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“Scientists claim that homeopathy is not possible”
… states the Homeopathy Research Institute as allegedly supposed dictum of critics on homeopathy.
The third part of our series about homeopathic criticism on criticism of homeopathy deals with the Homeopathy Research Institute’s statement: “Scientists claim homeopathy is impossible”.
Whether scientists would use this wording to express their views on homeopathy seems to be rather doubtful, the Homeopathy Research Institute (HRI) does not offer any reference of such a statement in their article anyway (https://www.hri-research.org/resources/homeopathy-faqs/scientists-say-homeopathy-is-impossible/). However, this is not very likely, because a serious scientist would utter such a statement only if there was clear evidence for anything. But this is impossible in our case, since the non-existence of something cannot be proven. What scientists actually say about homeopathy is:
- Scientific mechanisms of action—where we conclude that the claims for homeopathy are implausible and inconsistent with established scientific concepts.
- Clinical efficacy—we acknowledge that a placebo effect may appear in individual patients but we agree with previous extensive evaluations concluding that there are no known diseases for which there is robust, reproducible evidence that homeopathy is effective beyond the placebo effect. There are related concerns for patient-informed consent and for safety, the latter associated with poor quality control in preparing homeopathic remedies. 
So there is no statement of homeopathy being “impossible” as such, but only that it contradicts everything we know from science, technology and everyday life about how nature works. Of course, this can be all wrong, since our knowledge is an approximation of reality only. Therefore, a scientist will always refer to the current state of knowledge – which does not necessarily mean that they consider it likely that this will really be proven false.
Background: Why is homeopathy implausible?
The world exists and develops quite obviously in a multitude of processes and phenomena. The fundamental laws that control these processes and which are being researched by science must therefore be compatible and must not contradict each other. A natural law cannot be valid in one case and invalid in another under the same conditions. If such problems arise, this is an indication that our understanding of the matter is not yet complete, e.g. some important conditions might not have been identified yet.
Any inconsistency in our knowledge indicates an error in our understanding. Usually this triggers research to find the root cause and to result in a better understanding of nature’s laws. Consequently, to be plausible in science, any doctrine would have to be consistent, showing no internal contradictions and not being in conflict with other branches of science.
Homeopathy does not meet these requirements, because it is full of internal contradictions and there is no reasonably plausible explanation for any effectiveness of the remedies in use, which would not be in conflict with well-established knowledge.
To cover all the issues in detail would exceed the limits of an article as this one, so a few examples will have to suffice.
According to the homeopathic “law of similarity”, a remedy is able to cure the symptoms in an ill person that it can invoke in a healthy one. This is one of the pillars of homeopathy; it is even where the name is derived from (“homeopathy” = “similar to suffering”). Obviously, this must also apply in the reversal, so that a remedy can trigger the symptoms in a healthy person that it can cure in an ill one. Homeopathic drug “provings”, and with this the homeopathic database for prescribing proper remedies to patients, is dependent on the fact that healthy subjects take a remedy and record the symptoms that occur afterwards.
First off, if this was true, homeopathic remedies would be extremely dangerous – after all, according to homeopaths, you can cure and therefore cause all kinds of acute and chronic illnesses with homeopathic remedies, which is in contrast to the claimed gentleness and safety of their use. Homeopathy follows the logic that every intake of their remedies will cause an “effect”, a healing one when it was “perfectly appropriate” and a harmful one when this is not the case. Either a homeopathic remedy can cause undesirable effects (“side effects”) , or the drug trials do not work, and therefore the bases of homeopathic prescriptions, the so-called Materia Medica, are rubbish.
Either way, any specific therapy of patients would be impossible. Either because the doctrine is wrong, and the remedies are ineffective, or because the properties of the remedies are unknown and the effects a practitioner may evoke are unpredictable.
Homeopaths even agree that not being able to identify the right remedy at first go is quite possible, meaning that homeopathic remedies are wrongly prescribed quite frequently. This would turn homeopathy into a very risky therapy: since the wrong remedy would identify the patient as “healthy” concerning the drug-specific symptoms and start to create them. Or does the remedy somehow know, even if it was wrongly prescribed, that the person is ill, though concerning another drug, and then it suppresses its urge to cause its own individual proving symptoms?
Over-the-counter sale of homeopathic medicines without a prescription would have to be banned, because a layperson would be far less able to identify the proper remedy for themselves. And by the way: Either a detailed anamnesis is required for the proper choice of drugs – then the OTC-sale of the remedies is a kind of fraud –, or the remedies can be ordered according to perfunctory diagnosis, then the extensive first anamnesis is humbug.
An explanation, i.e. an effective model of homeopathy, should be able to describe, for example, how the efficacy of a source material is enhanced by dilution and shaking. And how this is transferred to the patient when the source material is diluted out of the solution, and how the remedies differentiate whether the patient is ill or not.
Even for this basic process there is no explanation that would not fundamentally contradict our current understanding of physics, chemistry and physiology in one form or another. Of course, this explanation should also include why under similar conditions in similar processes these effects do not occur outside of homeopathy.
In technology and day-to-day life, there are many procedures where the “efficacy” of a substance is controlled by maintaining certain concentrations of the active substance in question. Drinking water is treated by removing the accompanying impurities of the natural surface water to such an extent that the maximum concentrations of pollutants are within the limits prescribed in the regulations for potable water. It’s similar for the treatment of water for medical purposes, the production of decaffeinated coffee, alcohol-free beer, skimmed milk, etc. None of these substances have as yet been found to be affected by shaking – for example, by vigorously slamming the coffee cup on the table. The effect of dilution could never be completely or partially removed – better: inverted – by succussion. Shaking or stirring is often used to mix substances and homogenize the concentrations. If homeopathic assumptions were correct, the very first bump on the table would increase the strength of the coffee. After all, potentizing is said to be very powerful: 10 beats of shaking are sufficient to transfer the effectiveness to 99 times the volume of the solvent – and to even enhance the effect.
It is also inexplicable why this immense increase of power only happens when the solution is diluted in advance, and not when the liquid is shaken without being diluted before. An explanation has to account for this, too. Otherwise, at least liquid homeopathic drugs should not be sold, because random shaking movements during transport to the pharmacy, or later in the shopping bag or a pocket, would result in random increases of efficacy, which in turn would have to lead to an unpredictable result with the patient (Hahnemann, the inventor of homeopathy, was sure of this – it is reported that this was initial for the idea of using globules; therapists who could not see such an “transport effect” were taunted by him).
Furthermore, the model would have to provide an explanation for the fact that the amplification only affects the substance used as a mother tincture – and only the desired properties that is, not a toxic effect for instance – not the inevitable impurities of alcohol or water used as a solvent.
It may not be exactly correct to postulate the “impossibility” of such a model, because this cannot be proven. One can, however, consider how much of current science needs to be rewritten in order to explain the alleged mode of operation of homeopathy as well as the non-occurrence of these effects outside the homeopathic environment.
Revolutionary insights are usually honored with a Nobel Prize. In order to illustrate the extent of the contradiction between homeopathy and the natural sciences, the German physicist Martin Lambeck once pointed out how many Nobel Prizes would have to be awarded if the assumptions of homeopathy were actually scientifically proven . His count reached well over 90. The introduction of the theory of relativity or quantum physics were mere trifles in comparison.
What scientists really say
Homeopaths like to quote scientists as witnesses for the claimed efficiency of their drugs and remedies, but quite frequently do so in a crude and misleading way, as found in HRI’s reference of Luc Montagnier.
Montagnier is a virologist who in 2008 was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on the AIDS virus. In 2010, he gave an interview to the journal Science in which he answered questions about one of his – by the way highly controversial – papers . In this article, he claimed to have found that some bacteria emit electromagnetic waves – and that these can be detected in the solution even when the bacteria are filtered off and the solution is further diluted . The HRI quotes a passage from the interview, but only three short sentences out of context in which Montagnier sounds as if he would actually confirm homeopathy. However, here is the complete quote with HRI’s partial quote highlighted:
Q: Do you think there’s something to homeopathy as well?
L.M.: I can’t say that homeopathy is right in everything. What I can say now is that the high dilutions are right. High dilutions of something are not nothing. They are water structures which mimic the original molecules. We find that with DNA, we cannot work at the extremely high dilutions used in homeopathy; we cannot go further than a 10-18 dilution, or we lose the signal. But even at 10-18, you can calculate that there is not a single molecule of DNA left. And yet we detect a signal.
A wonderful example of cherry-picking: Montagnier actually said the phrase the HRI quotes, yes, but in the same breath he also contradicted some basic assumptions of homeopathy. If the HRI had the intention to inform its readers about the real background of Montagnier‘s work, then they should have mentioned:
- It’s the DNA that causes the effect. The efficacy of inorganic substances or simple organic compounds would therefore remain unexplained.
- Not even all organisms seem to produce the effect, but only certain bacteria.
- The dilutions were only active in a comparatively narrow range, depending on the species of bacteria, between D8 and D12, i.e. not in the absurdly high dilutions as is customary in homeopathy (C200 and even higher).
- The effects last only for a comparatively short period of less than 48 hours, and in no case for such a long period of time in which homeopathic remedies may even reach their customer.
- The effect becomes weaker with increasing dilution and disappears completely above D18, whereas in homeopathy considerably higher potencies with correspondingly stronger dilutions are in use and are regarded as particularly effective.
There’s nothing there to support homeopathy.
Change in science
Again and again, according to the HRI, science is subject to constant change, which is supposed to suggest that the present knowledge is probably false:
“What the scientific establishment considers impossible at one point in time is a proven fact at a later stage “.
This statement is complete nonsense and is based on a completely wrong understanding of science.
In fact, science is constantly evolving and gaining better and more comprehensive insights in the processes of nature. Of course, “mistakes” also occur, meaning that hypotheses are made and considered to be confirmed, but later prove to be inaccurate. Finding errors and shortcomings, gradually and laboriously pushing out the limits of knowledge, improving the inadequate, replacing the wrong with (probably) more correct things, this is the core of scientific work. Usually, scientists who have disproved particularly sound hypotheses are awarded a Nobel Prize. These included, for example, Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, who were awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2005 for demonstrating that gastric ulcers can be attributed to bacterial infections, which was previously considered impossible because bacteria were not believed to survive gastric acid (this was, by the way, considered impossible, but not completely incompatible with natural laws).
This example, which is also cited by the HRI, does not prove that our knowledge is wrong, but rather that true science can detect and correct errors and thus obtain ever better knowledge of the actual facts. There are conclusions and hypotheses that may prove to be inaccurate later on, and these may be considered valid for quite a long time before, but with the scientific methodology it is possible to exclude inaccurate views.
If you want to describe the situation in one sentence, you can better use a quote from the Swiss internist Wilhelm Löffler:
“Almost all the errors of medicine that live on in popular belief were once scientifically accepted theories.”
There are also laws of nature that cannot be modified or replaced by anything else. These laws of nature are the absolute limit to speculation on “everything is possible” and “science cannot yet understand…”. It is by no means the case that everything that is considered impossible today will almost inevitably represent proven wisdom tomorrow, like the HRI tries to suggest. Perpetua mobilia are impossible and will remain so, also like a speed beyond the speed of light. And: where there is nothing, there is nothing that works.
Even though our knowledge of the ways of the world is still far from complete, it is very unlikely that one day a medical efficacy of homeopathic preparations will be explained, especially with the effects claimed in the various homeopathic repertories. The contradiction between homeopathic teaching and established knowledge of science, technology and everyday life is far too big. In the end, it would not only be necessary to find an explanation of the efficacy, but also to show why these effects do not occur in similar processes outside homeopathy. This means that for large parts of physics, biology and chemistry, completely new and contradiction-free explanatory models must be presented (the physicist and science theorist Thomas S. Kuhn expressly demanded the replacement of old paradigms only “including central concepts”).
This is so highly improbable that it can be considered impossible with highest probability, comparable to the probability of finding an atom/molecule of the mother tincture in a bottle of C200 potency. 1:10380 is not equal to zero – however, it is small enough for all practical purposes to be taken as zero.
Sources / References: European Academies Science Advisory Council: “Homeopathic products and practices: assessing the evidence and ensuring consistency in regulating medical claims in the EU“, EASAC:September 2017, Link  Lambeck M.: Irrt die Physik? Über alternative Medizin und Esoterik, 3. erweiterte Auflage, Verlag C.H.Beck 2015, ISBN 3406670962  Newsmaker Interview ‚French Nobelist Escapes ‚intellectual Terror‘ to Persue Radical Ideas in China‘, Science 330 (2010) p. 1732  Montagnier L, Aissa J, Ferris S, Montagner JL, Lavalle C: Electromagnetic Signals are Produced by Aqueous Nanostructures Derived from Bacterial DNA Sequences‘, Intersiscip Sci Comput Life Sci (2009) 1: 81-90
In the series “Criticism on our criticism on homeopathy” we also published:
Part I: “There is no evidence”
Part II: “Missing positive trials”
Part IV: “They’re just Sugar Pills!”
Learn more about the fundamentals of cognitive ability in the natural sciences: “What does ‘proved’ mean?”
Picture credits: Fotolia_130625327_XS