A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

I used to think that the above quote was a little odd. I mean, surely knowledge is a thing to be shared, and the gaining of knowledge, something to be encouraged. I think I understand it now though. Knowledge, full and complete, is a wonderful thing. A little knowledge, however, really is a dangerous thing…

As an example, I present another fine article from that favourite of mine, the Daily Mail. The article deals with a planned protest of sorts by a group called 10.23. Members of the group plan to “overdose” on homoeopathic medicines in protest at Boots’ continued endorsement and sale of homoeopathic remedies. The Daily Mail article is sadly riddled with errors, and is attributed to a generic “Daily Mail Reporter”, who appears to have as poor an understanding of the subject matter as the many people who commented on the article itself. On reading the article, it’s clear that the author did very little research before writing (hardly surprising) and instead simply threw in a few names of “homoeopathic” products that he or she knew of. However, the products that are mentioned are not homoeopathic products at all – they’re herbal products.

The problem is that homoeopathic remedies and herbal remedies are not the same thing, and to imply that they are leads to confusion and, at worst, damage. A herbal remedy consists of dried, powdered, or otherwise prepared plant, mineral, etc parts and extracts, formed into pills, powders, liquids, etc. There are many herbal remedies for sale in Boots and in other health food shops. And there have been a number of studies that have shown that some herbal remedies can have beneficial effects on the conditions that they are supposed to treat. However, like “conventional” medicine, these herbal remedies are not without their side effects. Perhaps the most well known example of this is St. John’s Wort. This, to reaffirm the point, is a herbal, not a homoeopathic, remedy. St. John’s Wort (or Hypericum perforatum) is a small yellow flowered plant that is considered a noxious and toxic weed in many countries. It has been traditionally used to treat depression. Recent clinical studies have shown that it can be effective in cases of mild to moderate depression. However, clinical studies have also shown that the side effects of St. John’s Wort are many and varied, and it can interact with a number of prescription drugs, such as contraceptive pills, antiretrovirals, immunosuppressants, etc., making them less effective. So, like many over the counter medications, it has been shown to have both benefits and side effects. And like anything that you plan to take that may potentially effect your health, you would be well advised to consult a doctor (a real doctor) before taking it.

So, why isn’t it the same as homoeopathy? Well, when you buy St. John’s Wort over the counter, as a herbal remedy, what you are buying is part of the plant, processed and made into tablets or a similar delivery method. The tablet that you receive will have a defined amount of the plant in it. The same cannot be said of homoeopathic remedies, due to the nature of their creation.

Homoepoathic remedies are often based on a theory originally put forward by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796. The theory states that you should treat like with like – i.e. if you can find a compound which, when taken, causes the symptoms of malaria, then you will be able to cure malaria in an ill patient using this compound. The theory also states that the more diluted a preparation is, the more potent it is. The act of striking the preparation after each dilution (known as succussion) makes the mixture more potent. In Hahnemann’s time, knowledge of molecular chemistry was poor, so it was not unreasonable for him to assume that anything could be diluted infinitely and still contain some of the original chemical. However, the same excuse is not applicable to the people who now practice homoeopathy. Hahnemann advocated a dilution of 30C for almost everything – that is a dilution of 10 to the power of 60, or 1 part of the molecule in 1000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000 parts of water. Modern science tells us that, using Hahnemann’s “C” scale of dilutions, that no trace of the original molecule is likely to be found at anything higher than a 12C dilution. Many homoeopathic remedies use dilutions even higher than advocated by Hahnemann, such as the infamous Oscilliococcinum homoeopathic flu remedy, which is diluted at 10 to the power of 400. As it is thought that there are only 10 to the power of 80 atoms in the whole universe, Oscilliococcinum would require several more universes (10 to the power of 320 universes, in fact) to even have a single molecule of the original substance in the final dilution. With those numbers in mind, you will hopefully see that it is extremely unlikely that a finished homoeopathic product (in the form of sugar pill or fluid) will likely contain absolutely none of the original molecule that it perports to contain.

This is the crucial difference between herbal medicine and homoeopathy, and it is a difference that the author of this article, and many of the people who left comments, have missed. Herbal medicinal products may actually contain some part of the plant they come from. Homoeopathic remedies are so unlikely to contain some part of what they originally came from as to be utterly laughable.

To those commenters, and the author, who spoke of the group members overdosing on things like St. John’s Wort and belladonna, you are sadly mistaken, and your little knowledge on the subject will go a long way to fuelling the misunderstanding and mistaken beliefs surrounding alternative medicines.  If the group truly choose only homeopathic remedies to overdose on, then they are in no danger at all. They will merely be swallowing water, possibly flavoured or coloured (such as in Rescue Remedy), or sugar pills. Unless an unfortunate member manages to drown whilst swallowing the remedies, I don’t expect that any medical treatment will be necessary in the aftermath. I expect that the members of the group will have done more than enough research to be aware of the difference between the medicines, as they seem well informed.

I do hope that others reading the article, and deciding to demonstrate the same way, do some research first. To swallow several hundred tablets of 30C nux vom. will be very unlikely to cause you harm. To swallow several hundred tablets of St. John’s Wort could very well leave you quite ill.

And so we return to my original point – a little knowledge is, indeed, a dangerous thing. A little knowledge, in the case of this author, has lead to a confusion between two very different kinds of alternative medicine, and one that could lead to trouble for a lot of people. As a journalist, it’s your duty to know what you are telling people and to make sure it is accurate. “Daily Mail Reporter”, whoever you may be, I’m sorry to say that you have failed.