Stephen Mason Ph.D.

Look At It This Way

Less Is More?

Stick to jelly at the Health Food store

Posted Feb 18, 2009

We make some of our greatest gains
When we see old things
In new ways

I stopped in at the health food store to get some special ginger jelly from France that my wife likes. In fact, it's all I ever buy there. How can you take seriously a place that sells homeopathic remedies?

It's odd that some ideas - some very weird ideas - get to hang around for generations despite any justification. Homeopathy is a good example. It started back in the late 1700's and is most associated with Samuel Hahnemann. At that time, the practice of medicine hadn't progress much beyond the Dark Age strategies of bleeding, purging and blistering. Compared to the standard treatments of the day, at least homeopathy was not as likely to kill the patient. Here's how it worked:

Because it was based on the notion that Like Cures Like, a homeopathic physician would take some of what made you sick in the first place and give you some more. Why anyone ever thought this hair of the dog approach had any chance of making an ailing patient better is a mystery. Does this hurt? Great! Let's do that again.

In any case, the actual preparation of the prescription was far more involved than simply handing over another dose of poison. And it is, perhaps, this very protocol that convinced people something good was going on. You see, one drop of the offending substance would be added to a gallon of water and then shaken violently. The doctor referred to this as "succussing." Doctors spend many years in school learning to talk funny and write badly. Then a single drop of that already highly diluted mixture would be drawn off and added to a second gallon of water. Once again, it would be succussed like crazy.

This process was repeated a number of times. Looking at a bottle containing a homeopathic remedy, the exact number of times is often written on the label as 10X or 20X or whatever. For some strange reason, it's believed by purveyors of this nostrum that the greater the dilution the more powerful the result. Put another way, as the medicine gets weaker it gets stronger. If that made any sense, bartenders would expect a tip after a short pour. And did I say short pour? Figure more like a teaspoon in Lake Michigan. And by now you should be asking yourself just how much of the active ingredient can possibility be left after 10 or 20 dilutions? None! Zip! Nada! After going through all those gallons of water, it would be hard to find even one molecule remaining.

Practitioners get around this seemingly obvious flaw in their logic by explaining that the water somehow maintains a memory of the active ingredient. There is, of course, no proof for any such thing. In fact, it flies in the face of reason. Were it true - that water retains a memory - wouldn't it also remember everything else with which it had come into contact on the way to your sink...things like fish and rubber boots and dead cats just for openers.

Look At It This Way
So why does such obvious mumbo jumbo continue to drain pockets? The water (and it's nothing but water) works as a great placebo. More than half the people respond positively to sugar pills and there's certainly no risk of an untoward side effect. Then too, homeopathic physicians usually have a well-developed bedside manner and tend to spend considerably more time with patients than does the average M.D. As for all those who swear by such treatment, just think of all those who swear by ghosts and goblins and things that go bump in the night. Perhaps if a greater percent of the public understood the seriously bent thinking behind homeopathy, it would just naturally fade it should have 200 years ago.

About the Author

Stephen B. Mason is a psychologist, a former university professor, syndicated newspaper columnist and radio talk-show host.

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