Thought Leadership

Homeopathy – science or nonsense?

By Colin Walls

I have some friends, a couple, who are keen tea drinkers – like many English people, of course, including myself. Whilst I am somewhat conventional and like my tea to have some flavor, they are rather odd and seem to want hot water that is barely stained brown. In a café, they will request hot water and a teabag on the side. The teabag is introduced to the water, but not long enough for a strong acquaintanceship to develop – just seconds. They can use a single teabag for 6 or more cups of tea, which is very economic.

I joked recently that what they drink is “homeopathic tea” and this got me thinking about complementary therapies …

There are numerous therapies and treatments, along with other activities in life, for which 21st Century science has no explanation. Many have been subject to research and have been unambiguously proven to not work – yet people continue to believe in them, which I find very hard to understand. There are others, that have not been debunked, but are, as yet, unexplained. This is a topic that I find very interesting.

Sadly, a lot of the scientific investigation has come at it the wrong way: it has been an attempt to prove that the practice, therapy or whatever, is useless. Instead, I feel that the research should be to try to figure out how it works. An understanding of the scientific basis for anything is helpful and commonly leads to technology that improves our lives.

A simple example is dowsing [which my late father could do quite well], which is most commonly used to find underground water. There is no real doubt that dowsing works – indeed many water companies employ professional dowsers to find pipes and water sources. It is not 100% reliable, but a good dowser is close. Only some people seem to have the talent to dowse. It would seem logical that, if we could understand how dowsing works, we might be able to make a machine that can do it reliably. There may also be previously unthought-of applications for dowsing. All that is needed is some open-minded research.

In the medical field, acupuncture is very similar: it is widely practiced and many patients report significant benefits. Unlike dowsing, acupuncture seems to be a technique that anyone can learn. However, again, some people seem to have a greater natural talent. Some appropriate research might result in automation and greater consistency in the practice.

This brings me to homeopathy, another very popular complementary/alternative therapy. The broad approach, as I understand it, is that an agent/chemical, which in significant concentrations might be dangerous/poisonous, is repeatedly diluted, before being administered to the patient. Scientist have pointed out that homeopathy cannot possibly work, because the concentration is so low that there may be no molecules of the drug present – i.e. the patient is being treated with pure water. This would suggest that the therapy should be abandoned, as it clearly does not work and any positive results must be the placebo effect. It appears to be cut and dried, until some interesting research on water was recently published. The scientists discovered that instead of being an amorphous soup of hydrogen and oxygen ions/molecules, plain old liquid water has structure. They identified quite a number of different structures. It has been hypothesized that water could thus get “imprinted” with another chemical’s molecular shape and this is how homeopathy works. This seems worthy of further study in my view.



0 thoughts about “Homeopathy – science or nonsense?
  • Dear Mr. Collins,
    Congratulations on your blog. It is a very good mixture and engineering with, let’s call it, the “rest”. It shows we, engineers, can and do have other interests in life that go well beyond our work 🙂
    I’m just writing to add a short remark to this post about homeopathy. If I’m not mistaken, homeopathy is not put aside by the scientific community because its methods (i.e. dilution) seem not to be plausible. The reason why it is so violently attacked nowadays is because a massive amount of tests done by very credible institutions keeps proving that homeopathy is nothing more than a placebo. One may argue that there are tests that say otherwise but, one after the other, they have been questioned for using “less then standard” methods and, as could be expected, could not be replicated by independent authorities. The Australian government’s recently conducted an independent study to access whether or not it should go for state subsidised homeopathy treatments and the conclusion was the same as before, i.e. definitely not because it doesn’t do anything. The american FDA has also recently mandated that all homeopathic “drugs” had written on the packaging something like “The is no scientific proof that this product has any benefits”.
    So, the question is not wether or not we can explain the mechanism by which something works. In this case the problem is that is doesn’t work.
    So, how does one find out what to do? There is no magic answer but I’d say that information sources where the authors sign their articles assuming their views (much like you do here) is a good place to start. I recommend

    Best regards from a sceptic,

  • Interesting points Pedro. As I mentioned, I think that so much research has set out to prove things do not work, instead of having faith that they do [at least temporarily] and trying to work out the way that they work.

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