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Challenging homeopathy

Lest I be left out of the fun, I can’t help but point out that over the weekend the Amazing One himself, James Randi, issued a challenge to homeopathy manufacturers and retail pharmacies that sell homeopathy, in particular large national chains like Walgreens and CVS and large national chains that include pharmacies in their stores, such as Walmart and Target. This was done in conjunction with the 10:23 Challenge, which is designed to demonstrate that homeopathy is nonsense. All over the world, skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine gathered to engage in overdoses of homeopathic medicines in order to demonstrate that there is nothing in them.

As much as I like Randi, unfortunately, I doubt that the prospect of winning $1 million will make much difference to huge companies like Boiron (a French company that manufactures popular homeopathic remedies), Walmart, or Walgreens, but I do like the spirit of the protest, in particular how it drives home a very simply message about homeopathy: There’s nothing in it. It’s water placed in sugar pills. That’s it.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

38 replies on “Challenging homeopathy”

Boiron make zillions selling a homœopathic preparation of an imaginary bacillus. Nobody’s going to give that up without a good reason.

And to add to the disappointment: Even if you force them to tell people that there’s nothing in it (albeit in a clever way), it doesn’t change things.
In the EU you are forbidden to advertise a health effect for which you don’t have empirical evidence (especially with regards to the whole branch of “functional food”).
So, the typical homeopathic remedy comes with something tht says:
This is a homeopathic medication which doesn’t have any special indication.
In plain language: good for nothing
What’s even better is the list of active ingredients. Every medication has to list the active ingredients and their amount. In a homeopathic “remedy” this list looks like this:
40g of bogus D6 whatever contain 40 g of bogus D6 whatever. Yes, and 100g of bread contain 100g of bread, sure.
Or: 1 dose contains 46,2 mg of D12 whatever.
And we all know what that means, but the general customer doesn’t.

Hardcore loons will not be moved by this but I can imagine the conversation over coffee between a couple where one is using or thinking of using some homeocrapic stuff when the spouse comes across Randi’s challenge in the paper. The ensuing discussion could persuade the fence-sitter or non-wholly indoctrinated woo partner to at least think about the stuff.

Another opportunity to point and laugh at least.

Healthier? Useless?

In many places pure, clean water is hard to come by. e.g. in Europe where some the bottled water brands draw their water, the ground water, before activated carbon filtration, RO, etc may contain several ppm of benzene and no telling what else.

Maybe 30C, as 9-18 megaohm water, has some health advantage, especially if (re)mineralized water costs 6x more. Perhaps an easier conversion to sterile water for injection. Go all the way, 10^26 per dose.

Giliell, for some people, even if they know there’s nothing in it, they’ll still buy it.

When I first told my mother how homeopathy “works” (particularly how remedies are considered to be more potent the more diluted it is), she didn’t believed me and I had to convince her that this was what homeopaths really believed. She agreed that, given this, homeopathy is worthless. A couple months later we were at one of these major pharmacy chains and she was looking at a homeopathic remedy for colds (supposedly based on some sort of berry, I think) and asked me my opinion of it as she was considering buying. I reminded her of our talk about homeopathy and how she’d agreed it was silly; she replied, “But if it works…”. Facepalm. I imagine there must be many similar people across the country, across the world that whatever they may have heard negative about any “remedy”, what they remember are the glorious claims they’ve heard. “Oh, this says it’s not medicine, there’s nothing in it and it doesn’t treat anything in particular, but if it works…” (My mother, fwiw, found the price to be too much for her and decided to buy tea instead.)

Just trying to suggest a positive use for high purity, homeopathic 30C water. Perhaps either as a clean replacement for low quality tap water, or autoclaved to yield sterile water for injection.

10^26 molecules of water is about 3 liters of water, rather than puny Avogadro number amounts (6 * 10^23) at only 1.2 tablespoons. 🙂

I know and it’s sad. A lot of people are sadly able to cheat themselves a lot, but “homeopaths” are very clever.
-They use a lot of “refers to plant, herbs, stuff” terminology and pictures. And we all know that nature has some nice things in stock that can help you along the way and that are pretty safe to use. Camomile tea will help you a bit with your cold, but you can hardly do any harm with it. A lot of people are not aware that there’s actually no “herbal remedy” in their homeopathic remedy.

-They put some active ingredient into their homeopathic remedy. I have some homeopathic globuli here against teething problems. It’s got the whole shitload of nothing, but also -not listed as active ingredient- something that cools and soothes (you know, kind of like cough drops). It definetly eases the pain for a little while, but of course not because of the mumbo-jumbo homeopathy. But people will believe that it’s the homeopathy that helps, not the xylit and menthe that are “added for flavour”

Ah, OK, must be due to my polluted tap-water.

I know its been said before but…..
If the diluted and battered water is so powerful, and only increases in power with further dilution , How come every glass of water on the planet does not cure us all?

( I would of course, love to make vast amounts of cash from fleecing the worried well,but…
there are genuinely ill people using this dross to their detriment)

Because the average glass of water hasnt been succussed in the right way. Its only when you smack it against a bit of leather that the universe aligns and the quantum effects come into place preserving the power. Incidentally thats it is quantum obviously also explains why it doesnt work when those nasty sceptics look at it, the act of observing changing the observed and all that (i might have missed some of the finer details of the theory)

These people need to be warned- OTC homeopathetic nostrums are often adulterated with real drugs. There is a danger they may succumb to an overdose to aspirin, caffeine, diphenhydramine, etc.

I would be remiss not to mention Andy Lewis’ Simple Challenge to Homeopaths over at the Quackometer:

Idea: Can homeopaths tell their own remedies apart if someone takes the labels off?


Here is a rough outline of the sort of test I would like to see done…

1) A trained homeopath selects six homeopathic remedies of any type and strength.

2) The remedies are posted to an independent third party who removes the labels and replaces them with a code letter, A, B, C…F, and posts them back.

3) The homeopath takes each remedy in turn and notes the ‘totality of symptoms’.

4) The homeopath writes down which remedy corresponds to which code letter.
5) The third party ‘breaks the code’ and we note how many are right.


Agreed. Like Zicam a couple years ago, which had real amounts of zinc and caused loss of smell and other issues. Or the recently recalled Hyland’s Teething Tablets, which contained deadly nightshade. They also make Calms Forte, a rather non-homeopathic product.

in particular large national chains like Walgreens

Preach it, Brother Orac!

A few months ago I came down with a cold while on the road and had to visit the Walgreen’s two blocks from my hotel for something to treat one of the symptoms. I didn’t find the type of product I was looking for right away, but there on the top shelf, right about eye level, were this one national brand remedy and the store brand knockoff of same. I picked up one of the store brand packages and was about to walk to the cash register to pay for it when I noticed the word “homeopathic” on the label. Needless to say, I put it back on the shelf, and after a little more looking I found the item I was really looking for, which was of course much cheaper than the store brand homeopathic product.

Note that only one of the two brands was labeled as homeopathic (I think it was the store brand, but I’m not sure). The other contained no such prominent warning. So yes, selling this stuff in national chains like Walgreens is a problem. They nearly fooled me, and I know that “homeopathic remedy” is a synonym for “placebo”. They probably have fooled many other people who either don’t know better or don’t spot the telltale on the package.

You know, Randi used to live at the Jersey shore. He won’t be pleased : Monmouth County is becoming a bastion of woo**. We went down Saturday to see an artsy event, and my SO handed me a copy of the latest “NJ Holistic Magazine”. Leafing through, I find that homeopathy is used as a _selling point_ for *real doctors* (MD’s, DO’s) in their ads, as is DAN!,”Breakthrough”( complete with photo of SS’s book), chelation, and other non-SBM practices too horrendous to mention. Psychotherapy/counselling services are similarly woo-enhanced with Reiki, shamanism, ad nauseum, as are services for childfren with autism, LD, etc.

** Louise Kuo Habukus, who has a new book out, “Vaccine Epidemic”, lives and works in the Red Bank/ Middletown area.

Just to add insult to injury, in order to get cold symptom relief, I have to go to the pharmacist and sign forms and give my name in order to get the pills that actually work. And heaven forbid that the S.O. and I are sick at the same time! (especially during allergy season where she’s already purchased her allotment of Pseudoephedrine that month.)

That pharmacist sign off is due, in part, to the drug’s effectiveness not only in cold symptom reduction but ready conversion to an addictive, illegal drug. Why would you need to register sugar pills? They do not work and the worst they can be converted into is cavities.

I do recognize the frustration but I look at it as shortcut. The stuff that works is in the back. No need to waste time looking through shelves full of crap.

@ Beth
Don’t feel bad. I have done the same thing with my mother. I have basically given up – except for trying to talk her into getting a flu shot.

Being a believer in truth in advertising, I’m pleased to annouce the impending release of my new line of homeopathic remedies under the new brand name ” Placebo! “.

I’m also working on a homeopathic version of crystal meth.

@ Mike from Ottawa: It’s certainly OK, as long as you don’t have thoughts about becoming the founder of a homeopathic university- there are already enough watered-down degree mills, whether legit and not.

I’m rather surprised that moron Anthony McCarthy hasn’t shown up with a bad mouthing comment on Mr. Randi.

These people need to be warned- OTC homeopathetic nostrums are often adulterated with real drugs. There is a danger they may succumb to an overdose to aspirin, caffeine, diphenhydramine, etc.

This. As hilariously wrong as it seems, there are ‘fake’ homeopathic remedies out there that have measurable amounts of active ingredients. Since there’s no FDA regulation of the term ‘homeopathic’, I’ve seen a few actual herbal remedies borrowing the term for their ad copy.

So before overdosing on homeopathic remedies, make sure you know what the ingredients actually are.

@#20: “Now available in Regular and Extra Strength! Ask your homeopath if Placebol is right for you.

Possible side effects include elevated blood sugar, irritibility, Light Wallet Syndrome, and accusations of gullibility.

— Steve

Update: I’m wrong. (Yeah, who’d have thought it.) From the wikipedia:

In the United States, under the 1938 Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, only those substances listed in the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia of the United States (HPUS) and prepared according to the guidelines therein may be marketed as homeopathic.

So I don’t know how manufacturers get away with calling drugs homeopathic when they actually, you know, do stuff.

So sugar pills have a memory too? Clever little sucrose molecules – os is it that the succused water molecules transfer the succusion and thus the memory to the sugar? The skills of these people astounds me…..

Speaking of homeopathic remedies, there’s now a homeopathic remedy for homeopathic remedies. Addicted to bottles of water? This remedy is for you. Don’t know if the therapists have been properly treated in the homeopathic manner, but you do get a lot of of them.

There’s a ton more of this sort of stuff at Dr. Boli’s Excellent Magazine.

I will admit that I use a variety of different herbs for different reasons. In practice of my beliefs however, when using the herbs, I generally use them for their SYMBOLIC nature, not expecting for them to do anything beyond that and having a placebo affect that I also get from doing rituals in general. I go through alot of Chamomile because it does indeed help a bit with stress.

I take vitamins, not for thier embelished properties, but for what science and my mom, who has been in the health field for 28 years, has shown me they can do. So no folks, you really can’t overdose on homeopathy. And if you are like me, if you don’t want herbs diluted, either buy them loose leaf or grow them yourself and prepare them. And remember this, largely, again, herbs and oils are used for symbolic meaning. Or so those who took me under their wing taught.

There are times, with certain herbs that you do need to be careful with, however, especially when doing things like preparing them for yourself. In particular herbs like valerian root should be used with caution, for using to much can be dangerous.

“All over the world, skeptics and supporters of science-based medicine gathered to engage in overdoses of homeopathic medicines in order to demonstrate that there is nothing in them.”

Other than drowning, how do you “overdose” on water?

So no folks, you really can’t overdose on homeopathy.

Well, that depends. For real homeopathic dilutions using water as the base, you can OD, but you need to drink several liters. I’m not sure what the OD cutoff is for consuming sugar. Solutions using ethanol as the base would have a significantly lower OD cutoff. None of these, however, are dependent on the “active” ingredient.

Now, in the U.S., there are a number of products labeled as “homeopathic”, but they do not use typical homeopathic dilutions, opting instead for 1X to 3X dilutions, meaning there is still some active ingredient really in there. See, for example, Zicam’s nasal spray that was recalled a few years ago because it actually had real amounts of zinc, causing loss of smell in many of its users, or Hyland’s Teething Tablets that contained enough deadly nightshade that poisoning could realistically occur. Now, according to the tenets of homeopathy, these products should not be very effective for their indications as compared to a 12C or 30C dilution, but they most certainly can cause very real harm if too much is consumed.

Granted, it’s hard to tell, even with a 1X or 2X product, whether or not there is any ingredient in there, since it is entirely dependent on how much they start with (1 mole vs. .1 mole, for example). Just another example of the deception in homeopathic labeling.

You can overdose on water by drinking so much, so quickly, that the sodium content of your blood becomes dangerously low. The condition is called hyponatremia, and has a number of other causes. Occasionally, someone who is exercising intensely (such as a marathon runner) will drink very large amounts of water, while sweating enough to lose significant amounts of salt, and develop this problem. There have been a few fatalities, but the risk level is probably on the order of the risk of being hit by lightning.

I was lucky enough to be at QEDcon in Manchester, UK over the weekend and took part in the 10:23 campaign, “overdosing” on 31C belladonna. I noted with amusement that the main thing people were concerned about was the provenance of the pillules themselves – having been told they had been provided by a “tame” homeopath, it seemed a good opportunity for them to be swapped with laxatives – rather than any affect the homeopathy might have. The sound of 320 people crunching on sugar pills was cool too 🙂

I was lucky enough to be at QEDcon in Manchester, UK over the weekend and took part in the 10:23 campaign, “overdosing” on 31C belladonna. I noted with amusement that the main thing people were concerned about was the provenance of the pillules themselves – having been told they had been provided by a “tame” homeopath, it seemed a good opportunity for them to be swapped with laxatives – rather than any affect the homeopathy might have. The sound of 320 people crunching on sugar pills was cool too 🙂

A patient of mine, an older teen with autism, lost about 30 lbs over three months after starting on a naturopathic nostrum that was supposed to help her autism. Nothing on the label should have caused the weight loss.

Moral of the story: unregulated OTC supplements are unregulated. Be careful.

@12: yes, this risk exists.

@13: of course this way round it will NOT work.
H is a RITUAL to get selfhealing abilities into functional mode, and the names of plants, animals and mminerals are SYMBOLS for the respective state desired.
(or symbols for ways of coping, the I Ging is better in describing these when the translation is any good, because tonal languages like the group of Chinese languages, work strongly on that)

Therefore: If I WANTED to die, and get some homoeopathic alcoholic solution, it might work (alk is poison for me, I was born into an alcoholic abuse family, and grew up to watch women drinking with the men to use the only painkiller they got). The sugar pills would not serve as symbol of death for me – but perhaps for someone else.

As long as I am willing to stay alive, I do prefer clear European tape water.

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