September 21, 2009
Homeopathy and religion
Homeopathic treatment is based on the belief that if something making you ill, then a highly diluted solution of that same thing will act as a cure. It was introduced in 1796 by a German physician named Samuel Hahnemann who claimed it illustrated the workings of the 'principle of similars' or 'like cures like'. This counterintuitive notion may have sounded plausible in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and even now may sound plausible to those who know that vaccines consist of building antibodies to a disease by introducing into the body small quantities of the same or related organisms,
The levels of dilution used were quantified by Hahnemann by something called the "C scale" which meant diluting by a factor of 100. So 1C dilution meant diluting by 100, 2C meant diluting by 100x100=104=10,000, 3C meant diluting by 100x100x100=106=1,000,000, and so on. The substances are diluted in a stepwise fashion and shaken vigorously between each dilution.
A key feature of homeopathic belief is the "principle of dilutions" or the "law of minimum dose" which states that "the lower the dose of the medication, the greater its effectiveness." So a 7C solution is supposedly more effective (i.e., "stronger") than a 6C solution, even though it is 100 times more dilute.
The development of the atomic theory of matter in the 19th century pretty much destroyed the scientific credibility of homeopathy. According to modern science, one mole of any substance contains 6.022x1023 molecules or atoms of that substance. This number is called Avogadro's number. So for example, the element sodium has an atomic weight of 23, which means that 23 grams of sodium contains 6.022x1023 atoms. So if you took one mole of sodium (=23 gram) and diluted it to 12C (i.e., by a factor of 1024), you would have just about a single atom of sodium in it. If you go to even higher dilutions then the chance of having even a single atom of the original substance becomes vanishingly small. Since Hahnemann advocated dilutions of 30C, what he was giving his patients was water. Of course, the idea of the atomic theory of matter and Avogadro's number was only coming to the fore in the early 19th century so Hahnemann could not know this.
But homeopathic treatments and practitioners are still around. How can people still believe in homeopathy now since we know that there is no active ingredient remaining and people are merely taking in water? This is where the parallel to religion comes into play. Both began in times when science was more primitive and the explanations offered by homeopathy/religion seemed plausible, or at least no worse than the competing explanations. But as science advanced and showed that the original explanations were untenable and better ones existed, people became split. Some accepted science and rejected homeopathy/religion. Others wanted to continue believing and so made up ad hoc theories to enable them to continue belief.
What homeopathy devotees did was find new reasons for believing, arguing that the shaking that occurred during the process of dilution (which they refer to as "potentization") transmits "some form of information or energy from the original substance to the final diluted remedy. Most homeopathic remedies are so dilute that no molecules of the healing substance remain; however, in homeopathy, it is believed that the substance has left its imprint or "essence," which stimulates the body to heal itself (this theory is called the "memory of water")." But there is no evidence that water, a very much studied and well-understood substance, can carry with it any such memory.
Similarly, as science increasingly exposes the inadequacy of religious explanations for phenomena, religions invented theology with its own convoluted reasoning, trying to find ways to retain belief in god. It has ended up being forced to postulate a Slacker God.
Modern theological language is similar to that of modern homeopathy, making stuff up as they go along, introducing vocabulary and modes of operation that are so vague, elusive, and tenuous that they defy any systematic investigation, all in order to continue believing in something that has ceased to have any credibility.
POST SCRIPT: Woo
The term 'woo' or 'woo-woo' refers to "ideas considered irrational or based on extremely flimsy evidence or that appeal to mysterious occult forces or powers."
That Mitchell and Webb Look pokes fun at homeopathy and other forms of woo.