I was recently traveling in France, and, as often happens when I travel, I found myself one day with a bit of nausea and general stomach trouble. So, we went to the pharmacy and asked for an anti-nausea medicine. The pharmacist gave us one that she said would work with no side effects. I looked at the ingredients and found that it was a homeopathic medicine. Since I know what homeopathic medicine is, I told her that I wanted something else, because homeopathic medicine doesn't work. She disagreed, but gave me a different medicine. For this medicine, she warned me that there could be some side effects, such as drowsiness. I thought that was fine, paid for the medicine, and left.
Why did I refuse the homeopathic medicine? Contrary to what a lot of people think, homeopathic doesn't just mean "natural" (as if "natural" equals "safe and effective"). Homeopathic "medicine" was developed in the early 1800's at least 30 years before Louis Pasteur's work on germs and the development of our current understanding of how bacteria, viruses, genetics, and other factors are responsible for disease. Homeopathic was developed by only looking at symptoms of diseases, since the causes weren't understood at that time. It is based on two principles. The first is the "law of similars". This "law" states that "like cures like". That is, if I have nausea, I should take a homeopathic preparation made from something that would induce nausea in an otherwise healthy person. Of course, now that we know about germs, the law of similars is pretty ridiculous. Some people confuse this with how vaccines work. Vaccines inject pieces of the virus's actual proteins and other molecules into the body to get the immune system to work as it normally does to produce an immunity. This is completely different from using a homeopathic preparation based on a chemical that is nothing like what is causing the ailment, but happens to induce the same symptoms.
The second principle upon which homeopathic is based is the idea that water has memory. Homeopathic medicines are made by taking the substance chosen based on the law of similars and then diluting it repeatedly. The idea is that the water will remember the substance, thus increasing its potency, while diluting the toxicity. Somehow the water only remembers the good parts, I guess. Then, the water is either dropped onto a sugar pill or taken as a liquid to treat the ailment. The dilutions used are listed on the box with numbers like 10X or 4C. They represent how many times that a drop of preparation is diluted into 10 (for X) or 100 (for C) times the amount of water. So a 5C preparation (like the anti-nausea pills I was offered) means that one drop of the preparation is diluted in 100 drops of water. Then one drop of that solution is diluted in 100 drops of water. Then one drop of that solution is diluted in 100 drops of water. This is repeated two more times to get 5C. This represents one drop of the original substance in 10,000,000,000 drops of water. To put this in perspective, this is like dissolving an aspirin in a swimming pool of water. The creator of homeopathy advocated a 30C dilution. At this level of dilution, it would be equivalent to having one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a drop of water the size of our solar system.
Of course, at these levels of dilution, the explanation for how the "medicine" works is that the water remembers the substance. With what we know about how H20 molecules float around randomly in a liquid water, there is absolutely no possible way that information could be stored by them. It is a physical impossibility for them to have memory. However, let's think about it for a minute. What if water did have memory, and thus homeopathic could work. This would be incredible for the pharmaceutical industry. They could make one batch of a drug and then just keep diluting it to produce more to sell. All drugs would cost the same, since the cost of creating the original substance would be insignificant given the large quantities that could be produced from it.
Let's go further with this. If water had memory, then we would have "water archeologists" who would study the memories in water to discover information about those things the water has touched in the past (see my previous blog about how many things this could be). Water could be used in forensics at crime scenes. We would have TV shows like CSI:Water. Water treatment plants would have to find ways of erasing the bad memories in water to make it safe to drink. Who wants to drink water that has the memory of just being in someone else's toilet? When we go to the bar, instead of complaining that the bar is watering down our drinks, we would want them to. It would make the drinks stronger without adding the cost of extra alcohol. We wouldn't have the concept of drowning. If our lungs were deprived of oxygen, the water in the blood would remember the oxygen it carried before, and that would be sufficient to keep us alive. In fact, perhaps we would only need to take a few breaths when we are first born, and that would keep us alive for the rest of our lives. If water had memory, computer companies would be doing research on creating the equivalent of disk drives that use water for storage. I would be bragging about how my new PC has 2 gallons of storage space or complaining because I lost my music collection when my storage sprang a leak.
The people who make and sell homeopathic medicine are banking on the fact that you don't know how it is supposed to work. It's magical thinking. They advertise "no side effects". Of course there are no side effects - there are no effects! But they want you to confuse it with all the other "alternative" medicines that are out there that promise cures to your ills without having to trust your doctor or drug companies or hospitals. To add to the confusion, a lot of pills being sold put the word "homeopathic" on the label when they really aren't. They may actually contain significant quantities of potentially active ingredients. With true homeopathic pills, you can take as many as you like. Since there isn't any real active substance in them any more, they won't hurt you. In fact, there is a common stunt that skeptics do where they commit "homeopathic suicide" by eating an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills. Of course, nothing happens when they do this. I wouldn't recommend this stunt with just anything marked "homeopathic" though.
When you see a box of pills marked "Homeopathic", realize that what it really says is "we think you are a sucker and will pay good money for sugar pills". So if you have a real sickness, take real medicine. Don't waste your money and delay proper treatment trying fake "medicines" like homeopathy.