Sunday, December 14, 2008

Homeopathy: The Test

Homeopathy was pioneered over 200 years ago. Practitioners and patients are convinced it has the power to heal. Today, some of the most famous and influential people in the world, including pop stars, politicians, footballers and even Prince Charles, all use homeopathic remedies. Yet according to traditional science, they are wasting their money.

The Challenge
Sceptic James Randi is so convinced that homeopathy will not work, that he has offered $1m to anyone who can provide convincing evidence of its effects. For the first time in the programme's history, Horizon conducts its own scientific experiment, to try and win his money. If they succeed, they will not only be $1m richer - they will also force scientists to rethink some of their fundamental beliefs.

Homeopathy and conventional science
The basic principle of homeopathy is that like cures like: that an ailment can be cured by small quantities of substances which produce the same symptoms. For example, it is believed that onions, which produce streaming, itchy eyes, can be used to relieve the symptoms of hay fever.

However, many of the ingredients of homeopathic cures are poisonous if taken in large enough quantities. So homeopaths dilute the substances they are using in water or alcohol. This is where scientists become sceptical - because homeopathic solutions are diluted so many times they are unlikely to contain any of the original ingredients at all.

Yet many of the people who take homeopathic medicines are convinced that they work. Has science missed something, or could there be a more conventional explanation?

The Placebo Effect
The placebo effect is a well-documented medical phenomenon. Often, a patient taking pills will feel better, regardless of what the pills contain, simply because they believe the pills will work. Doctors studying the placebo effect have noticed that large pills work better than small pills, and that coloured pills work better than white ones.

Could the beneficial effects of homeopathy be entirely due to the placebo effect? If so, then homeopathy ought not to work on babies or animals, who have no knowledge that they are taking a medicine. Yet many people are convinced that it does.

Can science prove that homeopathy works?

In 1988, Jacques Benveniste was studying how allergies affected the body. He focussed on a type of blood cell known as a basophil, which activates when it comes into contact with a substance you're allergic to.

As part of his research, Benveniste experimented with very dilute solutions. To his surprise, his research showed that even when the allergic substance was diluted down to homeopathic quantities, it could still trigger a reaction in the basophils. Was this the scientific proof that homeopathic medicines could have a measurable effect on the body?

The memory of water
In an attempt to explain his results, Benveniste suggested a startling new theory. He proposed that water had the power to 'remember' substances that had been dissolved in it. This startling new idea would force scientists to rethink many fundamental ideas about how liquids behave.

Unsurprisingly, the scientific community greeted this idea with scepticism. The then editor of Nature, Sir John Maddox, agreed to publish Benveniste's paper - but on one condition. Benveniste must open his laboratory to a team of independent referees, who would evaluate his techniques.


ananda said...

This is one of the best documentaries I've seen on the topic, thank you.

I would like to see this study done again without Randi's involvement. I don't think it's far off to assume that he may be sabotaging the studies as too much is at stake for him. His reputation, his career and his ego.

Why would world class scientists with so much at stake be willing to face public humiliation by publishing their data showing that homeopathy works.

There is also a plethora of research that doesn't get published thanks to a bias against homeopathy - journals aren't wiling to publish data that demonstrates the efficacy of homeopathy.

And the final issue in the world of Homeopathic research is that homeopathy is highly individualized and most scientific studies do not build that into their research process

Anonymous said...

oh my God, we have someone here who is arguing for the memory of water. I am not sure what test and demonstrate the memory of water, although if a test can be devised and show that water has memory, it would by itself win the Nobel Prize for physics.
although if could be shown that water has memory, it would also have to remember what it was like to be the bodily excretion of many different animals,since all the water we drink where at one time or another part of another animal. If you believe in homeopathy, then you have to admit that no matter how filtered water is, it would still have the memory of being piss.

Dan and Chels said...

Would love to see more about the on the history of Homeopathy or even the history of Medicine.