Just a Little Common Sense

For a life based on reason, ethics, literature and art.

I Trust My Life To Science

with 11 comments

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.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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.The American Institute For The Destruction Of Tooth Fairy Science

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”
Me: “Exactly.”
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.”

Written by Phil

February 4, 2011 at 18:10

11 Responses

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  1. “On the other hand there are hundreds of credible ones that show no effect at all.”

    Hundreds? I think not.


    February 4, 2011 at 20:48

    • Go to pubmed.com, and see for yourself.
      A search for “Homeopathy” returns 4291 hits (as of today), “homeopathy effectiveness” returns 204 hits.

      The number among those papers that provides credible evidence that homeopathy works at all: 0.
      The number among those papers that suggests a mechanism by which it could work: 0.


      I could bother to search for meta-studies that include more than the studies published in pubmed, but I am not going to do your homework for you.


      February 4, 2011 at 21:57

  2. Moron. Your method invalidates your argument.

    You’re not using it correctly and your demonstration is irrelevant. Your not sick with symptoms exhibited by the Nux vomica repertory.

    Homeopathic medicines have worked for millions of people for a couple of centuries. The understanding of each remedy, the development of symptoms associated with a remedy is based on scientific methods. The manufacturing of homeopathic medicine is well regulated and controlled in the United States.

    Further, there are hundreds of peer reviewed research studies that document the clinical effectiveness of homeopathic medicines.
    You don’t need a doctor to choose a remedy for self-limiting non-chronic conditions. The practice of homeopathy to treat chronic conditions and disease requires years of study and the process is often more like an art. I think this is where homeopathy is challenged and needs more research and understanding.

    I reject the idea that homeopathic medicines are a scam because “research” doesn’t meet the standards of “skeptical” teenage no-minds like you. Most in your skeptic community are scientist “wanna-bes” basing their opinions on self-proclaimed experts who have more of an interest in self-promotion, junk journalism and book selling.

    If you were credible and truly scientific with a valid opinion you wouldn’t be dropping entire bottles of pills in your bodies to make a point, especially when the point is moot, irrelevant and demonstrates the lack of depth of your research and understanding about how homeopathy is meant to be used.

    1) On Regulation http://www.homeopathicpharmacy.org/pdf/regulatory/BornemanFieldAJHP.pdf

    2) On Peer Reviewed Research http://www.homeopathic.org/content/homeopathy-research-evidence-base-references


    February 4, 2011 at 20:52

    • It’s kinda funny to be called a “teenage no-mind” by someone opening up his comment with an insult, thus clearly demonstrating the unwillingness to have any serious argument. You just can’t get much more immature than that sulky, stroppy comment you just wrote.

      Well, anyhow. Since other people are reading this too, I’ll humour you with an answer. To be perfectly clear: That is the only reason I bother.

      It is you who are misunderstanding the point we are making. This is not going to change the minds of homeopaths. We are already fully aware of that, thank you.
      This is about educating the general public, which is largely unaware of what homeopathy even is. If you ask people on the street what they think homeopathy is you’ll get answers like “herb medicine” and “all natural”. THESE are the people we are trying to get to a) inform themselves and b) think about what they are swallowing there. Most homeopathy end-users simply have no clue. And what we’re aiming to do here is to shake people up a little, spark some interest in the controversy.

      Call me arrogant (or did you already?…*looks up*… nope… you must have missed that one), but I think the job is done at that point. Once people get interested and have a look at the nutty theories behind homeopathy (dilution, succussion, like-cures-like) they’ll figure out for themselves that this is a load of bull.
      I know that me swallowing a spoonfull of sugar and miraculously surviving won’t change the mind of people like you. Frankly, I don’t care. You’re not the one I’m talking to.

      My actions are not due to a lack of understanding. I have had discussions with many a homeopath, and am more aware of how it’s “meant to be used” (So now the user’s mere intention has an effect on the efficiancy of the treatment too?) than most users. It is not those crackpot theories of the structure of water allowing it to form temporary bonds which that supposedly makes it able to store information that I worry about. I also do not worry at all about your funny “law of the similars” which is what passed for medicine in the dark ages and essentially boils down to a belief in magic.
      What I worry about is that a shockingly large percentage of homeopathy-users has never even heard of any of those things. THAT is what I’m aiming to change. And for that, you can hardly deny that taking in large “overdoses” of poisonous substances is a very efficient tool.

      That just on a general level. Now to some of the specific claims you make:

      “Further, there are hundreds of peer reviewed research studies that document the clinical effectiveness of homeopathic medicines.”

      Oh, indeed? Provide a single one. I am so sick of hearing “Oh, there is evidence!”. PROVIDE IT or shut the fuck up. I’m serious. Provide a link to a single published paper that has not been discredited and provides even a shred of evidence for the effectiveness of Homeopathy beyond the placebo-effect. The REAL placebo-effect, by the way, not the miraculous all-powerfull ultimate healing force which you people so often (mistakenly) seem to think it is.

      “The manufacturing of homeopathic medicine is well regulated and controlled in the United States.”

      So what? The manufacture of spray-paint is also strictly regulated. What does that have to do with anything? So you have strict regulations for the production of sugar pills. Does that prove that those sugar pills are effective medicine? I think not.

      “Homeopathic medicines have worked for millions of people for a couple of centuries.”

      As I already pointed out when the pharmacist threw this at me: That doesn’t mean anything.
      The belief that the world is flat has worked for millions of navigators for a couple of centuries. Doesn’t make it true. Go to wikipedia and look up “bandwagon fallacy”.

      “If you were credible and truly scientific with a valid opinion you wouldn’t be dropping entire bottles of pills in your bodies to make a point […]”

      Actually, if making a point was always as easy as swallowing a spoonful of sugar, scientists would do it all the time. That you call “pills” what I call “sugar” is exactly the point I’m making here.

      Lastly, to your two links:
      1) is irrelevant for the reasons I pointed out above. Strict regulation of manufacture is not evidence of effectiveness of treatment.
      2) Oh, it’s a list of titles and names. How very impressive. For obvious reasons, I will not unearth all those magazines and books from 2002, read them all, and then get back to you. But I can criticise numerous things about that list already, merely from having looked at the titles and sources.

      A): NO LINKS. There is not a single link provided there. Just a list of titles and names. Apparently, none of the “evidence” is available online, or for free. Unlinke conventional medicine, where I can look up next to anything on pubmed within a matter of minutes.
      B): OUT OF DATE. There is nothing in it more recent than 2007. Which, by science standarts, is ridiculously out of date. Actually, most of it is from 2002 and 2005.
      C): BIASED SOURCES. The sources cited are almost exclusively openly biased. “Journal of Homeopathy” is not a credible source for critical information about homeopathy, for obvious reasons.
      There is not a single article on that list that was published by credible medical sources: No “Nature Magazine”, No “The Lancett”, no Pubmed. If there was actual evidence for a treatment that works by previously unknown mechanisms (memory of water), these three would have been all over it. And those who proved the existence of a mechanism such as the ability of water to carry information would be under consideration for a nobel-prize in both physics and chemistry, at least.
      D): TOO MUCH PLACEBO. I already know that there is such a thing as the placebo effect. I don’t need papers that tell me that Homeopathic remedies can be USED AS placeboes: Anything that looks like a pill and lacks an active ingredient can. I can make pills of flour and use them as placebos, and then publish a study about the effectiveness of placebo-pills – that does’t lend credibility to flour-pills being of actual medicinal value.

      I have a challange for you. Two, acutally. First, provide a link to a study that I can actually read, not just a list of names and titles of mostly irrelevant stuff that was published 5 years ago by sources with a clear financial interest in the outcome of the studies. Can you do that? So far, no homeopath could.
      Second, get the best homeopath you can find, a true master of the “art” that you’re so fond of. Then take the label off of a bottle of homeopathic remedy and have him identify it.
      Alternatively, take a group of (human or non-human) animals, infect them with a common cold, treat one half with a placebo and the other with homeopathy. After a period of time you can freely choose, have the homeopath identify the groups.

      Oh, and come to think of it, tell my why no homeopath has ever successfully taken on challange #2. It’s a cheap study, you could do it with cows or mice for less than 5000 dollars. And it would prove effectiveness beyond reasonable doubt. What’s keeping you?


      February 5, 2011 at 00:28

      • I have been looking for a good idea for a Masters study for a while now, and am truly tempted to take on challenge #2… the problems: 1. many many similar studies have already been carried out (with migraines, depression, fibromyalgia, ADHD, rheumatoid arthritis….the list goes on) and 2. I already know the outcome of the study :D the discussion section of my report writes itself; “this study provides no evidence to support a therapeutic effect of homeopathic remedies above and beyond that of a placebo”…
        Yea, I’d be a little biased. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a good idea for me to take on the challenge…


        October 7, 2011 at 01:36

        • My two cents on that: I’d generally stay away from topics on which I have already formed an opinion, unless I could honestly say that I’m willing to have it changed.
          In all of science, bias is a thing to be taken gravely serious.
          With your stance on the topic you’d only discredit your own work before you’ve even started it, which doesn’t seem like something worth doing. Also, while beating a dead horse can be fun sometimes, why not aim to make a more valuable contribution to your field? I’d opt to keep looking.


          October 7, 2011 at 10:44

  3. Nice blog, found from a 10:23 critic. I like that they help connect like minded people, not their intention I’m sure.

    Don’t forget to offset your woo footprint:



    February 4, 2011 at 21:09

    • Hey EnglishAtheist,
      Yes, the 10:23 thingy has brought me a lot of readers, and introduced me to a wide range of new blogs which I now follow regularly. You are mistaken, though, networking and raising the profile of skeptic organisations within and among the participating nations and cities was one of the stated goals of this campaign right from the beginning.
      It was also arguably the one that was best achieved, even more successfully than educating the public about the emptiness of homeopathic claims.


      February 7, 2011 at 18:21

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