No, homeopathy didn't cure you

As you’ve probably figured out, I like testimonials. Well, maybe “like’ is the wrong world. I’m interested in them, something that goes way, way back into the deepest, darkest mists of blog time, as my earliest “epic” post was about alternative cancer cure testimonials. With that post as a start, I’ve come back to the topic from time to time. But it’s not just cancer. There are testimonials for all manner of cures for all manner of diseases. Rare has it been that I’ve encountered a testimonial that was really convincing evidence of an anti-tumor effect (or anti-disease) effect due to an alternative medical therapy. (Actually, it’s arguably never.)

This testimonial will not ruin that streak. It is, after all, about homeopathy.

Testimonials for homeopathy are, in many ways, perfect “alternative medicine” testimonials. Given how much typical homeopathic remedies are diluted. I know that most of you know this, but I feel obligated to repeat it, in case you happen to be someone who hasn’t 30C, or 30 serial dilutions of 100-fold, which translates into a 1060-fold dilution. (Hint: Avagadro’s number is around 6 x 1023, which means that a 30C homeopathic dilution is unlikely to have even a single molecule of original remedy in it other than contaminants carried over from the serial dilutions. Homeopathy is, basically, nothing more than water or whatever was the diluent used. It is the perfect quackery, with no effect possible other than whatever effect the water or the sugar pills that homeopathic remedies are often compressed into could have. It can’t cure anything, not even thirst, given how small the quantities used are. That makes it the perfect alternative medicine treatment for analyses of testimonials. I know that homeopathy can’t possibly be having a therapeutic effect given how its tenets violate the laws of physics and chemistry; so it permits the analysis of the testimonial in light of that fact.

So you just know that I couldn’t resist a good homeopathy testimonial, and I happened to come across this one from New Zealand, published yesterday by a man named Nick Summerhayes entitled How homeopathy cured me. Here’s a hint: It didn’t cure Mr. Summerhayes. In fact, as testimonials go, this is pretty thin gruel. It’s worth looking at anyway, though, because it demonstrates common features of alt med testimonials.

First, it begins with the almost mandatory disclaimer that, really and truly, Mr. Summerhayes is a skeptic:

I’m a natural sceptic so I didn’t want to believe in homeopathy.

I’m not keen on colour therapy, iridology, crystal therapy, or astral gazing, but I am the last person to criticise anyone who has had positive results from these treatments.

Of course he’s a skeptic. That’s what he tells himself, but he appears not to know what skepticism is. A skeptic knows that personal experience can be profoundly misleading, and Mr. Summerhaye’s testimonial demonstrates a number of these properties. He’s a guy who’s had eczema, asthma and hayfever ever since he was three years old and was hospitalized at age 15. His story here is inconsistent, though. He says that he was “cured” by a “nice shiny new steroid cream, an anti-histamine and an asthma inhaler,” obviously not understanding the meaning of the word “cured,” given that all of these are treatments for chronic conditions that aren’t really curable. They’re designed to alleviate symptoms and prevent complications; they’re not cures. Be that as it may, though, he reports that he stopped using these treatments ten years later and noticed no difference, while saying he was “was grateful to conventional medical science for helping me deal with the symptoms.”

So did the conventional medical treatments relieve his symptoms for a decade, or didn’t they? It’s certainly not clear from his account. None of this, however, stops Mr. Summerhayes from proclaiming that the more he learned, the more he thought he should take matters into his own hands. That led him to homeopathy:

I must have been in my early 20s when I heard about homeopathy, but there was a long wait to get public treatment, so I paid to go privately.

My first attempt at using a remedy ended badly. I was off work for two weeks, and within the first few days developed blisters filled with what I assumed was plasma.

A doctor prescribed antibiotics, which, after a while, helped with recovery.

I came away from this experience suspicious of homeopathy but convinced that it certainly had some power and the effect was not psychosomatic.

So let me get this straight. When Summerhayes was in his early 20s, he discovered homeopathy and wanted to try it. I was unaware that New Zealand paid for homeopathy in its national health plan, but it sure sounds as though it does from this account. Otherwise, why would Summerhayes, impatient to start homeopathy and faced with what he describes as a long wait for “public” treatment, decide he had to find a private homeopath? In any case, from his own story, Summerhayes didn’t do very well. It makes me wonder whether the homeopath told him to stop taking his regular medications and using his steroid cream. Whether he did or not, for whatever reason, he got a lot worse, and developed blisters and boils, which responded to antibiotics.

What, if this were you, would you conclude? You’d probably conclude that homeopathy wasn’t such a good idea, that it didn’t work or, even worse, was harmful. You’d probably conclude that good, old-fashioned antibiotics do work. Not Summerhayes, apparently. He decided that homeopathy was “powerful” (probably because he thought it made him worse).

His next encounter with homeopathy didn’t go any better:

I began my treatment after answering lots of questions about my habits, tastes, ancestor’s health, relationships with others, etc, and then walking away with a single tablet to dissolve under my tongue and report in after a week to indicate whether anything had changed.

My skin got slowly worse. I asked if this was normal and was told that the skin is the last thing to come right and toxins would be excreted through the skin.

I went through about six remedies over the course of four months with varying results (sometimes no change) but generally in a downward direction.

I carried on for another six months but by this time I was ready to give up with the treatment as I was suffering so much. But I went back and was given another remedy.

I’ve discussed this phenomenon before. When it comes to alt-med, practitioners just keep trying remedy after treatment after remedy, with no science-based rhyme or reason, often with no effect. Then, whenever the patient’s symptoms undergo regression to the mean or resolve on their own, whatever treatment the practitioner prescribed just before that obviously must be what cured the patient. That’s exactly what happened with Summerhayes. Yes, that “other remedy,” seemingly, made him feel much better. But did it? Probably not. Eczema often has a waxing and waning course. Children often “outgrow” it by adolescence. Many have remissions that can last for years. Most likely that is what happened in Summerhayes’ case. Asthma, too, is the sort of disease that is not uncommonly “outgrown,” at least to some extent, in adulthood. Hayfever not infrequently becomes less severe with age (I, personally, have experienced this, and I don’t use any treatment other than the occasional antihistamine or decongestant when my runny nose gets too annoying).

So basically, it matters not at all that Summerhayes took a single pill (which is what this “other remedy” was), after which everything seemed to be better. Like so many alt-med believers, he remembers the seeming “hit” and forgets all the misses that came before it, ascribing his “cure” to the last quackery he was using before his symptoms got better. It is, however, rather amusing to note how the homeopath chose Summerhayes’ final remedy:

I asked him what bit of information made him choose the particular remedy and he said it was the fact that I liked chicken skin, steak fat and pork crackling.

This certainly makes me wonder what was in that last homeopathic remedy! Whatever was in it, it was almost certainly diluted to nonexistence. It’s just amusing to read the rationale behind the choice of this particular remedy, and I’m curious what it was. Whatever it was, Summerhayes believes it worked, and he is quick to dismiss those who point out that he almost certainly either grew out of his eczema or is in a longterm remission, and remissions are common.

Skeptic. You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.