In which we overdose on homeopathic sleeping aid

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I thought it might be useful to write a short post on what is rapidly becoming one of my favorite lectures in Cultural Formations B/Physics 3333 at SMU: homeopathy. Prof. Randy Scalise and I delivered the lecture yesterday, and the audio is available here (I excerpted it from the recording of the lecture that we made):

Homeopathy Audio (Right-click to download).

Homeopathy, quite simply, is a placebo-based treatment that was developed prior to the Germ Theory of Disease (one of the major successful Scientific Theories that is the basis of all working modern medicine). Unbeknownst to its original, Dr. Samuel Hahnemann, it has no actual medicinal benefit but confers all the usual unreliable and deception-based benefits derived from The Placebo Effect. Placebo, quite simply, is a non-medication given to a patient under the false pretense that it’s a real medication. Depending on the quality of the deception and the will-to-believe of the patient, placebo can fool 20%-100% of people. People think they feel better, when what is really happening is that their fears are suppressed by their expectation of a positive outcome and a disease that would have healed anyway on its own then proceeds to heal.

You can find lots of useful information in our lecture slides, available here: http://www.physics.smu.edu/pseudo/AlternativeMedicine/Homeopathy.pdf

There are a number of reasons why we know homeopathy is bad medicine:

  1. Randomized, Double-Blind studies, the gold standard of all scientific research, have repeatedly demonstrated that homeopathic treatments are no better than placebo, and far worse than medicines or therapies intended to treat the underlying cause (when the cause is known).
  2. The laws of physics, chemistry, and biology all rule out the claimed mechanisms by which homeopathy is supposed to operate, and unlike those laws there is no reliable scientific evidence for homeopathic medicine. Homeopathy operates on EXTREME dilution, taking an active ingredient (e.g. bee venom) and diluting to levels like “6C”, “12C”, or even “200C”. What does that mean?1C means that the active ingredient is diluted with distilled water in the ratio 1 part active to 100 parts water. 2C means that you take the 1C solution and dilute IT again 1:100. 6C means that there is 1 molecule of active ingredient for every 1,000,000,000,000 (1 with 12 zeroes after it) molecules of water.12C means there is 1 molecule for every 10^24 (1 with 24 zeros after it!) molecules of water – this is a special number, since it means that there is a less than 50% chance of finding 1 molecule of active ingredient in a standard container holding the solution (e.g. a 1 liter bottle).

    200C is absurd, but very common in homeopathy: this means that there is 1 molecule of active ingredient for every 10^400 molecules of water. For comparison, there are only 10^80 atoms in our universe. That means that in order to find 1 molecule of active ingredient, I would have to search identical 1 liter bottles prepared identically in 10^320 universes.

    Unlike vaccines, which also use dilution, there are no medically detectable traces of active ingredient left in a preparation of homeopathic “medicine.” In fact, to make the final pills, they typically take a drop of the diluted preparation and mix that with sugars to make a sugar pill. So you are even getting less of the dilution than is advertised. Vaccines, on the other hand, contain medically detectable levels of agents and thus can be used by the body to train itself to fight infection.

  3. I don’t recommend this at home, because we know what we are doing, but you can deliberately overdose on homeopathic medication and suffer no ill effects, so long as you understand that these are placebos (and thus the placebo effect won’t work on you, because you don’t believe the pill is medicine). Yesterday, I took about 50 sugar pills of 200C “homeopathic sleeping aid.” The recommended dose is 1 pill, dissolved in the mouth. I was not sleepy until my normal bedtime, and in fact I stayed up late to upgrade my mobile phone. If that had been a real sleeping aid, like Tylenol PM, staying awake more than an hour after taking the pill would have been nearly impossible; overdosing on it would have been DEADLY. That is why we do not recommend you try this unless you are a scientist, you understand dilution, you can read labels, and you are teaching this course.That said, properly prepared homeopathic medication at the stated dilutions (e.g. 6C) are harmless, because there is no meaningful amount of active ingredient left.Oh, and guess what the “active” ingredient is in homeopathic sleeping pills? Caffeine. I drink 2-3 cups of coffee every day – even the decaf coffee has more of a trace of caffeine left in it than all those pills taken together.

So homeopathy is sham medicine. It’s placebo. And I love lecturing about it, because we can entertain the class by overdosing on homeopathic sleeping pills (sugar pills!) right in front of them. If that doesn’t make the point, I don’t know what will.

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