Mon, 30 Jun 2008 | wilfred

Homeopathy is Father Christmas for grownups.

Most episodes of the TV series The X-Files begin with the words “THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE”. In the final episode the evidence, gathered over several seasons, of a conspiracy regarding aliens, and the alien colonisation of Earth, is presented in a court case.

Chris Carter, the creator of the X-Files, has a storytelling imagination of genius proportions.

But what if the truth is a matter of less imagination, not more? What if there is no Father Christmas? What if there is no Tooth Fairy, or Tooth Mouse?

And most importantly, what if believing the lie leaves you better off than knowing the truth?

In the Second World War, an American field doctor ran out of morphine. Without telling the patient, he handed the nurse a syringe of saline (salt water). The patient felt no pain. This is known as the placebo effect, and it is a powerful, well-known, and frequently-used way of treating ailments. Placebos can manage ailments that the mind has control over, e.g. muscular pain, migraines, nausea, etc. But it cannot cure diseases that the mind does not have control over, e.g. AIDS.

However, if you are told the truth; that you have been injected with salt water and not morphine, your surgery is going to feel very different. Do you really want to hear that there is no Father Christmas?

If so, keep reading.

OK, before I start stomping all over your warm, fuzzy Christmas dreams of friendly old guys in Coca Cola colours and his altruistic elves, let me tell you about something possibly related to one's amenability to the placebo effect. There is another form of therapy with medical uses that can use one's own mind to treat ailments. It can treat the same kinds of ailments that the placebo effect treats. It is hypnosis. And it's a lot more useful than just making idiots of people in front of an audience. It can be extremely effective, does not involve lying, and as opposed to sugar pills, which need to be purchased continually for chronic suffers, hypnotherapy can cure chronic ailments in a fixed number of sessions. So if it turns out that you've been using placebos, go and investigate hypnotherapy.

Right. Now for the stomping. Dr Samuel Hahnemann was practising in the days when bloodletting was considered an effective treatment for disease, and before the use of microscopes. He proposed several ideas for curing disease and promoting health. Some of his ideas are excellent: he strongly promoted a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, and good personal hygiene for his patients, with the kind of good results one would expect. But two of his ideas have turned out, hundreds of years and an enormous amount of learning later, to contradict established laws of physics, and medical knowledge. The first is his “like cures like” principle; and the second is his principle of dilution. These two principles are the foundation of homeopathy.

Hahnemann's “like cures like” principle holds that if a substance causes a specific symptom, then that substance can be used to cure that symptom by means of his principle of dilution.

The principle of dilution holds that if you dilute a substance, it's curative “spirit” is strengthened, and its harmful properties are reduced. So homeopathic remedies are diluted A LOT. I have a brochure for homeopathic remedies from Feelgood Health in front of me, and it includes a homeopathic remedy called “Easy AirTravel”. The brochure states, “100% homeopathic remedy provides relief for acute symptoms of fear of flying. ... Ingredients: Aconite (30C), Argent nit. (30C), Ars. Alb. (30C)” It doesn't really matter what those things are, because there isn't any of them in there. 30C means that one part of the ingredient is diluted with 1-with-60-zeros (a very very big number) parts of water. If you dilute 1 molecule of orange squash with 1-with-60-zeros molecules water, you're not only going to taste no orange squash, you'd also need a glass 30 000 000 000 times the size of the planet to contain just one orange squash molecule. (Yes, there is no such thing as an orange squash molecule, this example is for illustrative purposes only. The original example was made by physicist Robert L. Park.) So really, “Easy AirTravel” contains none of its ingredients. It just puts your mind at ease, if you're a Father Christmas-believing kind of guy.

But now that you've read this, you're screwed. Go visit your GP. Or look up a hypnotist. Or just take an aspirin. They're a lot cheaper than “Easy AirTravel”, and they can also reduce the risk of venous thrombosis. Bonus.

A friend sent me the link to this hilarious video on YouTube, Homeopathic A&E, from "That Mitchell and Webb Look". Thanks dude.

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