It’s one of those things that can’t be repeated too many times, but homeopathy is ridiculous. In fact, so ridiculous is homeopathy that I don’t usually write about it all that often. The reason is that, like homeopathic dilutions, a bit of skeptical blogging about homeopathy goes a long, long way (although I’m not sure whether diluting the blogging makes it stronger). True, anti-vaccine ideas are often just as ridiculous, but they’re also dangerous to children, which is why I’ll sometimes write about nothing but anti-vaccine nonsense for several days in a row. Homeopathy, on the other hand, usually doesn’t “inspire” me so, although I do find it to be a very useful example to demonstrate the principles of science-based medicine as compared to evidence-based medicine, specifically how extreme implausibility on basic science grounds alone can sometimes be enough to dismiss a therapy.
So this week, even though it’s only been about a week since the last time I had some fun with homeopathy, it’s time to take the topic on again because I found what perhaps has to be the funniest bit of homeopathic nonsense ever.
Most skeptics are aware of the two main principles of homeopathy, neither of which is based on anything resembling good science. The first principle is known as the Law of Similars, which is commonly phrased as “like cures like.” The concept is that the way to choose a homeopathic remedy is to choose something that causes the symptoms the practitioner wants to alleviate. Of course, there’s no general scientific or biological principle to support the Law of Similars. In reality, it’s nothing more than a variant of ancient concepts of sympathetic magic. Yet it is the main basis of all of homeopathy.
The second big law of homeopathy is known as the Law of Infinitesimals. This is the most famous principle of homeopathy that states that the way to make a remedy stronger is to dilute it, a principle that laughs at chemistry, physics, and biology. Indeed, common dilutions of homeopathic remedies (for example, 30C, which is 30 serial 100-fold dilutions, or a dilution of 1060) have been diluted so much that the odds that even a single molecule remains in the remedy are, well, infinitesimal. That’s why it’s not for nothing that skeptics frequently point out that homeopathy is nothing but water. It’s even loonier than that, though. The reason is that dilution is not enough. At each step, we are told by homeopaths in all seriousness that the succussion at each dilution step is critical to “potentize” the remedy. Samuel Hahnemann himself, the inventor of homeopathy, used to succuss his remedies by slapping them against a Bible. These days, in at least one case, a big company like Boiron have machines that do the succussion automatically for remedies like oscillococcinum up to 200C, which represents a 10400-fold dilution. Given that there are only around 1080 atoms in the known universe, readers can easily see the ridiculousness.
One of the sillier aspects of homeopathy that skeptics frequently forget is how homeopaths determine which remedies are appropriate for each disease or condition. This is accomplished through a mechanism known a “proving.” In a homeopathic proving, healthy subjects take the remedy and then report their symptoms, and through these reports the profile of a homeopathic remedy is discovered. Of course, given that most provings use the highly diluted form of the remedy, rather than the undiluted form, what is being described are reactions to ingesting water. Some reach heights of ridiculousness. After all, who can forget the homeopathic proving of plutonium that I discussed a couple of years ago.
Which makes this proving particularly appropriate.
It’s called Aqua Nova: The homeopathic proving of newly formed water. I kid you not. The appropriateness of this particular proving makes me chuckle, as does the reporting of it. For example, in the introduction, a homeopath named Misha Norland:
Knowing that water is at the root of terrestrial existence, it seems reasonable to expect that a proving might teach us something fundamental about life. Whichever way you cut the cake – whether you consider myth or science – water has many unique and astonishing properties. We are still discovering some of these, and as we do so, we find that water is laden with paradox. By way of example, we are coming to appreciate that water as well as being the best solvent at a chemical level, is also a ‘solvent’ at a subtle level, being exquisitely impressionable to influences: it carries memories. So, how to find water that has not a trace of memory, so that the proving should be of H2O untainted by the reminiscences of where it has been or what it has touched? Is this possible?
Ah, yes. The memory of water. That magical, mystical property homeopaths attribute to it whereby it remembers only the good bits it’s been in contact with and forgets everything else–but only if it’s succussed at each dilution step. Of course, if one is using water as a homeopathic remedy, how does it make sense to dilute water in water, unless the homeopathic remedy is something like deuterium water. Oh, wait. Homeopaths have done that already. Be that as it may, here’s the water these homeopaths are “proving”–Aqua Nova–was made:
Oxygen and hydrogen were produced in an electrolytic cell from distilled water plus sodium hydroxide acting as an electrolyte. This is necessary because pure water is non-conductive. Since sodium is non-volatile it stays in the cell, while any OH ions are of the same composition as water, and therefore add nothing new. The electrodes were energized with 12 volts at 20 amps DC. At the surface of the electrodes the gasses, being newly formed, were mono-atomic. In this state they are highly chemically active, hydrogen having a spare electron that it would like to share in a covalent bond with oxygen, for example, reforming as water (from which it had been wrenched during the electrolysis), or joining with itself to form a molecule of H2.
The gasses were passed through a water trap to ensure their purity: that the gasses did not carry over any of the reagents in the reaction vessel, such as sodium ions or traces of the electrodes themselves. After washing, they entered a thick walled glass vial two thirds filled with distilled water were they bubbled vigorously. The bubbles were ignited by a high voltage electrical discharge causing a series of sharp explosions. After a minute of this, the apparatus was switched off, absolute
alcohol was added and the vial was stoppered. For the purposes of the proving a 30 Korsakovian potency was run up in class from this tincture. Because the product of this process is ‘new’ water, we are calling it Aqua Nova.
Ah, so science-y! And so wrong. What these homeopaths appeared to make is primarily hydrogen and oxygen gases. True, there was probably some reforming of water, but how on earth did they distinguish that relatively small amount of water reforming from the hydrogen and oxygen from the water in which they bubbled their gaseous products? This is apparently how:
Before I had fully assembled the electrolysis cell, hermetically sealing it, I exploded bubbles freshly forming on the surface above the electrodes. I did this without fear of rupturing the vessel because the bubbles were quite small. Using a burning match I set them off – and what a loud and sharp retort! It had the dog bolting out the room as if lightning had struck! When subsequently I sparked the gasses bubbling out of the tube in the collecting vessel, that explosion was of lesser magnitude. The nascent, non-atomic form, as expected, has a very short life.
In other words, these homeopaths subjected water with a little bit of sodium hydroxide in it to electrolysis and then ignited the oxygen and hydrogen formed to make water again, and then succussed it to a 30C dilution in–you guessed it!–water!
They then gave this 30C dilution of water in water to 13 provers, eleven females and two males, each of whom reported their results in a “proving diary.” The hilarious thing about these provings is that each prover apparently had profound experiences in response to this really magically diluted water. I encourage you to read them all yourself. However, I can’t resist presenting one of them just for you from Prover 5:
For me this proving was like a roller-coaster – huge ups and huge downs. The feeling before taking the remedy was one of adrenalin, the feeling in the stomach that you get just before you are blasted into space on the roller-coaster. At the end of it I was left shell shocked – a sort of ‘what the f**k was that’, like I had been catapulted back through the emotions of the last four years. Like I had been taken apart and put back together again but didn’t really know where or who I was.
In the ‘ups’ sex was plentiful, spontaneous and FUN, in the ‘downs’ I have never felt so isolated.
The main theme of the dreams was water – when I was ‘up’ I was calm in the middle of a sinking ship in a storm out at sea and when I was ‘down’ I managed to nearly drown in a sinking ship in an indoor lake (total chaos)! The other theme was of explosions – planes crashing, chaos and I was a calm observer.
Physically feelings of nausea, sore throats (2 am modality) and pain in the right knee.
Wow! That’s some seriously potent water, isn’t it? The magic is very strong in that one. Or…perhaps the symptoms had nothing to do with the remedy. It was, after all, water. Yet more than one of the provers reported high highs and low lows. Interestingly, some reported that sex was better; others reported that it was worse. In fact, the symptoms reported were all over the place. For example, one of the males reported lots of “invading thoughts about sex.” What a surprise. What male doesn’t have lots of invading thoughts about sex?
The other symptoms run the gamut from coughs, not being able to cough, deeper breathing than normal, excessive horniness, lack of interest in sex, flushing, sleeping so heavily that one can’t wake up, being unable to sleep through the night, and a large number of other contradictory symptoms. Eight of the provers had at least one headache. One of them coughed up a small amount of green phlegm, and a couple of others noticed their food tasting funny. The list goes on, including a rather puzzling symptom reported by prover 6, namely “redness of the scrotum (sustained),” noted six months later. What makes this odd is that prover 6 was listed as being female. One wonders at the power of these homeopathic remedies, one does. In any case, reading through the provings, I have to wonder how on earth a homeopath can make any sense out of the panoply of different thoughts and symptoms. The answer, of course, is that they can’t. They claim they can, but they’re just making it up as they go along, particularly given that homeopathic provings are performed with 30C dilutions which are water even when the homeopathic remedy itself isn’t water, as it was in this case.
So what did the homeopaths conclude based on this proving? I think you know: That Aqua Nova can be used to treat disease and that one can make money from it. After all, you can buy whatever dilution of Aqua Nova you want from Helios Homoeopathy. In fact, you can buy “dilutions” of water in water ranging from 6C to 10M. What is “M”? Well, given that “C” is a one hundred-fold dilution, I bet you can guess. That’s right. M equals a thousand-fold dilution. So figure out what a 10M means ten thousand-fold (103) dilutions or a dilution of 1030. Ironically, a 10M dilution is much less dilute than a 200C dilution. Be that as it may, you can also get Aqua Nova custom made into pills, capsules, and an oral liquid.
So basically, Â£5.46 gets you 8 g of sugar pills into each of which a drop of water diluted 1060-fold in more water. What a bargain! And it works too. It’s been “proven.”