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This is the first installment in what I hope to be a series of diaries examining the pseudo-science and statistics behind various popular 'alternative medicines,' such as homeopathy, naturopathy, chiropractic, spiritual healing, and acupuncture.
Long before the dawn of human civilization, our species has sought desperately to cure its physical ailments. Primal paleolithic shamans used ancient techniques to cast out wicked spirits or ward away the evils of witchcraft. The Lakotan medicine man sought the aid of Wakan Tanka to assist in healing the body or the psyche. A central facet of most religious faiths, to this day, is the existence of divinity manifesting itself in mortals through the power of healing.

Like most ancient superstition, mythos, and folklore, these ancient medical practices derived as an attempt to derive understanding from a terrifyingly inexplicable cosmos. They had no knowledge of viruses or bacteria. Blame was assigned to pernicious supernatural forces, and various powerful magicks were fashioned to combat them.

Interestingly, these ancient cures had some degree of success. Many ancient medical practitioners used barks and herbs in potions to combat ailments. We concentrate the same materials today into scientifically verified effective medicines. Willow bark, for example, was used as early as 2000 B.C.E by Egyptians to reduce fever. Today, we use salicylic acid, the active component in willow bark extract, in the creation of salicylates like Aspirin.

I often joke of various 'alternative medicines' that they have been found to be "at least as effective as a placebo." This was no less true in ancient times than today.

However, we now possess the power to examine medical claims with scientific rigour. In science, the human race finally has a tool to examine what works, what doesn't work, and why.

Regardless of this fact, many of these ancient practices (or slightly altered versions of them) exist to this day, despite the overwhelming evidence that they possess no true medicinal qualities apart from the power of the placebo effect.

This diary series will examine in depth many 'alternative medicine' claims, and do its best to relate modern scientific opinion on the subjects.

Follow me below the fold for a look at the first such examined claim- the healing properties of homeopathic dilution.

In 400 B.C.E, Hippocrates saw that large amounts of mandrake root may cause manic symptoms in a person, and suggested that a small dose of the stuff may be used to treat mania itself. As strange an extrapolation as this may seem, this very idea is at the core of homeopathy.

Let us jump forward to the early 19th century C.E. Samuel Hahnemann, a middle-aged physician grown distressed with the dangerous and ineffective medical practices of his day, sought to revolutionize his field. While poring over the work of Scottish theorist William Cullen, Hahnemann saw that Cullen advocated the use of cinchona as a malaria cure, and swiftly undertook an experiment. He orally ingested cinchona bark, and swiftly came down with fever, joint pain, and chills. Noting that these are common symptoms of malaria, he came to the rather peculiar notion that all true medicines create symptoms in healthy individuals practically identical to the illness that may be cured, and further postulated that any ingredient that causes similar symptoms would function as a cure. This brought him to the idea of the "Law of Similars," a central belief in the school of homeopathy.

(Interestingly, Oliver Wendell Holmes attempted to replicate the experiment in 1861, and experienced no ill effects from the consumption of cinchona bark. Later scientific studies found that cinchona bark is effective in combating malaria because it contains quinine, and not because it may cause fever in large doses.)

Hahnemann may not have been a particularly effective scientist by today's standards, but the man was not an idiot. He understood that introducing elements that cause distressing symptoms in already sick people may not be the safest idea. Instead, he came up with a quite elegant solution. (zing!) He proposed that medical practitioners remove the harmful effects but retain the healing properties of these ingredients by diluting them a great many times. Essentially, he advised the following actions be taken.

1. Take the operating ingredient (for instance, wolfsbane) and dilute it in a solution usually containing water, sugar, or alcohol, to the point where the operating ingredient accounts for one part per hundred of the final solution. (Today, one part per ten solutions are more common.)

2. Shake this compound thoroughly.

3. Take the new solution, and dilute the new mixture once more, again by a factor of one hundred.

4. Repeat steps  2-3 a variable amount of times. The more you dilute the mixture, the more powerful the remedy is said to be. (Hahnemann recommended a total of 30 1/100 dilutions.)

The reasons that serial dilution should be considered utter hokum are quite self-evident. After all, the 'law of similars' which homeopathic medicine claimed as its reason for functionality was disproven before the American Civil War. However, the idea of dilution itself has some grave errors behind it.

When you dilute these substances, the numbers get very big very quickly. After diluting a substance a mere four times (out of the suggested thirty), Hahnemann would have a solution that has 1 part per 100,000,000, or the allowable concentration of arsenic in United States drinking water. After diluting it 13 times out of 30, he would gain a solution that is 1 part per 100^13, or 100,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000. To put this into reference, it is the equivalent of one third of a drop of the original substance dropped into all the water on earth.

At this point, we have probably lost even a single molecule of the operating component. A few dilutions down the road, we no longer have not only no molecule of the operating component, not only no molecules of the original solution, but we no longer have any molecule at all that has come into contact with the original solution.

The dilution that Hahnemann advocated was a solution that was 1 part per 100^30, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000,000,000. On average, in order to give a single molecule of the original operating component to a patient at this dilution, it would require giving 2,000,000,000 doses per second to 6,000,000,000 people for 4,000,000,000 years.

Oscillococcinum, a homeopathic flu remedy sold today, has been diluted at a 1/10 ratio a total of 400 times. The final solution is 1 part duck liver, the operating ingredient, per 10^400, or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
000. There are approximately 10^80 molecules in the observable universe. At 80 1/10 distillations, we would reach the point where there is one molecule of the operating ingredient remaining in a solution the size of the known universe. Diluted 400 times, Oscillococcinum would require approximately 10^320 more universes to retain so much as a single molecule of its operating component. All this for the enviable price of $32.79 a box.

Homeopathic defenders claim that these solutions retain some sort of spirit-like 'essential property' despite these massive dilutions, in spite of all scientific understanding of the nature of matter and atomic make-up. However, let us call a spade a spade- even if the 'law of similars' were scientifically valid, which it certainly, demonstrably is not, these esteemed gentlemen are literally peddling the world water (sometimes, sugar water) and claiming that it will heal dangerous illnesses.
But, hey. At least it's as effective as a placebo.

Originally posted to Keille on Tue Nov 12, 2013 at 01:32 AM PST.

Also republished by Science Matters and SciTech.

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