Today, Sixth Estate Will Be Open-Minded and Agree That Homeopaths Could Eliminate Influenza From the Entire Universe Using Oscillococcinum
Getting called a racist European missionary the last time I took on the smoke-and-mirrors world of alternative “medicine” stung personally, but it didn’t bother me nearly as much as the fact that some commenters seemed to think an appropriate counter-argument was simply to suggest that I was just being “close-minded,” or “narrow-minded,” and that if I could just learn to be accepting about things I didn’t understand, I’d realize that maybe these things just worked in different, alternative ways. And what bothered me the most was that this argument was applied by some people to homeopathy.
Now, I could — and did — attempt to present a rational argument as to why homeopathy is completely at odds with basic principles of science, and therefore should not — cannot, really — be true. The response is that science is just a matter of narrow-minded, corporate-influenced opinion, too.
Very well. Let me take another approach to it. Instead of showing people who believe in the religion of homeopathy why their faith is almost certainly misguided, I’m going to tell them what must be true if, as they believe, homeopathic remedies are truly effective. For the moment, then, I’m not even going to challenge whether or not homeopathy is true. I’m going to say: okay, it is. So, what follows from that?
Here, in a nutshell, is the theory behind homeopathic medicines. First, the important thing to understand about a disease is its symptoms. Instead of treating a disease by attacking its underlying cause (antibiotics for bacteria, vaccines for viruses, monoclonal antibodies for cancer, etc.), you match up the symptoms of the disease with a homeopathic remedy associated with those symptoms.
How does this matching occur? Based on what homeopathy calls the law of similars or like cures like: the idea that the best way to cure a disease is to give the body a toxin that causes the same symptoms as the disease. When the body sees a toxin that causes Symptom X, it will eliminate Symptom X in the body — not just the medication, but anything else that might be causing Symptom X too. Homeopathic research involves giving people a toxin and monitoring them to see how they react.
For instance, when you give people full-strength caffeine, they get alert and even jumpy. Therefore, homeopaths reason, caffeine can treat conditions that make people too awake and alert — in short, caffeine can cure insomnia. Caffeine which has undergone homeopathic preparation is called Coffea cruda, and it is prescribed to treat insomnia, among various other conditions.
This might strike you as contradictory — if caffeine makes you stay awake, how can it also help you fall asleep? — but homeopaths argue that when you take a toxin and dilute it in water, it has the opposite of its original effect. To make a homeopathic preparation, you take one part of toxin and mix it with ten parts pure water, or even 100 parts water. Then you take the resulting dilution, and mix it into another 10 or 100 parts of pure water. Every time you do this, the therapeutic (medical) effects get stronger. For this reason, homeopathic medicines are often extremely highly diluted. For instance, the flu remedy Oscillococcinum goes through 200 dilutions, one parts to 100 every time (the box says its strength is “200C”).
All of this is basic to homeopathy, and no professional homeopath could find anything disagreeable with what I’m saying. Now, I want to walk you through just one homeopathic remedy, Oscillococcinum. This is a flu remedy manufactured by Boiron, one of the most popular homeopathic remedies here in Canada, and apparently one of the most popular drugs of any kind in France. You may also find it under one of its “generic” labels, like Homeocoksinum. According to homeopaths, Oscillococcinum is an effective treatment for the flu.
Now, every year in France, Boiron slaughters one Muscovy duck and extracts its heart and liver. Because of the exceptionally high dilutions at which homeopathy works, one duck is more than enough to supply the entire year’s supply of Oscillococcinum. As a matter of fact, as I’m about to demonstrate, one single duck is powerful enough that, properly used, it could wipe out influenza all over the planet.
First, a sample of duck liver is taken and mixed into 1 L water, so that it contains 1% duck offal and 99% water. The end product is called a 1C homeopathic solution. Then you divide this mixture into 100 10-mL samples, and mix each of them with another litre of water. Now, you have 200 different solutions, each of them rated at a strength of 2C. Now you’ve divided by 100 twice, so a 2C homeopathic solution actually contains only 1/10,000th duck offal, and 9999/10,000ths pure water.
Then you do it again, four times, creating a 6C solution. Fully exploiting a duck liver to make a 6C solution, mathematically speaking, would require 1 trillion litres of pure water, plus, of course, 1 duck liver. Put another way, this is essentially equivalent to standing upstream of Niagara Falls, tossing a duck liver into the river once an hour, then scooping up a cupful of water downstream of the falls and thinking it will somehow cure your flu.
By this point, surely, Boiron has stopped using all of the mixture, and is simply throwing out all but the 1% that they’re going to use for the next step. That’s because every time you add a new step, the amount of water you require to make the new dilution goes up by a factor of 100. There isn’t enough fresh water available to keep doing this indefinitely. Instead, at some point, you just taking out 1% for the next step and dumping the other 99% down the drain. I’m going to continue here as though we didn’t do that, though, and actually tried to exploit that one original duck liver to its full therapeutic value. After all, like many fans of homeopathy, in this scenario I’m an environmentalist, and I don’t approve of wastage.
Now, perform five more stepwise dilutions, creating an 11C solution. At this point the healing power of our single duck liver can be evenly spread over 1 quadrillion gigalitres of water. At this point, mathematically speaking, what the homeopaths are doing is equivalent to tossing one duck liver into the ocean (around 1.3 billion cubic kilometres) and then saying you can cure your flu by going down to the beach and downing a mug of water.
At this point, it’s worth remembering what I said before: Boiron must throw out most of their “dilutions” before they get to the point of selling them. They must, because there’s not enough water on Earth to use it all. Let’s say, purely hypothetically, that every year Boiron dumps 1000 litres of unfinished Oscillococcinum down the drain, at an average of 3C-strength. That Oscillococcinum makes its way downriver to the ocean, where it mixes with the rest of the water to create an 11C solution. In other words, assuming Boiron dumps its unused spare water down the drain, the entire ocean is an Oscilloccinum solution.
Not to mention all sorts of other solutions. It is incredibly difficult to create “pure water.” What we mean by “pure” is actually water with all sorts of non-water atoms, so few in number that they are almost indetectable. But in an 11C solution, there are still many more atoms of “impurities” than there are of actual “medicine,” because we don’t have a filtering method powerful enough to separate out atoms at such exceptionally high dilutions. And some of these impurities are actually other homeopathic medicines — for instance, iron is Ferrum Metallicum, which treats headaches and rheumatism. So in your 11C Oscillococcinum solution, there is probably much more Ferrum Metallicum than there is Oscillococcinum.
Now, perform one more stepwise dilution. This is the most important one for chemists; if any happen to be reading this, they may notice that we’ve crossed past the magic number of 6.02 x 10^23. This number is known as Avogadro’s limit. Because of how atoms and solutions work, this is the point at which it becomes statistically unlikely that a single atom of the original sample is present in one sample of the final solution, of equal volume. At this point, then, the average homeopathic dose becomes completely chemically indistinguishable from a placebo (a similar preparation, absent the active ingredient).
But that’s just 12C; we have a long way to go to get to “high-strength” drugs like Oscillococcinum. Perform two more homeopathic dilutions, making your Oscillococcinum 10,000 times more dilute. At this point, you have a 14C solution, which is equivalent to throwing the duck liver into a flask of water the size of the Earth. Now do it three more times, to create a 17C solution, which is equivalent to tossing the duck liver into a volume of water the size of the Sun. At this point, stirring in the duck liver obviously starts to become a logistical problem.
But we’re not done yet! To make Oscillococcinum, homeopaths proceed through another 183 dilutions. By that point, I’m not sure even a bowl the size of the universe would be large enough to hold the duck liver and all of the required water necessary to prepare a full solution. By that point, there would be more than enough Oscillococcinum to cure every single person and alien in the universe of the flu a million times over, although there wouldn’t be anybody left, because there’d be no space left over outside of the massive bowl of Oscilloccinum.
And all that from one French duck, no less. One incredible, wonderful, magical duck. At this point it’s worth asking why, if homeopathy is true, any diseases exist at all.
I rather suspect that what I’ve said here isn’t going to be much more immediately persuasive than anything I said before. Most people believe in homeopathy, much like they believe in religion, either because it’s something they’ve been taught to accept since childhood, or because they had a positive experience with it which overrides rationality (so that any “reasoning” they use to defend it is merely rationalizing after the fact). Still, I hope if you do embrace homeopathy, you’ll take my words seriously and at least reflect on them.Tweet