Homeopathy sucks, not because it is a placebo, but because it is grounded on a lame scientific hypothesis. Placebos in themselves are not not medicine. As Arthur and Elaine Shapiro argue in their book The Powerful Placebo: From Ancient Priest to Modern Medicine, the history of medicine has been, until the last century, a history of the placebo. Placebos really work because people really believe in them, because physical illnesses are not purely physical. The history and cure of hysteria attest to this fact. While homeopathy may have healing effects because people really do believe in it, this 18th century invention is unworthy of being called medicine or even a placebo, because it disregards the principles of the rational scientific discourse it belongs to.
The German physician Samuel Hahnemann invented homeopathy in the 1790s while he was translating a medical treatise by Scottish physician William Cullen. When he read that the bark of a Peruvian tree could cure malaria, Hahnemann, who did not have malaria, applied this medicine on his own body consequently developed malaria-like symptoms such as fever and joint pain. This experience gave him the idea that all drugs that produce symptoms of a disease in healthy people would cure similar symptoms in sick people. Hahnemann got a fever from putting tree bark on his body and made a massive generalisation based on a dubious deduction. Thus, homeopathy was born.
According to Hahnemann, diseases are caused by what he called miasms, which are treated by homeopathic remedies. This is how you make a homeopathic remedy: you take the solution that corresponds to the illness, and you repeatedly dilute it in alcohol or water until the liquid no longer contains any trace of the original solution. The idea is that the more you dilute a solution, the stronger it is. The thing is, that’s not how scientific medicine works. Scientific medicine works by a real corporal change caused by a chemical reaction, not by eliminating chemical reactions. Medicine doesn’t have to claim scientific status to work, but if it’s going to, it needs to prove itself scientifically.
Homeopathy was strongly criticized from the beginning, and almost disappeared in the early 20th century. By the 1950s there were only 75 homeopaths in the U.S. It made a huge comeback in the 1970s thanks to Greek homeopath George Vithoulkas, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of homeopathy, and more generally thanks to the rise of the New Age movement. Today it has become more or less inmeshed in popular alternative culture, and has more or less integrated the industry of natural, organic products. It has integrated alternative medicine as a way to avoid “artificial”, chemical medication. And for good reason, because unlike homeopathy, chemical medication is all but diluted. Modern medication is more often than not composed of extremely potent chemicals often prescribed indiscriminately by doctors, who are extremely sollicited by pharmaceutical companies to recommend their products. The pharmaceutical industry needs to be revamped just as much as homeopathy needs to be put to sleep, but that’s another question altogether.
Last modified: July 3, 2016