PhotoAfter an extensive review of previous studies on homeopathic remedies, Australia's National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has concluded that homeopathy is not an effective treatment for any medical condition, and previous studies claiming otherwise proved deeply flawed.

On Wednesday, the NHMRC issued a press release summarizing the study's major conclusions, which are:

… based on the findings of a rigorous assessment of more than 1800 papers. Of these, 225 studies met the criteria to be included in NHMRC’s examination of the effectiveness of homeopathy. The review found no good quality, well-designed studies with enough participants to support the idea that homeopathy works better than a placebo, or causes health improvements equal to those of another treatment.

But what about the studies claiming to prove otherwise?

Although some studies did report that homeopathy was effective, the quality of those studies was assessed as being small and/or of poor quality. These studies had either too few participants, poor design, poor conduct and or reporting to allow reliable conclusions to be drawn on the effectiveness of homeopathy....

Stop paying

Professor Paul Glasziou, who chairs the NHMRC's Homeopathy Working Committee, told the (UK) Guardian that he hopes the study's findings will convince private health insurance companies to stop paying for ineffective homeopathic treatments.

“There will be a tail of people who won’t respond to this report, and who will say it’s all a conspiracy of the establishment,” he said. “But we hope there will be a lot of reasonable people out there who will reconsider selling, using or subsiding these substances.”

The NHMRC is hardly the only organization to realize that homeopathy does not work. In the United States, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) produced a background paper on homeopathy which diplomatically said that “it is not possible to explain in scientific terms how a remedy containing little or no active ingredient can have any effect.”

Homeopaths believe that diluting substances in water actually makes those substances more potent, and that water can “remember” and maintain the qualities of substances once diluted in it. If you look at the ingredients label of a homeopathic product, you’ll see the “active” ingredients are usually measured in C units: “This ingredient 6C,” “that ingredient 30C,” and so forth.

Centesimal quantities

They’re not talking about temperature measured in Celsius; the C in homeopathy stands for “centesimal,” which is another way of saying “dilute to one part in a hundred.”

Suppose you have a glass of ordinary red wine, and want to dilute/strengthen it according to homeopathic principles. If you combine one drop of wine with 99 drops of water, you'll get 1C wine, which is 99 percent water and 1 percent wine.

Combining one drop of 1C wine with 99 drops of water results in 2C wine, which is 99.99 percent water and 0.01 percent wine. One drop of 2C added to 99 drops of water makes 3C, which is water containing 0.0001 percent wine, and so on.

Once you reach 12C you crash against the physical barrier of Avogadro’s limit, which means that your 12C wine probably doesn’t contain even a single molecule of actual red wine. Yet, if the homeopathic “dilution increases strength” idea were true, drinking a glass of that 12C water would give you a much stronger alcoholic “buzz” than a glass of undiluted red wine, and a glass of 200C water would presumably make you pass out from booze intoxication even though you never downed a single drop of alcohol.

Dr. Edzard Ernst, an academic physician and researcher who specializes in studying “alternative” forms of medicine including homeopathy, wrote about Australia's NHMRC homeopathy study (and his own personal homeopathic experiences) for the Guardian and explained:

In 1993, when I became professor of complementary medicine at Exeter, I was more than happy to give homeopathy the benefit of the doubt. I would have loved to show that it is effective beyond placebo, not least because anyone doing that would almost automatically deserve a Nobel prize. He or she would have to show that a sizeable chunk of our understanding of the laws of nature is quite simply wrong. Homeopathy is based on the belief that “like cures like” and that the dilution of a medicine – homeopaths call the process “potentiation” – renders it not weaker but stronger. As both of these assumptions fly in the face of science, critical thinkers have always insisted that few things could be more implausible than homeopathy.

Indeed, if homeopathic principles were true and could be reliably demonstrated under controlled conditions, that would pretty much change civilization as we know it.

For starters: the world's alcoholic-beverage producers would all go out of business, once their customers realized that a single bottle of product, properly diluted according to homeopathic principles, could produce enough 200C homeopathic hooch to keep an entire fraternity sauced for a century. No need to worry about high grocery bills either, not when a single bowl of nutritious soup plus a few hundred gallons of water makes enough fattening and filling homeopathic stew to feed a family of five for a year.

Alas, nobody can actually take advantage of such wonderfully thrifty-sounding tricks, because the homeopathic claim of strength through dilution simply does not work.

And, while the thought of someone watering down alcoholic beverages in hope of increasing their potency might be worth a laugh or two, there's nothing remotely funny about watering down otherwise-effective doses of medication – or, more likely, ignoring effective medical treatments altogether in lieu of watery homeopathic quackery. Either choice can lead to disastrous consequences.

As NHMRC's CEO Warwick Anderson said in a statement: “People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner and in the meanwhile keep taking any prescribed treatments.”

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