This week saw the news that the UK government is considering shutting off NHS benefits for homeopathic treatment. Their argument is simple: there is no evidence that homeopathy works, so why should we be using taxpayers’ money to pay for people to use it?
The notion that homeopathy is bunk may come as a surprise to many people. If, like me, you grew up thinking homeopathy was a more “natural” form of medical treatment, using “natural” substances and herbs to cure disease where modern medicine (called “allopathy” by the homeopaths) uses nasty chemicals and invasive procedures. My personal experience of homeopaths is that they are kindly, caring sorts who spend hours taking careful medical histories and asking sometimes bizarre personal questions in an attempt to treat you “holistically”.

As it turns out, most of that last paragraph is not true. Homeopathy is in fact a study of masterful marketing, positioning itself as the natural alternative, the treatment of choice for hippies, tree-huggers and people who care about their own bodies (and those of their kids).

Homeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann in the early 1800s. He proposed a “Law of Similars” in which a highly diluted solution of a poison or toxin is given to a patient enabling the body to “balance its own humours”. This may sound, superficially, like a similar idea to modern-day vaccines, except that homeopathic dilutions are so extreme as to effectively render the resulting solution absent of the original substance.

Put more simply: when you take homeopathic medicine you are taking nothing, no active ingredient whatsoever.

Don’t believe it? Consider how homeopathy measures its dilutions (this from an episode of “Skeptoid”,

“A 6X dilution means one part in 106, or one in one million. A 30X dilution means one part in 1030, or one followed by 30 zeros. A few products are even marketed using the C scale, roman numeral 100. 30C is 10030. That’s a staggering number; it’s 1 followed by 60 zeros, about the number of atoms in our galaxy.”

These numbers are so ludicrous that it’s hard to believe anyone who knows what they mean could believe this could be a treatment of any kind, for any thing.

Hahnemann ultimately argued that the water (or the sugar pills soaked in it) has a “spiritual imprint” of the substance and that means it can work even with the substance missing. Huh? Run that by me again?

So let’s review: homeopathic medicine is a combination of taking plain water with an “imprint” of a substance to cure a disease.

Is it any wonder that the British government wants to stop paying for this crap?

Now, whenever you have this conversation with people who are homeopathy advocates you get a couple of familiar arguments: “I have used homeopathy for years, and it’s worked for me” or “I have seen homeopathy perform almost miraculous cures after trying all kinds of modern medicine” or “Just because you don’t understand homeopathic cures doesn’t mean they don’t work”.

These arguments are actually a wonderful study of logical fallacies. Suffice to say here that just because you *think* something worked on you, or on your friend, doesn’t mean it *does* work, or that it works for the reasons you claim. The placebo effect is not a tool used by cynics like me to win every argument. It’s a powerful, documented psychological reality that can make you feel better and even make you better. That’s almost more amazing than the claims homeopathy makes — and in fact was an effect Hahnemann was well aware of.

Add to this a string of other familiar faces in the line-up of pseudo-scientific argument like observer bias and appeal to ignorance, and you find that there is as little substance to homeopathy as there is in homeopathic medicines. There is not a single scientific study that has ever shown any effects better than chance with the use of homeopathy. And there has never been a credible, reasonable explanation offered as to why it would work. Common sense alone is enough to rubbish the whole idea. To even spend money researching it seems wasteful.

I believe that people in general, to say nothing of doctors, hospitals and medical aids, are victims of a 200-year-old wives’ tale cut from the same cloth as Mormonism and Scientology. But it’s worse than these last because your medical aid contributions are cross-subsidising this drivel — so instead of paying for your cosmetic surgery, which at least has a concrete result — your monthly payments are going toward funding the selling of little bottles of water and sachets of sugar pills to people who either do or don’t need proper medical care.

I object to that. If people want to spend their time and money on expensive placebos that’s their business, but like the UK government, we should leave that up to the individual and certainly for their account. Medical-aid schemes don’t pay for people to have bones read or for reiki practitioners to wave their hands around them. They don’t even pay for a lot of things that have proven scientific or health benefits.

After 200 years of bunkery, it’s time to send homeopathy the way of blood-letting and prayer — to the part of the bookstore called “New Age and Religion” and far, far away from the part called “Medicine”.


  • Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders of VWV Interactive, for many years the premier creative web business in the country, winning numerous Loeries and various international awards. In 2001, Jarred co-founded Cambrient, which has, in its six-year history, built the leading local content management system and serviced an impressive list of corporate customers. Cambrient Contentsuite is also the engine behind Moneyweb.


Jarred Cinman

Jarred Cinman is software director at Cambrient, South Africa's leading developer of web applications. He co-founded Johannesburg's first professional web development company and was one of the founders...

Leave a comment