Jun 17 2013

A Homeopathy Debate

On two occasions I was invited to UCONN to debate the scientific legitimacy of homeopathy – in 2007, and again in March of this year. I often directly confront or debate those who hold an unscientific belief. Sometimes this is criticized as being pointless, but that claim is premised on the assumption that the only point to such a debate is convincing the person on the other side, but that is not the case.

I have several goals in direct confrontation: to better understand the claims and logic of those holding that view, to explore my own position and improve my ability to explain it, and to demonstrate scientific and critical thinking with respect to this issue to the audience.

The more recent homeopathy debate was between me an Andre Saine, a Canadian naturopath and homeopath. During the debate we barely scratched the surface of this complex topic, so we both agreed to continue our discussion in writing, moderated by Peter Gold who organized the debate.

Here is Andre’s first question to me, and my answer.

Question from Andre Saine

It is quite common for homeopathy to be grossly misrepresented in the professional and popular literature. You wrote, “In order for an argument to be sound all of its premises must be true. Often, different people come to different conclusions because they are starting with different premises. So examining all the premises of each argument is a good place to start.”1

Let’s start with two of the basic premises you stated that they belong to homeopathy, namely the law of infinitesimals and the law of chronic diseases. First, you wrote, “The second law, the law of infinitesimals, says that as you dilute the substance it becomes more potent—in direct violation of the very real laws of physics and chemistry,”2 as well as, “I want the public to be aware of the fact that most homeopathic solutions are diluted far past the point where there is likely to be a single molecule of active ingredient left—and therefore claims for the homeopathic ‘law of infinitesimals’ violates the law of mass action and the laws of thermodynamics.”3

Now let’s turn to the official definition of genuine homeopathy and its fundamental principles. Forgive me for this very long definition that Hahnemann wrote in the preface of the last edition of his Organon but it is the most complete and most unequivocal one: “Hence homeopathy avoids everything in the slightest degree enfeebling,* and as much as possible every excitation of pain, for pain also diminishes the strength, and hence it employs for the cure ONLY those medicines whose power for altering and deranging (dynamically) the health it knows accurately, and from these it selects one whose pathogenetic power (its medicinal disease) is capable of removing the natural disease in question by similarity (similia similibus), and this it administers to the patient in simple form, but in rare and minute doses so small that, without occasioning pain or weakening, they just suffice to remove the natural malady whence this result: that without weakening, injuring or torturing him in the very least, the natural disease is extinguished, and the patient, even whilst he is getting better, gains in strength and thus is cured—an apparently easy but actually troublesome and difficult business, and one requiring much thought, but which restores the patient without suffering in a short time to perfect health,—and thus it is a salutary and blessed business.

“Thus homeopathy is a perfectly simple system of medicine, remaining always fixed in its principles as in its practice, which, like the doctrine whereon it is based, if rightly apprehended will be found to be complete (and therefore serviceable). What is clearly pure in doctrine and practice should be self-evident, and all backward sliding to the pernicious routinism of the old school that is as much its antithesis as night is to day, should cease to vaunt itself with the honorable name of homeopathy.”4

You will notice that in this detailed definition, Hahnemann answers the question that you asked me during the debate regarding the use of compounded5 versus “accurately” known, simple medicines, and that such a practice, as well any other form of practice that don’t abide to the just-cited fundamental principles “should cease to vaunt itself with the honorable name of homeopathy.” However, you will not find in this definition of homeopathy and its fundamental principles, or in any other of Hahnemann’s works or writings, any reference to a law of infinitesimals or a law of chronic diseases that you mentioned during the debate.

Returning to what you have written, “in order for an argument to be sound all of its premises be true,” and given that these two basic premises you claimed for homeopathy unequivocally don’t exist or apply to genuine homeopathy, and are therefore false, aren’t all their subsequent arguments unsound or completely false, such as “ ‘the law of infinitesimals’ violates the law of mass action and the laws of thermodynamics“ and “the very real laws of physics and chemistry”?

As a responsible man of science, what steps are you going to take to correct these gross and completely unscientific misrepresentations of the fundamental aspects of homeopathy and any of their subsequent logical fallacies, which you have repeated for many years in numerous articles and presentations, and that can currently be found on numerous websites ? 6 Also can you precisely describe what laws of chemistry or physics, homeopathy violates, if any at all, once these two completely fabricated laws of homeopathy are eliminated from the equation?


[1] Steven Novella. How to argue. Neurologicablog. March 19, 2009

[2] Steven Novella. Homeopathy at the Huffpo. Skepticblog. Oct. 19, 2009.

[3] Steven Novella. Quietus and homeopathy awareness week. Neurologicablog. April 13, 2010.

[4] Samuel Hahnemann. Organon of Medicine. Sixth edition. Translated by William Boericke. Philadelphia: Boericke and Tafel, 1922: 18-19.

[5] Unproved compounded medicines or combination remedies sold under the name of homeopathy are clearly not part of homeopathy. However, they could be sold under the name of homeotherapeutics.

[6] Such as theness.com/neurologicablog, sciencebasedmedicine.org, skepticblog.org, randi.org, csicop.org, friendofreason.wordpress.com, skeptico.blogs.com, startleddisbelief.com, illuminutti.com, lizditz.typepad.com, lippard.blogspot.ca, skepticalteacher.wordpress.com, trusted.md, skepdic.com, etc.

* Homeopathy sheds not a drop of blood, administers no emetics, purgatives, laxatives or diaphoretics, drives off no external affection by external means, prescribes no hot or unknown mineral baths or medicated clysters, applies no Spanish flies or mustard plasters, no setons, no issues, excites no ptyalism, burns not with moxa or red-hot iron to the very bone, and so forth, but gives with its own hand its own preparations of simple uncompounded medicines, which it is accurately acquainted with, never subdues pain by opium, etc.


Dr. Novella’s Response:

I find the claim that Samuel Hahnemann did not endorse a “law of infinitesimals” to be misleading in many respects.

First, it is a “No True Scotsman” logical fallacy – arguing that examples of infinitesimals within homeopathy do not demonstrate that homeopathy follows such rules, because such examples are a-priori “not true homeopathy.”

The undeniable fact is, that homeopathy, as it is widely practiced today, including the many homeopathic products sold on the market, do follow the basic concept that ingredients are diluted to extreme degrees. While the exact extent of dilution varies considerably, very common dilutions include those that exceed the point at which any original ingredient is likely to remain.

I further find it either an example of intellectual dishonesty or extremely poor and selective scholarship to claim that Hahnemann did not endorse extreme dilutions. He may not have written the words “law of infinitesimals” himself, but he certainly endorsed the principles that are captured in that phrase.

A review of his writings documents quite thoroughly that Hahnemann began with a belief in using the smallest dose possible in order to treat a patient, but that this belief evolved over his career until he was recommending extreme dilutions (what would now be called 30C, or 1/100 dilutions repeated 30 times).

From the Organon fifth edition he writes:

“The doctrine of the divisibility of matter teaches us that we cannot make a part so small that it shall cease to be something, and that it shall not share all the properties of the whole.

If now the smallest possible part is powerful enough for the purpose for which you require it, would you employ a greater quantity than you require, in order not to run counter to traditional custom, and out of deference to the prejudices of those whose standard of measurement is imperfect ?

And what is the use of larger doses of medicines if the smallest possible quantities given on the Homoeopathic principle suffice for the cure of diseases in the most rapid and permanent manner ?

The effect of the dose increases the greater the quantity of liquid it is dissolved in when given to the patient.”

That sounds pretty clear to me – you can dilute something without limit, and the more you dilute it the greater the effect. Is that not the law of infinitesimals as it is understood today?

I will also note that this violates the laws of chemistry – a molecule is the smallest part of a substance that retains its chemical properties. It cannot be divided further and still “share all the properties of the whole.”

Here he specifically endorses 30C as a common dilution (again from Organon fifth edition).

“Two drops of the fresh vegetable juice mingled with equal parts of alcohol, are diluted with ninety-eight drops of Alcohol and potentized by means of two succussions whereby the first development of power is formed, and this process is repeated through twenty-nine more vials, each of which is filled three-quarters full with ninety-nine drops of Alcohol, and each succeeding vial is to be provided with one drop from the preceding vial (which has already been shaken twice) and is in its turn twice shaken, and in the same manner at last the thirtieth development of power (potentized decillionth dilution X) which is the one most generally used.”

Further, Hahnemann clearly supported the notion that homeopathic remedies worked through their “spiritual” power. In the “Spirit of the Homoeopathic Doctrine,” published in 1813, he says :

“The spiritual power of medicine does not accomplish its object by means of quantity, but by quality or dynamic firmness.”

This next section is from a letter in which Hahnemann was defending himself from critics, published in Samuel Hahnemann, His Life and Work, page 116.

This infinitesimal size of the dose of a simple medicinal substance, in this new art of healing, removes all possible suspicion of harmful strength in the simple dose dispensed to the patient.

The apothecaries, who are incapable of acquainting themselves with the fact that the beneficial results shown in the strong curative power of such small doses of simple medications, consist of a hitherto unknown peculiar choice of the suitable remedy for the disease in question, so far undreamt of by the ordinary medical science, smile at these small doses which contain nothing, because the senses as well as chemical analysis cannot detect anything in the vehicle (sugar of milk and diluted spirits of wine).

That seems pretty clear too. The “infinitesimal size of the dose” contain “nothing” and cannot be detected by “chemical analysis,” and yet has its effect because of his new art of healing – the peculiar choice of remedy.

Regarding Hahnemann’s theory of disease, his own quotes again clearly make the case that he was using his own peculiar theory of illness. From The Life and Letters of Dr Samuel Hahnemann Chapter 13:

“Psora is the oldest, most universal and most pernicious, yet, withal, the most misunderstood chronic miasmatic disease, which for thousands of years has disfigured and tortured mankind.

“In the thousands of years since it first visited mankind (the most ancient history of the oldest nations does not reach its origin) it has increased its manifestations to such a degree that its secondary symptoms can scarcely be numbered.

“The most ancient historical writings which we possess describe psora very fully. Several varieties thereof were described by Moses 3,400 years ago. At that time, however, and ever since, among the Israelites, psora appears to have affected more especially the external parts of the body.

“The same holds true among the early barbaric Greeks ; later, in like manner, among the Arabians, and finally in the uncivilized Europe of the middle ages. It is not my object to detail the different names by which the various nations have designated the more or less severe forms of disease through which leprosy marred the external parts of the body (external symptoms of psora). Such names have no bearing upon the subject, as the essence of this miasmatic itch disease remains always the same.

“In Europe during several centuries of the middle ages psora manifested itself in the form of a malignant erysipelas (St. Anthony’s Fire). In the 13th century it again assumed the form of leprosy, brought by the returning Crusaders from the East. Leprosy was thus more than ever before spread through Europe (in the year 1226 there were in France about 2,000 leper-houses) ; nevertheless some alleviation of its horrible cutaneous symptoms was found through the means of cleanliness which the Crusaders also brought from the East ; aids to cleanliness theretofore unknown in Europe, (cotton, linen), shirts, as well as the frequent use of warm baths.

I maintain that the historical record, as well as modern implementation, support the following premises:

– Homeopathy is based upon the notion that solutions can be diluted beyond the point that any active ingredient remains, while retaining (and even enhancing) its potency.

– Effectiveness of remedies is not based upon any scientific notion (chemical or biological) but rather on the notion of the spiritual action of preparations which contain the essence of what was diluted in them.

– Shaking preparations transfers essence and adds potency

– Effectiveness of homeopathic remedies are based upon the peculiar and completely unscientific notions of similars

– Hahnemann based much of his thinking on peculiar notions of chronic illness (psora) that are completely unscientific.

There are many more examples in the references I gave, and in many more. The samples I provide, however, clearly establish the points I outline above.

In short – Hahnemann absolutely endorsed the principles captured in the phrase “law of infinitesimals” and these principles remain the core of modern homeopathy. All of my further criticisms that derives from this premise are both valid and sound.


The above exchange is a good example of why I find it so useful to directly confront believers – I never would have guessed that a contingent of homeopathy deny the Law of Infinitesimals.

I am still not sure what to fully make of it. During the debate Andre defended extreme “ultramolecular dilutions,” yet he also says this is not part of true homeopathy. Am I missing something, or is this just an absurd version of the kettle defense (I strongly suspect the latter). Or is Andre making a nitpicky distinction between “infinitesimals” and some other concept of extreme dilutions? Such a distinction is of no consequence – once you get below the dilutional limit, there is simply nothing left.

The ploy is also very common among defenders of unscientific belief systems. Legitimate criticism or evidence against a belief is often deflected by saying that what it targets is not “true” (fill in the blank). They then accuse the skeptic of attacking a straw man or being dishonest.

However we are often responding directly to claims that are being made. Go to any website about homeopathy and you are very likely to encounter some endorsement of infinitesimals or extreme dilutions. Most homeopathic products on the shelves also have extreme dilutions.

In any case, the historical record here is clear. Hahnemann’s homeopathy is based upon extreme dilutions, which are premised on unscientific notions, as described above.

41 responses so far

41 Responses to “A Homeopathy Debate”

  1. locutusbrgon 17 Jun 2013 at 9:39 am

    In my opinion the confusion is intentionally induced, related to law of infinitesimals and homeopathy. In my opinion homeopathy has become a throw it against the wall and see what sticks marketing strategy. The name has recognition even if the specifics are completely misunderstood. When I explain what homeopathy”is” to uniformed people they are often incredulous. This is consistent with it’s popularity. Which has always mystified me. It is no surprise that they muddy the water with a no true Scotsman argument. By constantly changing the goal posts it is far easier to keep the money rolling in.
    Steve.. I know you tend to make a less cynical view and believe that these are naive believers. My experience is that the majority are charlatans. Who are knowingly bilking people of money and providing useless(dangerous) nonsense.

  2. BillyJoe7on 17 Jun 2013 at 9:52 am

    There are also true believers. They “know” it works because of their own experience tells them unequivocally that it works. Therefore a logical or evidence based argument against it must be wrong and they are prepared to go to any lengths to make it wrong. Otherwise they lose belief not only in what they “know” to be true, but they also lose belief in themselves. That is something not many people can countenance.

  3. Billzbubon 17 Jun 2013 at 10:43 am

    In your first sentence, you left the M in “March of this year” out of the link. Therefor, you are wrong and homeopathy is real.

    On another note, I really enjoy reading your debates with people who are honestly trying to argue the other side like this one and the creationist one from a couple of weeks ago. I hope Mr. Saine responds so I can see the real disagreements presented and countered by each side, ensuring that strawmans aren’t part of the issue.

    I’ve always wondered if political and religious debates could be reduced, through a written process like the one you are using here, to a few bottom-line essentials that are in direct conflict. Maybe by the end of your discussion with Mr. Saine, you will both be able to agree on what your essential disagreements are. That would be helpful to both sides of the debate.

    I also wish you and the creationist (who’s name I can’t remember off the top of my head) had distilled your discussion down to a few statements that you both agree reflect both sides of your discussion.

  4. Mike G.on 17 Jun 2013 at 12:57 pm

    Wow, what an unfair question to ask in the first place. That was totally a “when did you stop beating your wife” question. I thought you answered it well. Throwing back information from the original source is helpful. It’s almost as if he didn’t expect you to have read it. I am curious what his next tactic will be.

  5. Keaneon 17 Jun 2013 at 1:48 pm

    It’s a diversionary tactic, it seems. He’s accusing you of strawmanning, while at the same time positing the very same thing in different words. What else does he mean by “rare and minute” doses if he doesn’t mean to invoke Law of infinitesimals?

    He’s making it seem like you made an error to discredit you (an error you didn’t make), while allowing his original argument to just sit there like it hasn’t already been destroyed (which it has).

  6. HHCon 17 Jun 2013 at 2:18 pm

    The concept of psora implies there is an internal fault within the person affected. This fault creates disequillibrium. Why would anything externally applied or imbibed correct one’s balance or equillibrium?

  7. pdeboeron 17 Jun 2013 at 4:39 pm

    Choose your quotes carefully. I found Andre Saine’s quotes from Hahnemann to be so unintelligible that reading it twice didn’t help. That’s not because its complete bullshit either. Steve’s choice of Hahnemann quotes were clear and well enough written, but so is Tolkien and that is just as much fiction.

  8. Bruce Woodwardon 17 Jun 2013 at 5:50 pm

    His style of arguing reminds me of a recent poster.

  9. ccbowerson 17 Jun 2013 at 8:33 pm

    “Otherwise they lose belief not only in what they ‘know’ to be true, but they also lose belief in themselves. That is something not many people can countenance.”

    This is what makes having this type of discussion with another person often difficult. A person saying that they know a product works through experience is hard to address, because any notion to the contrary can be interpreted as a personal criticism.

    It is a much easier conversation for people to casually promote nonsense (and others to accept the possibility of that nonsense) than for others to point out why the nonsense is nonsense. I often wonder how casually people give out medical advice, when they no clue what they are talking about.

  10. ccbowerson 17 Jun 2013 at 8:47 pm

    That “very long definition that Hahnemann wrote” in his preface is actually one long run-on sentence (10 lines on my screen). Was this intentionally written this ackwardly? It is structured a bit like legalese, but unnecessarily wordy with ackward asides that don’t seem to be necessary for a definition. He is not a very clear writer (at least in that quote), and it is not clear from the quote that he is explicitly defining homeopathy. Perhaps in the context of the book it makes more sense.

  11. 1RickDon 17 Jun 2013 at 9:49 pm

    Wow, that guy is a person who deliberately gives false testimony.

    You will note that I did NOT call him a liar. Nope, didn’t do it. Didn’t say it, didn’t use the word, period. Me and Hahnemann – 100% diluted to the point of pure effectiveness.

  12. Nate Greeneon 17 Jun 2013 at 11:38 pm

    Tap water (municipal or well) has various impurities naturally diluted in it. Anyone know how homeopaths explain why tap water doesn’t have undesired medical effects on us? When a homeopathic “drug” is made, is a spell or other magic added to the dilution process to “activate” the ingredients?

  13. BillyJoe7on 18 Jun 2013 at 12:37 am


    The water must be purified and it must be successed against a leather bound bible between dilutions. |:

  14. BillyJoe7on 18 Jun 2013 at 12:38 am

    …okay, my iPad changed the spelling of that word, I’m not that ignorant.

  15. Skeptical Steelon 18 Jun 2013 at 1:33 am

    “Forgive me for this very long definition that Hahnemann wrote in the preface of the last edition of his Organon…”

    Is it just me or is what follows a load of impenetrable antique hogwash?

  16. Nate Greeneon 18 Jun 2013 at 10:51 am

    Thanks BillyJoe7.
    I just read about “succussion”, and watched a youtube video of it being done.

    Apparently the mixing is done by striking the solution against any firm, but not too hard, surface, such as a piece of wood. As far as I can tell, there are no prayers or other ceremony. The mix is “activated” (my word) in this striking process, and 10 strikes are necessary. No more and no less. (Think holy handgrenade: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xOrgLj9lOwk).

    If this act of striking the mix ten times somehow activates the medicine, how does in not activate various other dilute substances (impurities) in the water? (to return to my original question). How does the solution “know” which impurity to make operative?

    I guess I’m just trying to make sense of the nonsensical, but I wondered if they had some “answer” to this criticism. It amazes me that these guys are willing to debate Steve Novella.

    BillyJoe7, I think you’re dead on with your initial post: “They “know” it works because of their own experience tells them unequivocally that it works.” That’s an easy trap to fall into and I imagine I’m in it myself regarding this and that.

  17. Bill Openthalton 18 Jun 2013 at 11:05 am

    @ Nate

    The fact that something worked for you is of course relevant for you (even if the conclusion that “it worked” could well be, and often is erroneous). The problem is in the generalisation: it worked for me, hence it is a universal principle, and those who deny this are wrong/stupid/malicious. The holy shoe or the holy gourd, so to speak.

  18. tmac57on 18 Jun 2013 at 12:12 pm

    Andre Saine’s defense makes me think that he is a ‘psora’ loser.

  19. Nate Greeneon 18 Jun 2013 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks, Bill. You’re right. I had to look up the “holy shoe” reference as I’m a little hazy on “Life of Brian”, but I see the analogy. It’s one thing to believe myself that the shoe is holy and treasure it personally but another to make a public claim that the shoe is holy and anyone who disagrees is “wrong/stupid/malicious”.

    I suppose for homeopathy “true believers” it’s just motivated reasoning and confirmation bias. If I’m selling holy shoes, I am highly motivated to find evidence that the shoes are holy and discard evidence that they’re not. I must make public claims that the shoes are holy in order to sell my wares. People who disagree with me publicly piss me off and they must be stupid because they don’t seem to be able to absorb my rationale (which makes so much sense to me). What’s wrong with them?

    So my previous self-deprecating remark, “That’s an easy trap to fall into and I imagine I’m in it myself regarding this and that.” was hopefully incorrect, because even if my beliefs about this and that ARE wrong (I’m sure some are), I AM willing to examine and revise them.

  20. sonicon 18 Jun 2013 at 1:23 pm

    I believe I can translate Hahnemann’s definition of homeopathy.

    The first sentence says–
    “Homeopathy cures without side-effects.”

    The second sentence says–
    “If it doesn’t work, it isn’t homeopathy.”

    Perhaps the problem is that some of what is called homeopathy isn’t really homeopathy. After all, homeopathy cures– says so right in the definition. 🙂

    Actually, anytime a placebo is as good as anything (which is quite often), homeopathy works as well as anything.
    But chicken soup probably has more nutritional value.

  21. rjherron 18 Jun 2013 at 3:55 pm

    It is stunning to read the sarcastic and ridiculing posts here. What makes people so angry and rude when someone questions their beliefs? There are so few conventional medicines that have actual solid research behind them, that it is amazing that anyone could ridicule homeopathy, when it has withstood the test of time and place. I suppose everyone in India is under mass delusion? Sad. I’m wondering what the average age and gender is on those with the nasty posts?

  22. ccbowerson 18 Jun 2013 at 4:44 pm

    “Tap water (municipal or well) has various impurities naturally diluted in it. Anyone know how homeopaths explain why tap water doesn’t have undesired medical effects on us?”

    You call it impurities, I call it homeopathic medicine that’ll cure anything that ails you, because everything is diluted in it in homeopathic concentrations.

  23. Steven Novellaon 19 Jun 2013 at 8:33 am

    rjherr – what you are reading is pointed criticism. It’s not angry and rude – it’s appropriate. Homeopathy is ridiculous. It is also harmful to offer worthless remedies to sick people. It is demonstrable medical pseudoscience. It deserves ridicule.

    It has not withstood the test of time – it has been obliterated by time and scientific advance.

    And yes, millions of people can be wrong. (You are making an argument from popularity logical fallacy here. For the record, you then end with an ad hominem logical fallacy.)

  24. ConspicuousCarlon 19 Jun 2013 at 9:32 pm

    I forget which of the doctors I said this to long ago. Soon after discovering these blogs, I criticized one of them for using homeopathy in their explanations of prior probability. I believe I said that homeopathy was SO OBVIOUSLY STUPID that it is likely to be dismissed instantly and people would miss the finer points. I suggested that it would be better to find an example which was something less than insane, so people could see how assessing scientific plausibility could inform their choices, rather than just supporting what should be completely obvious to them.

    Oh boy was I wrong about that. The world is so much further behind than I thought.

  25. Bruce Woodwardon 20 Jun 2013 at 5:06 am


    I wonder why no one has yet ransomed a whole city by threatening to drop the most powerful sleeping pill into the water supply, this would dilute it even more and make it even more powerful and possibly fatal.

  26. Bill Openthalton 20 Jun 2013 at 6:30 am

    Carl, evolution is testimony to the power of blind heuristics when one is prepared to sacrifice individuals on its altar. Rational thought might be better for individuals, but the jury is still out on whether it’s better for a species. We might be too rational for our species’ good…

  27. locutusbrgon 20 Jun 2013 at 9:32 am

    I can understand how we come across as bitter and angry anti-believers. If you understand that to a scientific skeptic this is one of the most frustrating example of magic being treated as medicine. The truth is that at every level of scientific evaluation it fails even the simplest hurdles. There are very few things in science where you can say honestly “impossible”. That can make you snyde, snarky and even obnoxious. Because we have been fighting the fight to enlighten people about this for a while.

    You and I agree that skeptics can come across as snarky and overconfident about this. What we don’t agree is that this is related to a belief system. Science is not a a belief system it is a systematic logical evaluation system to determine what is “real” and to prevent self deception. It is not perfect but it does not “believe” anything. If there was evidence homeopathy worked you may see the specifics debated but not the idea a whole. It fails to even reach a minimum of plausibility. It goes against everything we have learned about pharmacology, chemistry, and human physiology. When it is properly tested it fails miserably.

    So I apologize for sounding like a sarcastic/arrogant tool, but not for the content.

  28. ccbowerson 20 Jun 2013 at 10:02 am

    Bruce Woodward-

    Or even more dangerously, half of a drop of the sleeping medicine.


    Ridicule is appropriate for the ridiculous. Most here are fairly careful with ridicule, at least by internet standards, but your surprise seems to be based upon your failure to understand the problem. Steve did address this, but we are talking about magic promoted as medicine, which can and does harm people by misleading people into thinking that they are treating conditions. If that causes people to forgo treatments that can help, that is real harm, and it can and does happen.

    There is a lack of knowledge among the public on the topic, and you put yourself forth as an example of this. The fact that millions of people use a product says nothing of its value. Millions of people bought Power Band bracelets, and hundreds of millions of people having mutually exclusive religious beliefs. See the problem with this argument?

  29. Bruce Woodwardon 20 Jun 2013 at 10:14 am

    “Most here are fairly careful with ridicule, at least by internet standards”

    I am constantly surprised by the restraint shown by the commenters here. Steven Novella himself in particular is patient almost to a fault at times.

    I would add to rjherr, homeopathy is one of the things I say confidently I know to be wrong. Belief has nothing to do with it as the mountain of evidence clearly shows it to not to have any efficacy at all beyond a placebo effect. If someone were to tell me that I would have to find bigfoot to cure me of something or to take a homeopathic remedy for it, I would go bigfoot hunting.

  30. ccbowerson 20 Jun 2013 at 10:47 am

    “I am constantly surprised by the restraint shown by the commenters here. Steven Novella himself in particular is patient almost to a fault at times.”

    It is no coincidence that the commenters of this blog tend to be considerate given the standard set by the Steve. The people who frequent a blog is a self selecting process.. Even more surprising is how infrequent problem commenters are given the relative hands-off approach to monitoring comments. Some blogs become much more controlling of comments or they spiral out of control. It doesn’t seem to be a problem here, as I think there is a mature bunch (mostly) of regular commenters.

  31. BKseaon 20 Jun 2013 at 10:51 am

    I think Dr. Novella did a good job of arguing the premise that the “law of infinitesimals” is central to homeopathy but I think he missed another key aspect of Saine’s muddled thinking that is instructive. Saine makes much of Novella’s statement that “in order for an argument to be sound all of its premises be true.” In essence Novella’s argument is that homeopathy is scientifically impossible based on the following premises:

    1. the law of infinitesimals says that says that as you dilute the substance it becomes more potent.

    2. the law of infinitesimals is the second law of homeopathy.

    3. the law of infinitesimals violates the law of mass action and the laws of thermodynamics.

    In essence Saine tries to argue that premise 2 is wrong (an argument which is deconstructed by Novella).

    However, he goes on to claim that “all their subsequent arguments [are] unsound or completely false.” Here he subtly substitutes “argument” for “premise” to try to claim that if premise 2 is wrong than so is premise 3. That is a fallacious argument. Even if premise 2 is wrong, premise 3 can still stand on its own. And, premise 3 is devastating to homeopathy on its own. At the very least, it indicates that any remedy in excess of 12C could not work without violating scientific laws.

    So, does Saine agree that such remedies are bunk?

  32. Hosson 20 Jun 2013 at 11:20 am

    I think 30C dilution of fecal matter would cure someone of homeopathy.

  33. ConspicuousCarlon 20 Jun 2013 at 11:50 am

    Bill Openthalt:

    Evolution is indeed testimony… to the power of blind heuristics to encourage the propagation of the genes which cause the blind heuristics. If it were good for the “species” it wouldn’t cause evolution, it would cause stagnation. Evolution kills off a species by slowly replacing it with its most awkward children.

  34. Bill Openthalton 21 Jun 2013 at 5:00 am

    It’s true that evolution/life/nature cares just as little for species as it does for individuals (and in any case, “species” is just a convenient classification tool, whereas individuals are quite real). But it still might be that our individuality, which is based on our capacity for self-awareness, and lies at the basis of what we consider our noblest traits (like compassion), will lead to humanity’s early exit.

  35. Nate Greeneon 21 Jun 2013 at 6:38 am

    Bill and Carl-
    I’m finding you discussion interesting but I’m confused by your claim that blind heuristics is good for the human species, as well as the claim that traits such as compassion will lead to humanity’s early exit. I am not saying that you are wrong, just asking you to elaborate.

  36. Nate Greeneon 21 Jun 2013 at 7:26 am

    PS. I do not claim to have a particularly nuanced understanding of evolution, but I am trying to learn.

  37. Surakyon 21 Jun 2013 at 10:11 pm

    Back to Rjherr …

    Rjherr also offered us a red herring. Whether or not science based medicine works is irrelevant to the fact that Homeopathy does not work.

  38. Bill Openthalton 27 Jun 2013 at 10:01 am

    @ Nate Green
    Evolution throws a (great) number of individuals at the problem of surviving to procreate. If eating your mate gives you a procreational advantage over those who treat their mates with respect, your descendents will prevail. Natural processes are unguided, and evoution is trial-and-error approach to adapt to the changing circumstances, hence “blind heuristics”.

    Quite a few people nowadays are moved by compassion to prefer animals to their fellow humans. If this becomes prevalent, it is potentially dangerous for the survival of humankind. Fortunately, our most pressing problem is resource depletion, so a reduction in the number of humans on the planet is not a priori a bad thing (and you will notice that this is not a very compassionate observation).

  39. Nate Greeneon 27 Jun 2013 at 10:48 am


    Can’t we all just hold hands and sing Kumbaya?

    In re-reading your previous post, I see that you said (emphasis mine) “But it still MIGHT be that our individuality, which is based on our capacity for self-awareness, and lies at the basis of what we consider our noblest traits (like compassion), will lead to humanity’s early exit.”

    Of course I can think of situations, like nuclear warfare, where blind heuristics and lack of compassion would be bad for humanity’s future. But I believe you were just saying that blind heuristics and lack of compassion are often not bad when it comes to survival. In fact, I suppose, thanks to my ancestors bad-ass ways, I am sitting in a comfortable chair, nicely fed, with no worries of being attacked or eaten.

  40. Bill Openthalton 27 Jun 2013 at 11:28 am

    @ Nate
    Nuclear warfare would — in all likelihood — be caused by people who, very rationally, apply games theory.

    You got my drift as far as the ways of nature are concerned. And it might well be that what we perceive as compassion is a mechanism to allow humans to live in groups, given the selective nature of compassion (people who feel extreme compassion for animals have no qualms hurting humans). Life is utilitarian, not noble.

  41. Nate Greeneon 27 Jun 2013 at 11:15 pm

    Bill, thank you for the response. Do you recommend any good books on evolution? I have the “beak of the finch” that I grabbed from my father-in-law’s collection after he died several years ago. I have not read it but I’m feeling the urge.

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