In February, magician James Randi offered $1 million in a challenge to the manufacturers of homeopathic products to prove their claims. He also asked major drugstore retailers to discontinue carrying these "fake medicines."
Randi, the recipient of a prestigious MacArthur "genius" grant, is the founder/chair of the James Randi Educational Foundation, which promotes critical thinking by investigating paranormal and supernatural claims. For many years, another million dollars has also been available "to anyone who can show, under proper observing conditions, evidence of any paranormal, supernatural, or occult power or event."
Yet, the money remains in an escrow account, earning interest, unclaimed by hundreds of applicants. Now it's time for the homeopathic community to get at Randi's money. And it doesn't take a psychic to see that this money will also likely earn interest in an escrow account for years to come.
According to the Homeopathic Pharmacopoeia of the United States, homeopathy is "the art and the science of healing the sick by using substances capable of causing the same symptoms, syndromes and conditions when administered to healthy people." It is based on the concept similia similibus curentur, a Latin expression for "let likes be cured by likes." Developed by German physician Samuel Hahnemann in his 1810 publication Organon of Rational Therapeutics (now referred to as Organon of Medicine), homeopathy has held a controversial relationship in the medical profession. The homeopathic medical school, Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, stopped focusing on homeopathy in 1920, and ceased offering even elective courses in homeopathy in the 1940s.
Yet, these products continue to be sold, resulting in wide-ranging reactions about their efficacy. Other than anecdotal documents, scientific testing has not established that "like cures like." In fact, it's not based on any law of nature or even logic. Follow along with this: a typical remedy involves diluting the relevant ingredients in ever-increasing amounts of distilled water (often mixed with ethyl alcohol) and shaking — or what homeopaths call "succussion" — to the point that barely any molecules of the original substance are left in the preparation. This process results in the "potentization" of the original ingredients and liberates the essence and energy of the substances into the preparation.
In other words, and scientifically contradictory, homeopathic remedies are made powerful by serial dilutions and shakings, even though only trace amounts remain of the original ingredients or none at all. Analogies colorfully describe the equivalent dilution: a pinch of salt in the Atlantic Ocean or, as Hahnemann himself said, a bottle of poison in Lake Geneva.
Take as an example Arsenicum album, a very popular homeopathic ingredient derived from arsenic. Too much can kill you but diluted to the point that it's virtually undetectable is supposedly helpful in curing the very symptoms that arsenic causes: headaches, confusion, diarrhea, drowsiness and convulsions (but presumably not death). And while we're at it, toss in anxiety, asthma, food poisoning, flu, psoriasis, flaky scalp, dry eczema, nasal discharge, sore throat and pink eye. The critical thinker should always wonder about any one product that claims to do so much, let alone with a preparation that is chemically barely more than water.
Needless to say, this stretches the skeptical imagination and begs for some scientific research. Or even a personal demonstration: Randi, in his own one-person experiment, swallowed an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping pills with nary a nodding head.
But let's hear from real scientists. Edzard Ernst, the first professor of complementary medicine in England and former homeopath, scientifically reviews and studies alternative practices. With much controversy, his 2009 American Journal of Medicine article with Michael Baum claimed that "Homeopathy is among the worst examples of faith-based medicine that gathers shrill support of celebrities and other powerful lobbies in place of a genuine and humble wish to explore the limits of our knowledge using the scientific method." The authors concluded after reviewing numerous studies that "so far homeopathy has failed to demonstrate efficacy in randomized controlled trials and systematic reviews of well designed studies."
Really though, what's the harm if at worst it's just another proof of the power of placebo? Surely you wouldn't mind if your cold went away six or seven days after taking the homeopathic preparation!
What are the ethical, moral and public health issues when pushing a homeopathic remedy to prevent malaria that is 99.99 percent water with hardly a trace of quinine? And what about the "natural" preparation that promises to cure HIV/AIDS by "oxygenating the cells" and bringing your T-cells back to normal? Or, as a website exclaims: "Approximately 15,000 European Doctors, Naturopaths, and Homeopaths have supplied this amazing remedy to more than 10 million people during the past 70 years to heal over 50 different diseases."
Being skeptical and thoroughly investigating remedies that defy physics and chemistry can help you avoid taking homeopathic substances that may be safe but not effective. More importantly, these treatments could prevent you from trying ones that actually work. Figuring out what works best with established scientific methodologies is the million-dollar question worth pursuing.