The theory of homeopathy relies on two ideas. The “memory” of water and the “similar symptoms hypothesis”. I’m going to talk about both of these ideas and show that even IF homeopathy does work, it cannot work in the way homeopathic practitioners describe it.
According to homeopathic practitioners, the hydrogen bonds of H2O are said to change (in an unspecified way) when exposed to a certain substance (for example arsenic trioxide) and the molecules are even said to effect the structure of the neighbouring H2O molecules thereby “remembering” which substance the original molecules were exposed to even though that substance no longer subsists in the water. You end up with a kind of “arsenic-conditioned” water. The water is then used in a similar way to an attenuated vaccine. In an attenuated vaccine, the immune system produces antibodies against a harmless man-made (or man-modified) virus. The antibodies will then work when the body is exposed to the real virus. Of course, you cannot vaccinate after the body is already infected with the real virus, it is too late… but in homeopathy, “attenuated water” can be used before or during the illness to cure or prevent the disease. The body is said to react (in some unspecified way) to the “conditioned” water molecules thereby combatting the disease.
The main argument against the homeopathic hypothesis is the scale at which all this supposedly takes place. The body does not react with water on a sub-atomic or even a sub-molecular level, it uses water as a large molecule. The body is governed by the principles of biochemistry, the lock-and-key characteristics of proteins and enzymes which have been created by RNA messages from the DNA of cells. The immune system deals with microscopic bacteria, nanoscopic viruses or even picoscopic molecules but NOT the femtoscopic hydrogen bonds of water. Molecular bonds do not have any known effect on the immune system. Trying to cure or treat a disease with a hydrogen bond is like trying to slaughter a blue whale with a single human hair.
Bonds do have a part to play in the organisation of the body; the double helix sugar-phosphate “backbone” of DNA is held together by hydrogen bonds allowing it to be unzipped, read and transcribed like the tape of an old cassette or VHS video. Yet, although DNA transcription works on the femtoscopic scale (0.000000000000001 metres), the immune system works primarily on the microscopic and nanoscopic scales (0.000001 and 0.000000001), scales which are a million or a billion orders of magnitude larger than the molecular level.
Another homeopathic idea is the “similar symptoms hypothesis” which claims that simulating the body to simulate or mimic symptoms actually helps the immune system.
In this video on homeopathy (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6wJRlC1EHyM&feature=related) Dana Ullman says “the best way to treat people is to stimulate the auto immune system”. This statement is completely true and sound. He suggests though that producing similar symptoms is the way to augment and stimulate your immune system. This reasoning is illogical because symptoms are results NOT causes. However, many homeopathic practitioners treat symptoms as if they are causes and act as if producing or enhancing a symptom can have an effect on the root cause.
Symptoms are a reaction of our body to a problem so you can either solve the problem or endeavour to stop the symptom, or both. In the case of the common cold, we try to stop the runny nose, headache, sore throat by blowing our nose, taking paracetamol and drinking honey & lemon. On the other hand, we can attempt to solve the problem in the long term by looking after our bodies, eating vegetables full of vitamins and exercising. Both of these methods constitute modern medicine.
Homeopathy on the other hand claims not only that the symptom should not be suppressed (which is arguable), but that the symptom should be stimulated in order to effect a change in the immune system. In this way, homeopathy resembles the mediaeval idea of the 4 humours. Sometimes, this belief was innocuous or even beneficial; people who had a fever and were sweating were “hot and wet” and the solution was to make them cold and dry. Keeping a fever from getting too high is very important even in modern medicine. However, sometimes the belief was harmful; a common treatment for hypertension was bloodletting. Sometimes a high blood pressure was actually relieved by the practice, but it more often than not lead to death.
Treating like with like is also found in other cultures too… Rhino horns are ground down into pills and swallowed by people wishing to cure impotence, simply because of the vague resemblance of the horn to the erect male member. Tiger’s testicles are also consumed in China for a similar reason, and it is even reported that infertile women in some rural areas of China, consume food made from the (click on this link at your peril) foetuses of aborted babies in order to simulate youth and fertility (which was the theme of a short 2004 film from Hong Kong called “Jiǎozi” or “Dumplings”).
These examples are extreme, yes, but they do illustrate the principal of treating a disease by simulating or stimulating the symptoms. To show by illustration why mimicking symptoms cannot work, look at this comparison:
When I turn on a kettle the element heats up and the water boils (symptom). Now, if I want to simulate boiling, I can add caustic soda to the water. It looks like it’s boiling but that visual effect has absolutely no effect on the heating element of the kettle, and even less effect on the original cause, my hand pressing the button on the kettle itself. Homeopathy is like adding caustic soda to a kettle of cold water. It simulates or mimics a symptom, but that’s as far as it can go, our bodies and immune systems do not take a runny nose, sore throat or a sneeze and use it to treat a cold virus. Throw pepper in your face and sneeze all you want and it will not cure your cold.
Just because modern medicine is not effective in the long-term WHEN it treats symptoms over causes, it doesn’t mean that we should take the diametrically opposite action and enhance or reproduce the symptoms; it has absolutely no effect on the cause. In any case, offering a choice between modern medicine (which suppresses the symptom) and homeopathy (which enhances the symptom) is a false dichotomy, because modern medicine does more than just treat or suppress symptoms, it does try to look at the causes and it has had success after success in this matter.
Modern medicine is more than just unscrewing the warning light of a car (although sometimes it does just that, in the case of a cold for example) it also, though, is like taking your car to a mechanic and finding the root of the problem, and seeing what can be fixed, what can be jury-rigged, and even what can be ignored because it will sort itself out eventually… Homeopathy on the other hand, is like attempting to make all the warning lights flash in order to solve the problem.