The people of the world were once divided into three groups. Group A had succumbed to the deadly disease of smallpox. Group B had contracted a mild case but survived. Group C had never caught the pox not yet.
Group A was beyond help. Of the people in the other two groups, which had the greater risk of coming down with the disease and dying?
An armchair philosopher decided that Group B was the more vulnerable. It was only common sense, he said. The people in Group B had already shown themselves susceptible to smallpox and had been weakened by their earlier struggle with the sickness. The people in Group C were obviously better able to resist the pox, as it had never affected them.
But scientists prefer facts to speculation, even speculation based on "common sense." Keeping careful records, they discovered that the people in Group B almost never contracted a second case of smallpox. The disease almost always found its victims among the previously healthy people in Group C!
How could this be? Perhaps a person once touched by the pox develops some sort of "immunity" that prevents the disease from ever infecting him again.
The scientists had not yet discovered antibodies and other details of the immune system. But some bold physicians dared to experiment. Starting in China in the 16th century, they deliberately moved people from Group C into the safer Group B. They intentionally infected them with mild cases of smallpox, hoping this would prevent fatal cases from striking them in the future. Amazingly, it worked!
Inoculation and vaccination arrived in the Western world in the 18th century, an early triumph of science. By the 20th century, smallpox had been officially eradicated.
The armchair philosopher tried to extrapolate this method to the treatment of all diseases. Give the patient a small amount of whatever causes the symptoms of his disease, and that will teach his body to resist the full-blown sickness. For example, eating cinchona bark causes a feverish reaction. If a patient has a fever, maybe he can be cured by giving him a little bit of cinchona a hair of the dog that bit him.
This idea was developed by Samuel Hahnemann in the late 18th century. He called it "homeopathy," from the Greek words homoios (similar) and pathos (suffering or disease).
How small a dose is required? Clearly, you don't want to give the patient too much cinchona; that would make his fever twice as bad. So you dilute the active ingredient with an inert substance, a carrier such as water or sugar pills.
How much should you dilute it? Our armchair philosopher didn't use scientific experiments to determine the optimal concentration. No, he merely declared it to be common sense that if some dilution is good, more dilution is better!
In an example noted in this article by Dr. Stephen Barrett, extreme dilution leads us to products like Oscillococcinum, "for the relief of colds and flu-like symptoms." To prepare it, the chef kills a muscovy duck and removes about an ounce of its liver plus half an ounce of its heart. These organs are processed and diluted to 1 part in 10400 a huge number, many times greater than the number of molecules in the entire universe.
Korsakov method of achieving this dilution:
Then moisten little sugar pills with the solution, which by now is essentially pure water, and sell them to willing consumers for $20,000,000.
Only one duck per year is required. (Fortunately, the duck is not an endangered species. The rhinoceros is. The next task for the homeopaths should be to convince people that their process would improve the potency of powdered rhinoceros horn.)
The homeopath admits the dilution is so great that in a given dose, there's virtually no chance that even a single molecule of the original duck remains. That doesn't matter to those who want to believe in the effectiveness of such things. The desire to believe overcomes rational thought. Even though there's no duck there, they claim that the carrier has somehow been imprinted with a "memory" of duck, a spirit that magically empowers the otherwise inert water or sugar to relieve your sniffles.
In the nineteenth century, these ideas were laughable, the subject of jokes. I suspect that Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland contains one example, the Cheshire Cat that gradually disappears until nothing is left of it except its smile.
In the great debates of 1858, Abraham Lincoln called one of Stephen Douglas's proposals "as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death."
Mark Twain remarked that homeopaths "bribe death with a sugar pill to stay away." But at least, he said, the sugar pill causes no harm. This was in contrast to older, more dangerous medical practices (like bloodletting and poisonous nostrums) that homeopathy helped drive into obsolescence.
Despite the fact that it can't work and doesn't work, homeopathy is still with us today in the 21st century. Many people believe in it, including members of the British Royal Family. This quackery is big business, too entrenched for any attempt at government action to stop it.
Rush Limbaugh's oft-deluded audience occasionally hears Rush read commercials for a cold remedy. He proudly adds, "And it's homeopathic!" He seems to think that's a good thing. To me, it means, "And it doesn't do anything!"
Homeopathic remedies, in the terminology of the FDA, are "safe" but not "effective." They have no physical effect on your body. Their only effect is on your mind. Taking them makes you think that you have done something to improve your health.
As a result, you feel better (the placebo effect), and you may actually get better.
But also as a result, you may put off consulting a real doctor, and your disease may kill you.