Why do you reject Homeopathy?

Sometimes it is OK just to reject something without seeking any deep understanding.  We run into these situations all the time.  Life is too short to spend time examining every suggestion that comes in front of us.

On the other hand, relying on our intuitions to find truth has been shown often to be grossly erroneous.  Ouch, what are we to do?

Homeopathy is practiced by thousands of practitioners and has millions of patients.  Skeptics usually dismiss Homeopathy for very simple reasons (listed by most common to least common):

  • Tribal Doubt:  None of the people you respect think homeopathy is valid.  You trust those in your circle.  Other skeptics think homeopathy is hogwash and so do you.   Besides, you have seen the sort of folks that flock to homeopathy — they flock to a bunch of equally ridiculous notions and aren’t to be trusted.
  • Mechanism Doubt: You can’t imagine how any medicine could work which is diluted beyond hope of having even one molecule of active ingredient.  You haven’t read any of the explanations given by homeopaths to support this crazy notion but you know whatever reason they give has to be ridiculous.
  • Smattering of Science:  You’ve heard of a few studies from what you consider highly reliable sources that claim no evidence for the effectiveness of homeopathy and you have no reason to doubt them.
But a few skeptics have taken time to understand the issue:
  • Lots of Science: This is hard.  You would have to be up on the pros and cons of lots of studies.  You may even have read extensively on the subject including sympathetic material and journal articles that claim to show homeopathic effectiveness.  You have thought through all the counter evidence and feel homeopathy is hogwash.

Most probably a given skeptic will have a combinations of these reasons.

Though I think it is fine to reject Homeopathy out of hand and move on.  In these posts, I will endulge the luxury to understand more deeply than simple rejection.  I hope to help interested readers to understand why people practice homeopathy and why millions of patients swear to its effectiveness.  So I am talking to those who are willing to consider not dismissing homeopathy out-of-hand, and instead make an effort to understand why others value it so strongly.   Hopefully I will take you beyond thinking that believers in Homeopathy are just unadulterated idiots — even if you still disagree with them.

Questions to readers:  What level is your sophistication in rejecting homeopathy (if you do)?  What level do you think most skeptics have?  [It should be obvious to readers, that a similar examination of levels-of-rejection approach could also be done for religions, politics, other types of medicine and more.]

See the rest of this series.



Filed under Medicine

23 responses to “Why do you reject Homeopathy?

  1. JSA

    I don’t reject homeopathy, but just assume that “every patient is an experiment of one”, and have generally low expectations.

  2. I am not sophisticated in regards to homeopathy, but I think the reasons I reject it, for the most part, are two-fold.

    From the few studies I have read about, it appears that there is a significant placebo effect in play.

    Beyond that, as JSA suggests, it appears that the results are more subject to the reactions of particular individuals. That makes homeopathy appear to be something which must be more customized at an individual level than what is suggested by the pharmaceutical companies for their drugs. This yields a bias towards Big Pharma, even if that bias is unjustified. I learn towards selecting something which has been proven to work for most people versus what I have to figure out on my own trial and error. (I know it is silly, as even particular Big Pharma drugs are only effective with certain people, but, alas, I guess I am swayed by marketing.)

  3. Ian

    You don’t need a lot of science to reject homeopathy, I don’t think. There are certain reported phenomena that so dramatically shift the basis of modern science and engineering, that if they were found to be true would render unbelievable amounts of science and scientists wrong. I don’t think they are impossible. But I think one is very justified in rejecting them quickly and without serious airtime.

    Homeopathy is one, since to be true would have to invalidate basic chemistry, either atomic theory or basic reaction kinetics. Over-unity power generation is another, which would invalidate thermodynamics. Some forms of creationism are another, which would invalidate more basic chemistry and physics.

    As soon as one can trace any purported claim to an invalidation of something in that league, one can very quickly and with a very high degree of certainty, reject it.

    With science everything is probabilistic. But with homeopathy you don’t have to get anywhere near a patient or any body of trials to know that the claims of the treatment are untrue.

    The interesting thing to learn about homeopathy isn’t its claims, but how effective its placebo induction is.

  4. @ JSA:
    I imagine you are just being playful with regards to the word “reject”, correct. For otherwise, you would “reject” no claims.

    @ Fool:
    (1) Curious, have you actually *read* the studies or have you read someone’s summary of them or just the abstract? Are you trained in analyzing studies? (I am not defending or attacking, but instead, exploring the level of evidence we need to reject).

    (2) I am sure you know that many things which we accepted as being “proven” to work, were later rejected in science. Take SSRIs or Statins (ooops, those are still accepted). smile.

    @ Ian:
    I agree with the main gist of your argument, of course.
    But let me explore a principle:
    (1) Do you agree that something can work in spite of the explanation offered? Chiropracty has been shown helpful for a few conditions even though the explanation is bunk. Some herbs have been shown effective inspite of the explanation give by those who first discovered them.

    (2) Agreeing with you: The problem with homeopathy, is that when you hear their explanation and see how the remedies are actually made, we can’t imagine another mechanisms. Rejecting out of hand with just that, however, would be too early if the empirical evidence was present. Don’t you agree.

    (3) You are addressing the “Plausability” condition in the EIGHT Hill criteria of causation(1965) used in epidemiology and evidence-based medicine.

    But as Hill himself wrote: “the association we observe may be one new to science or medicine and we must not dismiss it too light-heartedly as just too odd”

    Again, don’t get me wrong: I essential agree but would want to add a few more conditions to reject “scientifically”.

  5. @Sabio
    1) Funny you questioned that. I had originally written “From the few studies I have read…” in my comment. I thought, that’s not accurate. I’ve never read the actual study papers from clinical trials, I’ve just read press summaries and the like. That’s when I added the word “about.” 🙂 I’m not trained in analyzing the studies. I am just an engineer with several family members in the medical profession, including one PA/Hypnotherapist.

    2) Absolutely. Not all of the trust in the FDA is justified. Greed comes into play. And because you can’t patent St. John’s Wort or Apple Vinegar, there’s a woeful shortfall in interest (money) in developing or supporting possible homeopathic remedies. In fact, one may suggest that there is incentive to promote the rejection such remedies in favor of manufactured drugs. I would not go as far as saying there is a conspiracy against homeopathy though.

  6. Ian


    Yes, I suspect there are mechanisms involved, but they aren’t “homeopathic” (i.e. it is not the case that infinitesimal dilutions of a pathogen with a particular physiological response cause the body to resist other causes of that same response). And here we end up with referential problems, as we do with anything like this. To wit: A causes B, we show A cannot cause B, we observe B, that isn’t reason to conclude there is anything in A, but clearly if B is important, we should try to find out what does cause it. You could, for example, say “homeopathy is the sum of the clinical behaviour of homeopathists” – in which case my objection cannot stand. One has to then ask if what homeopathists do has real effects, and one can try to find the cause of those effects. But one can do so with almost certain confidence that it isn’t the homeopathic remedy that is causing the effect.

    I have a minor niggle with skeptics on this point. In particular it seems clear to me that we don’t have a good grip medically on the factors influencing the placebo effect (independent of any other possible causes of homeopathic effect). I suspect medicine could be improved if we consistently researched factors that increased placebo response, and institutionalised them into our medical system alongside the active treatments. I suspect, from pure intuition, that good and successful medical folk do some of this naturally.

    As for part two “the association we observe may be one new to science or medicine and we must not dismiss it too light-heartedly as just too odd” – the problem with this approach is that it assumes that such an association would be *new*. And we’re rather conditioned to thinking that science finds *new* stuff all the time. So, after all, aren’t we just one new discovery away from seeing that Homeopathy or Over-unity power works, or that the earth is 6000 years old after all? This is a misunderstanding. Because those things wouldn’t be *new*, they’d disprove some of the most well established and empirically dependable facts of science. As such they go from “we don’t know what we don’t know” to being “we built nuclear power stations, and the international space station and the LHC by accident, because we fundamentally didn’t understand high-school physics.” Once you can trace a claim back to something of that magnitude, then you are a million miles from a “new” discovery changing things. That is not to say it is impossible – just that it is dependably unlikely.

  7. Placebo describes the phenomena of people reporting feeling better in some way after some kind of intervention even though nothing has physically changed. This to date is the sum total of homeopathic efficacy beyond any benefits accrued from drinking more water.

    To shift the emphasis of importance from establishing causation by those who present homeopathic treatment to be physiologically efficacious to those who say “Prove efficacy, please” – and are still waiting – seems to me to be nothing more than a sneaky defensive ploy because it helps foster this two tier notion of efficacious medicine on one level (but assigned negative names like Big Pharma and Industrialized/Socialized Medicine) and ‘alternative’ treatments (assigned positive names like ‘integrative’ and ‘complimentary’) sold as if they were an efficacious ‘choice’. But that’s not true, is it? It’s a set of treatments that fail to meet the same basic standards of efficacy… not because people who reject unsubstantiated claims are too sceptical (subscribing, as they apparently do, to ‘tribal doubts’) but because people who do accept unsubstantiated causal claims are not sceptical enough.

  8. @ Fool:
    Thanx for the “confession” 🙂
    Yeah, this post is to take a look at ourselves more than homeopathy per se no matter how much that throws some readers into a tizzy.

    BTW, there have been conspiracies against homeopathy in the past, even before there was good reason to conspire. Or at least that is what I was told when I was a believer. It was done by using the government to close their “medical” schools – remember, this was done in the day of blood letting and mercury treatments.

    @ Ian:
    I agree with your points and perhaps future posts will illustrate that. My posts are not summary judgements, but step by step moves to understand those who practice and receive homeopathy.

    I strongly agree that much is to be learned from alternative medicines which has nothing to do with the science behind their treatments.

    @ tildeb:
    I am hesitant to reply to you due to past interactions but will try. As my post said, I am looking at believers in homeopathy and understanding them. You can rant against homeopathy on any number of blogs. You can deplore what you feel is my sneeky approaches, but I am afraid it makes you look like you are reading with blinding agenda rather than for understanding. — I suggest you measure your response or I will return to ignorning your comments.

  9. I’m a bit confused, Sabio. To answer your post’s question Why do you reject homeopathy? means that I am going to write stuff that explains exactly that, which by its very nature must (surely in all likelihood) be somewhat critical of homeopathy, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t it be stranger yet to reject that which one is fully in agreement with? Hence, my confusion over your accusation of a ‘rant’.

    My answer to your post’s question is that supporters of homeopathy have tried and failed to prove causal efficacy. If that (ongoing) effort had succeeded, homeopathy would be mainstream medicine… whether I or you or anyone else believed it to be true or not. But what is fascinating is that far from this failure to prove causal efficacy considered a liability to homeopathy, its supporters seem to honestly think there is a conspiracy afoot to suppress its actual efficacy while then relying on only anecdotal evidence of placebo to make up the difference in the public forum! Surely this inability of supporters to bring forth actual causal evidence is rather telling… at least to the sceptical.

    Sometimes we need to be reminded what placebo actually means so that we don’t fall victim to confusing anecdotal evidence for causal evidence and lose our justification for exercising healthy scepticism of unjustified causal claims… made on behalf of homeopathy or any other non-allopathic therapies.

    If this is too… rant-like… let me apologize ahead of time. It’s not that I am hostile to causal claims made without good causal evidence (although to be honest I am annoyed by them); I happen to have in comparison a much greater degree of respect for causal claims back by causal evidence.

  10. Boz

    for me it is a combination of Tribal Doubt, Mechanism Doubt, and Smattering of Science

  11. @ tildeb
    (a) The question is not WHY you reject homeopathy, but what is your level of sophistication in that rejection and what do you think the level of many other skeptics to be.
    (b) When I referred to your “rant” , I was referring to you calling me “sneaky”.
    (c) Do you admit that in many “scientifically validated” “mainstream” medicines, failure of efficiency has been suppressed?
    (d) To keep things clear, I think the efficacy of Homeopathy (when there is any at all) is purely placebo. But that is not the point of my post.
    (e) This comment was much calmer and focused. Thank you. But you still have not address my post. You seem just want to lecture us about the evils of homeopathy. We get it, we get it.

    @ Boz
    Excellent. Thank you Boz!
    Admitting that mixture was part of this post. More to come. Thanks for the feedback.

  12. I fall into the “smattering of science” area. I know just enough science to be dangerous so when homeopathic methods like “distilling the energy of a substance” hit my ears I am immediately skeptical. Just sounds funny and somehow wrong.

    Yet at the same time, scientific studies on placebos are proving just how powerful that affect can be. It has helped many of my friends and myself if acupuncture is considered in this realm. Maybe that’s all we need initially is a change in the pattern of whatever ill we are facing.

  13. @ Zero1Ghost
    (a) It is good to know how shallow most of our acceptances or rejections are. I have many of them.
    (b) Does “magical energy traveling through invisible power channels” also sound funny and somehow wrong to you? That is the acupuncture gig.
    (c) It is funny how people can allow various placebos work for them and yet now allow others.

  14. a.) agreed. awareness is a good first step to the next step. whatever that is, i haven’t got there yet as i’m still shallow in the process and don’t know if i have accepted or rejected it yet.

    b.) now that you put it that way, yes. but i can “feel” that energy, it’s more tangible and there seems to be more logic behind it than in the mixing stuff with water, diluting it down to nothing. go figure. that is sorta funny and surprising at the same time.

    c.) yeah, but i’m not sure what comes first and whether they allow it or not. i was against acupuncture when i went in, but left changed. it still surprises me. it’s sorta like a chicken and egg argument. did i allow it because it worked? or did it work because i allowed it? does it really work? i’m currently holding those in tension on the acu-question.

    fun responses!

  15. @ Ghost
    I have demonstrated acupuncture to many folks (not just patients). What is real fun is to get a hyper-rational person to experience things they don’t believe exist. Of course, these can be explained. But the experience takes the person off guard — for they don’t know the extent to which their minds can give them images and feelings which are not true.

  16. Sabio, I think that’s a good analysis of the reasons we reject homeopathy and other things. I have friends who are complete believers in homeopathy, as well as sceptical friends, so I don’t think “Trial doubt” applies in my case. “Mechanism” probably is the largest reason – I am a physicist and can’t see any way the homeopathic explanations can be true. Also, any water you use for dilution will already be contaminated by its whole history, so you can forget about any sort of scientific test of homeopathy.

    I also have the “smattering” reason – I have read OF studies that have found no effect, and I remember from some years ago a positive result that was published in Nature (I think) and later attacked quite strongly. (Didn’t Randi catch one of the invetigators trying to cheat?)

    Of course, we scientists would agree that “lots of science” is the correct way to go about it – but, as you say, this is hard. So we have to go with what the experts agree on.

  17. @Robert Oerter
    Thank you.
    Concerning: “Tribal Belief”.
    You can have friends from many different tribes (in this case, believers-in-woo tribe) yet that would not be the tribe to which you owe your allegiance or identity.

    Nonetheless, mechanism is a damn good reason. As Ian said above too. But as I said, “mechanism” is never enough to reject solidly — for the mechanism someone uses to explain function may not be the real mechanism yet the procedure works (which Homeopathy doesn’t — but just to explore the issue). So thanx for explaining about reading OF the study too. But I wager you have not read the studies published by homeopaths showing effectiveness. You have only read YOUR tribe’s material. For instance, I worked with an MD homeopath who published in Pediatrics about her research in Guatemala with homeopathic remedies used to treat diarrhea and showed an effect. (I may tell more about that later). But I am here just discuss our self-deceptive (even if right) epistemological stances. In other words, we may think we have better reasons for believing or doubting than we actually do. (Not surprising — if you understand human decision making).

    I loved your point about the water used being exposed to tons of various substances “vibrations” before becoming a remedy — made me laugh.

  18. Earnest

    I have “failed tribal belief”. My parents believe that homeopathy works, but my mother interestingly says if one dose does not work than several doses at once probably will be effective.

    Now wait just a minute. If homeopathic treatments are stronger the more they are diluted, then surely more is less?

    The belief in homeopathy I was raised with simply collapsed under its own weight.

  19. She-zer

    I’m almost scared to post this. I am sceptical about the ‘science’ of homeopathy – I have read no studies and engaged in no research. However sceptical I am I have been treated by a homeopath twice in the past 20 years for complaints that conventional medicine could not ‘cure’, and on both of these occasions the homeopath ‘cured’ me. So although I find it impossible to believe it can work as described, I feel it really did do something – as both complaints have not re-occured then I’m quite confident. I suspect many users of homeopathy may fall into my camp – we turn to it once we have run out of success with conventional medicine – if it works we then may chose to use it again.

  20. @ Earnest,
    Again, this post is about WHY we believe homoepathy does or does not work. But I hear that your experience as a physician and a consumer made you reject it.

    @ She-zer,
    Yes, actual personal experience is very convincing, of course. The question is, how do we explain our cures. I working in medicine for decades I see patients give very wacky explanations to why they are sick or not sick and as I go back and explore the story, we expose the self-deception and then a simple test proves them wrong and hopefully gets an effective treatment going.

    Lots of time, “Time” itself cures things. Or expectations or hope can cure things. Without isolating these factors (which is what research tries to do), anecdotal evidence is very weak — even if, as you say, it is a good starting place. But over the last 100 years we have done a very good job of exposing its weakness and improving our knowledge.

  21. Your reasons aren’t mutually exclusive (not that you implied they were!). I’d have to say I floundered through the first three before I finally bit the bullet and learned what I had to to understand the homeopathic mechanism and why it doesn’t (and couldn’t ever) work.

    I actually started out wanting to prove homeopathy worked! I had a homeopathic treatment for a problem I had when I was a kid, so I genuinely believed it worked. And it did – for me.

    So I read all I could to confirm my bias, and accidentally learned enough to read peer-reviewed papers and medical journals that showed just how flawed those pro-homeopathy pamphlets and claims were.

    The problem was (and still is, as you indicate) that the placebo effect tripped me up. All I knew was that ‘it’ worked – it took me decades to figure out that ‘it’ wasn’t homeopathy at all, ‘it’ was the placebo effect! So it’s not exactly easy to discern between simply-worded and well-marketed claims and what is justified proof that’s more difficult to understand and weigh up.

    Still, it gave me a deep and abiding interest in physics, chemistry, biology, medicine, psychology, and the scientific method that I’ve enjoyed building into a pretty useful ability to be able to help out folks without that scientific bent who need stuff explained to them. Who knew?

    I’d like to understand the connection between Big Pharma and the negative connotations that ‘placebo’ has nowadays, just for fun. And I’ve started looking into the psychology of people who flog alternative medicine, and what that says about their understanding of, and relationship with, the big pharmaceutical companies. I’ll keep reading here though… looks interesting!

    Thanks for the opportunity to have a say!

  22. @ Cephas,
    Excellent points and fascinating to here your history.
    Yes, the anti-placebo issue is interesting bias in the opposite direction.
    I see the religion-atheist tension and the alternative-orthodox tension as sharing many qualities. People who reject religion or alternative medicine often go overboard without even beginning to wonder why others are drawn to it and how it works for them.

  23. @Sabio,
    Glad you got the gist of my screed!

    I think the tensions and commonalities between the heterodox/orthodox belief systems (although I see them as inverted in the medical sense) are as fascinating as they get.

    By “inverted”, I guess I mean the people who believe in the woo side of medicine (against orthodox medicine) tend to also hold deep religious beliefs, which is the orthodox position of *that* aspect of life. It even seems they follow roughly the same types of evidence and bias confirmation, which begs a few questions…

    I also agree that many atheists (myself included, although I’m trying hard to be more understanding) take the most extreme position first, almost like ex-smokers tend to be more “sensitive” to smoking situations. I wonder why we tend to take the extreme opposite position when we “change sides”?

    It works in the other direction, too, I guess, although I know of no actual ex-religious atheists who “reverted”! (Despite many examples of religious apologists who _claim_ to have been atheists, but who all demonstrate they don’t have any understanding of the atheist rationale).

    Mind you, as a fairly active online atheist “apologist”, I’ve had to deal with more than my fair share of the most terrible foul language, and the most despicable attitudes (including death threats) from any human beings I’ve met anywhere else – all from the most deeply religious people you’re likely to find! I’m not trying to justify my own short fuse when I come across these people, but it does make it difficult to have a rational discussion when the other person is SHOUTING MIS-TRANSLATED and POORLY UNDERSTOOD quotations from their favourite rendition of the bible/qur’an/torah/etc… We live and learn to improve ourselves, I suppose.

    Thanks for the opportunity to vent!

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