Another day, another mild headache from the incessant humming of the fluorescent lights in the office. Fortunately, there’s a Whole Foods on your way home from work. Aspirin can upset your stomach, so you decide to choose a gentler natural or maybe herbal remedy for your pain. No harm in that. After all, some of these products have been used for centuries so they’re probably effective and almost certainly harmless. Conveniently located at the checkout counter, there are boxes with the words “Homeopathic Headache Remedy” and some pictures of plants on them. It’s probably what your great grandmother would have taken, just gussied up a bit and put in a box, right?
Wrong. What you’ve actually bought is a box of sugar pills with absolutely nothing herbal or natural in it whatsoever. It is not a safer or more natural alternative to modern pharmacology, except to the extent that sugar is both safe and natural. Your headache will disappear eventually, but certainly not due to the contents of the box.
How can this happen? Why does Whole Food sell sugar pills? As an allegedly responsible company concerned with their customers and the planet, why would they possibly be involved in such a fraud?
Homeopathy is an anti-scientific fraud masquerading as natural medicine
Homeopathy is generally considered to be an “alternative medicine,” like herbal cures, traditional Chinese medicine, or vitamin supplements. As herbal and traditional medicines have generally been part of folk remedies for centuries, one naturally assumes that the same is true of homeopathy, but it is not. Homeopathy was invented whole cloth by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, at the end of the 18th century. It is not based on any previous medical tradition. Instead, it’s based on three basic principles Hahnemann came up with:
- Like cures like. Substances that produce adverse outcomes in healthy people will cure those same conditions in unhealthy people.
- Dilution increases potency. Solutions of the original substance are systematically diluted, with each dilution increasing the effectiveness of the cure.
- Succussion. At each stage of dilution, the mixture is “succused” – i.e. shaken – by a patented shaking machine.
The first principle may sound scientific since it’s sort of how vaccines work. But, the difference between introducing a small amount of a virus to your immune system and ingesting a small amount of a random harmful substance is actually quite big. For example, one homeopathic remedy for indigestion with nausea is made from antimony. Antimony is a highly toxic metal that causes vomiting if ingested. The homeopathic argument is that by diluting the antimony, it will therefore cure vomiting. But, what about all the other things that cause vomiting? Could I just as easily make a dilution of toxic brake fluid and use that to cure nausea? According to Hahnemann’s principles, why not?
The second principle – the idea that a homeopathic remedy becomes more effective the more it is diluted – is almost too much to believe. In fact, most homeopathic remedies sold (such as the above-mentioned antimony cure) are diluted so much that there is not even a single molecule of the original compound remaining. Think of that: the “antimony” pills that you might buy to cure nausea are virtually guaranteed not to contain any antimony. Literally everything that we know about physics, chemistry, biology, and science in general tells us that this idea is nonsense. Homeopathic believers will argue that the water in which the chemical is diluted retains a “memory” of the original chemical and that this memory becomes stronger with successive dilutions, hence the effect. It goes without saying that this effect has never been observed by any scientist in any reputable experiment, yet even if water memory were true, why on earth would it become stronger with further dilutions?
As for the principle of succussion, well, it is hard to take seriously. Remedies are systematically shaken in things called potentizers and without this vitally important and silly step, all potency would be lost. Here’s a video showing how a homeopathic remedy is shaken, not stirred:
Presumably, when people hear about these principles, they must assume that there is a great deal of evidence behind them, as no one would believe something this utterly bizarre if there weren’t.
The proof is not in the pudding
There have been many experiments, studies, reviews, meta-analyses, reviews of reviews, and comparative studies done on the efficacy of homeopathy. A recent review from The Lancet concluded that, “the clinical effects of homoeopathy are placebo effects.” A scientific study committee reporting to the British Parliament found that, “the evidence base shows that homeopathy is not efficacious” and that “further clinical trials of homeopathy could not be justified.” Virtually every other large scale scientific study has reached the same conclusion: homeopathy is no more effective than a placebo, which is to say, no better than any other sugar pill.
So why does Whole Foods sell snake oil?
Homeopathy does not come from traditional medicine and should definitely not be confused with herbal medicine, although both are commonly referred to as “alternative medicine.” It is not based on any plausible scientific theory. It has not been proven to be effective at anything. And yet, it is readily available for sale in many upscale grocery stores and pharmacies such as Whole Foods and Pharmaca. Why do they do this?
When confronted by Big Picture Science about their decision to sell homeopathic products, Whole Foods responded that, “because homeopathic remedies are safe and believed to by many to be effective, we will continue to carry them in our stores.” In other words, as long as homeopathic remedies are effective in separating people from their money, they will continue to be sold. Despite the overwhelming preponderance of evidence, Whole Foods cherry picks the record to suggest that there is “disagreement in the scientific community” regarding homeopathy and that, of course, “there is a clear need for further research in this area.” Where have we heard that before?
You’d think that a company that claims to be in favor of environmental protection and customer health might also try to avoid fleecing consumers. Perhaps I’m too optimistic.
Paul SanGiorgio is a physicist currently living in Berkeley, California, who loves fresh organic produce as much as the next guy, but wishes that he didn’t have to implicitly support pseudo-science every time he bought avocados.