Testing Homeopathy

Jonathan Strickland

Prill Mediendesign & Fotografie/iStock/Thinkstock

I find our world to be somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, we have scientific projects uncovering the Higgs boson, discovering evidence of gravitational waves and looking for signs of dark matter. On the other, we have people practicing (and even more people believing in) alternative medicine procedures that are completely unsubstantiated by science. What an odd situation.

Using scientific methods to test the efficacy of alternative medicine is absolutely critical. Recently, Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council sponsored a meta analysis of studies looking at the effectiveness of homeopathy, a popular alternative medicine practice.

What is homeopathy? Well, the central premise is that "like cures like." So let's say a homeopathic practitioner has a patient exhibiting certain symptoms. The practitioner then looks for a substance that would create similar symptoms within a healthy person. Next, the practitioner creates a solution by diluting a small amount of the symptom-causing substance. And then dilutes it again. And again.

Ultimately, the solutions produced in homeopathy may have no traceable elements of the symptom-causing substances. In other words, you end up with what is essentially just water. But, according to homeopathy, molecules retain some sort of memory of the substance being there. This claimed memory-retaining property is what supposedly makes the solution ideal for treating the patient.

The report looked at 57 reviews of clinical studies examining the efficacy of homeopathy. It found two things: that there aren't very many good clinical studies that demonstrate scientific rigor and that homeopathy fails to demonstrate any sort of effectiveness in treating clinical conditions in humans.

What does this mean for Australia? It could lead lawmakers to end a 30-percent rebate on health insurance coverage for "complementary therapies." If there's no scientific support for a treatment, why dedicate money to it?

Honestly, I have a hard time even seeing how homeopathy can stand up to casual observation. I'm not aware of any mechanism for molecular memory. And if a solution retains a "memory" of a substance that was once inside it, how the heck can you control for that? The water that's around us today has been around for billions of years. That water has come into contact with a lot of stuff! Shouldn't drinking just plain water cure everything if homeopathy works?

Ultimately, I hope that studies like these help us hone in on the actual medical procedures and treatments that are supported by science and that actually help people. I don't want people to lose hope -- I just want them to place their hope in the right place.