Homeopathy & Medicine: Does It Dilute Science, Research, Higher Education?

Have you ever visited a homeopath before? Do you have any homeopathic pills or suspensions in your medicine cabinet? You may think homeopathic is just another word for holistic, organic, or natural. You may think that, but you'd be wrong.

The "ancient art" of homeopathy has only existed for about 200 years. And according to the National Institutes of Health, "there is little evidence to support homeopathy as an effective treatment for any specific condition." This is most likely because "several key concepts of homeopathy are inconsistent with fundamental concepts of chemistry and physics."

So what exactly are homeopathic remedies? And why are they still found on the shelves of pharmacies today? I spoke with author, physician, and academic Dr. Ben Goldacre to learn more about homeopathy and its dangerous transition from the quackosphere to the halls of academic institutions across the globe.

Watch the video above and read the transcript below to learn more. And don't forget to sound off by leaving a comment at the bottom of the page. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

CARA SANTA MARIA: Hi everyone. Cara Santa Maria here. Do you have any homeopathic treatments in your medicine cabinet? Ever visited a homeopath? I think you'd be surprised to find out what homeopathy is really all about.

BEN GOLDACRE: A lot of people think that homeopathy is about taking herbal remedies or vitamin pills and it’s not. Homeopathy is about taking very, very, very high dilutions of any kind of natural substance or unnatural substance. And then the idea is the more highly diluted it is, the more powerful it becomes. So to give you a picture of how massively diluted this is, what you do is you take one drop of the original substance and then you dilute that in 100 drops of water and shake it around, then you take one drop of that and put that in 100 drops of water and then you shake that around, and you do this 30 times. And when you’ve done that what you’ve got is a dilution that’s so profoundly diluted--it is, and I’m not making this up--it’s exactly the same as, or it’s roughly the same as, one molecule of the original substance in a sphere of water whose diameter is the same as the distance from where I am in London to the edge of the sun. So these are incredibly dilute substances. So dilute that there’s obviously no trace of the original molecule in there.

CSM: That's Dr. Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Science and the forthcoming Bad Pharma. And although what's actually behind that homeopathic label may not be the most common of knowledge, it's easy enough to find out. So why do people still buy this stuff?

BG: The really important thing to remember is that homeopathy, like any placebo, like any dummy sugar pill, it does feel like it works, like it seems like it works, because of the placebo effect. So we all know that if you give people a pill that has no medicine in it at all, then they get better. And we know this from all of the trials that have ever been done in medicine where you compare a real medical treatment against a dummy pill--a pill that looks like the real medical treatment but doesn’t have any medicine in it. We know that people getting placebos get better, and actually we know that from a whole bunch of studies as well comparing one placebo against another placebo. So for example, we know that four dummy sugar pills a day are more effective at clearing gastric ulcers than two dummy sugar pills a day. And that’s an outrageous finding but it’s for real and that’s the power of the placebo effect.

CSM: I asked Ben how people can avoid being taken advantage of, but he said homeopaths shouldn't carry all the blame.

BG: I think for the most part people walk into this stuff with their eyes open. And I think sometimes there’s an element of kind of political protest about it almost. And you know I’ve written a book about the crimes of the pharmaceutical industry. There’s absolutely no question that they do terrible, terrible things, that they distort evidence themselves, that they mislead doctors, that they harm patients. And I think sometimes people kind of fantasize that kind of buying homeopathy sugar pills is some kind of political protest against that. You’re kind of sticking it to the man. Now I don’t think setting up a small industry, selling or buying sugar pills, is in any way a substantive political response to the colossal regulatory failure around the pharmaceutical industry, but I think that’s a big part of it. So people do it because they may have alternative or liberal politically minded people, but whatever the reasons are people know when they buy this stuff, for the most part, that they’re not buying something that is straight medicine.

CSM: Steven Novella wrote a scathing report in a recent issue of Skeptical Inquirer entitled "Pseudoscience In Our Universities." In it, he describes the disturbing trend of complementary and alternative medicine departments cropping up in institutions of higher learning across Australia, the United Kingdom, and America--including those that teach homeopathy as a legitimate medical practice.

BG: I think it’s really important to have university departments subjecting alternative therapies to fair tests to see if they work or not, and I also think it’s really important to have university departments looking at the social and cultural context of how these therapies sit in society, because I think they’re a fascinating window through which to examine the role of medicine in culture. You know the fact that people will buy sugar pills with no medicine in them and believe that they’re really effective is an incredibly fascinating thing. But the idea that you would train people and endorse cherry picking badly designed studies in order to help people flog pills to their patients is an extraordinary act of scumbaggery on the part of universities. And it amazes me, genuinely amazes me, that people tolerate that in serious educational institutions.

CSM: An institution of higher education is a sacred place where students learn to learn, to problem solve, to question the status quo, and to make reasonable, evidence-based decisions about the world around them. To present snakeoil as science is an utterly contemptible violation of trust.

BG: When you walk into a quack remedy shop and you’re met by somebody who is obviously selling quack remedies to you then that’s one thing, but I think when you walk into a university science department it is actually much more difficult to tell that what you’re being fed is untrue.

CSM: Alright everyone. You know the drill. Sound off on Twitter, Facebook, or leave a comment right here on The Huffington Post. Come on, talk nerdy to me!

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