There are lots of candidates for this title, but for my money there’s one who is so ahead of the field the others are still in the horsebox. Dr Samuel Hahnemann. In the 1700s he developed homeopathy, though the basic idea goes back to the early Greeks, and to some theorising by Paracelsus in the early 1600s.
I’m going to nail my colours to the mast here, at the risk of alienating some of my urban warrior audience. Homeopathy does not work. It’s quackery. Hahnemann was a snake oil merchant masquerading as a scientist. Homeopathy does not work.
I can almost hear some of you saying, ‘Well it works for me!’ I’ll come back to that in a bit.
You’re probably aware of the basis for homeopathy, but not of its more quirky aspects. The celebrated fraud Doctor Hahnemann had a doctrine of similia similibus curentur. In proper grown up English, he said you should treat disease with substances that mimic the symptoms. He thought up this wheeze when he scoffed a load of cinchona bark, which was used then to treat malaria. Lo and behold! The quinine it contains made him feel like crap; high fever, sweating, chills, joint pain, the whole nine yards. Not too surprising, maybe, since quinine is per se a poison; it poisons the trypanosomes that cause malaria. Get a shedload down your neck, it’s going to make you ill. You can simulate this effect with fifteen vodka and tonics on an empty stomach. The quinine in the tonic makes you feel terribly ill. Incidentally this buffoon also subscribed to the idea that all disease is caused by miasms, or vapours. ‘Malaria’ itself is derived from the Italian mal aria, bad air.
This unashamed quack then took his finding to its illogical extreme. The less medication you took, the more effective it would be. He set about diluting ‘active’ ingredients, thereby reducing the concentration. More weirdly, he developed the idea of succussion. At each level of dilution, the container had to be knocked a specified number of times. No kidding. He even had a saddler make him up a special cushion out of leather and horsehair. He decided, quite arbitrarily, that each dilution needed to be knocked on his special cushion no fewer, and no more, than ten times. Some heretics of this school of lunacy deny this, and will knock 12, 15, or for the real zealots, 17 times. By the way, if you store homeopathic solutions, they need to be succussed occasionally to reactivate them. Yeah, right.
At some of the higher stages of dilution, the chances of there being even one molecule of active substance left in there is zero. No active substance at all. This makes for a very potent treatment, apparently.
One theory is that water has a ‘memory’ which is activated by the succussion, and alters the structure of the water to provide a remedy for what ails you. I have to tell you that water does not have a memory. See http://wp.me/p2C8Zz-pM if you doubt me. So the whole theory is a complete load of old socks.
But let’s assume, for the purpose of argument, that water does have this memory. Water has been around for quite a long time, certainly longer than any of the plants or other sources of active substances. When it rains, water gets knocked about a bit. It gets further knocked about in streams, rivers, waterfalls, storms at sea. You might reasonably expect that every water molecule on this earth has been exposed to every active substance and been beaten up afterwards. Any water should be a damned good remedy for any scourge you care to think about. But oh no. Hahnemann said it only works if you knock the container 10 (or 12 or 15 or 17) times. Have you ever heard such a load of tosh? And seemingly rational people believe it. So does Prince Charles.
There’s an interesting corollary here. The less of the active you take, the more effective it is. In that case, why take two drops three times a day? One drop once a week should be more effective, surely? In fact, cut out the middleman completely and just look at the bottle.
Weirdly, you can buy homeopathic remedies in tablet form. Eh? Come again? Yep, the activated water is absorbed into something relatively inert such as chalk or lactose, then the powder is formed into pills or tablets. Of course all the water, the active ingredient, is lost during manufacture, but what the hell. That’s homeopathy for you. It might be bad news if you are lactose intolerant, too.
Back to the thorny ‘It works for me!’ I don’t disbelieve that you feel better when you take a homeopathic remedy. I don’t, not for a minute. However. There have been some very well conducted clinical trials, and homeopathy has never, ever outperformed placebo. Don’t sneer at this; the placebo effect is well documented and surprisingly powerful. You may well feel better just because of this. Homeopathic remedies cost a lot more than placebo, though. It’s one of the few areas of commerce where the more you pay the less you get. A bit like a Porsche, I suppose.
You also need to bear in mind what is called reversion to the mean. Most medical conditions are variable. You all know this. It’s like with my knees. I have good days and bad days, and average days. If I take some quack remedy and my knees feel better, it’s very likely indeed that I would have had a better day anyway, whether or not I took the snake oil. I would just revert to mean.
If you still doubt that Hahnemann was a nutjob, then you might like to know that during his ‘provings,’ which were not clinical trials, subjects were not allowed to play chess as it was deemed by him to be ‘too exciting.’
One question for all the adherents out there. If you get a really bad dose of pneumonia, running a 1040 fever and slowly drowning in your own lung fluids, what will you do? Take some aconite, Veratrum viridae, Bryoni, Sanguinaria, Chelidonium, and antimony tartrate? Or will you go and get a hefty dose of antibiotics from your doctor?
Tomorrow, something a bit less contentious. The return of Marc Zimmerframe, this time pitching a new cathedral to a sceptical audience.