I've been meaning to write something about homeopathy at some point, because it's just so wretchedly stupid. But until now, I haven't sat down to actually do it, because it can seem rather like beating a dead horse: it's just so over-the-top goofy, and the goofiness of it is so well documented that I wasn't really sure what I had to add.
Then I came across something that was new to me.
As I've mentioned before, I'm a New Yorker. I live just north of the city in one of the Westchester suburbs. The anthrax attacks that happened a few years ago were a very big deal in my area - in particular, because one of my neighbors is a NYT reporter who at a desk in the room where one of the alleged anthrax letters was opened. (It turned out to be one of the faked copycat ones - an envelope full of talcum power, if I remember correctly.)
Anyway... I've been sick with a miserable sinus infection this week, and got a prescription for an antibiotic. The pharmacy that I use is, alas, rather heavy of the woo: they've got a homeopath and a naturopath providing consultations on the premises. But after trying rather a lot of different local pharmacies, I've found that it's the only one where I haven't been robbed or abused by the phramacist. (By robbed, I mean having them fill prescriptions with less pills than I'm paying for; since I use some expensive stomach medications, I've had $300 prescriptions with fully a tenth of what I was supposed to be given left out of the bottle. I'll take a woo-ish pharmacist who's honest with me, leaves me alone when I say I don't want to hear the woo, and gives me what I pay for over a lying, cheating scumbag.)
Anyway... Heading down to my pleasant but rather woo-ish pharmacy, there's a note on a bulletin board about nosodes, and how we should all be preparing safe quantities of nosodes for anthrax and smallpox attacks in order to protect our families? I'd never heard the term before. So when I got home with my non-woo medication, I hit the net to figure out what this stuff was.
According to The National Center for Homeopathy, nosodes are
homeopathic attenuations of: pathological organs or tissues; causative agents such as bacteria, fungi, ova, parasites, virus particles, and yeast; disease products; excretions or secretions
Translated: take either a sample of an infectious agent, or an infected tissue sample. Dilute it down to silly proportions using a magic shaking ritual (homeopathic attenuation, aka succussion), voila! You have a nosode.
What's going on here? And why is it bad math?
The homeopathic shaking ritual is, basically, take something like a nosode. Mix it with water, in a 100 to 1 proportion, using the special magic shake. Now, take a sample of that mixture - and mix it with water again - 100 parts water to 1 part solution, and shake. Repeat many, many times. Many homepathic remedies use a 100 to 1 dilution repeated 20 times - the so-called "20C" dilution. The more times you repeat the magic shaking ritual, the stronger the alleged medicine becomes.
Normal homeopathic remedies are based on the dilution of substances that produce the same symptoms as the illness that they're allegedly treating. So they'll take some substance - a salt, an herb extract - and dilute it this way. So in a 20C dilution, you're talking about 1 part active ingredient in 100^20 parts water - so you're talking about one part active incredient in 1x10^400 parts water. This is also known as "pure water". In a regular dose - several teaspoonsful of the diluted solution - you are almost certainly not getting a single molecule of the active ingredient in the dose.
This is the first piece of really bad math in it. The inventor of homeopathy had no idea about how many molecules were in water; it's not even clear that he really knew what molecules were. (Homeopathy was invented in the 1820; the molecular theory of matter as we understand it was proposed in 1812.) But we do now know about that - and so we know, by a combination of simple arithmetic and the number of molecules involved, that it's an undeniable fact that these dilutions are entirely eliminating the supposedly active ingredient. To insist on a magical effect from something which has been eliminated from the solution is just stupid.
The idea that somehow diluting a solution to the point where there's probably not a single molecule of the active ingredient left creates a good medicine is stupid - and that diluting it more after there's not a single molecule left is even stupider.
The claim of modern homeopathy is that there are basically magical propeties of water: that the magic shaking ritual leaves crystalline structures in the water that are based on the active ingredient, and that those magic structures somehow are the cause of the effectiveness of homeopathy. This belief is predicated on the notion that the basic particles of the homeopathic ingredient is small enough that it can leave a specific shape in the arrangement of molecules in water.
So - what about nosodes? Well, the argument for a nosode is that it's basically a kind of a vaccine: you're putting the specific infection agent into solution - either directly if you can identify and extract the agent; or indirectly by using an infected tissue sample if you can't. Then you're doing the dilution.
In particular, they claim that they can "vaccinate" you against anthrax using a nosode solution of anthrax. But anthrax isn't a molecule. It's a bacteria - and a largish one at that. The so-called "crystalline structures" of water that homeopaths propose as an active principle are at an entirely different scale: this is another error of arithmetic; something orders of magnitude larger than a water molecule is not going to interact with a water molecule in the same way as something of its own size: it's like saying that if you dip your finger into a pile of dust, take it out, and then shake the dust around, that the dust can retain the shape of your finger. The size of the structure that you claim to form is so much larger than the things it's formed from - it's a very silly idea.
What's particularly scary about this: these people are applying for homeland security funds to stockpile nosodes. They claim that they can provide "homeopathic vaccines" using nosodes for less money, and in less time than it would take to prepare real vaccines or treatments. And in the current political climate, they may very well be taken seriously, and get money that could have been used to buy or produce real remedies, rather than magic water.