Alternative medicine (alt-med, complimentary medicine, complimentary and alternative medicine, CAM) is a multibillion dollar industry. Millions trust their health and some even trust their lives to alternative medicines.
Do these alternative medicines work? In this series of articles I will examine the bases for popular alternative medicines and what evidence there is for them and against them.
First we must understand what is and is not evidence.
Firstly: anecdotes are not evidence. At most anecdotes are observations however most anecdotes do not qualify as observations as their validity is questionable. If you read some anecdote off the internet, hear it from a friend, coworker, a news story, in a commercial/infomercial or in a seminar; you have no way of confirming that information or falsifying that information. Human memory and perception is fallible. We don’t remember everything, what we do can fade and change.Oour brains can be selective in what makes it into long term memory and our brains can produce false memories.
This doesn’t mean anecdotes are useless. As said above: anecdotes at best are observations. For anecdotes to be useful they have to be verified and backed up by reliable independent sources. If you have an anecdote that is backed up enough to be used as an observation that doesn’t mean that what ever alternative medicine used worked, there are many explanations for such an observation.
To get evidence you need multiple confirmed and well documented observations, then you need multiple controlled double blinded studies to show a causal corelation. These studies must be peer reviewed and then looked at with the literature as a whole (not picking just the studies that show a corelation (causal or not) and ignoring the studies that show or do not show a corelation).
Not every one knows what “double binded” and “peer review” mean, so heres what they mean: a double blinded study is a study where the subjects of the study are separated into two (or more) groups. One group gets the medicine being tested the other (the control group) gets a placebo, the ones who give the subjects the medicine and placebo as well as the scientists documenting the effects are not aware of who is in which group. After all the information has been documented it is then the the differences between the two groups are compared.
Peer review is the process where scientists submit a detailed paper on a study to a peer reviewed journal were other scientists not connected to the scientists who did the study examine the study and look for any flaws (no matter how small) in the procedures, experiments, methods, conclusions, etc and repeat experiments to see if they get the same results.
Homeopathy is based on the “law of similars” and “law of infinitesimals”. The “law of similars” is “like cures like” which means if you have certain symptoms if you take something that causes those symptoms, it will cure what is causing your symptoms. It only takes a little thought to figure out that; that would quickly kill you. Thats where the “law of infinitesimals” comes in; the “law of infinitesimals” is: the more a substance is diluted the stronger its effect. Homeopathic remedies are made by looking at the symptoms, taking an ingredient that would cause those symptoms, diluting it in water, taking some of that water mixed with the ingredient and diluteting again, the process is repeated over and over again.
Homeopathic dilution ratios are measured in X, D or C. X and D are the same while C is double the X or D. A 1X dilution is 1 in 10 solution (1 part the ingredient in 9 parts of water or other filler), 2X or 1C is 1 in 100 solution, 6X or 3C solution is 1 in one million and a 30X solution is 1 part in 1030 or 1 with 30 zeros behind it. The amount of the active ingredient in an homeopathic solution decreases exponentially as it is repeatedly diluted. At a certain point there wouldn’t even be a single molecule of the active ingredient left.
This begs the question: If its diluted that much how can it have any effect? Homeopaths believe that the water retains a “memory” or “vibrations” of what was diluted in it.
There is no mechanism in known physics for water to have a memory and even if there is one there is no mechanism in biology or physics for such a memory to effect the body. If homeopathy works that would mean our understanding a physics and biology is deeply flawed.
Our understanding of the universe tells us that homeopathy can’t work but that does not mean it doesn’t work. We have to look at scientific studies of homeopathy.
What does the studies tell us? The best designed studies show that homeopathy is no better than placebo.
If homeopathy doesn’t work why do people think it does? When you are sick and you take something, there are three possible out comes. 1. you get better, 2. you stay the same and 3. you get worse. If someone takes a homeopathic treatment and he gets better: “it worked”, if he stays the same: “he needs more”, if he gets worse: “he needs more” or “he needs a different preparation”. There is no “it does not work” in homeopathy.
Conformation bias is the bias towards confirming events. People remember when they took a homeopathic treatment and felt better and forget when they took a homeopathic treatment and didn’t feel better.
Then there is the placebo effect. The placebo effect is an increase in ones feeling of health when taking what is believed to increase ones health. An example of this would be: someone takes what they believe to be a pain relief medicine for a headache, the pain goes away, the cause didn’t and the medicine taken has no effect on pain. It was the placebo effect that got rid of the pain.
In homeopathy, any alternative medicines or real medicine these are problems that can and do cloud peoples perceptions of what works. This is why we need double blind scientific studies. It is scientific studies and not personal experiences that tell us what really works and what doesn’t.
1. SJLS – The Problem with Eyewitness Testimony
2, Neuroscience, Memory and Social Manipulation
3. Biased Retellings of Events Yield Biased Memories
4. Creating False Memories
5. Individual differences and the creation of false childhood memories
6. The free dictionary – double-blind study
7. How Scientific Peer Review Works
8. NCCAM – Homeopathy: An Introduction 9. National Center For Homeopathy
10. Skepdic – Homeopathy
11. Explore – Homeopathy
12. Homeopathy and Frequency
13. Homoeopathic versus conventional therapy for atopic eczema in children: medical and economic results.
14. Effect of homeopathy on analgesic intake following knee ligament reconstruction: a phase III monocentre randomized placebo controlled study.
15. Homeopathy for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder or hyperkinetic disorder.
16. Homeopathy: what does the “best” evidence tell us?
17. Science Reference – Confirmation bias
18. Skepdic – Placebo Effect