April Fools’ follow-up

My favorite comment on the homeopathic cocktail post comes from Iqbal, who writes, “What do you know about medical science? Good idea to stick to your bartending business.” I can’t tell if he’s an angry homeopath or if he just didn’t get the joke, but to be clear, it was an April Fools’ Day post!

My representation of homeopathy was accurate to the best of my knowledge, with one exception: I left out the “law of similars,” or principle of “let like be cured by like” that guides homeopathic remedies. For example, if you’re alert and trying to go to sleep, a homeopathic remedy would be an extreme dilution of something that causes alertness, such as caffeine. As for whether or not this is actually effective, well here’s Dr. Paul Willis massively overdosing on a homeopathic sleep spray to see what happens:

In fairness then, I never should have expected my Homeopathic Negroni to get me drunk. By the law of similars it should in fact have been a hangover cure. Ironically this would actually work, water and time being the only sure cures for a hangover. However you can save yourself the trouble of serially diluting a perfectly good cocktail; regular tap water is equally effective.

The post was inspired by a few recent items I’d come across online, including this New York Times profile of self-aggrandizing charlatan Alex Ott. Ott is said to toy “with homeopathic blends that he believes can alter a person’s mood” and even the esteemed Gary Regan chimes in to say that “Homeopathic remedies make all the sense in the world to me.” I can’t tell if Ott is using actual homeopathic dilutions or if the writer is just using the word “homeopathic” in a vague sense, but regardless, the drinks community shouldn’t be conferring legitimacy on medicinal homeopathy. (For a righteous smackdown of Ott, see Darcy O’Neil.)

Biodynamic wine is another area in which the drinks the world unfortunately legitimizes the idea that weak dilutions can have powerful effects. This comes up in Preparation 500, an act required of certified biodynamic growers. I swear I am not making this up:

A Biodynamic practitioner obtains a cow horn, stuffs it full of cow manure and buries it on or around the autumnal equinox. On or around the spring equinox, it is dug up and the “horn manure” is made into a highly diluted (homeopathic) spray that when applied to your fields enlivens it with cosmic forces.

That’s from the Biodynamics is a Hoax blog, which goes on to provide some priceless quotes from Rudolf Steiner. Here’s another description of the preparation from folks who actually believe it:

During the cooler months life breathes into the soil and the soil has the tendency to be full of growth energies, which energies are absorbed into the dung through the receptive nature of the horn. […]

It is sprayed up to four times a year. The best times are in October and November and then again in February and March. It is important to apply in the late afternoon.

It is used in small quanitities [sic] at the rate of 25 grams in 13 litres of water per acre.

It is stirred for one hour making a vortex or crater in one direction and then reversing the direction and making a vortex in the other direction.

It’s hard to imagine that there are professional farmers in the 21st century going in for this sort of thing, but there you have it. Every time you drink biodynamic wine you’re supporting the ritualistic burial of poop-filled cow horns. I don’t doubt that there are some delicious biodynamic wines on the market, but whenever someone describes their wine to me as “biodynamic” I cringe a little bit.

Of course, the real dangers of homeopathy have nothing to do with wine or cocktails, but rather with medicine. The remedies themselves are usually harmless, since by definition they have no active ingredients. But they divert resources patients could use instead on effective medicine and may be chosen as a substitute for it altogether, putting lives at risk. The 10:23 Campaign (with the brilliant slogan “Homeopathy: There’s Nothing In It”) has been calling attention to this. From an essay on their site by Simon Singh:

Perhaps the greatest danger occurs when homeopathy replaces a conventional treatment. I first encountered this problem in 2006 when I tried to find out what homeopaths would offer to a young traveller seeking protection against malaria. Working with Alice Tuff and the charity Sense About Science, we developed a storyline in which Tuff would be making a ten week overland trip through West Africa, where there is a high prevalence of the most dangerous strain of malaria, which can result in death within three days. Tuff, a young graduate, would explain to homeopaths that she had previously suffered side-effects from conventional malaria tablets and wondered if there was a homeopathic alternative. […]

Next Tuff found a variety of homeopaths by searching on the internet, just as any young student might do. She then visited or phoned ten of them, mainly based in and around London. In each case, Tuff secretly recorded the conversations in order to document the consultation. The results were shocking. Seven out of the ten homeopaths failed to ask about the patient’s medical background and also failed to offer any general advice about bite prevention. Worse still, ten out of ten homeopaths were willing to advise homeopathic protection against malaria instead of conventional treatment, which would have put our pretend traveller’s life at risk.

The web comic XKCD has done a fantastic job satirizing homeopathic principles. Here’s one my favorites from that site:

And here’s another.

Though companies aren’t making millions of dollars reducing the cost of healthcare via homeopathy, they do profit by selling to those who believe it works. From a 1997 U.S. News and World Report article comes the story of the $20 million duck:

Somewhere near Lyon, France, sometime this year, officials from the French pharmaceutical firm Boiron will slaughter a solitary duck and extract its heart and liver–not to appease the gods but to fight the flu. The organs will be used to make an over-the-counter flu medicine, called Oscillococcinum, that will be sold around the world. In a monetary sense, this single French duck may be the most valuable animal on the planet, as an extract of its heart and liver form the sole “active ingredient” in a flu remedy that is expected to generate sales of $20 million or more. (For duck parts, that easily beats out foie gras in terms of return on investment.)

How can Boiron claim that one duck will benefit so many sick people? Because Oscillococcinum is a homeopathic remedy, meaning that its active ingredients are so diluted that they are virtually nonexistent in the final preparation. In every gram of the medication, according to the list of ingredients on the package, there are 0.85 grams of sucrose and 0.15 grams of lactose. For those without a chemistry degree, that means that Oscillococcinum is 100 percent sugar.

Finally, via Reddit, it turns out that British comedians Mitchell and Webb were a bit ahead of me on this one: