Randi Explains Homeopathy

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For a more scientific explanation on why homeopathy is completely ridiculous, here is an excerpt from Stephen Barrett’s article in Quackwatch

Homeopathic products are made from minerals, botanical substances, and several other sources. If the original substance is soluble, one part is diluted with either nine or ninety-nine parts of distilled water and/or alcohol and shaken vigorously (succussed); if insoluble, it is finely ground and pulverized in similar proportions with powdered lactose (milk sugar). One part of the diluted medicine is then further diluted, and the process is repeated until the desired concentration is reached. Dilutions of 1 to 10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (1X = 1/10, 3X = 1/1,000, 6X = 1/1,000,000). Similarly, dilutions of 1 to 100 are designated by the Roman numeral C (1C = 1/100, 3C = 1/1,000,000, and so on). Most remedies today range from 6X to 30X, but products of 30C or more are marketed.

A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times. Assuming that a cubic centimeter of water contains 15 drops, this number is greater than the number of drops of water that would fill a container more than 50 times the size of the Earth. Imagine placing a drop of red dye into such a container so that it disperses evenly. Homeopathy’s “law of infinitesimals” is the equivalent of saying that any drop of water subsequently removed from that container will possess an essence of redness. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., a prominent physicist who is executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.

Oscillococcinum, a 200C product “for the relief of colds and flu-like symptoms,” involves “dilutions” that are even more far-fetched. Its “active ingredient” is prepared by incubating small amounts of a freshly killed duck’s liver and heart for 40 days. The resultant solution is then filtered, freeze-dried, rehydrated, repeatedly diluted, and impregnated into sugar granules. If a single molecule of the duck’s heart or liver were to survive the dilution, its concentration would be 1 in 100200. This huge number, which has 400 zeroes, is vastly greater than the estimated number of molecules in the universe (about one googol, which is a 1 followed by 100 zeroes). In its February 17, 1997, issue, U.S. News & World Report noted that only one duck per year is needed to manufacture the product, which had total sales of $20 million in 1996. The magazine dubbed that unlucky bird “the $20-million duck.”

Actually, the laws of chemistry state that there is a limit to the dilution that can be made without losing the original substance altogether. This limit, which is related to Avogadro’s number, corresponds to homeopathic potencies of 12C or 24X (1 part in 1024). Hahnemann himself realized that there is virtually no chance that even one molecule of original substance would remain after extreme dilutions. But he believed that the vigorous shaking or pulverizing with each step of dilution leaves behind a “spirit-like” essence-“no longer perceptible to the senses”-which cures by reviving the body’s “vital force.” Modern proponents assert that even when the last molecule is gone, a “memory” of the substance is retained. This notion is unsubstantiated. Moreover, if it were true, every substance encountered by a molecule of water might imprint an “essence” that could exert powerful (and unpredictable) medicinal effects when ingested by a person.

Many proponents claim that homeopathic products resemble vaccines because both provide a small stimulus that triggers an immune response. This comparison is not valid. The amounts of active ingredients in vaccines are much greater and can be measured. Moreover, immunizations produce antibodies whose concentration in the blood can be measured, but high-dilution homeopathic products produce no measurable response. In addition, vaccines are used preventively, not for curing symptoms.

Stan Polanski, a physician assistant working in public health near Asheville, North Carolina, has provided additional insights:

  • Imagine how many compounds must be present, in quantities of a molecule or more, in every dose of a homeopathic drug. Even under the most scrupulously clean conditions, airborne dust in the manufacturing facility must carry thousands of different molecules of biological origin derived from local sources (bacteria, viruses, fungi, respiratory droplets, sloughed skin cells, insect feces) as well as distant ones (pollens, soil particles, products of combustion), along with mineral particles of terrestrial and even extraterrestrial origin (meteor dust). Similarly, the “inert” diluents used in the process must have their own library of microcontaminants.
  • The dilution/potentiation process in homeopathy involves a stepwise dilution carried to fantastic extremes, with “succussion” between each dilution. Succussion involves shaking or rapping the container a certain way. During the step-by-step dilution process, how is the emerging drug preparation supposed to know which of the countless substances in the container is the One that means business? How is it that thousands (millions?) of chemical compounds know that they are required to lay low, to just stand around while the Potent One is anointed to the status of Healer? That this scenario could lead to distinct products uniquely suited to treat particular illnesses is beyond implausible.
  • Thus, until homeopathy’s apologists can supply a plausible (nonmagical) mechanism for the “potentiation”-through-dilution of precisely one of the many substances in each of their products, it is impossible to accept that they have correctly identified the active ingredients in their products. Any study claiming to demonstrate effectiveness of a homeopathic medication should be rejected out-of-hand unless it includes a list of all the substances present in concentrations equal to or greater than the purported active ingredient at every stage of the dilution process, along with a rationale for rejecting each of them as a suspect.
  • The process of “proving” through which homeopaths decided which medicine matches which symptom is no more sensible. Provings involved taking various substances recording every twitch, sneeze, ache or itch that occurred afterward-often for several days. Homeopathy’s followers take for granted that every sensation reported was caused by whatever substance was administered, and that extremely dilute doses of that substance would then be just the right thing to treat anyone with those specific symptoms.

Dr. Park has noted that to expect to get even one molecule of the “medicinal” substance allegedly present in 30X pills, it would be necessary to take some two billion of them, which would total about a thousand tons of lactose plus whatever impurities the lactose contained.

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Ajita Kamal


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