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Dilutional disorder

by Phil Plait, Dec 31 2008

My friend Joel Parker sent me a link to a wonderfully satirical article by a man who was (also satirically) running for President. It consists of many short slices of ideas, including this one about homeopathy:

ONE OF THE PRINCIPLES of homeopathic medicine is that a smaller dose is considered more effective than a larger dose. This has profound implications for U.S. foreign policy. At the moment, we have 158,000 troops in Iraq. Imagine if we had only six! According to homeopathic logic, this presence would be much more successful.

Glass of water from blmurch’s Flickr stream

This sentiment is certainly no more silly than any others that meet the standards, such as they are, of homeopathology. Homeopathy is perhaps the most ridiculous of all quackery, since it says that the best medicine is medicine that is entirely gone. In theory it hardly needs debunking; it’s a cul-de-sac of reason, Poe’s Law incarnate. It’s the solipsism of medicine.

Still, many people believe in it, so in practice it does need debunking. In a typical essay showing all the myriad ways homeopathy goes wrong, the usual suspects are displayed: the theory behind it doesn’t make sense, water doesn’t have memory, diluting medicine actually makes it weaker, and all that. But you don’t need to go into all that detail. Why not? Because homeopathy is self-denying! Just look at it this way:

If homeopathy works, then obviously the less you use it, the stronger it gets. So the best way to apply homeopathy is to not use it at all.

Quod erat demonstrandum.

Still, homeopaths tend to be immune to logic and reason (ironically, proving homeopathy at least in principle: the less likely you are to ask for scientific evidence to support it, the stronger homeopathological evidence gets).

So we need a practical application, a way to stop homeopathy practitioners cold. And I think I have it.

The next time you meet one, ask them what they do when they get thirsty.

If they really believe homeopathy, then within days all the homeopaths will be gone, deceased due to diligently dogmatic dehydration. And the beauty of it? According to their own logic, once all the homeopaths are gone, they will have reached maximum strength.

They win, we win, medicine wins, logic wins. Everyone wins. Well, technically, they don’t win, being dead and all. But they will have made their point! I think.

Photo courtesy blmurch’s Flickr stream.

25 Responses to “Dilutional disorder”

  1. Pete says:

    I’ve always wondered how homeopaths get water that isn’t already supercharged with toxins, since it’s been in contact with biological waste, then diluted, as it runs down from the mountains into our resevoirs.

  2. Ryan Johnson says:

    I’ve been fighting a REALLY nasty cold for the last week. …a result of working way too much, and also the reason why there’s no blog for me this week… Anyway, I was in Target today, and I looked in the medicine area for something that would help my throat, I saw a prominent end-cap display that had Airborne and Zicam. I know enough to stay away from Airborne, and I had heard of Zicam, but didn’t know much about it, so I grabbed a box and lo and behold, there in tiny letters: “Homeopathic” and on the back: “Zicam Cold Remedy is an over-the-counter homeopathic medicine that actually reduces the duration and severity of the common cold when taken at the first sign of cold symptoms.” Wow. If I hadn’t heard Brian’s Skeptoid about homeopathic medicine a long time ago, I would have purchased this and thought that I was using one of the best things to help alleviate the symptoms. The packaging and even the fact that Target has their own generic right next to it, make it look like REAL medicine! Unless you really know what Homeopathic means, then you’d think you are getting real medicine. The only ingredients that are actually present in this product are the ones labeled “inactive ingredients.” Sigh.

    Instead, I bought a $1.09 box of Lipton Tea, and went home and made myself a nice warm cup of tea. It has nothing to do with a cure, but it does help relieve my sore throat. Hopefully in a few more days, this will be over, and if it’s not, I’m going to go to my doctor. Because that’s what people should do!

    Happy (AND HEALTHY) New Year everyone!

    Ryan Johnson

  3. Ranson says:

    Even better, Zicam hardly qualifies as “homeopathic”. The levels of zinc gluconate are more than enough to actually be pharmacologically active. They just use the homeopathic label to skirt the FDA.

  4. catgirl says:

    “At the moment, we have 158,000 troops in Iraq. Imagine if we had only six! According to homeopathic logic, this presence would be much more successful.”

    We would probably be more successful with only six troops there. Maybe this isn’t the best analogy.

  5. Brian says:

    Just about every organic and inorganic substance we know of has, at one time or another, been dissolved in the ocean, where the tides churn (or “concuss”) the resulting solution for years, perhaps even centuries. It’s quite clear to me that ordinary rainwater should be the Philosopher’s Stone of homeopathy, containing every single homeopathic remedy ever in each droplet.

    And delivered straight to your home at no charge, too.

  6. Great little piece, Mr. Plait. And the title, “Dilutional Disorder” is Hall of Fame quality as a dismissive pun on homeopathy. Thanks!

  7. Lisa says:

    I don’t really care if adults get the homeopathic stuff at the drug store. I figure if they are that dumb and gullible then they deserve to be sick and miserable. But now there are homeopathic remedies for infants. The only one I’ve seen are for teething and this is not generally a life-threatening issue, unless mom hasn’t slept for 4 days. I’m concerned that there will be “remedies” for ear infections and high fevers (which can become problematic if not treated appropriately) and that parents will think this new age treatment will be better than a doctor’s treatment.

    I’m also sad that my mother-in-law, who is a nurse and very intelligent, has fallen for the Airborne treatments. A couple of years ago, my husband suffered severe TBI in a car wreck (he’s fine now) and she wanted me to give him the stuff so he wouldn’t get a cold. I just smiled and said thanks and threw it away when I got home.

  8. There’s also a homeopathic analgesic for pets, plus a homeopathic nasal spray for colds. Yeesh.

    I wonder if they accept homepathic money, you know, paper that’s had all the ink removed, but still retains the value of what denomination I, ahem, claim it was?

  9. boris says:

    I’m still wondering – what would Oliver Cromwell’s bladder cure, if we could get a properly deluted sample?

  10. Max says:

    Here’s the logic of homeopathy. You take a potent substance like, say, the stimulant caffeine. As you dilute it, it loses its stimulant effect. All homeopathy says is that instead of asymptotically approaching zero stimulant effect, the dilution actually crosses into “negative stimulant”, or sedating, effect.

  11. Maria says:

    Nonsense about homeopathic ‘remedies’ has reached epidemic proportions on the web. I wish they’d apply the same principle of dilution: the less we hear about homeopathy, the better we would all be. Thanks for being part of the fightback against the homeopushers.

  12. Max says:

    Phil’s friend forgot the whole “like-cures-like” principle of homeopathy. So the analogy would be to send six terrorists to Iraq instead of having troops there.

  13. Steve says:

    As a physician I would like to bring up a prinicipal I learned in training. “The solution to pollution is dilution”. Now as to surgery this means that if a dirty wound is encountered irrigate, irrigate and irrigate some more to get rid the pus and debris. It also applies to acid or lyes burns of the eyes. After an incident before even going to the doctor or ER irrigate the eyes with gallons of water. Then after you do see a doctor he will probably hook you up to an IV bag with water or normal saline and irrigate, irrigate and irrigate some more. So if homeopathy is correct then the dirty wounds in surgery only will get infected and worse with dilution and the eyes of the patient will disolve because the strength of the lye or acid will only increase. Put that to your homeopathic friends and look for a response.

    • Wrong says:

      They’d come back with their “Like cures like.” nonsense. It’s odd that most people, whilst realizing that the homeopaths are wrong, don’t take the effort to understand and refute their logic.
      They believe that upon diluting a substance, the water retains a “memory” of the chemical, and increases its potency. By being intelligent, and understanding medicine and chemistry, we’re completely ignoring their point. It’s not about concentration, though, with our much better understanding of chemistry, it’s funny to laugh at the fact that their treatments must be, chemically less effective. They still haven’t proved a water memory, and they likely never will, so it hasn’t passed the null hypothesis. So while the concentration jokes are funny, they don’t do anything to refute the homeopaths, which I think we can agree, is the most important thing.

  14. oldebabe says:

    This homeopathy idea is just too absurd… defying common sense, etc. Laughable of course, until one encounters people who sincerely believe in it or some aspect of it, and don’t see the absurdity and foolhardiness. Daunting.

  15. Shahar Lubin says:

    Steve, max, yeah non of it make sense, but talk to people who are into it and the last thing your hear about are “logical” arguments. It’s all anecdotes.

    I don’t know/care why but it helped my sister’s neighbor’s dog. Well, if it works what does it matters if it’s scientific.

    Even though it’s one of the most insane obviously nonsensical of the alternatives I’ve been surprised to find many well educated usually critical people in my environment buying into it. People who would scoff at channeling/ufos/bigfoot/nessi/etc. Maybe it’s the nonsensical element of it. It’s so out there it prevents questioning.

  16. UNRR says:

    This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 1/2/2009, at The Unreligious Right

  17. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    If our commander in chief’s IQ is about 100 (average, C student), then imagine how good things would be if it were diluted several times!

    Second thought, would likely be the same.

    For more on homeopathy, heeeeeeeere’s Randi!

  18. MadScientist says:

    Hmm … this reminds me a bit of discussions I used to have with self-proclaimed philosophers who were in denial of reality. The scenario usually went something like this:

    1. a ‘philosopher’ questions whether what we experience is reality. (huh – whatever that means) and makes further ridiculous statements along the line of proclaiming science to be nothing more than religion by another name.

    2. I walk into the chemistry building and come out with a glass of water which has a few obvious white crystals at the bottom and hand the glass to the philosopher saying: “The water in that glass has enough sodium cyanide to kill a horse. I predict that if you drink it, you will soon have labored breathing, your lips will turn a strange blue color, you will collapse and ultimately die within the minute. Drink it and prove to me that science is just a religion.”

    3. Philosopher gets scared because I’m obviously such a whacko but doesn’t have enough faith in his own beliefs to call my bluff.

    I’ve always thought it was such a pity that no one would call my bluff on poisoning them – I wanted to see the look on their faces if they did call my bluff and taste the horribly bitter water (which I presume would make them think that I had in fact put in sodium cyanide).

    Ah, those were the good old days.

  19. MadScientist says:


    “That’s nothing – now Homeopathic Drugs found in US Drinking Water!”

    Oh no! Skeptico, why are you peeing in the dams?

  20. Robert says:

    Very intersting, you guys had my attention for a while until you became I put you in the same category of crazy Right wing,and idiot left wing,meaning you have no Credibility.
    Good try though

  21. Well, goodness, Robert! How are we all supposed to sleep without your approval?

  22. Shahar Lubin says:

    while I’m personally sick and tired of Bush wacking(he’s been a horrible president in my opinion, but I don’t like any of the last seven-nine of them) I’m confused at your agenda. Are all political thoughts automatically designate the holder of said thoughts into the “crazy” bin. Is there non crazy Name-Your-Wing? Is all politics out of bound of conversation by definition? Or are you trying to say that it’s shouldn’t be addressed in a site of the skeptic persuasion?

  23. LD Rabbit says:

    “At the moment, we have 158,000 troops in Iraq. Imagine if we had only six!”
    Actually, this was the Rumsfeld doctrine’s general drift. He just didn’t take it far enough.