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Hahnemann, who is usually given the blame for homeopathy, had the idea that if something bad were diluted enough, it might be something good. If you think of cancer therapy, this idea, at first glance, might make sense. Except…

Cancer therapeutic agents are indeed toxic, but in the best case scenario they do more damage to rapidly growing cancer cells than to normal ones. But the therapeutic agents still have to be present in a concentration high enough to interfere with some cancer cell processes at the molecular level.

A digression: Dilution is an interesting process.

Suppose you had a twenty-gallon fish tank with one gold fish in it. Take out a gallon and dilute it to twenty gallons in another tank. What is the probability that the fish is in the second tank? 1 in 20 or .05.

Now if you repeat this process again, what is the probability of the fish in a third tank?

1 in 400 (.05 x .05 or .0025).

Rinse and repeat and the answer is 1 in 8000.

The point is that even with modest dilution factors the concentration of a molecular species gets very small, very fast. So much so that in multiple serial dilutions, the probability of having even one molecule in a solution is very small. One more dilution of the type described will bring the probability to 1 in 160,000! End digression.

An example relevant to homeopathy is that of UCL pharmacology professor David Colquhoun who wrote in Chest:

“It surprises me that CHEST would publish an article (March 2005) on the effect of a therapeutic agent when in fact the patients received none of the agent mentioned in the title of the article.

It is not mentioned in the title, but reading the article reveals that the ‘potassium dichromate’ was a homeopathic C30 dilution. That is a dilution by a factor of 10^60 [ten raised to the sixtieth power], and for those of us who believe in the Avogadro number, that means there would be one molecule in a sphere with a diameter of approximately 1.46 × 10^11 m. That is close to the distance from the earth to the sun. To describe this as “diluted and well shaken,” as the authors do, is the understatement of the century. The fact of the matter is that the medicine contained no medicine.”

“The authors will doubtless claim some magic effect of shaking that causes the water to remember for years that it once had some dichromate in it. The memory of water has been studied quite a lot. The estimate of the duration of this memory has been revised downwards from a few picoseconds to approximately 50 femtoseconds. That is not a very good shelf life.”

“It is one thing to tolerate homeopathy as a harmless 19th century eccentricity for its placebo effect in minor self-limiting conditions like colds. It is quite another to have it recommended for seriously ill patients.”

That is downright dangerous.

David Colquhoun, FRS
University College of London

David Colquhoun, FRS (Fellow of the Royal Society)
doi: 10.1378/chest.06-2402 CHEST February 2007 vol. 131 no. 2 635-636

Now unfortunately, at our Academic Health Center, in addition to having an evidence based medical school (supposedly) we have a Center for Spirituality and Healing, directed by a self described nurse scientist who is apparently an advocate for homeopathy and in fact cited the above use of  dichromate as an effective  homeopathic remedy:

As a scientist  and nurse, I read with great interest an article that appeared in the medical journal Chest (Frass et al. 2005 ). This is a peer-reviewed scientific journal read by many physicians and surgeons. It is published by the American College of Chest Surgeons (no slouch of a group). The article describes a study (a prospective, randomized, placebo-controlled trial) comparing critically-ill patients on mechanical ventilators in Intensive Care Units who received a substance called potassium dichromate with those who did not.

It was found that the patients who received potassium dichromate had less thick, stringy tracheal secretions and were able to get off the ventilator more quickly and out of the ICU. Clinical outcomes like that are important.

Potassium dichromate is a homeopathic remedy.

Minnesota Daily, Evidence for Alternative Medicine, February 14, 2010

Now it is generally accepted, cranks aside, that homeopathy is witchcraft. So why would an Academic Health Center put up with homeopathy and even give advice on its own website about how to select a homeopath?

Money—specifically NIH support of so-called alternative medicine.

Is this a good enough reason in the case of an Academic Health Center with an evidence-based medical school? Why are we wasting resources on junk science while cutting corners on real medicine?

From the University of Minnesota web-site:

What is Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a complete system of medicine that works with the body’s innate ability to heal. It uses very dilute doses of substances that stimulate the body’s own defense mechanism and healing powers and return it to a state of balance—physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

This egregious baloney has recently been pulled and replaced with a link to an NIH site for alternative medicine.  I guess that makes it ok?

This sleight of hand is ironic.

In a 2010 report, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a division of the National Institutes of Health, said that the key concepts of homeopathy "are not consistent with the established laws of science."

An edited version of this post has previously appeared on the Brainstorm Blog at the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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