‘Here lies one whose name is writ in water’: why I am not a homeopath

001 Unconformity

I must start with a few disclaimers. Firstly I am not setting out to change anyone’s cherished views; people have a perfect right to believe what they wish to believe, especially in the area of faith. Secondly I do not doubt the reality of the so-called placebo effect. In my time as a physician I witnessed patients seeming to benefit from the most improbable forms of healing, and sometimes solely from the personality of the healer. Finally I would not wish to claim that homeopathy is harmful, unless people receiving it delay diagnosis and effective conventional treatment. This would almost certainly not happen if the homeopathic practitioner consulted also had received conventional medical training. In this piece I want to explain why I personally find it impossible to consider homeopathy as a science-based form of therapy even though some conventionally trained doctors, and several rather major royals, evidently feel quite otherwise.

As recently as the eighteenth century alchemists thought that the changing, or transmutation, of a base metal like lead into a precious one like gold was a realistic possibility. There was some justification for their belief: could you not extract silver from lead ore or gold from gold amalgam? Today our knowledge of atomic structure indicates that to change elements requires altering the number of protons in the atomic nucleus. To effect such a change requires energies unobtainable from chemical reactions. The alchemists could never have achieved their goal by such means and any supposed evidence that they did is mistaken or fraudulent. To consider that chemical transmutation is wholly impossible is not simply a matter of scientists being obstinate and unwilling to question their cherished traditions. But rather to argue that elements can be transmuted by chemical means would require a violent modification of a basic principle of physics.

A perpetual motion machine is a hypothetical construction that moves continually without any external energy supply. Such machines seemed a realistic possibility in the seventeenth century and enthusiasm for them was not quite dead in the nineteenth. Proponents suggested some remarkably inventive designs. Today our knowledge of thermodynamics indicates that such a machine would contravene the law of conservation of energy, which states that energy cannot be created out of nothing. Enthusiasts for perpetual motion machines apparently now have to submit a working model to the UK Patent Office; unsurprisingly none have yet done so. Believers in perpetual motion could never have achieved their goal and any supposed evidence that they did is mistaken or fraudulent. To consider that perpetual motion is impossible is not simply a matter of scientists being obstinate and unwilling to question their cherished traditions. But rather to argue that energy is not conserved would require a violent modification of a basic principle of physics.

Homeopathy is based on two laws, the law of similars and the law of infinitesimals. Personally I view the law of similars as implausible but it is the second law that really concerns me here. Samuel Hahnemann seemingly believed that the more you diluted a remedy the more potent it became. Jesus turned water into wine but Hahnemann might have claimed to have produced a more effective vintage by turning wine into water. One drop of a remedy diluted 100 times in water is a centesimal. Dilute that 100 times and you have 2C and so forth. Now the number of particles in a given mass of a chemical compound can be calculated. It is based on Avogadro’s number; essentially 1 mole of any substance contains the same number of particles. Homeopathic remedies may be sold at 6C and 30C. At 12 C those who have done the calculation state that you have passed the Avogadro Limit at which there is not likely to be one molecule of the original substance left, if one mole was originally employed.

The Wikipedia page on the topic reproduces a number of increasing bizarre examples of this process of dilution concluding with a duck liver and the observable universe. Be that as it may it must inevitably follow that practitioners of homeopathy could never have produced physiologically effective remedies and any supposed evidence that they did is mistaken or fraudulent. To consider that homeopathic remedies must be inactive is not simply a matter of scientists being obstinate and unwilling to question their cherished traditions. But rather to argue that a molecule could have an effect when it is not physically present would require a violent modification of a basic principle of physics and chemistry.

Is there a way out? Science moves forwards by experiment and observation. Even the most apparently secure theories can encounter an inexplicable piece of evidence that in the end falsifies the original understanding. However exceptional claims do require exceptional evidence. In the past biologists have grouped organisms together on the basis of anatomical similarities. With modern DNA studies it is possible to put taxonomy onto a much more secure footing. To find that the hitherto perceived relationship between two creatures is falsified by DNA evidence would be interesting, but not wholly surprising. On the other hand if a chemical researcher claimed that there was an undiscovered element between helium and lithium in the periodic table he or she would be required to produce evidence of a wholly different degree since such a claim violates long accepted theoretical principles.

You probably have guessed that I consider the evidence required to substantiate chemical transmutation, perpetual motion or homeopathy to be very much of the same order. Have any of the three areas in fact been seriously challenged? In 1989 Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons believed that they had constructed an apparatus that allowed the fusion of hydrogen atoms into those of helium, with the consequent liberation of energy, at room temperature. This process was dubbed ‘cold fusion’. As I understand matters, which are after all a bit out of my field, cold fusion wouldn’t have broken any conservation laws but low-energy nuclear reactions like this would have provided an example of chemically based nuclear rearrangement. The next step was naturally for other laboratories to attempt to replicate, or reproduce, the findings of Fleischmann and Pons. Reproducibility and independent verification is a cornerstone of scientific progress. Sadly this proved impossible and cold fusion is now very much on the back burner, even if the back burner is at room temperature.

Homeopathic practitioners, aware of the dilution issue I have described, have sometimes postulated that water molecules retained a ‘memory’ of the original substance present even when the substance is absent. Water does indeed have some remarkable and unexpected properties, as those of who struggled with concept of aqua ions in A level chemistry will recall. Although ‘water memory’ is incompatible with physics and chemistry as I understand them such an hypothesis might constitute a way of investigating the basis of homeopathy in the laboratory. This has in fact been done. The late Jacques Benveniste reported in 1988 that he could demonstrate energy imprinting of water molecules using an anti-IgE antibody. His work got as far as a highly controversial paper in the journal Nature. I remember the fuss as if it were yesterday. Eventually the work fell by the impossibility of reproducibility although I don’t see any reason to doubt the sincerity of the original investigator.

Again in 2003 independent researcher Louis Rey claimed to have demonstrated that the hydrogen bond structure of water molecules in dilute solutions of sodium and lithium chloride is different from that of pure water. Of course there are real problems here. For one thing water can never be completely pure since it will inevitably contain some molecules derived from the container it is in. At least work like this represents an attempt, although in my view a failed attempt, to bring homeopathy into the orbit of science. So hopefully my remarks will not be considered too controversial.

Where you may disagree is that I wish homeopathic treatment to be suspended until it unquestionably proved to be true, rather than permitted until it is unquestionably demonstrated to be false. Is there a possible compromise? To restrict homeopathy to those with a conventional medical degree perhaps? Or to insist that all alternative practitioners undertake a preliminary degree course in science, anatomy, and biochemistry. They might even find it interesting. Of course if homeopathy is true there is one positive outcome. With a single bottle of Fairy Liquid we can cope with the universe’s washing-up for millennia. Exactly how long I’ll leave you to work out.

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