“Dilution delusion” (Homeopathy)


We have a word for alternative medicine that is proven to work: Medicine. Once it has shown to be effective in double blind studies and passes critical peer review, the qualifier can be dropped.

One of the longest, most bizarre histories in alternative medicine lore belongs to homeopathy. It originated in the mind of 18th Century physician Samuel Hahnemann, who had pure motives. Leeches were among the medicines of his day and he worked without benefit of Germ Theory. Hence, he deserves credit for trying to come up with something better and can’t be faulted for failing to recognize its impracticability.

He deduced if large doses of something cause a symptom, than a lower concentration would remove that symptom. He also held that the more diluted a substance was, the better it would be at removing the symptoms it would otherwise cause.

Even if Hahnemann had been correct, homeopathic remedies are so diluted they have no active ingredients. Calling it medicine would be like calling 400 blank pages a novel.

The original is diluted to one part in 100, agitated vigorously, then repeated ad infinitum. Even if there were reason to believe in the basic ideas of homeopathy, its method takes it beyond any possible value. A solute cannot be infinitely diluted since its molecules cannot be divided. Once the solute is down to its last molecule, each succeeding dilution makes is less likely that even that final molecule will remain.

James Randi, the man most responsible for my immersion in the skeptic movement, gobbles a bottle of 32 homeopathic sleeping pills in seminars without impact. He can do this safely because the original substance has been diluted to one part in a nonillion, a number so astronomical I don’t think I’ve used it before.

Since that number is beyond most people’s ability to comprehend, let’s look at it from another perspective. If Randi’s pills had been in liquid form, he would have had to drink 16 public swimming pools of it to ingest one molecule of the original substance. Homeopathic medicines are nothing more than well shaken water and alcohol. Drinking vodka would be as effective, and more pleasureful.

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