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Swines and Birds and Homeopaths, Oh My!

06/05/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

With all that's been going on with Swine Flu and the scare around it, people are looking around for medicines to help protect themselves and their families. Unfortunately, they're being preyed upon by a group whose theory of medicine goes counter to everything that is known about physiology, physics, chemistry, germ theory, and hydro-dynamics. And if you already know that this article is about Homeopathy, than it may not be for you.

Personally, I think that one of the biggest reasons why homeopathy persists is that the general public doesn't know much about it. It sounds good. Homeopathy -- it's a great sounding word. But I think that there are plenty of people out there who hear the word, hear that it's medicine without side-effects, and that's all they need to hear. One of my favorite writers, for example, is Brian K. Vaughn. Yeah, I'm a geek and I like comic books. Anyway, the other day, I'm reading through the final volume of "Y: The Last Man" (by the way, one of the more depressing volumes on my bookshelf), and near the end of it, one character (Beth) tells another (Hero) that she's found some great "homeopathic stuff" to help her voices. Now, I could be reading into the page a bit, but the two characters talking here are a couple lovers living in the Bush, trying to protect the last of the Lionesses, so I feel that the implication is that Beth has found some homeopathic plant, and not that she stumbled on a little bottle of pills. And unfortunately, if Beth did find some sort of herb or plant, it just isn't homeopathic. You could create a homeopathic preparation of it, but the plant itself is not homeopathy. No plant in the world is inherently homeopathic. That just isn't what homeopathy is.

So, you may be asking, what is homeopathy? Well, homeopathy is an alternative medicine hypothesis that was formed a little over two hundred years ago by a man named Samuel Hahnemann. Hahnemann produced a series of laws to govern homeopathy that have persisted until present day. The first law is that like cures like. Let's explain this with an example. Caffeine is well known to all of us. Personally, I can't actually move without it. The effect of caffeine on a body is to wake them up, and if taken at the wrong hour, you'll probably give yourself a nice case of insomnia. This is the effect of caffeine on a healthy person. Now, let's say that instead of being a person with normal circadian patterns, you are an insomniac. According to homeopathy, if caffeine can give you insomnia when you're healthy, it should be able to cure your insomnia as well. Sort of. See, Hahnemann realized that if he was going to be giving people potential poisons to cure their ills, he couldn't give them a lot of them. So, it's not caffeine that cures insomnia, it's a specially diluted form of caffeine. This is the second law of homeopathy. Pretty much, they take one part caffeine and nine parts water, they mix them together, shake them ten times side-to-side and ten times up-and-down, and that is what they call a 1 homeopathic solution. But homeopathy has another law as well: the more diluted a solution, the more powerful the medicine is. Typical homeopathic remedies are 30. This means that it has been diluted one part of the medicine to nine parts distilled water, with the side-to-side up-and-down shaking 30 times, which means that even if you started with a pure sample of whatever your active ingredient was, there should be about one part of it for every 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts diluted water. I can't even say that number. And here's an interesting note, there's 30 zeroes here. When you get past 23 zeroes, you pass by a special number in chemistry, Avogadro's number (6.02 x 10 to the 23rd). Avogadro's number, if you can remember from chemistry, is the number of molecules in a mole of any substance, it's the key unit of measurement in chemistry. It's the number of atoms of carbon that will weigh about twelve grams. It's an uncomfortably huge number. When you get orders of magnitude bigger than Avogadro's number (in the case of a 30 solution, seven orders of magnitude), you get to the point where it is almost statistically impossible to find a single molecule of the active ingredient in the entirety of the homeopathic solution. And don't forget this fact too: a 30 solution, that's just a standard strength medicine. The extra strength stuff goes all the way up to 100. I don't even know how they make that. There aren't enough molecules of water on the planet to dilute one molecule of the active ingredient that much.

Homeopaths will tell us that water has a memory. That it vibrates in a certain way and thus knows exactly what the homeopath put into it. The thing is, if Hahnemann is somehow right about homeopathy, then it doesn't only fly in the face of all those sciences I listed above (physiology, physics, chemistry, germ theory, hydro-dynamics), it flies in the face of public safety. Because the Florine in our water will have less of an effect than the 65-million year old dinosaur feces that have been naturally distilled for millennia. They say that it has no side effects, and they're right. What they don't say is that it doesn't have any primary effects either.

It's not that homeopathy is by itself dangerous. Frankly, the reason it caught on in the first place was because medicine in Hahnemann's day was still a crap-shoot. Doctors didn't know how the body worked yet, a lot of medicine could kill you, and homeopathic solutions didn't. They were pure water, not a lot of people die from pure water. So though homeopathy isn't going to hurt you, relying on it to the exclusion of effective medicine might. If the stuff makes you feel better, great. Have a ball. But it's important that people know that the biggest victory homeopathy had, Dr. Jacque Benveniste's article in Nature magazine in June of 1988, was swiftly overturned a month later, when an investigation found that all their positive results were really due to improper blinding of the tests, and that it was due to Benveniste's assistants not wanting the man to be wrong that they'd ever found positive results to begin with.

Every positive study of homeopathy, when repeated under more stringent conditions, has shown it to have no more effect than a placebo. Take it if you like, but please don't use it to cure Swine Flu. And if there are any homoeopathists out there who can show proof that my article is bunk, I know a man in Florida with a million dollars for you.