by Blythe Nilson
The popular CBC program Marketplace investigated the claims of homeopaths in a January 2011 episode entitled “Cure or Con?” in which they demonstrated very convincingly that homeopathic “drugs” are nothing but sugar and water. Not surprisingly the episode was controversial and the multi-billion dollar homeopathy industry did not like what it saw. Some of the comments from purveyors and users of these products asked why the show was not “balanced” with interviews showing homeopathy in a good light. This reaction highlights the fallacy of “balanced” journalism that makes reporters and editors feel obliged to provide “the other side” to a story as if it had equal weight. But Marketplace is a consumer protection show. Its producers are interested in finding facts, exposing fraud and protecting the public. There is no obligation to give equal time to a view that has no scientific or factual merit. However, it was unfortunate that the program did not explain how homeopathic preparations are made, because I don’t think many consumers understand the process. If they did, fewer people would buy them.
Walk through the “health” aisles of groceries and drugstores in Kelowna and look for homeopathic products placed on the same shelves as other medications. Homeopathy displays and packaging are misleading, so shoppers are duped into thinking that these nostrums are mainstream pharmaceuticals. Consumers might read the list of “active ingredients” but only a few will understand that “X” “D” or “C” describes the number of times the product has been diluted, so much so that there may not be a single molecule of “active” ingredient left. Shoppers may have vague ideas that the products are “herbal” or “natural” or even “organic”. But none of this is true, because there is no medicinal product in the package. None at all. James (The Amazing) Randi, famed magician and skeptic, took a massive “overdose” of homeopathic “analgesics” during a TED talk and didn’t even feel drowsy (homeopathic pills are sugar preparations with the “memory” water dropped on them).
Homeopathy began in 19th century Germany as a misinformed system of treating “like with like”. The rationale was that if you were suffering from, say, mercury poisoning then minute doses of mercury would cure you. Eventually this became a dilution system in which higher dilutions are supposed to be more potent. First, you put a small amount of an ingredient in some water or alcohol and shake the container in a particular way. Homeopaths believe that the water molecules will “retain the memory” of the original ingredients and somehow make the preparation stronger. (One wonders why such water does not retain “memory” of other containers or all of the bladders it has passed through.) Next, you repeat this dilution again and again, usually until none of the original ingredient is left. A designation of “D” or “X” denotes a 10-fold scale and a “C” denotes a 100-fold scale. A 2X preparation has been diluted 1:100 and a 12C preparation has been diluted by 100 12 times. Most range from 6X (1:1,000,000) to 40X, which is the same as 20C (1:10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000). Are the makers of homeopathic products really diluting compounds and shaking bottles dozens of times to produce trillions of litres of product, or are they just pouring tap water into the bottle and selling it? It makes no difference.
To illustrate what the common 30C dilution means I will shamelessly steal the following analogy from Dr. Marc Crislip (author of “Quackcast”). Imagine pouring a bottle of wine down the sink, not that you should ever do such a thing. There will be about 1% of the original volume, about 1 tsp, remaining in the bottle. Next fill the bottle with water and shake it. Pour that water down the sink and fill the bottle with water again. Repeat this process 28 more times and you will have a 30C preparation. Homeopaths claim that 30C wine should be more potent than the original. You can test this yourself but drink responsibly. By the 12th dilution there will be no wine molecules left. By the 13th dilution there will be no molecules of the first bottle of water left either. It takes 23 dilutions of 1:10 (scientists would call this a 1×10^23 dilution) to reach “Avogadro’s Limit” at which, statistically, there are no molecules of an original ingredient left so 30C (10^30) is overkill. As the by-line for the Merseyside Skeptics’ 10^23 Campaign says “Homeopathy: There’s nothing in it”. A very popular flu “remedy”, 200C oscillococcinum (not a scientific name), is a 10^400 dilution of mashed duck liver. Since there are only 1080 atoms in the entire observable universe, you would need to drink 10^320 universes-full of this stuff to get just one molecule of duck liver. And there is no such thing as oscillococcinum. It’s pretty funny when you think about it.
Recently a reader asked me how an intelligent consumer without a science degree can tell the difference between the “scientists” promoting nonsense and the (real) scientists promoting evidence, logic and reason. These days, the answer is: not very easily The constant barrage of misinformation that now flows so easily through our screens means that every quack and scam artist has equal access to your attention. To make things worse Health Canada allows homeopathic products to be marketed and labelled under different rules than those governing conventional drugs, yet they sit side by side on store shelves, giving the impression that they are conventional remedies with the same labeling regulations. The homeopathic industry has successfully lobbied governments all over the world for favourable legislation and access to markets and university medical departments. Consumers deserve choice, they say. I say consumers deserve informed choice. Homeopathic labels are misleading; the term “active ingredients” should not be allowed on the label if there are none in the bottle. Use that skeptical muscle – weigh your choices carefully before you hand money over for sugar water.
Image used with permission from the Merseyside Skeptics: http://www.1023.org.uk/