Homeopathy’s claims upended by modern science

Mainstream medicine remains unable to treat some illnesses, or only offers a cure at the cost of horrible side-effects. So it's no surprise that some people, desperate for relief, seek out alternatives beyond conventional medical.

Mainstream medicine remains unable to treat some illnesses, or only offers a cure at the cost of horrible side-effects. So it’s no surprise that some people, desperate for relief, seek out alternatives beyond conventional medical.

Those alternatives run the gamut from promising yet understudied treatments with plausible biological mechanisms to thoroughly debunked pseudoscience. Homeopathy falls at the latter end of the spectrum. It has been convincingly disproven and is among the least scientifically plausible types of alternative medicine on the market.

Now before the commentariat pounces on me for being “closed minded” about anything that falls outside the boundaries of modern medicine, let us be perfectly clear about what I mean by “homeopathy,” because there is a lot of confusion about the term.

Homeopathy is a form of alternative medicine, but not all alternative medicine is homeopathy. Herbal remedies are not homeopathy. Acupuncture is not homeopathy. Do not take what follows as a wholesale rejection of alternative medicine or an endorsement of all forms of conventional medicine.

Unlike other forms of alternative medicine, homeopathy does not find its roots in antiquity and is a relatively new and western creation. It was created in Germany in the 18th century by a man named Samuel Hahnemann.

Based on the assumption that “like cures like,” homeopathic preparations start with a substance – everything from duck liver to snake venom – that produces the same symptoms as the patient is suffering from. Then, working from the counterintuitive premise that diluted substances are more effective, the substances referred to above are watered down.

Neither of these facts are enough to throw homeopathy in the junk bin. Many medications are derived from natural products and many things in the world are diluted and work perfectly fine (although the dilution is usually done for other reasons other than to enhance effectiveness).

Where homeopathy fails the smell test is in how diluted the “solutions” are. Bear in mind that this was a discipline created before we realized that the universe is made up of atoms and molecules, and that you can only dilute something so far before it is no longer there.

Homeopathic preparations are so dilute that you may (if you are lucky) be able to find one molecule of the original ingredient in a swimming pool full of water. And many are far more dilute than that.

This is a major problem for the entire discipline. It would offend basic and well established principles of chemistry for a substance lacking in a single molecule of active ingredient to have a pharmacological effect. As such it is very unlikely that homeopathy actually works and we just don’t understand how yet.

Despite its dubious scientific basis, homeopathic preparations have been repeatedly tested in double-blind studies which have overwhelmingly found them to be no better than a placebo. Implausibility is one thing, but combined with a large volume of research showing no true effect we should have the one-two punch needed to close the door on this particular branch of alternative medicine for good.

Nonetheless belief in homeopathy persists. The “evidence” in favour of homeopathic medicine is the testimonials of people who insist that it worked for them. But with all due respect to those who give such testimonials, it is far more likely that these anecdotes are the placebo effect at work than the alternative – which is that basic principles of chemistry are wrong, and homeopathy somehow hides its alleged benefits whenever it is studied in a controlled, double-blind manner.

Should those who believe that homeopathy provides them with relief be entitled to access the products? Absolutely. This is something of a free country after all. Many people believe that (despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary) homeopathy works for them, and what right does society have to deprive them of it? None as far as I can see.

But doesn’t the principle of informed consent necessitate that practitioners and manufacturers advise those who are curious be told what I’ve just pointed out? Shouldn’t would-be users be informed of the lack of evidence for homeopathic treatments and their inconsistency with well-known and established scientific principles?

After all, it isn’t just desperate people seeking out products they think are making them better. Homeopathy is actively promoted to the public by practitioners and manufacturers. This is probably harmless (except to the pocket book) when being promoted to treat sniffles or aches and pains, but bold claims are sometimes made about the ability of homeopathy to treat serious illnesses like cancer or its ability to serve as an alternative to vaccination.

Consumers who lack the skills to evaluate health claims are vulnerable to being duped. As such the industry should be obliged to provide consumers with all the information before foregoing proven treatments.

Some might be surprised to learn that this is not the case.

Health Canada technically requires that homeopathic remedies be proven safe and effective but (unlike conventional drugs) allows purely anecdotal “evidence” to be used for the purposes of establishing the latter. Regulators do not require that manufacturers disclose the scientific consensus that the products don’t actually work.

Homeopathic practitioners are even less well regulated. In most provinces and territories – including the Yukon – consumers have no recourse to any sort of regulator or professional body to bring complaints.

Whether such regulation could be justified on the basis of any cost-benefit analysis is a reasonable question especially in smaller jurisdictions like Yukon. I doubt it could. But consumers should be aware that no one is looking out for their interests here.

While we often assume the contrary, the fact that these products are legally marketed does not mean they have been proven to be efficacious. Buyer beware.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.