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How can science explain how homoeopathy works?

How can science explain how homoeopathy works? (Note: ‘how’ not ‘if’ if works!)
Hazel Morbey from Lancashire (Age 45-54)

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15 Responses

  1. Because the treatments used in homoeopathy are so dilute that they contain no active molecules, the benefits often claimed come soley from the belief that the treatment is effective.

  2. Hi Hazel. Your question (and the constraint you added at the end) evokes a more philosophical inquiry than the specific question itself. Science should not be used to seek evidence for something that you already believe. Science seeks explanations for natural phenomena through evidence. If there is no evidence, or the evidence points to another explanation, than the idea should be rejected. Believing things without evidence is what religion is. The important question here is “why would you believe anything without evidence?”.

    The claims of homeopathy are completely in contrast to everything we know about chemistry and dose responses in the body. Thus, I think the question of “if” it work is still in question. If people feel that it does work, science could only explain this through the placebo effect. This is a valid explanation that should not be discounted.

    My explanation for any claim that homeopathy does work would be this: all symptoms improve over time, and people seek remedies when symptoms are at their worst. Because they feel better following a remedy, they attribute this to the remedy as opposed to the likelihood that they would start feeling better anyway. Further, people often feel better through the psychological benefits of taking responsibility for their own health and trying to do something about it (many people feel better after booking a doctor’s appointment!).

    I would challenge anyone who ‘believes’ in the claims of homeopathy to contrast these with a reading of dose response relationships of any active substance in the body, and try and find a double-blind placebo controlled study. From a chemical perspective, homeopathy is empty.

    All the best,
    Trevor

  3. Hello Hazel,
    Firstly Scientists need to keep an open mind, and not reject homeopathy out of hand because it doesn’t fit in with current theory.
    It should be remembered that current theory is there to be developed.
    There is a vast amount of evidence available gained from the practice of homeopathy over more than 150 years.
    Some find it difficult to accept that something which may be so dilute as to have no material molecules can be effective.

    However maybe they should consider that all things consist of a material part and an energy part?

    I think that when the material part is lessened by dilution and succussion then all that is left is the energy part. This energy part, now unencumbered by the physical part, is able to act more effectively on the energy part of the person. The energy part of the person then acts upon the physical part of the person, restoring that person to health. Homeopathy, as well as being a system of medicine, is a way in to our further understanding of life.

  4. The scientific evidence is clear, that is taking nothing does nothing. However, this ignores the placebo effect and the fact that consultations with homeopaths are often longer than with a GP. If you are sick and the GP arrives you feel relief and thus, “better”. If you spend 30 minutes with someone who listens to you then you also feel better and the placebo effect of the water kicks in

  5. I fear that Paul Schofield’s reply is not based on any science I recognise; the concept of an ‘energy part’ has no meaning. I challenge anyone to define it, describe it and then investigate it experimentally, which would be the basis of a scientific approach.

    Two reasons not to believe in homeopathy as a valid physical treatment (apart from its possible placebo effect in some circumstances) are (1) there is no significant body of rigorous experimental evidence (comparable to the extensive evidence from clinical trials of standard medicines) that demonstrates efficacy and (b) there is no explanation for how homeopathy could even work in principle (apart from via a placebo effect or similar) that fits with our vast understanding of biology and chemistry. Of course we do not know everything, but the point about scientific knowledge and explanations is that they are mutually reinforcing and mutually consistent, and can explain very disparate observations. That’s why we can have confidence in them. Homeopathy has not only been regularly tested and found wanting, but it offers no plausible mechanism that fits into our existing and widely validated knowledge.

  6. Dear Hazel,

    I would like to challenge Paul Schofield’s (PS) explanation of how homeopathy works. All things do not consist of an energy part and a material part in any sort of separable sense like PS claims. Let me begin to refute the claim by saying that it is true that substances can store energy in chemical bonds that, when broken, release that energy. When a substance (the drug with bio-active properties) is diluted in a solvent (water) energy is stored in the way the water molecules surround and bind with the drug molecules, solvation energy. In homeopathy, I understand the solution is diluted 2x by adding water followed by vigorous shaking to distribute the drug molecules through the newly added water. Half of that solution is thrown away leaving half the number of drug molecules you started with. The total amount of stored energy is now halved. By removing the “material part”, as PS says, you are also removing the “energy part” because you are throwing away the water molecules surrounding the material that are storing the energy. You do not leave behind the solvation energy in the part of the solution you keep. In homeopathy, this 2x dilution is repeated so many times that no drug molecules, and therefore no solvation energy, is left. The last drug molecule was long ago thrown away with a rejected portion of the solution. What is left is simply water and none of the “energy part” PS speaks of. The “energy part” and the “material part” are inseparably linked. This is not “current theory”, it is based on centuries of discovery and everything we know about chemistry, biology and medicine.

    The explanation PS gives is bunkum, a collection of words thrown together to sound like they are giving an explanation but one based on trivial and irresponsible untruths. The evidence for the existence of the placebo effect as a real phenomenon is overwhelming in many contexts, of which homeopathy is merely a sub-set. The placebo effect has a plausible explanation in psychology (see Trevor Day’s entry above), however, the existence of an explanation doesn’t matter, it is a very likely truth even if it goes unexplained. The effects of homeopathy are indistinguishable from the placebo effect so ergo are very likely to be the same thing.

    Scientists do keep an open mind and are often the first to admit when they are wrong, which is why I have read the PS entry, thought about it and argued against it.

    Best wishes

    David

  7. Hi Hazel, to have a stab at your question, firstly I’ll say that in scientific study the relationship between ‘how’ and ‘if’ are inevitably intertwined. Scientific methodology involves the observation of a phenomena (people are sick with X disease), the proposal of claims (treating sick people with Y treatment will make them well) and then the testing of that claim through un-biased experimentation (the double-blind test whereby one group is given a placebo and another group receives treatment Y, neither patient nor scientist knows who received which until after the study). If treatment Y has shown to be more effective than the placebo in treating the illness then you can accept the claim that it is an effective treatment. I realise this is an over-simplified model but this is the basic gist of how it works. I would wholeheartedly agree with Trevor Day’s post above, that homeopathy has largely failed to fulfil these criteria because of dubious objections to scientific methodology and thus has little or no credibility in mainstream science. Instead, as with Paul Schofield’s post above, there is a tendency among ‘alternative therapists’ and advocates of such practices, to dress their claims in scientific-sounding language (using words such as “energy” in a non-conventional way) in order to foster a sense of scientific credibility when in fact none exists. For science to explain ‘how’ it works, the first step is to submit homeopathy to rigorously controlled scientific experimentation and dissemination of the results to see if it works as 150 years of anecdotal evidence has no value in scientific research.

  8. Interestingly, this question can be put to the scientific test and it has. Publicly. A few years ago, the TV programme Horizon funded a relevant experiment on the issue, which was developed and conducted by scientists and a statistician, and which was supervised by the Academic Royal Society.
    Several universities had been involved in the preparation, carrying out , data handling and the analysis of the results. I am a physicist and, to my mind, the experiment was very carefully done.

    The tested claim was that, in spite of the immense dilution in the solution, the water molecules keep a memory of the diluted substance and it is this which gives rise to a homeopathic effect. The results of the experiment were negative – no such effect was found compared to a group who took pure water. The effect was tested either on the protein or the enzyme level, I forget. Best is probably to follow this link:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2002/homeopathy.shtml

    Enjoy!

  9. Hi Hazel

    It is quite interesting to see how the question of the validity of homeopathy invokes such strong views. I think this is because there is a fundamental disagreement about what science actually is, and it is quite interesting to see how homeopathy has become one of the battlegrounds where this issue is being settled. There are people who believe that science is a certain amount of knowledge gathered over the ages, which is provides us with all the answers to our questions. For some of those people, science is almost a dogma, a religion even. Others, including myself think that science is a process, a way in which we try to find answers about the world we live in, perhaps even to find the answer to the questions why we are here in the first place.

    Because of that I find it quite silly that people so off-handily dismiss homeopathy, rather than trying to use what we know about it to see if there is indeed something interesting going on. Likewise that it is perhaps, with the current, very limited research that has taken place, not possible to prove that homeopathy actually works, the opposite is also very much the case, i.e. there is no evidence that suggests that there isn’t actually something there.

    In my view the correct scientific approach to the matter of homeopathy would be to start looking at the things we know, find ways of explaining them and then use proper research to see if there is some truth in it. We seem to be quite happy with the existence of dark matter, so what is so strange about homeopathy? I don’t actually think that just looking at the effect of homeopathic treatment to explain what is actually going on is prudent either, because, as we’re trying to find the answers to something we don’t know much about by using something we don’t know much about (which results in a very big margin of error, which can easily explain why “nothing” was found during clinical tests).

    Homeopathy is all about water. Water is an incredibly interesting substance. Water molecules consist of three atoms, one oxygen atom, and two hydrogen atoms. Because of the electrical forces within these atoms, the water molecule is actually lopsided. I.e. the hydrogen atoms form an angle of 104.45 degrees. As a result, water molecules can form hydrogen bonds, which makes it possible for water molecules to form potentially complex 3D structures. Hydrogen bonds are actually the very reason why water expands when it freezes. This is in itself a very good thing, because otherwise ice would sink, and the oceans would have long frozen solid, we wouldn’t probably even be here!

    It is believed by some that these molecular structures don’t only exist in ice, but are also present in liquid water. From there it is not difficult to consider it then possible that substances that are dissolved in water can have an impact on the shape of these molecular structures. So the question is: are these structures there in the first place? Could it be possible that even if after we remove substances from water by repeatedly diluting the original solution until there is nothing left, that there are still structures there, like a memory in the water? And could it be that these structures, which could then potentially differ depending on the original substance that was diluted in the water have some kind of subtle influence on the way in which our bodies and those of animals conduct their biological processes?

    None of the above questions have yet been satisfactorily answered, probably because it is really difficult to think of an experiment that would provide us with conclusive proof of this. It is a bit a shame though, that there are people who don’t believe it is even worth our while to consider developing such an experiment and dismiss homeopathy off hand based on so called “common sense”. Science should really rise well above that, and I believe that we know still very little about things like how water really plays a role in our chemistry and physical world. The concept of homeopathy is far too interesting and important to simply dismiss as some kind of hocus pocus.

  10. The answer to this tightly constrained (and, therefore, perhaps not very BIG) question is: the placebo effect. There are big and controversial questions regarding homeopathy, but this probably isn’t one of them.

  11. Dear Hazel,

    If homeopathy worked the more the landlord watered the beer the drunker you would get.

    Regards

    David

  12. If water maintains the ‘memory’ of chemicals that it has been exposed to then surely we are all being exposed to a huge battery of toxic chemicals, drugs, sewage, waste products and other unwanted agents everytime time we consume water. Also, as we are largely composed of water does that mean we are all walking toxic dumps.

    I agree with some previous comments. What we are looking at is a placebo effect. If you believe something will make you feel better there is a reasonable chance it will.

  13. Hi Hazel

    The first step for science to explain how any phenomenon works is to study it directly. So far this has not been done to any great extent with homoeopathy. For example, some years ago the Medical Research Council allocated funding for research on homoeopathy, but no one came forward to access any of it.

    In the absence of systematic investigation, some of the vacuum has been filled by pontification. So we have some people declaring that it is due to the placebo effect – the phenomenon whereby people seem to get better if they believe they are going to get better. It is possible that that may indeed be the case – but not proven. One stage in science is about putting forward a hypothesis – a possible explanation of the facts. The next step is to test it out. And until that next step has been done, the hypothesis is purely in the realms of possibility.

    Other people dogmatically declare that homeoepathy cannot work because there is no explanation that fits with our understanding of biology and chemistry. That however is not how science operates. The starting-point is whether or not the phenomena exist. The second stage is to try to see how they fit with existing ideas. To rule out phenomena without investigating them, on the grounds that they do not conform with established doctrine, is the methodology not of science, but of the medieval church.

    There are numerous examples on particle physics and astronomy where phenomena were found which did not fit within the picture of the time. The fact that they didn’t fit meant of course that the phenomena had to be checked. But it did not mean that they had to be automatically ruled out at the start.

    The watchwords of science are ‘Doubt’ (Descartes) and ‘Test’ (Galileo), not ‘Decree from on high’.

    There are two groups of people whose views on homoeopathy are not often brought in to these discussions. We need to listen more to the materials scientists, who are familiar with a number of examples of phenomena which have some similarities with some aspects of homoeopathy. And we need to take more data from the general public who try out homoeopathy, to hear from them about their particular situation and whether or not homoeopathy has helped them.

    Above all, we need to give every science student a rigorous training in the scientific method, so that they have enough confidence in it to apply it systematically to every new situation.

  14. Very interesting debate, but with the exception of Howie’s remarks there seems to be a lot of opinion and very little scientific explanation being offered here.

    People that know a bit about homeopathy know that it is very sensitive to contamination. Also, when water is boiled or even reaches a certain temperature it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine that if there were any 3D structures in the water, that they would be destroyed due to the energetic vibration of the water molecules. So no Andrew, I can’t see why we would be exposed to a “huge battery of toxic chemicals, drugs, sewage, waste products and other unwanted agents”.

    But I’d like to ask a few questions myself. Could anyone explain scientifically how a placebo works, i.e. how the mind can actually make you better? And while you are at it, could you explain why my dog gets better using homeopathic remedies?

  15. Maarten raises some very good questions, and a serious and systematic discussion of such issues is long overdue. And he is quite right to highlight the molecular aspects of water.

    A letter on the subject was published in the New Scientist on 1 November 1997 by Professor Brian Josephson, and it’s interesting to see how a Nobel laureate looks at the physics of the situation:

    ‘Regarding your comments on claims made for homeopathy (Editorial, 27 September, p 3 and Letters, 18 October, p 58): criticisms centred around the vanishingly small number of solute molecules present in a solution after it has been repeatedly diluted are beside the point, since advocates of homeopathic remedies attribute their effects not to molecules present in the water, but to modifications of the water’s structure.

    ‘Simple-minded analysis may suggest that water, being a fluid, cannot have a structure of the kind that such a picture would demand. But cases such as that of liquid crystals, which while flowing like an ordinary fluid can maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances, show the limitations of such ways of thinking. There have not, to the best of my knowledge, been any refutations of homeopathy that remain valid after this particular point is taken into account.

    ‘A related topic is the phenomenon, claimed by Jacques Benveniste’s colleague Yolène Thomas and by others to be well established experimentally, known as “memory of water”. If valid, this would be of greater significance than homeopathy itself, and it attests to the limited vision of the modern scientific community that, far from hastening to test such claims, the only response has been to dismiss them out of hand.’

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