Putting Homeopathy Into Perspective

Homeopathy is an odd concept. Its two main principles are:

1. Like cures like. So, for example, if you have headaches, confusion, vomiting and/or diarrhea, a homeopath might prescribe a preparation of arsenicum album (arsenic) because, y’see, arsenic causes those same symptoms. Yeah.

2. The more dilute the preparation, the more potent it is. Homeopaths use a method called serial dilution to reduce the amount of active ingredient, usually to the point where it’s unlikely that even a single molecule is left. So, y’know, don’t sweat that whole arsenic thing.

Just how dilute are these preparations? Well, it depends. They start at 1X (1 part in 10) and range up to (or possibly down to) 200C (1 part in 10400) but are typically 30C (1 part in 1060). Some of these numbers are hard to grasp, so we’re going to enlist the help of…

Why Felicia Day? Why not? I’d originally thought of using Colin Firth because I’d just seen “The King’s Speech” and then briefly considered Ben Affleck, just so I could use the “Powers of Ben” pun but finally settled on Felicia Day for no particular reason. Just… go with it.

1X is also the dilution used in Zicam. Preparations of this dilution contain 10% active ingredient and are therefore potentially harmful, depending on the ingredient.

1C is usually the starting point for serial dilution. You start with a 1:100 dilution (1C), then dilute some of that 1:100 (2C), and again (3C) and so on. So, each additional C becomes 100 times more dilute than the previous.

At 3C, you’re looking at a one part per million dilution. This is roughly the amount of fluoride in drinking water. So, still at potentially active levels.

At 4C, arsenic would be diluted to the point where it’s reasonably safe for drinking water (10 parts per billion).

OK, sure, the world population isn’t quite 10 billion yet and probably won’t be for a couple more decades but we’re in the ballpark at least. Most of these illustrations are within an order of magnitude or so.

Now, let’s skip ahead a bit…
12C is about the point where a beaker of the stuff has about a 50/50 chance of having even one molecule of active ingredient. Note: The number of planets in the universe isn’t actually known and 1 septillion is probably on the high side, estimation-wise.

And, skipping ahead a bit more…
Just to clarify, you’d need the entire mass of the universe to dilute Felicia Day to 26C.

At this point, I ran out of increasingly bizarre comparisons to illustrate the numbers involved. But the recommended dilution for most purposes is 30C, which is 8 orders of magnitude more dilute than 26C. That means you’d need 100 million universes per Felicia Day. That’s a lot of universes.

Steve DeGroof

Steve consists of approximately 60% water and 40% organic molecules, arranged in a configuration that is, among over things, capable of describing itself in this manner.

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  1. What would you use a 30C solution of Felicia Day for? I suppose priapism? I haven’t actually met Felicia Day in person, so I might be wrong.

  2. So what you are saying, is that no matter were I go in this universe, I’m moving about in a concentration of 26c of Felicia Day. I’m not sure how I should feel about that, because if that were true and since Rush Limbaugh is slightly more massive than Felicia, I am therefor moving around in a more concentrated solution of Rush Limbaugh, which by homeopathic logic would be much weaker. I’m too confused. I blame it on the 26Cs of David Hasselhoff I am currently experiencing.

  3. “I blame it on the 26Cs of David Hasselhoff I am currently experiencing.” COTW! (do we do those here? We should!)

  4. I think we’ll be able to come up with something similar. We’ve got a lot cooking on our art-stove. (what?)

  5. “But homeopathic remedies work! My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who’s going with the girl who used homeopathic remedies for his herpesyphilpnmeumoniaids and it totally worked!” – The entire argument for homeopathy from what I’ve gathered.

  6. I thought the universe had next to no mass according to that lady on YouTube or something…

  7. 30C is ridiculous, but some do 200C! I took a relative to their chiropractor recently (I figured if I didn’t he would call a taxi and I also wanted to see what goes on in there…she sold him $5 worth of supplements for $50 and 2 weeks later did it again). She had some $30 packages of Oscillococcinum, which was 12 doses. I looked on the back and the only ingredients are sucrose and lactose.
    From Quackwatch:

    Oscillococcinum, a 200C product “for the relief of colds and flu-like symptoms,” involves “dilutions” that are even more far-fetched. Its “active ingredient” is prepared by incubating small amounts of a freshly killed duck’s liver and heart for 40 days. The resultant solution is then filtered, freeze-dried, rehydrated, repeatedly diluted, and impregnated into sugar granules. If a single molecule of the duck’s heart or liver were to survive the dilution, its concentration would be 1 in 100200. This huge number, which has 400 zeroes, is vastly greater than the estimated number of molecules in the universe…

  8. OMG. I was JUST looking for an article to post about homeopathy because my husband and I were raggin’ on Zicam at Target today 😛 I took a break to mess around twitter and saw Phil Plait tweet this. LOVE it.

  9. Some additional info…

    1 Felicia Day is roughly 3×10^28 daltons (atomic mass units). So, to convert Felicia Day dilutions to hydrogen atom dilutions just add 14 to the C number (give or take). For heavy metals and organic compounds the number’s probably closer to 13.

    The other Felicias pictured are: Chin, Brandström, Farr and Barton.

  10. As the Nature paper debunking demonstrated, they don’t wash their glassware very well. Are you sure you want to try a 100C solution of arsenic?

  11. The universe would a much sadder place without Felicia Day. I hope that there is a Felicia Day in all the parallel universes, for their sake.

  12. This must be the most cost-effective system of medicine ever devised. One duck liver will provide enough vegan-friendly cold remedies for the entire planet for the next 20,000,000 years.

  13. All comments to-date are very amusing, but one thing you’ve failed to grasp is that Homeopathy doesn’t work on chemistry or classical physics, but on Classical Quantum Mechanics.

    There’s a classic QM concept known as the “Copenhagen Interpretation” which states that “a system exists in a superposition of all possible states until observed, and it’s the act of observation that forces the system into a single-valued state.”

    Since no one actually submits a dose of a Homeopathic Medicine to an atom-by-atom audit, the dose exists in a superposition of all possible states simultaneously, and those states include the highly-unlikely state that all the Arsenic atoms in the original dilution ended up in your dose, along with the more-likely states that some unknown number of Arsenic atoms are in the dose you take.

    The dose you take has the properties of all possible numbers of Arsenic atoms from the first dilution to the likeliest state where only a fraction of an Arsenic atom (!) exists in the dose. Please note that this makes the “pure water” in the dose still have the effect of having some unknown numbers of Arsenic atoms in solution, and those unknown number of Arsenic atoms still have chemical properties capable of swapping places with other “real” Arsenic atoms which have entered into chemical bonds in the human host.

    Since a fractionally-possible Arsenic atom is “real” for the time proportional to the likelihood that it exists (lets say there’s a 50/50 chance it exists in the dose), then the Arsenic atom is “real” 50% of the time, and disappears the other 50% of the time. That’s just what someone who’s been exposed to “real” Arsenic in the water supply needs to get the Arsenic out of his system.

    This can be tested and proved/disproved in the field, using scientific methods.

    As it happens, it *has* been tested in India, where they drink Arsenic-poisoned ground water, and the tests have shown that Homeopathic Arsenic compounds demonstrated quantifiable results. (Just do a Google search & you’ll find the research article.)

    So, funny as it is to jest about Homeopathy, you need a course in Quantum Mechanics to really understand how it *does* work.

  14. @wmcarterelliott: No. Tests all over the world have shown that homeopathy does not work, once you do double blinded studies to eliminate placebo effects and researcher bias. A single study, in Bangladesh, not India, if I’ve found the same study you refer to (I “just did a google search”), published in a homeopathy journal will not overturn that.

    So your attempt to explain it through QM is premature since the effects are not in evidence. It’s also nonsense. Atoms don’t participate in chemical reactions as 50/50 probabilities. If that’s what you took away from your course in QM, you did it wrong.

  15. wmcarterelliot is handwaving the stat mechanics and has it totally wrong. The number of states where there are zero As atoms in the dose massively outweighs all the states where there are one or more As atoms.

    He also misunderstands the Copenhagen interpretation.

    Third, a citation for the India study or it didn’t happen. You’re making the claim, you do the googling.

  16. All comments to-date are very amusing, but one thing you’ve failed to grasp is that Homeopathy doesn’t work on chemistry or classical physics, but on Classical Quantum Mechanics.

    You do realize in your infinite wisdom that chemistry actually works on classical quantum mechanics also right? My introduction chemistry book actually shows the fundamental basics of quantum mechanics because without that the reality behind simple concepts such as molecular bonding becomes obscured. You are criticizing us for not knowing even know the simplest of concepts from which you are basing your argument over.

    He also misunderstands the Copenhagen interpretation.

    He actually didn’t even get the name correct. He confused the Copenhagen interpretation with the observer effect. Even then he got the concept completely wrong. Technically, in the context of actually quantum physics any sort of interaction will collapse the wave function meaning that the water almost certainly contains no arsenic..

  17. “Since no one actually submits a dose of a Homeopathic Medicine to an atom-by-atom audit, the dose exists in a superposition of all possible states simultaneously, and those states include the highly-unlikely state that all the Arsenic atoms in the original dilution ended up in your dose, along with the more-likely states that some unknown number of Arsenic atoms are in the dose you take.”

    i don’t remember anyone doing an atom-by-atom audit of that glass of tap water i just drank, therefore it must include all possible combinations of water and arsenic molecules – that should be a pretty good homeopathic medicine. actually, since it wasn’t analyzed for anything at all, i’d say it is pretty well guaranteed to contain a potent mixture of every homeopathic medicine known to mankind. furthermore, i haven’t looked at my bank account today, so i’m virtually certain that i’m the richest person in the world.

  18. I have epilepsy. For the uninformed, that means I’m prone to seizures.

    Black Cohosh causes seizures. I take a tincture of Black Cohosh daily to *stop* seizures.

    Before I became intelligent enough to favor natural remedies over gimmicky science, I used to take Dilantin for my seizures. The working ingredient of Dilantin is a derivative of Black Cohosh, mixed with an incredible number of unnecessary chemicals.

    With Dilantin, I had half the seizures I had without Dilantin. Taking Black Cohosh, I have *no* seizures.

    Homeopathic medicine works. If you took the time to study it, instead of just making fun of it, you would know this.

  19. You missed the point of homeopathy. We are not concerned with molecules here but the energies of the substances used. And your rather peculiar analogy of the proportions involved does not stand up either, cute though it was (to put a positive spin on it).
    many doctors use homeopathy very effectively. Since it is so dilute it must work on an energetic level, something science appears to be blind to (if you think science can’t be blind in the face of empirical studies and evidence think ulcers & h pylori amongst others). many of these so calles scientific studies are performed by scientists who have literally sold their souls to big pharma (check out the recent article in Discover magazine just a few months ago for a populist science view). It’s in their interest to do so as homeopathy doesn not have the funding that the big companies have.
    Of course, there are those who say that energetic medicine is pure bunkum, but practices like Reiki and Healing Touch do work – why else would hospitals across North america start to run such treatments? I personally have benefitted from these treatments when “modern” medicine has been unable. And of course we have all heard of miracle drugs that are no better themselves than placebos.
    So before you start to pour scorn and derision on something you obviously have little grasp of, try doing some research, some proper research and leave this sort of sensationalism (complete with Felicia Day in whatever proportion you have decided upon) to the tabloids.

  20. @plug199:
    It's you that really needs to do the research, and maybe take a few fundamental Physics and Chemistry undergraduate classes.  You'd soon learn that these mysterious "energies" don't exist.
    Neither does any solid imperical evidence that Homeopathy works.  The only thing so far proven is that the Placebo effect is an utterly fascinating aspect of psychology and one that merits plenthy of investigation.

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