I Trust My Life To Science
A few days ago I ordered two ten-gram-packs of Nux Vomica homeopathic remedy. Today I went to the pharmacy to pick it up. I paid a total of 16,60€, 8,30€ per pack. Nux Vomica, the listed active ingredient, is a poisonous tree native to india. Its seeds contain Strychnine, the bark contains the very similar brucine, aswell as other poisonous compounds.
Nux Vomica is potentially lethal to humans. 32 mg of strychnine are needed to kill and adult, so eating only a few Nux Vomica seeds would already do the trick. This is what such a death would look like:
Ten to twenty minutes after exposure, the body’s muscles begin to spasm, starting with the head and neck […]. The spasms then spread to every muscle in the body, with nearly continuous convulsions, and get worse at the slightest stimulus. The convulsions progress, increasing in intensity and frequency until the backbone arches continually. Convulsions lead to lactic acidosis, hyperthermia and rhabdomyolysis. These are followed by postictal depression. Death comes from asphyxiation caused by paralysis of the neural pathways that control breathing, or by exhaustion from the convulsions. The subject dies within 2–3 hours after exposure.
In a very small dose, Nux Vomica works as a laxative. In a higher dosis that is still below the lethal threshold, it leads to violent convulsions and muscle spasms.
As I said, I just legally purchased 20 grams of that stuff, at the pharmacy, without a prescription of any kind.
Tomorrow, I am going to swallow all of it.
Let me repeat: This is over the counter medicine, bought in a respected pharmacy. And not only does it clearly state a potentially lethal poison as the active ingredient on its label, but the package insert specifically warns not to take more than the recommended dose of five of the tiny sugar pills, and to immediately see a doctor in case of an overdose.
Despite all that I’m not the least bit worried about the consequences. I am not going to die. I am not even going to experience the slightest discomfort, beyond the taste of a mouthful of sugar. And that is because in homeopathic remedies, the active ingredient is diluted so much that there is absolutely nothing left of it.
Of course, homeopaths know that. They offer all kinds of excuses for why it might still work, mainly the claim that water has some sort of ability to retain a “memory” of the ingredient, and thus the desired effects, even in the absence of said ingredient. Of course, they might be right. Everybody has an anecdote of someone who is into homeopathy and was healed many times by it. So many people swear on its miraculous power, could they possibly all be wrong? Well, of course they could. And even though there are people who think that this is rather far-fetched and unlikely, I am willing to wager my life on it.
My confidence will become more understandable the more you read about the supposed “science” behind homeopathy. Not only has it never conclusively been shown to work, there is not even a known mechanism or even hypotheses explaining how it might work.
The label on my recently bought bottles of homeopathic Nux Vomica – “remedy” also contains information on the concentration of active ingredient. Being an over the counter medicine, it has to. The concentration is given here is “D30” – a cryptic phrase, after all those who sell it are playing on the fact that hardly anybody knows about the principle behind it. What it means is that it has been diluted in a concentration of one in 10 raised to the power of 30. That’s a one followed by thirty zeroes:
1 in 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 – that means it’s a concentration of one molecule of active ingredient in 30 tons of water.
Which basically means that if you spill one drop of strychnine into the water of the New York Harbour, and I drink a glass of water from the Rotterdam Harbour, I have about as much chance to catch a molecule of active ingredient as by swallowing the sugar pills I just bought.
Standing in the Pharmacy with a bottle of homeopathic remedy in my hand that I had just bought and paid for, and generally being the guy I am, of course I couldn’t just leave without a comment. So I commented:
Excuse me, I’m wondering. I mean, why exactly do you sell these at all? As a Pharmacist you know that the only difference between all those bottles (I gestured at the rack behind her) is on the label, right?
She looked at me blankly, for a brief moment completely confused. Which is understandable. I mean, this wasn’t exactly fair. I came there prepared, while she was completely unsuspecting, thinking she was only dealing with a satisfied customer picking up his order when I jumped her with that question. Nevertheless, I felt I needed to make that point. Considering the situation, she kept her wits rather well.
Girl: “What do you mean?”
Me: “I mean that there’s no trace of any active ingredient in any of them. If you’d remove the labels, no homeopath in the world could tell the difference.”
Girl (confused): “But you just bought it!”
Me: “Yes, I’m with a group of skeptics who will collectively take an overdose tomorrow, to educate the public about the fact that there is nothing in it.”
Girl: “Oh, so you mean with the dilution and all”
Girl: “Well, there are studies that show that it works, so…” (She left the sentence hanging)
Me: “Yeah, there’s about a handful of them. All of which have been discredited. On the other hand there are hundreds of credible ones that show no effect at all.”
Girl: “Well, there’s still thousands of people who will swear on it!”
Me: “Yes, but all they have to offer is anecdotes. There’s also thousands of people who swear on fortune-telling. Actually, there’s probably even thousands of people claiming to be the reincarnation of Napoleon. That doesn’t mean much.”
Girl: “Yes, but as long as it works for them, there’s no harm in selling it, no?”
Me: “Selling them sugar. At a price of eight euro per ten gram. No, that’s right I suppose. No harm. I just wonder about the ethics of it.”
Girl: “Well. You could talk to one of the pharmacists if you like.”
Me: “No, that’s alright. I’m not here to change anybody’s mind. I’m just making a point: Not all of your customers are happy about your support of pseudo-scientific woo. Have a nice day.”