Some time ago an article was written in The Age newspaper about my sceptical society. As a result of that I received an email from a homeopath requesting an audience with me and my kids. My first thought was “absolutely not”. Why on Earth would I allow such a charlatan to come into my school and try to convert my students into scientific illiterates? I was not alone in thinking this, with a few other sceptical peers feeling the same way.
After a few months I changed my mind following a conversation with two people. Firstly, Eran Segev, president of the Australian Skeptics. Secondly, my father.
Eran’s point was a simple one. I need to start exposing my students to pseudoscience to give them experience in questioning and critical thinking. And what pseudoscience is easier to debunk, said Eran, than homeopathy?
My father’s advice was a little more… fatherly. He made me realise that there comes a point where you have to let your children go off into the world and trust that you’ve taught them well. This was my opportunity to bring some of the outside world into the classroom and hope that my kids had learned their lessons.
So, on Monday afternoon my phone vibrated in my pocket as I received the automated SMS telling me that the homeopath had signed in at the kiosk in the school lobby. I went to find him, said hello and shook his hand. An older gentleman, with a nice smile and pleasant demeanour. Not at all the fire-breathing monster I had been expecting!
I walked him through the school to the meeting room where a group of kids were already waiting. They took their seats while the homeopath (who I am choosing not to name) sat at the front of the room and waited to be introduced.
(Incidentally, anybody not familiar with what homeopathy is should watch this fantastic video of James Randi explaining it all: James Randi explains homeopathy)
What followed was… I don’t really know. He spoke of himself as a sceptic and a scientist. Two things that I would have not have associated with homeopathy. His claims of being scientific seemed to have something to do with his previous studies in sociology and commerce. A few of the students laughed when he referred to being a sceptic, because they are well aware of what sceptics feel about homeopathy. I believe that he considers himself a sceptic because he carefully considers the evidence in all areas. He just happens to not understand what the evidence means.
What follows is the first part of his presentation. I have transcribed his talk as well I could, removing any “ums”, “ahs” and repeated words. This post will stop before any questions were asked by the students as it’s fairly long.
Look, I get the impression that the best way for us to do it is for me to just introduce things first off and then throw it across to you to ask anything you want to ask and the subject matter is homeopathy. Have you ever heard of or seen, done anything with homeopathy? Neither had I when I first came across it. I was in fact a lecturer in sociology at the University of NSW when I had my first child, and the whole question of health care, I was at that stage doing a diploma of naturopathy. And the whole question of my son’s health came up. One night at one of my lecturers, it was a herbal medicine lecture, the teacher whose name was Dorothy Hall, who was a big name in naturopathy in those days said look ,”tomorrow night or the next night there will be a lecture in homeopathy by a guy called Alan Jones who owned a bookshop.” And I’d never heard the word. This was 1973, I’d never ever, ever heard the word ‘homeopathy’ so I thought “Why not? I’ll go.”
And so I went along, sceptical. *laughter* Enormously sceptical, just because I’d never heard of it. I drove home that night crying my eyes out. Which was a bit strange. Because I’d come to this as what I saw as a scientist. I mean, that’s what sociology is all about. I’d also done before that a commerce degree. I loved and loved science and from my point of view I couldn’t take on anything that didn’t fit within scientific principles. Scientific principles means that it’s got clear principles, that it’s testable and that they’re replicable. You can do them again and test them again. And this was all of a sudden in that whole area of natural health giving me something that had very clear principles that were testable and that were replicable. Very clear principles, really there are just three. Homeopathy is based on three very clear principles.
The first is, which is what homeopathy means. Would anyone have a stab at what homeopathy means? Homeo pathos. ‘Homeo’ means similar, like in homogenised milk. Pathos means suffering. And so the whole principle of homeopathy is that of similar suffering. Which means that would give a substance because it’s capable of causing the problems that they’ve got. Now in very simple terms you could see that in terms of, if they’ve got lesions that are all blown up and burning and stinging and etcetera etcetera, that look like a bee sting you could well give a substance called apis. A homeopathic substance called apis. Which is made from bee sting. Or if they’re feeling beaten and bruised all over, you could well use a substance called, there’s a herb called leopard’s bane, which in homeopathy is called arnica. Which if you are take material doses of, will make you feel beaten and bruised all over. That’s the whole principle. I mean in some cases it’s like the bee sting, that you don’t have to take it, it just happens when you experience it. In some cases in order to find out what the substance is capable of doing you have to basically poison yourself with it. Well not yourself, but someone has. That’s the book *holds up very tattered book, which I believe to be the Materia Medica*, sorry it’s such a worn copy of but it’s gone through 40 years of children and a similar number of students.
That’s simply the book of poisonings. Nothing else but a book of poisoning. It lists what every substance is capable of causing in a healthy person and then that principle of like cures like suggests that that same substance is capable of curing, neutralising, strengthening the person.
And that is, that’s the major, central theme of homeopathy, that like cures like. That what will cause something is capable of curing something. It’s the same principle, incidentally as vaccination. Which also uses in that case the disease, in order to work on the disease. And it uses it in large amounts and it mixes it with all other substances. That’s the problem that a homeopath would have with it, but the principle is the same. There are many, many orthodox medical drugs that are used in that same sort of way.
The second principle of homeopathy is the law of the single remedy. Which means that you take one substance at a time. That we can easily in here *referring to the book* see what one substance is capable of causing and what another substance is capable of causing. But to say that you can put those two together and say that it will cause both of those two things together isn’t necessarily the case.
There are some in there *referring to book again*, one is called hepar sulphuris calcareum where in fact two substances have been joined together and they have been “proved”, taken until you get the poisoning symptoms together. And that comes out as a completely different remedy that’s called in there, hepar sulph. So that’s the second principle. Like cures like and single remedy.
The third one is the one that causes most of the contention. Because it’s the one called the law of the minimum dose. Which means that, and it’s probably the one that will cause the majority of the questions from your side too, it means that you’re taking minimum, if not minimal, if not to the stupid point of too tiny doses of a substance. I mean the way that you make a homeopathic remedy is to take one part of the substance and mix it with … well you can in fact mix it with nine parts, or ninety-nine, I tend to deal in the 99 ones … 99 parts of water.
And that is then what you call succussed *starts pounding his fist into his other hand* that is where you smash it against a hard object to release the one part into the 99. In fact if it wasn’t soluble in water there’s amount method with a mortar and pestle where you can grind it up until it is soluble in water. But let’s assume you’re dealing with soluble substance. One part of that mix you mix it with 99 parts of water and you thump it together. Then you take one part of that mix and you thump it together. Then you take that basically to any dilution. I tend to use it normally at what’s called the 30th dilution. Which is 1 part of the substance to one with 60 zeroes of water. Which I understand is nuts, by anything that we understand. Except until you start coming across, and it’s been a boon in many ways for homeopaths, this Hans boson *I pointed out here that is called the Higgs boson* that’s come up in the last weeks. Which is saying there is another particle, there is another unmeasurable particle that gives thing form. I mean the Hubble telescope has been pushing in that direction too and is starting to provide some sort of basis, some sort of support that says, “Hey wait on, there is something beyond what we know of.”
And we do have to keep our minds open. We do have to be sceptical, is the word. I personally love the notion of scepticism. I think that healthy scepticism, and I use the word healthy which means that it, yes it’s healthy, it’s keeping our minds open until we have good reason to accept or reject. I mean I find a group such as this an interesting one because I taught homeopathy at Southern Cross university up in northern New South Wales for about 15 years and the only reason that I started to teach it there, in the degree of naturopathy was because the degree started and in fact it went the other way, the students went on strike. They said “we’re not coming back until we have homeopathy. We will not be here unless we’ve got homeopathy within the degree.” At which stage they found me, cause I’d been teaching, I’d been lecturing in sociology like I mentioned, and asked me if I’d come along. Now that was scepticism almost from another end of naturopathy without homeopathy. Scepticism is fascinating in this game, you go into many countries of Europe, go to Switzerland and there is absolutely no question that homeopathy is clearly included in the national health scheme. You come to Australia and there is a lot of work going on to try and scrub it from the national health scheme. So it’s dependant in so many terms on what country you’re in and where you’ve learnt it from.
Now with all that I’m saying that isn’t to say that there aren’t aspects, approaches to homeopathy that I too find absolute rubbish. Absolute rubbish. I don’t think that they are testable. I don’t think they are replicable. I think they’re, well they’re made up. And too many of the more modern approaches of homeopathy are of that sort, from my sight. The ones that I see, like you look at Hippocrates, Paracelsus, Aristotle, Galileo, all of those ancient figures espoused at some time, something that approached the notion of like curing like. And even though homeopathy hadn’t come up yet, similar approaches were being used across the board. As I say nowadays I think you’ll find that there are a lot of people of “homeopath” say and do things that personally I think are rubbish.
So look, I’m therefore going to stop at that point so that you can ask as many questions as you want, basically.
So, there you go. This is what we sat through, politely, waiting for our chance to ask questions. There are so many things in what he said that could be pulled apart. Claiming that things get stronger the more you dilute them and that like cures like. Claiming to be scientific yet totally ignoring any actual science. Using the fact that some students wanted to learn homeopathy as evidence for its merit. His most egregious crime would have to be commandeering the Higgs boson! Like so many others have cited quantum mechanics as justification for why their particular brand of magic, our homeopath had grabbed onto the latest and most mysterious scientific discovery.
The Higgs boson proves that we don’t know everything therefore how can you doubt anything!?
Anyway, stay tuned for when I post the questions asked and the “answers” given. You might laugh, you might cry. Never forget though, that he and others like him are responsible for the health of many people. People who should be seeking legitimate medical help are going to homeopaths and being given magic water instead of medicine.
Update - Part 2!