, as in fairy stories, science fiction movies and so on. However, when it comes to health and wellbeing such beliefs may have tragic consequences. It is important to think critically and to question what you are asked to believe by all who are involved in the provision of healthcare. I would argue that such an attitude of skepticism is even more important in the area of alternative medicine where, at present, it seems most absent.

Paul O'Donoghue is a clinical psychologist and founder member of The Irish Skeptics Society.