Very recently, I’ve had an occasion to cross swords with a close friend, a working molecular biologist, whose inexplicable belief in homeopathy flabbergasted me. I do know that we Indians have a culturally-conditioned, deep and abiding faith in many modalities of quackery, including homeopathy which is very popular in India. Nevertheless, I’d have expected someone like my friend, who has delved deep into the inner workings of cells, to naturally outgrow such infantile belief systems. Clearly, I was mistaken – but more about that later.
This post is a brief (hopefully!) primer on homeopathic dilutions. Hahneman, the founder of homeopathy, believed that there is a ‘spirit’ responsible for different manifestations of life and termed it Vital Force (Aphorism 10 of Hahnemann’s Organon of Medicine) – without which “The material organism […] is capable of no sensation, no function, no self preservation; it derives all sensations, and performs all functions of life solely by means of the immaterial being (the vital force) which animates the material organism in health and disease.” In this form of primitive, atavistic belief system (for Hahnemann was no Jedi!), disease is caused when this mythical vital force is deranged, which leads to the abnormal sensations, signs and symptoms – together constituting the disease.
Hahnemann decided that the ‘medicine’ required for proper healing must be used in the smallest of quantities. This small quantity was expected to produce least possible excitation of the vital force, while being sufficient to cause gentle, remedial changes to that force. Thus was born his Law of Minimum (a.k.a. Law of Infinitesimal; Aphorism 246), and this concept lead to the that of potentization, a process in which serial dilutions of the homeopathic remedy along with vigorous shaking (a.k.a. succussion) was expected to increase its efficacy or “potency”.
In homeopathy, dilutions of 1:10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (1X = 1:10, 3X = 1:1,000, 6X = 1:1,000,000). This is the designation popular in amongst Indian homeopaths. Related to this, a factoid that emerged in course of the conversation with my friend is quite interesting (and the main inspiration behind this post): my friend was apparently under the impression that the ‘X’ designations used for homeopathic dilutions in India (such as 6X, 30X, 200X) referred to concentrations!
Now, I realize that this may easily be a common mis-perception for those of us that work at the bench, because there we often do refer to concentrations of stock solutions in terms of ‘X’ (higher X = more concentrated; e.g. 2X phosphate buffer, with double quantities of all components in a given volume; 5X NaCl, a five times concentrated saline solution; 6X Gel-loading buffer, and so forth). What I don’t know is whether Indian homeopaths, knowing this, deliberately play up the X designations for their dilutions.
Semyon Nicolaevich Korsakov (1788-1853), a Russian landowner and clerk in the Ministry of Internal Affairs of that country, invented a quicker way of preparing high dilutions. In the Korsakov method of ‘potentization’ (which Hahnemann approved in 1832), the container with the remedy is shaken (‘succussed’) and then just emptied and refilled, and the dilution factor is assumed to be 1:100 – one ‘centesimal’ or ‘C’ to the homeopath. This is the preferred dilution designation in many European country. So the first dilution produces 1C; second dilution of this 1C – done in the same way – is called 2C, where the original remedy is in effect diluted 1:10,000, or 1:(1002). In preparing Korsakov potencies, distilled water is used rather than alcohol (sometimes, only after the 30th dilution), which is cost effective when, for example, the dilution steps have to repeated 200 times, to get a dose of 200K (200 Korsakov dilutions; a.k.a. 200C or 200CK; “CK” stands for “centesimal Korsakovian”). The resulting fluid is used to moisten small 5 mg globules (balls) of lactose, and sold as the remedy.
I’d like my readers to appreciate that going by the same rule, at 3C, the original substance is diluted 1:1,000,000 and is present at 0.0001%. At the commonly sold homeopathic dose of 6C, the dilution is 1:(1006), or 1:1012. Therefore, at 12C or 24X, what is known as the Avogadro’s Limit is crossed, and the laws of chemistry and physics indicate it unlikely that a single molecule from the original substance will remain in the solution. Avogadro’s Constant (approximated to 6.022×1023 mol-1) expresses the number of elementary entities per mole of substance. To illustrate, one mole of pure Sodium Chloride, the common salt, has a mass of 58.443g and contains ~6.022×1023 molecules; this much Sodium Chloride dissolved in 1 liter of water produces a 1 molar (1M) saline solution. If this solution is to be then diluted by the Korsakov method, at 12C the dilution would be 1:1024, and a single molecule of Sodium Chloride may not remain in it. Now consider that homeopathic remedies are often diluted to 30C or even 200C. I hope you can appreciate the absurdity of this proposition.
The so-called “laws” of homeopathy devised by Samuel Hahnemann are rooted in superstition and pre-scientific magical beliefs about the human body, and are contradicted by our accumulated knowledge of past two centuries about biology, physiology, anatomy, pharmacology, physics and chemistry. The claims of homeopaths are not backed by any solid scientific evidence; homeopathic remedies, when tested under rigorous conditions, fail to work better than plain sugar pills.
The fact that people, anecdotally, still report feeling better after taking homeopathic remedies (better referred to as ‘quack nostra’) points to Placebo Effects, which are vague nonspecific effects of uncertain provenance, unrelated to the remedy being used. In many cases, homeopaths claim success in conditions that are essentially self-limiting. Oftentimes, unregulated, untested and potentially dangerous herbal products, containing some active principle (therefore, not technically homeopathic), also appear in the market under the sobriquet ‘homeopathic product’. A recent example is that of Zicam, labeled “homeopathic remedy”, which caused permanent loss of smell (anosmia) in patients using it as a cold remedy, and was subsequently withdrawn from the market under pressure from the FDA. A nice summary of homeopathic modalities is at Quackwatch.
Homeopathy as a treatment modality is implausible, unproven despite a good number of studies, and unsurprisingly ineffective. Yet, homeopaths in many countries – with their flawed understanding of the disease process – continue to make claims about serious conditions that the placebo effect could not possibly treat or cure, such cancer, HIV infection, malaria, yellow fever, autism, tuberculosis, and so forth. Therefore, accepting homeopathy as a viable alternative to conventional medicine lends it undue legitimacy that has the potential of causing real harm.
Kausik- really great work on both of your posts!!! You may be interested to know thatWorld Homeopathy Awareness Week is April 10-16…..just thought I should flag it to you all 🙂
Thank you, Laura, and thanks for the shout-out towards WHAW, too. Last year, we had lots of fun during WHAW – with many pseudoscience-debunking bloggers (such as Orac, Andy Lewis, Prof. David Colquhoun, bloggers at Science Based Medicine, our very own Austin Elliot, amongst other luminaries) weighing in at full steam. Let’s see if we can top that this year!
Here’s the problem Kaushik: half-knowledge is dangerous! And people like you pose serious harm to the scientific community. Advances in scientific research do show that extreme dilutions retain the starting properties. Please try to do some research on the latest developments before posting your rants!
For your own benefit, here are some links:
http://www.homeopathyeurope.org/media/news/nobel-prize-winner-reports-effects-of-homeopathic-dilutions – study by Professor Luc Montagnier
http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20970092 – study by Chikramane PS, Suresh AK, Bellare JR, Kane SG at IIT Bombay
Bwahahahahaha! Haha! … Oh wait! Was that a serious response? You know, I do grow weary of know-nothing charlatans lecturing me on “advance in scientific research” in support of quack magic-water, homeopathy. Luc Montagnier’s absurd and unproven theories have been debunked roundly time and again; Dr. Harriet Hall did a masterful job of it at Science Based Medicine a while ago. But it is difficult, no, well-nigh impossible, to wean homeo-clowns from their cherished belief system.
As for that truly, atrociously crappy study that came out of IIT Bombay, suffice it to say that an institution of IIT-B’s caliber should never be able to live it down. Dr. David Gorski of Science Based Medicine has dismembered the IIT-B paper with clinical efficiency, again, a while ago, and – in addition – many of the rational commentators made several excellent points after the post. I don’t expect you to read these rebuttals, Sid, for it is clear that you’re a TrueBeliever™ in homeopathy. But I am leaving the links here for whomever stumbles across this old post, hoping that reading Harriet and David’s excellent responses would help them understand the unmitigably idiotic nature of the claims of homeopathy.
Kausik, I’ve only just found your post – great by the way – but I actually laughed outloud at your response to Sid! Superb riposte ☺
Thank you. 🙂 But I do grow weary of the presence of inferior-quality trolls.
as in the post you mention that as X increases the concentration increases. and also mentioned that it a dilution factor of 1:10. how it possible. please explain
Mr. Kamboj, thank you for your comment. Please read carefully what I wrote in the post. In Chemistry and chemical calculations related to solutions, ordinarily ‘X’ refers to the desired final concentration. So that if I have a stock solution made at 10X, the solute components in that solution are 10 times more concentrated than what I need finally. In order to use that solution for my purpose (a.k.a. ‘Working solution’), I would have to dilute the stock solution 10 times before I can use it. Is that clear?
Homeopaths have shanghaied this terminology but use it in a completely opposite way. They define X as decimal dilution (1:10) and C as centecimal dilution (1:100). As you can see, in homeopathy then, 1C = 2X. Hope this clarifies your confusion.
I operate a cat rescue and adoption center. We care for an average of 125 cats and kittens at any one time. For the last 5 years, I used allopathic veterinary medicine with other all very poor results. Approximately 6 months ago, we started using homeopathy. The results have been nothing short of astounding. Chronic upper respiratory conditions that had been treated with antibiotics etc. for more than 9 months with little result were cured in less than a month with homeopathy. Numerous other cats with chronic and acute health conditions that allopathic medicine had been unable to help have been cured completely with homeopathy. I was skeptical at first, but can’t argue with the results. The only possible explanation for their newfound health is that homeopathy works. I’d be interested to hear an explanation of how you can have a placebo effect with a cat. It just isn’t possible. I think perhaps you all should try homeopathy before dismissing it as quackery. There is nothing worse than contempt prior to investigation. Perhaps our science is not yet sophisticated enough to explain how homeopathy works. I don’t know. What I do know is that it is Improving the health of our cats in a phenomenal way. Homeopathy works.
I am glad your cats are doing better. There are many possible reasons for this perceived effect, which I have discussed at length in posts throughout the site. But, sadly, homeopathy is not it. Homeopathic preparations with designated dilutions beyond 23X (same as 12C) contain zero molecules of the original substance left in them, if the dilutions are done properly. It is dictated by the fundamental laws of physics, which guide all substances. Therefore, homeopathic preparations of those dilutions do NOT do anything to the physiological system, good or bad. But in clinical situations which require medical management, reliance on homeopathy can be life-threatening. I hope your love for your cats will help you choose to do the right thing.
However, recent events make me wonder if there isn’t an easier explanation for the “effects” you have seen in your cats. I don’t know if you have seen this or not; during 2007-2016, the US FDA identified 776 dietary supplements from a 146 companies, which contained detectable amounts of prescription drugs. As you can understand, this is a dangerous practice, because contamination of dietary supplements with unknown quantities of prescription drugs can have severe adverse effects of various kinds. At the same time, in situations where those bioactive drug molecules would work, they might lead to an actual clinical benefit, at least in the short term.
Your comment on Homeopathy is spot on. However, calling the idea of a vital force “mythical” is simply wrong. It was a common scientific explanation for the special properties of living matter until the 19th century, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vitalism, held among many others by such luminaries as Johannes Müller and Louis Pasteur. “Biologists now consider vitalism in this sense to have been refuted by empirical evidence, and hence regard it as a superseded scientific theory.” (Wikipedia) Just because something has been disproven since doesn’t make it unscientific from the start. There is a danger in judging historical developments in the light of the latest scientific knowledge.
I can’t make certain whether this is a spam comment or not, but I shall allow it because it presents a particular perspective. My tl;dr response: I disagree. A slightly longer response: “There is a danger in judging historical developments in the light of the latest scientific knowledge.” This statement ignores how our collective knowledge of science progresses. As you wrote yourself, the hypothesis of vitalism, in vogue until the 19th century CE, has been refuted via empirical evidence, and its rightful place now is in the trash heap of history. I, a product of the 20th century CE, see vitalism as mythical in that context, because its tenets fail to pass the smell-test of plausibility, especially given what we know now. I shall quote the Sagan standard (1979) here: “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence”. (Yes, I am aware of Deming’s critique of it, but I disagree.)
This blog fails to understand the basic principles of homeopathy.
It ridicules the notion that there being no detectable ‘substance’ or the original material remedy left in the homeopathic solution, using this as ‘evidence’ that it could not possibly have any effect on the physical body.
The writer fails to extend his curiosity to look to understand this phenomena and consider the progress scientific research has made in the field of energy, quantum physics and patterning of substances.
Two hundred years ago if we talked about radiation waves, it would have sounded nonsensical, as we had not yet developed tools which could detect them.
Thus is it with vital force. the fact that modern science has not yet devised a means to measure it, does not mean it is any the less a fundamental formative force effecting human health.
Professor Madeleine Ennis of Queen’s University Belfast was, like most scientists, deeply sceptical that a medicinal compound diluted out of existence should still exert a therapeutic effect is an affront to conventional biochemistry and pharmacology, based as they are on direct and palpable molecular events. So she conducted her own experiments to prove this, and found to her surprise that the results were not as she expected.
Despite my reservations against the science of homoeopathy,” says Ennis, “the results compel me to suspend my disbelief and to start searching for a rational explanation for our findings.” ttps://www.theguardian.com/science/2001/mar/15/technology2
Perhaps the author of this blog could also take a scientific open mind about the subject and acknowledge there is empirical evidence, there is emerging scientific evidence and that the world of science may still be in infancy of its ability to understand such phenomena. Without an open mind, the eyes cannot see what is in front of them no more than a deluded mind can.
A lot many words later—complete with an appeal to authority and exhortations to “scientific open mind”—still no solid, tangible and reproducible empirical evidence which demonstrates within reason that either the purported principle of homeopathy, or oft-repeated claims of clinical efficacy of such nostra, should be considered with any amount of seriousness. Typical.
I notice that the admin for this site, also insists on ignoring evidence on this phenomena, thus leading me to believe the site has an interest in debunking it. I request the author and the site admin to declare in this thread any conflict of interest they may have in this exploration.
You are free to believe whatever you want, reader Kay. Your concern is noted. I wish you a good day.