Does Homeopathy Actually Work?

Ben Cohen
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I just read an interesting article by Dana Ullman, a self proclaimed expert in Homeopathic medicine. Ullman's thesis is that much of modern medicine is based on profit rather than healing efficacy, and that a large percentage of treatments are found not to work after a certain period of time. While the data he presents is certainly cherry picked to bolster his case, there's no doubt that much of what we see advertised on television is junk packaged as a cure all wonder drug. He writes:

Doctors like to point to the "impressive" efficacy of their treatments
in real serious diseases, like cancer, and doctors (and drug companies)
are emphatic about asserting that anyone or any company that says (or
even suggests) that they have a treatment that might help people with
cancer are "quacks." However, do they maintain this same standard when
evaluating their own treatments? Even a recent issue of Newsweek
highlighted the fact that "We Fought Cancer, and Cancer Won" (Begley,
2010). Despite the truly massive amounts of money that doctors,
hospitals and drug companies are effectively extracting from patients,
employers, insurance companies and governments, we are certainly not
getting our money's worth.

Ullman's article is well reasoned and thought provoking, and it's hard to argue with much of what he says. For example, he does not discount 'conventional medicine', arguing that its ability to constantly challenge itself is a built in advantage:

The good news about conventional medicine and one of its remarkable
features for which it should be honored is its history of consistently
and repeatedly disproving its own treatments. The fact that only a
handful of conventional drugs have survived 30 or more years is strong
testament to the fact that conventional medicine is honorable enough to
acknowledge its mistakes. But then again, because drug patents only last
for a certain limited period of time, there are real substantial
benefits when drugs have a relatively short lifespan.

However, herein lies the problem with his general argument. Ullman advocates integrating more natural treatments
into our health care system to provide a more holistic approach to well
being, but much of what he advocates has not withstood the pressures of scientific testing - putting it at a severe disadvantage against drugs that have. Homeopathy is a junk science, proved over and over again beyond any reasonable doubt. I refer to Mr Richard Dawkins:

The best way to test any proposed therapy is the Double-Blind
placebo-Controlled Randomised Trial (DBCRT).......Homeopathy is
eminently eligible for, indeed vulnerable to, double blind testing. And
even just thinking about how to do it immediately shows up the
near-impossibility of homeopathy working. The point is that a central
tenet of homeopathy is that the more dilute the ‘active’ ingredient, the
more effective it is. For the allegedly most effective dosages, the
dilution is so extreme that, in order to have any appreciable likelihood
of ingesting even one molecule of the original ‘active’ ingredient, you
would need to drink a volume equal to all the matter in the solar
system. There is the further point that in ordinary tap water there
would in any case be more than homeopathic traces of any random
ingredient you care to name. It has been amusingly estimated that every
pint of water you drink contains at least one molecule that passed
through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell (surprising as this is, it
follows from the fact that there are far more molecules in a pint than
there are pints of water in the world).

It follows that there will be no reliable chemical difference
between the experimental dose and the control dose. Therefore, if a
DBCRT experiment revealed any difference in effectiveness, we would have
a lot of explaining to do.

To discount conventional medicine because much of it 'doesn't work' is like saying 'not every tool in my tool box can fix my car so I shouldn't use tools'. Drugs developed by big companies are not inherently good or bad - they just perform a certain task, and it is down to the doctor to make the call as to whether their patient should use them. There are inherent risks to any drug you take, but depending on your illness, the benefits might outweigh the risks. If I was diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer, you can bet your life I'd ask for the most powerful treatment my body could withstand regardless of the side effects. There's no doubt that the huge amount of money poured into advertising drugs manipulates people's perception of it, but again, it's down to doctors to make that decision, not your average man on the street.

While many people believe homeopathy has helped them, no real doctor would prescribe it for treating anything remotely serious. Why? Because there's no evidence it works. I'm all for more natural methods of healing, but I need to know there are documented benefits before taking anything. 'Conventional doctors' in my experience (and I've met more than a few) are not against natural healing methods. They just want to know if they work or not.