How much for the sugar water?

Peter
Peter Jackson
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Last week, CBC-TV’s “Marketplace” aired a program called “Homeopathy: Cure or Con?” There was little doubt about the answer to that question.

Homeopathy is, of course, a complete and utter fraud. Substances — of questionable efficacy to begin with — are diluted to such an astronomical extent as to be totally non-existant. Patients then consume small doses and convince themselves it works.

Europe does a thriving commercial trade. The French-based company Boiron takes in about $20 million in profit a year on sales of homeopathic products. This sugar water has become almost as mainstream as conventional medications.

I’ve written about this nonsense before: the mysterious catalogue of animal, mineral and vegetable curing agents; the absence of even a single molecule after dilutions that reach one in 10 to the power of 20, 30 and more (one drop in a solar system-sized bucket).

When Samuel Hahnemann founded homeopathy in the early 1800s, he likely had little appreciation for its scientific impossibilities. He was more concerned about the primitive practices of fellow physicians, who were still conducting blood lettings and administering any variety of deadly toxins. The new watery solutions would have been a welcome relief from cures that were worse than the disease.

But there is no excuse for such garbage today.

You can see the “Marketplace” episode online at cbc.ca/marketplace. Its airing was timely, since the Ontario government is planning to regulate homeopathy, which some warn would provide undue credibility. Of course, regulation could also crush the industry under a greater burden of proof.

There is one key facet of the homeopathy hoax that CBC only referenced in passing. That is the notion that water with no trace of the original agent still retains a “memory” of it.

The idea that water has memory is laughable on its face (one comedian quipped he’d be mortified about what it might recall after he’s taken a shower).

Brick wall

In fact, the concept never really gained steam (no pun intended) until homeopaths were faced with the brick wall of modern science.

The hero of the water memory theory was French researcher Jacques Benveniste. But you don’t have to go very far back to examine his legacy; his studies took place in the 1980s.

Benveniste, who died in 2004, was already studying the reaction of blood cells to diluted allergens when a homeopath asked that he extrapolate his research to encompass homeopathic dimensions.

The culmination was an article touting successful experiments in a 1988 edition of the journal Nature.

John Maddox, Nature editor at the time, insisted, as a condition of publishing the water memory study, that his own team be allowed to monitor a repeat performance. In double-blind testing — where the researchers didn’t know which solutions were test samples and which were benign control samples, the test failed miserably. It failed, of course, because all the solutions were effectively benign.

Nonetheless, others have since claimed success with water memory experiments, all invariably in less-than-vigorous conditions. And, as with most pseudoscience, some of the researchers had vested interests in the results.

One member of Benveniste’s team, Philippe Belon, participated in further “independent” studies, even though he was director of research with Boiron.

Water doesn’t have “memory” any more than the walls have ears or the hills have eyes. Even if it did, it would have to “know” how to distinguish the initial ingredient from all the other trace elements floating around in the test tube.

Defending art

Homeopaths are very eloquent in defence of their treasured art. Celebrities, royalty and normally rational and highly astute people partake of this charade with barely a shred of skepticism.

At any rate, it is not the gullibility or defiance of those who fail to see the truth that is galling. It is the profits shamelessly siphoned off such chicanery that is unacceptable. And it should be stopped.

The comedy duo That Mitchell and Webb Look produced a clever skit about an emergency room run by homeopaths. In the final scene, a colleague is trying to console his fellow doctor after losing yet another patient. He sums it up perfectly:

“OK, so you kill the odd patient with cancer or heart disease — or bronchitis, flu, chicken pox or measles — but when someone comes in with a vague sense of unease or a touch of the nerves, or just more money than sense, you’ll be there for them, bottle of basically just water in one hand and a huge invoice in the other.”

Peter Jackson is The Telegram’s commentary editor. He can be contacted by email at pjackson@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: CBC, Boiron

Geographic location: Europe, Ontario

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Recent comments

  • Dr. Nancy Malik
    October 11, 2011 - 03:48

    The list has been updated. Now it's 204 human studies published in 86 peer-reviewed international medical journals out of which 96+ are FULL TEXT out of which 94 are PDF which can be downloaded at http://bit.ly/rrpWCm

    • Peter Jackson
      October 13, 2011 - 14:12

      Nancy: It is patently untrue that homeopathy has been repeatedly proven efficacious by clinical studies. You can cite as high a number as you want, but the truth is in the parameters of those studies. I quote from a recent British parliamentary report (website below) that assessed comprehensive reviews of homeopathy research. 69. The review which we consider the most comprehensive to date is that by Shang et al.88 The review compared 110 placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy matched according to disorder and type of outcome to trials of conventional medicine. The study only included trials that were controlled, included randomised assignment to treatment or placebo groups and were accompanied by sufficient data for odds ratio calculations.89 The authors concluded that “when analyses were restricted to large trials of higher quality there was no convincing evidence that homeopathy was superior to placebo”.90 70 Their conclusion, in so many words, was that homeopathy is pure quackery. http://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-archive/science-technology/s-t-homeopathy-inquiry/

  • Dr. Nancy Malik
    January 24, 2011 - 01:26

    @ron - January 20th, 2011 at 07:05:50 169 studies in support of homeopathy medicine published in 74 peer-reviewed international medical journals http://u.voizle.com/homeopathy2

  • Nessie
    January 19, 2011 - 08:35

    I bet none of the people who have blasted you here for your views on homeopathy, based on CBC-TV’s “Marketplace Documentary, didn't watch the show last week when it was aired. Therefore they did not see the tests performed in the Laboratories on the so-called homeopathy medicines that were selected, which were so diluted they proved to have had almost no, if any active ingredient. On that show I watched many people in a group take a whole bottle of homeopathy pills that they were subscribing to for their inflictions, including pills to bring on sleep, with no effect whatsoever. After saying what I said on Homeopathy medicine, I despise the Pharma Industry as well, since it has a lot of concoctions that are very, very damaging to people's health and I think in many cases lead some people to an early death. The sick are prescribed medicines by Doctors for certain ailments only to find that their medicines have caused other major problems. I can think of a colleague of mine from my grm who was prescribed medication for one problem and then developed a serious, near death liver disease. The best medication for those with their mobility is exercise! It beats every other type of medication on the market today. When I go to my gym and do my daily walk I feel as if I had taken the best medicines in the World.

  • Dr. Nancy Malik
    January 19, 2011 - 00:38

    Real is scientific homeopathy. It cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails. Evidence-based modern homeopathy is a nano-medicine bringing big results for everyone

    • ron
      January 19, 2011 - 22:51

      Evidence Dr. Malik? You are making some pretty bold claims. Please back them up.

  • Peter Jackson
    January 18, 2011 - 20:05

    Anatoli: If you want to specifically challenge my facts, feel free to do so. If you are alleging that I have been "bought" by the pharma industry, I suggest you put your money where your mouth is and provide your real name.

  • Anatoli
    January 18, 2011 - 16:51

    Peter, you are either incredibly ignorant, or sold your soul to pharma bandits. This cheap anti-commercial accompanied by pre-paid comments is so sad.

  • FRIGHTENING
    January 18, 2011 - 12:31

    Let us refresh our memories regarding the dot com bubble of the late 1990s which burst in the year 2000. IPOs (Initial Public Offerings) were flying off the shelf almost daily on supposedly great Information Technology Companies, some of whose stocks didn't rise a penny after they were released and went down the tube shortly after, only to find out after the fact that those sold called corporations were just 'Concepts' or empty entities right from the beginning. Why can't we learn if something sounds too good to be true, then most likely it isn't true. Each decade it seems sees THAT generation's investors lose their hard earned retriement packages to the deviant crooks of society, who set out to pull the wool over their investors' eyes right from the beginning. I could name hundreds here of that ilk, but I will let you do the research on that yourself. All I will say now is it is time for us to become aware and make sure what we are consuming is legit. Snake Sales-people have been around for ever and despite the mass and rapid communication of today whch reaches our ears in second, that really should put us all in the know, human beings are really gullible people and no amount of communcation will change that. We will keep falling into the oily, greasy traps of those Snake Sales-people time and time again, and maybe forever. Who know?

  • Frightening
    January 18, 2011 - 09:29

    Peter, Thanks for the article on this supposedly quack industry, but it is no different than a lot of the other industries and Ponzi Schemes that have been created over the past 30 years of the so-called Global Free Trade Movement. Surely we must all remember the crisis that erupted in the Global Financial Industry in 2008 that brought the World's economy to its knees, and saw some of the largest banks in the World collapse because of the Quack Derivitative Funds they were pushing. If we, the ordinary citizens, don't wake up to reality and have our voices heard, it will continue into the future. Will we ,who consume the products of the Homeopathy Industry, continue to buy and consume their products knowing full well that any benefit derived from them is merely a placebo effect? If that Industry continues with the results that we were presented with by CBC-TV’s “Marketplace last week, well then you know the state of the brainpower of the consumer who is keeping the quack industries alive. Of, course, now we will have to wait an see the results on that one. It is only time that will tell, but in the meantime if those consumers are so weak in the mind that they think they have to take a pill, any pill, to feel well, I can't even contemplate what is going to happen to state of such people. Will they fall over the edge of the cliff? It is too frightening to even contemplate!

    • alokpalresha
      January 19, 2011 - 01:06

      poor Peter .... just search homeopathy and India .....then u will understand wat is homeopathy or visit some websites and research related to homeopathy....and latest one by IIT bombay and nano technology... its just lack of knowledge which is making u say this.... or come to my homeopathic hospital in india ..see the results by yourself ....then u will not repeat this quackery