“Mostly Harmless”

January 30, 2007

I lead an interesting social life. I’ve had one recent conversation with the owner of a hunting and fishing lodge in Ontario’s far north, only accessible by floatplane, and another with the owner of a trucking company who “plays” the stock exchange in his spare time and makes a good deal of money. Midweek, I play not the stock exchange but the piano at the home of the retired “Mountie” who is teaching my husband how to sing (songs by Brahms, last week). At the weekend Chris and I had lunch with a German military officer who had started his working life as a stevedore in a German port, loading bales of freshly tanned raw hides hours upon end, so that his arms became very muscular and his skin very leathery.

Earlier this month a practitioner of homeopathy (a sari-clad Indian from Maharashtra) gave a mini-lecture on her subject that I sat through; it struck me as a mixture of common sense and nonsense. Common sense would have to agree that

  • a healer must consider both the mind and the body of her patients
  • if a chemical substance is introduced into your body there may be some negative reaction
  • stress affects your posture
  • different people probably require different remedies for the same disease
  • sweetened medications are popular with children
  • These ideas seem to me so obvious as to be banal, along with the claim that “in a healthy person (or healthy animal!), the Vital Force is strong” (whatever that means).

    What sounds to me like nonsense is the homeopath’s claim that highly diluted, natural medications are the best cure for such ailments as kidney stones, warts, migraines, allergies and phobias, even though “the cure could include phases of worsening the condition.” Well, of course. Most of these conditions will come and go of their own accord, especially if you believe they will. If you stop taking conventional medications and drink a lot of water mixed with alcohol, and wait…

    What happens during homeopathic therapy is that the practitioner begins by demanding your detailed medical history. This long, preliminary interview includes apparently irrelevant questions about your childhood maladies and traumatic experiences and about the positions in which you sleep, or cannot get to sleep. By virtue of all this information the homeopath then finds an ongoing “pattern” of suffering and prescribes a remedy accordingly—essence of some bark or whatever, that will mimic your symptoms in a mild way and so stimulate your body’s immune defence system—in a high dilution of water guaranteed to cause no side-effects, telling you to stop taking all other medications, as well as caffeinated tea, coffee, etc. At your second interview, the homeopath will review your progress under this regime and in the light of your improvement or deterioration, will either tell you to carry on with the same dosage or will prescribe an even weaker solution for you.

    The Belgian professor Dr Betz (whom some call “the Scourge of Homeopathy”) describes homeopathic medicine thus:

    30C homeopathic solutions are essentially just water or alcohol—plus any impurities introduced during their manufacture. Indeed, in homeopathic potions labeled 24X, produced by diluting the active ingredient 24 times at only a ten-to-one ratio, the laws of chemistry dictate that there is just a 50% chance that a single molecule of the active substance remains.

    As an ostensibly suicidal experiment, a group of doctors and others once volunteered to swallow a large cocktail of homeopathic medicines, all containing deadly poisons in the dilution recommended by homeopathic practice. Not one of them came to any harm.

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