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).
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.
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 email@example.com.