Tag Archives: homeopathy

The Math of Homeopathy and Why It Almost Assuredly Can’t Work

A recent story from Calgary, Alberta has surfaced about mother Tamara Lovett, whose son was diagnosed with a strep infection in 2013, then sadly, subsequently died. The reason this case has made news, is because Tamara opted to treat her son with homeopathic remedies instead of the treatments doctors suggested. As a result, she’s facing prosecution for child endangerment.

The legal implications are a little difficult in their own right, because it’s not that Tamara didn’t try to get treatment for her son, it’s that she chose an option that has never passed scientific scrutiny for the treatment of strep infections. But I’ll leave the legal ramifications for another time, this writing is only about the science.

Tamara and Ryan Lovett
Tamara and Ryan Lovett

A CDC study shows that a severe strep infection has an 80% survival rate, which isn’t great—one out of every five people die. Early detection and treatment are imperative if it is to be easily treatable and survivable. So to be fair, her son may not have survived even if she had chosen the treatment recommended by doctors.

If you’re not completely familiar with homeopathy, click here for an in-depth article from Science Based Medicine (SBM), it’s a great detailed explanation from highly qualified people to assess the treatment. I’m particularly interested in elaborating on the math and physics that are somewhat touched on in the article, because I believe it explains why it not only doesn’t work, it almost assuredly can’t.

I say most assuredly, because in science, there are simply no absolutes—it is possible. I also leave myself this out, because my claim is not falsifiable, leaving the burden of proof with the people claiming it does work, not those of us who are skeptical of it.

Image showing strep throat infection

Before I go into homeopathy, I first want to address some confusion regarding what it is. In a handful of social media discussions, people equated homeopathy with natural remedies like oils, herbs, and plant extracts, or alternative treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage. Those are not homeopathy, so let’s address the others so you can compare them somewhat knowledgeably.

Oils, herbs, and plant extracts are used in medicine all the time, and are often quite helpful—such as putting aloe vera on a sunburn for instance. They’ve been tested, their effectiveness is often well understood.

Doctors may even recommend them from time to time to patients, but it’s important to understand that these are usually for things you would not necessarily see a doctor for in the first place, like a simple stomach ache, or other minor ailments.

Treatments like acupuncture, chiropractic, and massage, are also known to have some benefits, but not quite in the way you might imagine. What they do, is provide immediate pain relief, largely due to human contact, a premise explained here and/or via the placebo effect.

What they haven’t been shown to accomplish however, is improving any underlying medical conditions like an infectious disease, arthritis, or other physical abnormalities—something some of these practitioners claim can be done, despite almost every reputable controlled study showing otherwise.

If you have a genuine life-or-death condition, I cannot stress enough to consult a doctor with an actual doctorate degree in medicine, not an alternative treatment “doctor” who is just a practitioner wrongfully using the term doctor, to fool you into a belief of credibility.

Image result for acupuncture
Acupuncture – Click picture for link to NIH In-Depth Analysis on Acupuncture © BananaStock

On a personal note; you’ll notice that I say “alternative treatments” versus “alternative medicine.” This is because to me, there is no such thing, in a literary sense, as “alternative medicine.” There is only medicine—things that actually improve someone’s condition, and there’s everything else that doesn’t. If such an alternative treatment actually passes the rigors of controlled clinical trials with successful results, then they’re not alternative medicine, they’re just medicine.

The important premise I want to elaborate on from the SBM article cited above is where they explain the dilutions used to make a homeopathic medicine. They cited that it’s between 1:1006 at its strongest dilution, and 1:10030 at its weakest. This doesn’t appear that significant at first, but the math behind this dosage will hopefully illustrate why it ultimately has no mechanism to work, unless everything we know about chemistry is wrong. So let’s dig right in.

Imagine you have a regular strength Tylenol, which contains 325 mg of acetaminophen. That pill will have some other fillers in it for various reasons, as explained here. But according to a source in the pharmaceutical community, 35% drug to 65% filler is a pretty fair ratio you might expect on any given drug. I don’t have a scale to weigh the whole pill, but if you do, you can easily do the math and find out for yourself by subtracting 325 mg from the total weight of the pill. I reached out to Tylenol to get an exact number, they were kind enough to respond, but advised it was proprietary information. At 35% to 65%, that is a 1:1.86 ratio of active ingredient to non active fillers.tylenol1 tylenol2 tylenol3 tylenol4

Homeopathy however, starts as a 1:100 solution which is then cut between 6 to 30 times, depending on their particular diagnoses.

Like a typical doctor, they would ask a series of questions to help diagnose the condition, but unlike a typical doctor, many of the questions they ask seem entirely medically irrelevant, such as:

Let’s first address what 1:1006 or 1:10030 even means. For every 1 mg of the active ingredient, they mix it with 100 mg of filler (the inactive ingredient), which results in a 1:100 ratio. From there, they then take that 1:100 solution, extract 1 mg of that, mix it with another 100 mg of filler, which is now a 1:10,000 solution (100 x 100 = 10,000). This can also be written as 1:1002. Their formula calls for at least 1:1006, so that means the above procedure is repeated four more times, or up to 28 more times for the 1:10030 dosage.

Since you saw the first cut took 1:100 from 1:10,000 (basically added two more zeros), if it’s done four more times, eight more zeros are added, for a ratio of 1:1,000,000,000,000. Yes, 1 in 1 trillion. And that’s the most concentrated or strongest dilution. We all know one trillion is a pretty big number, but let me put that into perspective.

Earth’s diameter is approximately 7,917.5 miles or 501,652,800 inches. So that means, that if the pill were the size of Earth, the active ingredient would be the size of slightly under 1/3 of a golf ball, which is 1.68 inches in diameter (1.68 x 1 trillion = 1.68 trillion compared to 500 billion. 3 x 500 billion is 1.5 trillion). And again, that’s the strongest dose.

Now, if we address the 1:10030 dosage, the dilution jumps to 1:100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000. I double checked those zeros—60 of them to be exact. I don’t even know if there’s a word for that number, to be honest—it’s almost literally incomprehensible.

If we think of Pluto as a planet (which it isn’t) at the edge of our solar system (also not true), the orbit it makes around the sun (an orbit so big, it hasn’t even completed it once since we discovered Pluto in 1930) would make our solar system approximately 465,631,747,504,000 inches in diameter.

This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers). Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute
This synthetic perspective view of Pluto, based on the latest high-resolution images to be downlinked from NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) above Pluto’s equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles (1,800 kilometers) across. The images were taken as New Horizons flew past Pluto on July 14, 2015, from a distance of 50,000 miles (80,000 kilometers).
Credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute

Hopefully, the astute of you are starting to realize that our solar system as described above, still isn’t nearly big enough to be used as a metric for the size of a pill that would have 1 inch diameter of active ingredient. Our solar system would have to be 214,761,988,494,225,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times bigger for that.

While some may be skeptical of “western medicine,” we must accept that people go to the doctor for surgeries and other medical treatments and come out healed every day. To know that, then somehow believe everything they know is wrong, would be unparalleled in ignorance, or an unimaginable string of lucky doctors.

The problem I assume many of you have already come to, is that with a dilution this drastic, the likelihood you’d even get one molecule of the active ingredient is pretty slim. The human body only has about 7,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 atoms in it (27 zeros), as a point of reference.

Practitioners overcome this problem by claiming that the fillers simply having come in contact with the active ingredient creates some sympathetic imitation, called the law of similars. They’re arguing that the molecules of the filler would somehow take on qualities from the active ingredient. But how is that supposed to work?

The active ingredients are molecules. If you break it down to anything smaller, it is no longer that ingredient. For instance, water is a molecule of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Remove any one of those atoms, and what remains are two gasses that are nothing like water.

So this notion that somehow the filler changes because it comes in contact with the active ingredient, is the portion that defies everything we know about physics, because if one molecule changes another, that is typically because it gave up an electron to it. But if there’s only 1 molecule of active ingredient to 1 trillion filler molecules, where exactly do those trillions of electrons come from?

It’s also important to understand how medicine works. A molecule of the active ingredient usually binds to a molecule of the virus, bacteria, etc., destroying them in the process, and thus negating their ability to divide and grow.

A pain reliever similarly binds to pain receptors in your body to stop them from sending pain signals to your brain. I’m oversimplifying of course, but how is one molecule of medicine supposed to fight several billion molecules of whatever ails you, or bond to millions of pain receptors? Nevertheless molecules of filler that may or may not have once come in contact of the active ingredient.ecc7d1d27275a4b9cb29cf31ea08780d[1]

If a patients blood work, biopsies, or other tests show improvement, it’s because they either took other medications that do work along with the homeopathic treatment, or their immune system simply did its job with no help from the homeopathic treatment. But it almost assuredly cannot be due to any physical effects homeopathy would have done, because there’s simply no mechanism for the drug to actually do that work.

So I implore everyone; don’t EVER listen to anyone giving you medical advice that involves using homeopathy. It’s immoral and reprehensible advice from those who know better, and from those who don’t, it’s simply woefully misguided ignorance.

No one lacking the credentials the multitude of MD doctors and researchers who’ve tested homeopathy with no positive result have, should be given an ounce of credence with your health—especially when the results can be fatal if the wrong choice is made.

 

We would not be alive today if not for skeptics. So what is one?

Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)
Gary Nolan (and THE Scrappy Doo)

Although my writings are largely political, the other subject I’m passionate about is science and skepticism—the value of logical thought cannot be overstated. It seems that all too often people will believe what they’re told by a single media source, a politician, a political party, a professor, etc. But as the brilliant fictional “philosopher” Dr. Gregory House always said, “Everybody lies.”

Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House M.D.
Hugh Laurie as Dr. Gregory House M.D.

Yet when I tell people I’m a skeptic, I get looks of confusion and apprehension. It’s as if I just told them I’m about to profess we never landed on the moon, that Bush was the impetus behind 9/11, that aliens are here among us, or that I’m part of some religious cult. So as a result, I wanted to put some of these myths to bed, but let me address the issues above before I go any further.

  • I believe anyone who believes we didn’t put a man on the moon is ignorant. Click here to see the Mythbusters dismantle these issues on the faked moon landing.
  • I believe anyone who thinks George W. Bush spearheaded 9/11 is disgusting, hateful, and ignorant. This has been thoroughly debunked by many members of the scientific community. National Geographic addressed the 9/11 conspiracy here involving several universities conducting independent studies—please watch. I’m not going to elaborate, they’ve covered it well enough. This nonsense is insulting to the military who would never follow such an unlawful order, even if it were given to them. Our military are far more thoughtful than these hateful idiots ever care to give them credit for.
  • What I know about odds and probabilities leads me to believe there is life in our universe outside of Earth. What I know about physics tells me it would have almost no way of getting here in tact. So yes I believe there is alien life, no I do not believe it has ever inhabited Earth.
  • I’m an agnostic/atheist. I do not believe in any supernatural or spiritual beings. The burden of proof is not on science, as such claims are not falsifiable. The burden lies with the people claiming such phenomena exist. I’m open to the possibility, provided there is any scientific evidence presented to support it—such evidence has yet to be presented.

So if it is not a cult and we don’t have meetings with strange customs like a secret handshake, wrapping our heads in tin foil, or creepy Gregorian chants, what is a skeptic?Tin_foil_hat_2[1]

Saying you are skeptic just means that you question everything (not doubt, just question), and apply the scientific method to answer any questions you might have. Here are a few statements I feel would accurately tell the tale of being a skeptic and some simple rules of thumb to bear in mind.

  • Rule #1 – Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Skeptics will have an evidentiary based belief system. The greater the claim one makes, the greater the evidence required to support it.
  • While we will often admit a creator is possible, skeptics are often non-religious. This is due to the overwhelming amount of anecdotal evidence and the underwhelming lack of scientific evidence.
  • A skeptic will start from a null hypothesis—the idea that nothing is true until reasonably confirmed with evidence. If you tell me that magnetic wrist band will cure my headaches and increase my sperm count, you’d better have more than a testimonial, which of course are discredited by the placebo effect. Nothing less than a proper peer-reviewed study will do.
  • If we read some random meme on Facebook or Twitter which makes a provable claim, yet seems dubious in any way, we’ll usually assume it’s bunk and not even bother sharing it. If we’re curious, we might check it out on Snopes or other reputable sites, then share if we can confirm it to be true.070e54aedcf606e53698b9f0f2528a9e3f9ecd80b3cf90cd9ca6deb7f0eac351[1]
  • We place our trust in the science. Almost everything we enjoy in life, from gadgets to health care, we have because this method works—it has for centuries.
  • Skeptics are not conspiracy theorists. We don’t invent fantastic tales for shock value or ideology, we present logical arguments, we separate facts from opinions, and we let the chips fall where they may.
  • A skeptic would rarely believe in alternative medicines. If they really do work, proper scientific studies will confirm as much. At which point they’ll cease being alternative medicine and just be actual medicine.
  • A skeptic wants both sides of the argument. In politics, if a Democrat makes a claim, I want to hear a Republican’s or Libertarian’s rebuttal and vice-versa. If a scientist presents an idea, I want a similarly qualified scientist to challenge their findings. One side of a story is rarely accurate and you should be wary of anyone making a claim of absolutes in this manner.
  • We largely will often point out that shows about cryptozoology, astrology, alien abductions, ghost hunting, etc. belong on the The Sci-Fi Channel, not The Science Channel. While presented as science, they’re all largely full of utter nonsense. One cannot make scientific claims about Bigfoot if one does not have a living or dead Bigfoot standard to test.

So why is it important to be a skeptic? If you like being duped, skepticism isn’t for you—ignorance is bliss, right? But as Steve Jobs proved in 2003 when he opted for a homeopathic solution to his cancer instead of what his doctors recommended, being a skeptic can save your life. Jobs’ had been advised that his cancer was treatable and survivable if he were to undergo proper science-based medical treatment. By the time he realized his homeopathic option was bunk however, it was too late.

Steve Jobs - Apple Founder
Steve Jobs – Apple Founder

For those not familiar with homeopathy and why it is junk science, here’s a phenomenal article from Donald Prothero from skepticblog.com. As are all articles on their site, it is worth a read.

But let me go back further into history and explain why I believe mankind owes its very existence to skepticism.

When the black plague was running rampant, many had believed that this was God punishing humanity as he did during the flooding in the tale of Noah’s ark. As such, they felt that there was no way to intervene and stop this deadly scourge, and potentially that it was blasphemy to even try. While they may not have understood the scientific method or the concept of modern skepticism as we do today, it was indeed skeptics who decided that the plague might simply be a biological process with a cure instead of the will of God, applied scientific-like methods to the problem, and proceeded to eventually quash this most devastating of diseases.

While faith gives people comfort, and I would never try to take that away from them, when you start feeling the onset of a heart attack, a stroke, or any other medical emergency arise, who will you call first? 911 or your priest? If you answered 911, you’re already a bit of a skeptic. The next time you hear a claim that seems too fantastic to be true, grab your computer and do some research. I think you’ll find the scientific method quite rewarding once you get the hang of it.

*Please look to the left. You will find a header with a list of sites dedicated to science and skepticism. I encourage you to read as much as you can. While I’m an amateur who is just priming your skeptical pump, these are professionals who do this for a living. Learning is addictive, I hope you’ll check them out.