Homeopathy - have we missed a trick?

Although I have written on the subject of homeopathy before, just when you think it’s safe to go back in the water (pun intended) it goes and rears it’s head again.  It has come back in the news this time, probably for the right reasons in that it could be blacklisted by the NHS.

On the today program on BBC Radio-4 this morning there was an interview between Simon Singh, the science writer and Dr Peter Fisher, Clinical Director at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine. The interview revolved around the evidence for homeopathy, with Simon Singh saying that there was none and Simon Fisher saying that there was.

As a scientist I agree with Simon Singh, of course, that homeopathy has no efficacious properties at all because it’s just water. The general public however are likely to be confused, and no wonder because how do they know who’s word to take?

The debate on homeopathy in my view, is not about the evidence but the science, because the two things are not necessarily the same thing. Steve Novella has said this many times, and he suggests we should not use the term “evidenced based medicine” but “science based medicine”.  This is not a contradiction nor just playing with semantics. It’s possible to find evidence for all sorts of nonsense but evidence is only part of the scientific method. To be considered scientific then a claim has to be consistent with the laws of Nature as we know them and that’s where homeopathy falls apart.

On the Today program this morning homeopathy was described as being very dilute solutions. This is an understatement in the extreme, as a typical homeopathic dilution of 30C is like diluting a single atom with all the atoms that exist in the solar system. But this is not, in my view its biggest weakness. It's not only about how huge the dilutions are, but what is being diluted.

Homeopathy is based on the “law of similars” (although it is not a law). If you have a cold, then one of the symptoms is a runny nose.  What else causes a runny nose - onions.  So take a piece of onion, place it in water and dilute it out of existence. The very concept of the law of similars has no scientific basis whatsoever.

Still don’t believe me, then take a look at some of the things homeopaths dilute:

How about some bits of the Berlin Wall

or my personal favourite, the light from venus

Now if this is not totally unscientific woo then I don’t know what is.  I don't think there would be many that would advocate these on the NHS.

I suspect that some homeopaths would dismiss the “extreme edges” of their profession, but I would ask why? If the law of similars applies to onion then why not pieces of the Berlin Wall?  Put like this and I think you might have a very different response from the general public and a lot of their confusion would morph into laughter.  And we all know, laughter is the best medicine.