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March 26, 2012 | by  | in Features |
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The Homeopathy Heresy

Drink water, cure thirst. But not much else.

Science tells us homeopathy doesn’t work, so why do some rational people believe it does? Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine.  Homeopathic remedies are made by diluting substances in water.  One dilution is not enough to cure your headache; first you have to shake your solution and tap it on your wrist—I gather the tapping is very important.  These steps are then repeated until there is rarely a single molecule of the original substance left.  The more the solution has been diluted and shaken, the more potent it is meant to be.

Imagine if vicbooks made one cup of coffee, diluted it into one hundred different cups then acted surprised when tired students complained that their flat whites just weren’t perking them up as usual. I spoke to two Wellington homeopaths about their beliefs. Both wanted to remain anonymous so I will call them Alicia and Josephine.

Alicia tells me that water has a memory and is able to “remember” other chemicals it’s been in contact with. In the 1980s, French scientist Jacques Benveniste claimed to have research that proved this. His study was subsequently replicated by independent labs who found his claims to be false. Benveniste’s lab had been led astray by bad research habits that included only recording the results that confirmed their hypothesis.

I mention Benveniste but Alicia says she’s never heard of him. Which is strange because all that information is in a documentary on the New Zealand Council of Homeopaths’ website. She then claims quantum physics proves the efficacy of homeopathy before concluding that “no- one is really able to explain how it works”. Alicia’s answer is not unique.

“Quantum physics can be very counter- intuitive”, says Ulrich Zuelicke who is a Professor of Physics and lecturer on quantum mechanics at Victoria University. “This feature can attract those who do not know any fundamentals but have strong philosophical convictions”. Because most people see quantum physics as a world of “uncertainty” and “entanglement”, homeopaths are able to use its existence to justify their beliefs to the general public.

How did Alicia find herself believing? She seems intelligent and previously worked for a drug company. She was initially skeptical but when her daughter developed asthma, wary of Ventolin, she took her to a homeopath. The asthma stopped causing problems. Her other daughter had an ear infection which also subsided after visiting a homeopath. Alicia said her daughters had never looked happier.

But people visiting homeopaths are susceptible to a cognitive bias according to Marc Wilson, Associate Professor of Psychology at Victoria University. After buying something “that [is] basically diluted nothing in water” then “people rationalise… that something positive must come out of it or else they’re just throwing money away.”

If Alicia was a skeptic how was she prone to this? Well, she may also be showing signs of a confirmation bias, Wilson suggests.

“If you believe orthodox conventional medicine is bad thing then you’re going to pay attention to anyone or anything that seems to support… that homeopathy is a good thing.”

In the case of Alicia, because she saw Ventolin as undesirable, she paid disproportionate attention to the proof of homeopathy’s effect on asthma. Many of Alicia and Josephine’s patients seek homeopathic treatment as a last resort after disappointing experiences with conventional medicine. It’s likely that many of their clients also have a confirmation bias.

Both recommend seeing regular doctors and refuse to treat many conditions. Alicia noted that she once told a patient with an ulcer to consult her GP. The woman was diagnosed with cancer. Some patients are also made to sign forms that say they won’t stop taking medication prescribed by medical doctors.

When people claim homeopathy has worked for them, we must examine what is known as the ‘natural history’ of their condition.

“Usually people don’t go to a homeopath with life threatening diseases, they’ll go with things like stress, depression, asthma or back pain. A lot of those things will naturally get better… even with no treatment,” says Shaun Holt, Adjunct Professor at Victoria University, Medical Research Fellow, and author of several

books on alternative therapies, including Natural Remedies that Really Work. Many of these conditions are cyclical but people don’t seek help when they’re at the top

of the cycle. In the case of someone with back pain, Shaun asks “what would the natural history be without going to the chiropractor? Well they’re probably going to get better because they’re at the bottom of the cycle.”

I bought a homeopathic remedy for insomnia. The bottle of sugar pills claims the initial solution had a dilution of “6X” which means it has an active ingredient to water ratio of 1:1,000,000. Alicia tells me that it may not work since I haven’t had a consultation which would identify habits that could be keeping me awake.

A homeopathic consultation can last up to 90 minutes. In a consultation, Josephine examines the patient’s “family history” that could reveal issues of “abandonment”. “Stresses” are identified and the patient learns ways of “changing patterns” that could be producing stress. Josephine says “stress” a lot. She says “mainly, we deal with people in a state of dis-ease,” but doesn’t excuse her pun.

Religious Studies lecturer Dr. Art Buehler was to give a lecture that advocated homeopathy as part of Victoria’s continued education program. The University cancelled the lecture following backlash from skeptics. He told me he first visited a homeopath when he was in a “rough patch” despite not being physically unwell. Perhaps there are therapeutic benefits from visiting a homeopath.

“There’s a very good reason to think homeopaths do a great job of consultation. They do a good job of doing an all round investigation of what’s going on people’s lives,” says Marc adding that there are health benefits from being part of a group that provides social support. A study published in the medical journal Rheumatology concluded that “homeopathic consultations but not homeopathic remedies are associated with clinically relevant benefits for patients with… rheumatoid arthritis.”

Furthermore, patients will start taking what Shaun calls “associated measures”. Associated measures are extra precautions that speed recovery. If you had a cold associated measures could include “time off work, vitamin C, or nice hot baths.” But if someone used a homeopathic remedy concurrently then they might conclude it was the remedy that helped recovery rather than the measures they took.

What convinced Alicia that homeopathy worked was the theory that animals cannot experience placebo effects. One quarter of dairy farmers in New Zealand give their animals homeopathic treatments. “You can’t argue about the cows” says Art as I leave his office. But owners will take associated measures for their animals, the conditions being treated (like mastitis) also have improving natural histories. Shaun reminds us that “when you’re assessing a baby or an animal, they can’t tell you how they feel. The parent or farmer has to make a subjective assessment. They will be biased [towards] seeing an improvement in the condition when they’re not.”

I asked Marc if he had anything to say to someone considering homeopathy. He said “if you’re physically unwell, go and see a doctor, if you’re psychologically unhappy, go see a psychologist and if you’re just after reassurance then talk to your friends.”

You’ll be richer for it too.

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