Homeopathy: How it Really Works
21 December 2017 (online)
Jay W Shelton, ISBN 159102109X, 2004
The confident assertion in the title of this book, which seems to promise much, hides something of a let down. There have always been people who sneer at homeopathy and have delighted in pointing out the implausibility of any direct effect of remedies by the standards of knowledge of the day. Compare these two statements; ‘if the decillionth part of a grain have any efficacy, an ounce of medicine thrown into the Lake of Geneva would be sufficient to physic all the Calvinistis of Switzerland’[ 1 ] and, in a table labeled ‘number of remaining original molecules’, ‘volume of liquid remedy (30C) needed for a reasonable chance of at least one original medicinal molecule (is) 1034 gallons, 10 billion times the volume of the Earth’. The first was written in 1829 by a professor of Greek at Glasgow University (albeit in an otherwise quite supportive discussion of homeopathic principles). The second comes from Jay Shelton in this book. The arguments haven’t changed, though the metaphors have expanded somewhat.
We are promised that we will discover how homeopathy works. At least the author, a ‘Harvard and UC Berkeley educated physicist’ indirectly acknowledges that homeopathy has a positive effect on health. In his view, any improvement in health status that people attribute to seeing a homeopath, has nothing to do with the remedy they have been prescribed. His book is ‘an application of critical thinking and the methods of science to homeopathy’.
He takes us through the whole process of homeopathy, starting from the doubtful validity of a ‘law’ of similars (it is unfalsifiable and therefore unscientific and cannot be claimed as a scientific ‘law’). He discusses the multiplicity of practices which claim the title ‘homeopathy’ and many different diagnostic practices (pendulums and applied kinesiology make for good photographs!). He goes into the absurdity of provings and the inconsistencies which are so easy to demonstrate in their conduct and results. Dosage and forms of remedy administration do not escape the scientific searchlight; our practices are full of ambiguities and cannot be taken seriously.
I could go on. If you need a book which summarises the scientific arguments against homeopathy in an up-to-date language, with nice graphs and tables, this is it. It can take its place as the quackbuster's Bible (subsection homeopathy). The major thrust of the book is to demonstrate the apparent mismatch between the external reality of nature and the way science shows it to work and people's individual internal reality. Materialistic investigations very easily ‘show’ it to be entirely impossible that remedies have effects on the human organism. This book, which confidently aims to tell us how homeopathy really works, spends all but 20 of its 319 pages on demonstrating from every conceivable angle how it really doesn’t work. The single chapter of 20 pages which gives us the revelation we have been waiting for is entitled ‘Nonremedy healing mechanisms’. This tells us why people's individual internal reality so often insists that the remedy prescribed for them has had a major positive effect. It is all a matter of one or more of unassisted natural healing, regression to the mean, non-homeopathic treatments, cessation of uncomfortable or harmful treatments, lifestyle alteration, placebo-assisted healing and ‘psychological healing’ (the beneficial effects of the consultation process).
Thrown in for good measure on the way is a little lecture on the essentials of good theories. The author has no trouble in demonstrating that homeopathic theory does not satisfy most of the key elements thought to be important in useful scientific theories. There are some comments about the fact that our progress in homeopathic prescribing so often depends upon communication of cured cases and the ways in which this is deeply unscientific. The final flourish is a chapter on the mechanisms of misperception—how it is that well-meaning and intelligent people can delude themselves about the causes of changes in well-being.
It is all well-researched and reasonably well written and it is hard to argue with many of the conclusions on the information as presented. It uses cleverly chosen references from some of the dusty corners of the homeopathic literature (I’m quite grateful for some of them). The author makes a number of interesting homeopathic observations—I especially liked the graph of the number of remedies in the head pain rubrics against the time of aggravation. There is a huge peak at 12 noon, which he very reasonably attributes to ‘mental rounding’. ‘Noon’ probably means any time from about 10 a.m. to about 2 p.m. I’ve never found timings of symptoms all that useful anyway!
Why am I so uncomfortable with it? The patronizing postscript is almost enough. The author is apparently trying to be a disinterested scientific assessor of homeopathy, but he lays all the inconsistencies and apparent absurdities on very thickly and has nothing to say about non-remedy healing mechanisms that hasn’t been more fully discussed elsewhere. He seems to be unaware that debates around this very issue have been raging in our community for years. We are not all slavish followers of Hahnemann, another criticism he makes.
For an observer with nothing but a wish to be unprejudiced, it is odd to list dog excrement as a source of a homeopathic remedy.
The perspective of the practitioner is missing too. I am sure that the author regards this as a great strength, self-deluded as we all apparently are. He has not answered the hard question; how is it that people with chronic physical, emotional and mental distress and disease who have not been much helped by well delivered and well indicated conventional therapies, feel a transformation in their condition once they have received a particular homeopathic remedy, having had no benefit from previously prescribed remedies? Maybe that's his next book.
- 1 Sir Daniel Sandford. ‘Hahnemann's Homeopathy’, The Edinburgh Review, vol. 50, No. C (1829–30) p. 505. Quoted in Philip A Nicholls, ‘Homeopathy and the Medical Profession’, Croom Helm Ltd, Beckenham 1988 p107.