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Homeopathy - all the idiocy that fits
Of all the things called "alternative medicine" the most ridiculous must be homeopathy. It's even sillier than iridology.
For those unfamiliar with the origins and principles of homeopathy, it was invented in the late 18th century by Samuel Hahnemann. It had no less success than the conventional medicine of the time and probably saved the lives of many people, simply on the basis that people get better from many illnesses without any intervention, so doing nothing (which is essentially what homeopathy is) could often produce better outcomes than bleeding, purging, cauterisation and amputation. The difference is that medicine has moved on and no longer does those things (or does them differently and for different reasons).
Homeopathy still relies on the principles set out at its invention. One of these principles is the Law of Similarities, which says that something which produces symptoms in large doses will be useful to treat diseases that have those symptoms. To determine what can be used for what, various things are subject to "proving" where they are administered in increasing doses until a reaction is observed. This reaction is then recorded, and when a patient presents with the same signs the homeopath can use a preparation of the cure to fix things. Jalapeno peppers would be a candidate for the treatment of excessive sweating and cat hair has potential as a treatment for hay fever. Presumably cyanide would provide a useful treatment for death.
To avoid the obvious problem, a second principle is invoked: the Law of Infinitesimals. This states that the more dilute a substance is, the better it will work against the "proved" symptoms. There are two sorts of dilution in common use - X and C. To make an X dilution, you take one tenth of the sample and mix it with nine parts of diluent. To make a 10X preparation, the dilution process is carried out ten times, each time taking one tenth of the mixture and diluting it. At each stage, the mixture is "succussed", which means hit in a certain fashion. Sometimes succussion requires the container to be tapped against a particular object, such as a leather-bound book. Preparations can be made at 6X, 10X etc. More powerful preparations can be made using the C method, where the dilution is one in a hundred each time. I have heard of M preparations where the factor is one thousand, but I assume these could only be handled by very experienced laboratories.
The folly of traditional homeopathy can be illustrated to even the simplest of minds, a fact that does not seem to deter those with "minds" coming in under the "simplest" score. As an example, someone suggested to me recently that a daily dose of 5 grams of some calcium salt could be taken in 6X homeopathic form to treat some condition or other. A simple calculation showed that this would require the patient to consume 49,995.995 kilograms of lactose per day to get the recommended dose of calcium. This weight of tablets will not fit into the back of your average semi-trailer, and would therefore require at least two truckloads of pills per day. Every day. (The same person had said that 30X preparations were so powerful that they should only be taken when under the care of a fully-qualified homeopath. To get 5 grams out of a 30X preparation, the daily weight of tablets would be just under the mass of the Earth. Every day.)
Faced with situations like this where the choice was either to eat the weight of forty small cars per day, drink a volume of liquid equivalent to one and a half petrol tankers or to take a manageable quantity of medicine that could not possibly contain any measurable amount of medication, the homeopaths have sought desperately for a resolution of the dilemma.
What they came up with was the memory of water. I assume lactose has a similar memory, but nobody seems to be talking about it. The memory of water voodoo says that water remembers things that it has been in contact with even after all traces of the substance have been removed. Strangely, however, it doesn't remember the bottles or bladders it has been stored in, or the chemicals that may have come into contact with its molecules, or the other contents of the sewers it may have been in at one time, or the cosmic radiation which has blasted through it. It just remembers the one thing that the "researcher" wants it to remember.
Then they tell us they can transmit this memory by email, but that's a story for another time
Water has a whole lot of special chemical and physical properties that nothing else seems to have. The molecules in liquid water keep grouping and ungrouping, combining and recombining into tiny crystals and patterns. This has a lot to do with the way life looks on earth and why water is essential for life. It also has a lot to do with why water is an almost universal solvent. What it hasn't anything to do with is the idiocy of homeopathy.
Homeopaths have adopted this "memory of water" nonsense in an attempt to recover from the disaster that arises whenever anyone who can think thinks about the ramifications of continuous dilution. In order to explain how something can continue to act even after all of its molecules have disappeared, it was necessary to invent the concept of "memory of water". Despite there being severe logical, philosophical and scientific reasons why any "memory of water" is a vacuous idea, and despite the fact that nobody has even come up with any even remotely feasible way of testing the concept, the homeopaths have simply willed it into existence. They then refer back to the weird way water molecules react with each other to say "see, some of these temporary structures could code for molecules that they have seen before".
The real problem for them is that, even if "memory of water" was both possible and proven, it would not make homeopathy any less ridiculous. You see, homeopaths go further by claiming that they can selectively control what it is that water remembers. We have the situation where they are claiming to do the impossible while working with something that does not even exist in the first place.
Let's look at making a typical homeopathic remedy. I have randomly chosen a treatment for cholera, which simply consists of a 30X preparation of human excrement. I won't bore you with the procedure because it just consists of successive dilutions and succussions. It's the final product I'm interested in.
How does the preparer ensure that only the excrement is remembered and nothing else? Remember how I mentioned that water is an almost universal solvent? How was the preparation controlled to eliminate the possibility that the water remembered any of the non-excremental molecules that it might have come in contact with? For example, if it had instead remembered the molecules in the glass preparation vessel, we might have ended up with a treatment for silicosis. What if the preparer had breathed out through her mouth and the air above the preparation vessel had become contaminated by mercury vapour coming off her fillings. Some of this could have become dissolved in the water and then we might have come up with a treatment for _____ (fill in whatever mercury in fillings is causing this week). If she smoked, we might get a cure for lung cancer. If some of the nitrogen in the lab air had got into the water, a cure for the bends might have resulted, and a tiny fragment of asbestos blown in from a nearby demolition site might have been remembered and a treatment for mesothelioma been produced. None of these would be of any use to the poor person sitting outside waiting for a cure for diarrhoea (well, sometimes sitting, sometimes hurrying to sit elsewhere).
If it were to be proved conclusively tomorrow that water can retain molecular structures related to other molecules that had been near the water ones, homeopathy would still be a stinking crock. Diluting it by a factor of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 would not make it more powerful or make it smell less.
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