By Jennifer O’Connell
Last Saturday morning, several hundred people in a handful of cities in Britain and elsewhere around the world waved their families a cheery goodbye, and headed off to engage in a mass suicide attempt.
Like members of some slogan t-shirt wearing cult, they congregated in large groups at street corners. They stood around chatting amicably, until at the pre-ordained stroke of 10.23am, they took small pill bottles from their pockets.
In a blatant disregard of the sober health warnings on the side, they downed the lot - 84 pills of arsenic album - in one massive, orchestrated overdose.
Then they resumed standing and chatting – some exchanging pleasantries with the assembled reporters - before eventually drifting off, back to their families, the football, their Saturday fry-ups.
A few hours later, to precisely no-one’s great surprise, none of them had died. Most of them fell asleep eventually – but then, that’s what people often do at night.
As mass suicide attempts go, it wasn’t terribly effective. See, that’s the thing about homeopathy.
It really isn’t effective.
In fact, as the 10.23 protestors (their name is based on a law of physics) aimed to demonstrate by imbibing large quantities of arsenic album, there is – quite literally – nothing in it.
The website of the British Homeopathic Association explains that in order to make a homeopathic remedy, the manufacturers start with the active ingredient and then proceed to dilute it to 1 per cent concentration.
Next, they dilute that new solution again, so there is now only 0.01 per cent of the original ingredients. For a 30c pill of, say, arnica this diluting is repeated thirty times, which means that the arnica is one part in a million billion billion billion billion billion billion.
The central ingredient (and I use the term loosely) is so diluted that is only one molecule of it per 7 million billion billion billion billion pills.
Molecules are pretty small, by the way. It would take roughly a billion of them to cover one typed full stop.
If that’s too many zeros for you, try this analogy, courtesy of the Bristol Skeptics society. A single paracetamol tablet shared amongst every human being who has ever lived – which is estimated at roughly 106 billion - is still more concentrated than a 30C homeopathic remedy.
Or this. If I broke into Boots this evening and swapped all the labels on the homeopathic tablets around, no-one would ever be any the wiser. Because they are nothing more than sugar pills.
Don’t believe me? Well, let’s ask one of the biggest sellers of homeopathic remedies in this part of the world, Boots.
Paul Bennett is the Professional Standards Director and Superintendent Pharmacist at Boots. Last autumn, he addressed the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on this issue.
Here’s what he said, when asked if the homeopathic remedies being sold by the truckload by Boots are any more effective than a placebo. “I have no evidence before me to suggest that they are efficacious,” he said.
So why do they sell them?
“It is about consumer choice for us. A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious .. and, therefore, we believe it is right to make them available,” he said.
Boots is casting itself in the role of an agnostic selling religious icons – it may not believe itself, but if others do, then who is it - a mere retailer - to judge?
Which would be fine if it was merely a peddler of religious icons. But Boots is a pharmacy chain, and pharmacists are supposed to be able to offer solid, reliable healthcare advice to their customers. As the Guardian journalist Dr Ben Goldacre put it at the same hearing: “It is harmful to tell people that a sugar pill is an effective treatment when it is not; I think you undermine the credibility of the doctor, the healthcare worker, the pharmacist.”
The funny thing is that there hasn’t been some massive, highly successful cover-up by the homeopathic industry. Yes, there has been some fudging of the odd figure and cherry picking of the occasional favourable trial result.
But mostly, practitioners don’t bother to cover anything up. They simply shrug and say that conventional wisdom can’t possibly grasp how homeopathy works. Like God itself, it is not subject to the laws of physics. Or chemistry. (Though it may be subject to the laws of economics.)
Be warned: just reading about the laws to which homeopathy claims it is subject is enough to cause potentially catastrophic turmoil your body’s ionic chakra fields. Or whatever.
In essence, homeopathic medicine is based on three ‘laws’. The first, the law of similars, is the notion that what makes you ill can cure you.
If you’re having trouble sleeping, for example, then caffeine is the cure. So far, so - kind of - plausible, unless you know from bitter experience that caffeine is much more likely to keep you awake. But that’s okay, too, because the caffeine is ingested in such diluted form that it essentially ceases to exist.
So how does it work? Look away now if you’re of a scientific disposition.
The entire industry is based on a premise dreamed up in the 18th century that water will somehow ‘remember’ substances that it had previous contact with, while conveniently forgetting the millions of tonnes of effluent that it has passed through.
The third law – the law of succession – suggests that tapping the mixture makes the memory of what it once contained stronger. Try that one at home. Go on, get your wallet out and give it a tap.
So there is the entire ‘scientific’ basis for homeopathy.
Homeopaths claim that the application of these three laws results in a remedy that, even though it contains not a single molecule of the original ingredient, somehow carries an "energy signature" of it that nobody can measure or detect- which might explain why they tend to be so difficult to pin down in a proper scientific debate.
Someone who has tried to bring some scientific rigour to the debate is Britain's first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst of Exeter University.
"I have now published more than 100 papers on homeopathy and I am quite clear about its efficacy: you may as well take a glass of water," he says.
Before you start hammering out the ways in which homeopathy has worked for you in an irate email to me, hear me out for another four words.
Google the ‘placebo effect’.
This article first appeared in The Sunday Business Post on February 7, 2010