The topic of homeopathy has been discussed at length on Science Based Medicine. These discussions include a review of its dogmas, origins, and proposed abilities as well as articles on its proponents’ more interesting claims. Also reviewed were a number of the questionable studies quoted by its proponents as evidence of effectiveness and quantifiable beneficial effects above the observed placebo. In addition, its proponents have themselves not be lax in promoting it by any stretch of the imagination. Among one of its most outspoken and vocal proponents is Dana Ullman, whose activism in the field has made him one of homeopathy’s most known unofficial spoke-men. Mr. Ullman has also written for Mr. Mike Adams’ (The Health Ranger) Natural News on more than one occasion, with his most recent publication in late 2016. A descriptive overview by Ullman of homeopathy is also available on the internet for those interested, which includes discussed references to nanodosage and some mention of quantum mechanics. The author of this article will not revise the basics of homeopathy, its origins and its central tenets in depth, but a brief discussion on homeopathy does follow to instruct the less informed reader. This article will, however, attempt to further illuminate three of the more popular homeopathic mechanisms claimed by its proponents and explain why each is scientifically unsupportable.
Samuel Hahnemann and homeopathy – A brief introduction
Homeopathy is an alternative medical system initially devised by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, during the era leading up to the start of modern medicine. Hahnemann never actually produced a final version of homeopathy, and repeatedly updated his theories throughout his life in an attempt to keep it relevant as real scientific progress in other fields progressively showed his prior claims to be unfounded. Homeopathy’s first central tenet is essentially that “like heals like”. Thus, if a patient is exposed to a specially-presented form of the agent making him ill, in a small dosage, then the patient’s body will “learn” how to counter/heal itself from that disease. Homeopathy’s second central tenet is that the more diluted the disease-causing agent exposed to, the stronger the body’s drive to cure the patient. It should be noted that, unlike immunization, the homeopath is not exposing the patient to the actual pathogen or toxin causing the illness (in weakened/modified form) but rather the “essence” of the disease (the disease’s “miasm” as defined by homeopathy), which homeopaths believe is present in other items/objects, etc. This is why homeopaths will not present, for example, the influenza virus to the patient suffering from flu, but rather some selected plant/animal/mineral extract (in extremely diluted form) which two key homeopathic works of reference (the “material medicia” and the “repertories”) claims hold the disease’s essence. Lastly, most homeopathic formulations usually have the agent/s containing the “essence of the disease” diluted out of existence in the final formulation, but that is the whole idea given that this should be the most potent formulation according to the tenets of homeopathy.
The first of the three proposed mechanisms used by homeopathic proponents to explain its supposed viability is a version of hormesis, which is the process where something which causes toxicity at high doses has very different (and even beneficial) effects at lower doses. Homeopaths typically link hormesis to nanodosing. Although generally promoted in this way, homeopathic proponents have never provided a more specific mechanism around their hypothesis. However, from a scientific point of reference, catalysis would come the closest to such a proposed homeopathic/hormesistic mechanism, in particularly heterogeneous catalysis. This is clearly indicated by attempts by homeopathic proponents to discuss the scientific phenomenon of large surface-area effects at extremely small volumes. However, such attempts by these proponents show a clear lack of understanding of the principles of heterogeneous catalysis.
To begin with, catalysis comes in two general forms depending on the physical state the catalyst is in compared to the physical state of the reagents it is catalyzing (i.e. solids, liquids or gases). In homogeneous catalysis both the catalysts and the starting reagents are in the same physical phase (e.g. both in liquid phase when the catalyst is dissolved in the same solvent at the reagents). In heterogeneous catalysis the catalysts and reagents are in different physical-phases (eg. a solid catalyst imbedded in a zeolite support with gas phase reagents passing over it). Although there are many similarities between the two catalyst types, there are also some key differences.
One of the key similarities between heterogeneous and homogeneous catalysts is their general mechanism of action. For any chemical reaction to occur the reagents need to come together and form an Activating Reaction Complex. Although collisions between starting reagents are constantly happening within the solvent, such collisions do not always form an Activating Complex. The Activating Reaction Complex is always thermodynamically much more energetic than both the thermodynamic starting (initial reagents) and final (reaction products) molecular energy states. Thus, the Activating Complex is only formed if sufficient energy is inputted into the system to allow for reaction. Under normal room-temperature conditions, an insufficient numbers of reagents are energetically excited enough to allow for a significant reaction as given by the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution in the figure below:
If thermal energy is added, then the chemical reaction proceeds as the Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution is shifted such that a sufficient numbers of energetically excited reagents are now available for reaction. However, catalysts work by lowering the energy requirements needed to generate a viable Activating Reaction Complex, thus facilitating significant chemical reactions at lower temperatures (even down to room temperature) as given by the following energy-reaction diagram:
Enzymes, which are “living” highly selective catalysts, using the well-known “lock-and-key” mechanism operate under the exact same premises. So, although homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysts use a large variety of very different chemical mechanisms to catalyze the reactions relevant to them, their general mode of action is the same (namely to lower the thermodynamic energetic levels needed to achieve reaction-driven Activating Reaction Complexes).
In terms of differences, the issue of surface-area to volume ratio, which is a key consideration for heterogeneous catalysts, is irrelevant to homogeneous catalysts. In solution (mono-phasic gas or liquid), access to and from the homogeneous catalyst is almost completely unhindered. Only solution properties (i.e. density, temperature, turbidity, viscosity and Brownian motion) determine the reaction and its speed (assuming the actual chemical reaction itself is insignificantly fast). Thus, as homogeneous catalysts exist in the same solvent phase as the reagent(s), they are extremely susceptible to the dilution process used in homeopathic remedies. At even the lower standard dilutions (i.e. a more concentrated solution) used in homeopathy, catalyst levels can easily be below the part per trillion or nanograms per litre level for a 6C dilution (dynamisation /potentisation) and are typically diluted beyond existence at 12C. At higher dilutions, the 30C favoured by Hahnemann and typically found in most homeopathic remedies, this issue of vanishing contents is even more acute with any homogeneous catalysts being diluted out of existence almost ten to the power of thirty-six times over (1036 or 10 followed by 36 zeros). Another issue that homeopathic proponents don’t account for is that any catalyst’s activity can become unmeasurably small at content levels significant higher than that above non-existence in a solution. This varies from catalyst to catalyst, but usually below approximately the parts-per-trillion level (one tenth of a 4C dilution or “X.4C”), catalytic activity is too small to be measureable.
On the other hand, heterogeneous catalysts are not dissolved in solution (like homogeneous catalysts) but form suspensions, colloids, or “mixes” instead. They tend to be solid polyhedral structures, some of which of are crystalline in nature while others are isomorphic. Those that are crystalline are formed from a repeating unit cell of one type or another, while those that are isomorphic are randomly structured. Some heterogeneous catalysts are secured on or in a solid-support matrix (eg. zeolites) while others are not. The dimensions of these polyhedral catalysts range in size from less than a dozen or so nanometers to hundreds of nanometers across. Thus, heterogeneous catalytic polyhedrals can contain anywhere from about one-hundred-thousand catalyst atoms to more than half a trillion atoms each. However, regardless of size, shape, or structure, they all have one aspect in common, namely that they catalyze reactions on their surfaces only and, thus, a high surface area-to-volume ratio is vital. It is interesting to note that aluminum silica catalysts tend to have surface-areas in the tens to lower hundreds of square-meters per gram range, while zeolites can range up into the lower thousands of square-meter per gram range. These unique properties of heterogeneous catalysts have distinctive effects when homeopathic dilutions are undertaken. The one consequence is that heterogeneous catalysts will be diluted out of solution far quicker than homogeneous catalysts once homeopathic dilution is undertaken. Even at 6C dilution, the heterogeneous catalyst polyhedrals only number six million at the most compared to 6 x 1023 atoms for a single mole of catalyst. At 12C, they have been diluted out of existence by a hundred and seventy thousand times, let alone at 30C. Another aspect of heterogeneous catalysts is that they tend to suffer from catalytic poisoning more easily. Sulphur- (sulphides and sulphites) and nitrogen- (cyanides and nitrites) containing compounds/functional-groups are among the most common catalyst poisons, stopping all catalytic activity. Other known poisons (to a lesser extent) are also certain phosphorus and halogen containing compounds/functional-groups. The relevance of these poisons is that many homeopathic proponents suggest that homeopathic solutions are able to maintain their catalytic properties upon dilution since the catalytic polyhedrals become entrapped in some sort of material web in the solution which is somehow selectively kept aside for further dilutions that eventually end up in the final homeopathic formulation. However many of these supposed materials, typically being natural in origin (eg. lipid-carbohydrate macromolecules, peptide chains, etc.) contain the very functional groups of these catalyst poisons. Thus, the supposed inclusion of such “webbing” material is more likely to lead to the poisoning of the catalyst than the retention of its activities. In addition, no viable mechanism has been provided for the “webbing”-material to be preferentially retained in the solutions used in the next step of the serial dilutions.
In the end, to use catalysis as an argument to try support the claims of homeopathy is simply fatally flawed on multiple levels.
The second and third proposed mechanisms used by proponents to support homeopathy are both based on water memory. Generally, these take one of two forms. The first is based on a physical restructuring of the water, while the second is based on claims around something more “ethereal” – namely an “essence “.
For the physical version, proponents argue that as a substance is first dissolved in a volume of water or any existing solution, the water molecules arrange themselves around the substance being dissolved. This is true and typically involves the hydrogen-bonding ability of the water molecules and any partial or complete charges on the material being dissolved. In addition, the dipole of each water molecule itself also plays a major contribution to the dissolution process. In fact, without these interactions nothing could dissolve in water at all. Up to this point there is no conflict with established scientific fact. It is the claims hereafter where the proponents’ argument collapses. They claim that when this solution is further diluted, that physical voids in the water itself are formed of the same shapes/functionality as the material dissolved therein. In fact, these proponents state that the further the solution is diluted, the greater the number of these voids/functionalities which in turn provides a more potent formulation. They also believe that this dilution must also be accompanied by succussion, which is nothing more than physically striking the container with the diluted solution against a surface or edge. This then allows for this potency to be “imprinted” on the water in preparation of further dilution.
Because water is a dynamic substance, many homeopathic proponents see it as an extremely disordered system until their dilution process starts. This concept fits well with the idea of having shaped voids in the water that are permanent or long enduring in nature. However, this is not true as water, although extremely dynamic, is also highly organized. Water tends to rapidly form highly ordered structures which are spherical or oval in shape, known as water clusters, throughout the medium. However, these structures are transient and only last less than a picosecond (10-12 seconds or one millionth of a millionth of a second) before dissociating and new water clusters forming. Under such conditions, it would be impossible to maintain a physical void or functionality anywhere near even a fraction of a second, let alone the time between dilutions (let alone the time between shipping out a homeopathic preparation and someone actually buying it). Thus, the concept around a physical explanation for water memory is even far more scientifically unfounded than the catalysts argument.
High energy physics and cosmology
As stated, the third proposed mechanism used to support homeopathy is yet another appeal to water memory, but using the more “ethereal” concept around the alleged “essence” of water. This is by far the most outlandish of the three proposed mechanisms and appears to be the one Mr. Ullman favours given his mention of quantum mechanics in his aforementioned published article and elsewhere. Given how easily the prior two mechanisms can be refuted, this would be the last refuge that homeopathic proponents can retreat too while still having a “viable” argument to revert to in defense of homeopathy. What aids it further is that this argument lacks any of the specifics that would make it more easily testable and few members of the general public (particularly those with no science back-ground) know enough about quantum mechanics to examine these claims with a critical eye.
Regardless of the starting point of the homeopathic proponents around this third mechanism, all their arguments distill down to involving the modification of space-time itself on scales ranging from the sub-atomic (quarks, meons, gluons, etc.) down to the Plank scale (1.616229(38)×10−35 metres, where space-time becomes “foamy”), while still squeezing enormous potential energy into the several higher dimensions in eleven dimensional space-time as given by super-string theory, or the more up-to-date M-theory (theories this author is only minimally familiar with). However, what most of these proponents do not realize (or acknowledge) is that to achieve even a temporary modification of space-time on even these small scales (i.e. a fraction of the formulation’s mass) will always involve enormous energy densities – typical significantly more than is achieved in the 27 km CERN Large Hadron Collider. The LHC at CERN pumps in 3.5 teraelectronvolts (TeV, a trillion electronvolts) per beam (7 TeV total) into a small number of hydrogen nuclei, accelerating them to within a fraction of the speed of light (99.999%+). Using Einstein’s simplified equation for Special Relativity, E=mc2 to solve for E for a single hydrogen nucleus would clearly show the mind-blowing energies required. Alternatively, as know by Star-Trek fans, the best modified solution to Miguel Alcubierre’s warp drive theory would require the mass of the entire Voyager space-probe (825.5 kg/1,820 lb launch mass) converted to pure energy to warp space and time. Using Einstein’s E=mc2, with a portion of Voyager’s mass, also gives an idea of the energies likely involved. In addition, the warping or space and time almost always involves the use of some very unique and strange forms of matter if a black-hole of adequate mass is to be avoided. It is impossibly unlikely that any homeopath or other could meet these requirements by their protocols of dilution or to match the energy input requirements (by succussion) in any form; regardless of any possible further ill attempts by the homeopathy proponents to include the superposition-of-states (eg. Bose Einstein condensates), quantum tunneling or the Heisenberg uncertainty-principle.
Thus, as with the other two mechanism, the third is by far the most scientifically unfounded.
Conclusion: Homeopathy, there’s nothing to it!
So what can be learnt for this review? Quite simply homeopathy has absolutely no scientific founding to stand on in any form, and that the continued pursuit by its proponents is an exercise in searching for the three non-existent phantoms behind homeopathy.