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.

Share

19 thoughts on “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

  1. To be fair to the Mail, you *can* buy homeopathic calendula, St John’s wort, or arnica. I think the issue here is that it’s not always made sufficiently clear that the ultra diluted homeopathic St John’s wort (for example) is completely different from herbal St John’s wort. The Mail article doesn’t explicitly make the distinction, and perhaps it should have.

    While herbal St John’s wort will actually contain St John’s wort and may therefore have effects and side-effects, highly-dilute homeopathic St John’s wort pills and potions will not contain any active ingredient. You don’t get the benefits of herbal St John’s wort with the homeopathic version (other than a possible placebo effect) but equally you will not get the side-effects such as the interaction with prescribed medicines.

    I think the confusion between herbal and homeopathic remedies may actually be one factor that explains the popularity of homeopathy – people simply assume there’s something in the homeopathic remedies they buy.

  2. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, The Daily Mail were the first newspaper to cover this story without bothering to contact me first.

    The quotes they have from me were taken verbatim from an article in the Daily Telegraph earlier in the week. The Telegraph journalist in question took the time to get in touch and ask me for the quotes. Nice bit of churnalism in action, I felt. Of course on my own blog I cite quotes given to other sources all the time, but I generally acknowledge that and link to the original article…

  3. I can’t believe that people like you still exist in this day and age! If there’s one thing the last six and a half thousand years have shown us is that “science” doesn’t have all the answers and yet allopaths such as yourself persist in trying to ram this “fact-” and “evidence-” based paradigm down our throats just like Big Pharma continues to poison us and our children with chemical toxins that allegedly treat what is for the most part just a simple case of the human body being out of harmony with itself or with the natural world around it.

    People like you are the reason we’ve lost connection with the wisdom that it has taken us thousands of years to accumulate, in your sad attempts to perpetuate your blinkered, so-called “empirical” world view, you poison the minds of the people who read your half-formed opinions and turn them against a healthier way of living. You are no better than a virus, a disease that infects the thinking of otherwise intelligent folk.

    If you’re so smart then riddle me this: Why are there now 10^34 (that’s 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 since you like lots of zeros) diseases in the world (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_many_diseases_are_in_the_world) whereas, even as recently as around the time of Jesus Christ, the number of diseases numbered only a few thousand? We’re not making ourselves more healthy with all this pharmaceutical poison, we’re making ourselves sicker in more and more elaborate ways so that we can buy different drugs to make us feel better…and they just make us sick in a different way again, necessitating more drugs, etc! I’ll tell you this for a fact, I have yet to come across an illness that can’t be cured (not just treated, CURED, not something you see these days very often) naturally with products available from your local health store.

    • You know Jack in my country there are still people who can remember when TB and Polio were rampant diseases and witnessed how the so called “fake” treatment known as vaccination wiped these diseases out.

  4. @ James Cole: That’s true, you can by homoeopathic preparations of those things too. And you’re right, the issue really is that it’s not made clear whether the author is referring to herbal or homoeopathic preparations of the things mentioned.

    I suppose that my point really is that the journalist should have made it clear, and made a mistake in not doing so. And I do think that the reason it wasn’t made clear is probably because the article was rushed out with too little research and preparation, so the author her/himself wasn’t aware of a difference between herbal and homoeopathic. By not making him/herself aware before writing the article, he/she has done the reader a disservice, because the information is then made unclear. Are those lunatics going to dose themselves with hundreds of herbal pills? If so, they’re crazy! And that seems to be something that a lot of the commenters think, particularly because the “drugs” chosen by the author are common herbal preparations too. By choosing those particular products, and failing to differentiate between herbal and homoeopathic, the author makes the whole thing unclear. And, to me, that’s shoddy journalism, and it needn’t have happened, if only the author had put a few more minutes into researching before they published it.

    I definitely think that people assume there’s something in the homeopathic remedies, because they tend to be marketed in the same area as herbal remedies and vitamins and other similar health products. I suppose, based on that, it’s not unreasonable for people to assume that there is something in those homoeopathic preparations. I can’t imagine many people buying Rescue Remedy if they knew it was really just a bit of grape alcohol and water in a bottle!

  5. @ Martin Robbins: I’m not at all surprised that they didn’t contact you, or that they just pulled the quote direct from another, properly sourced, article. It does indeed seem like a work of pure churnalism, where very little thought or research has gone into it.

    It’s a real shame, because so many people will read it, and go away misinformed. I actually posted a comment on it earlier, pointing out the misunderstanding between herbal and homoeopathic that I was seeing, but strangely, it wasn’t approved. Thankfully some others have got through and pointed out the article’s flaws. Sadly though, all their comments are being red-arrowed, and the pro-homoeopathy comments are being green-arrowed.

    One has to wonder what exactly it will take to make the hardcore believers take another look and see if they still believe. I hope your demonstration will convince at least some, and I’m going to see if I can’t rally some troops in Dublin too.

  6. Jack Mackarupp : are you serious? are you for real? That pisspoor wiki-answers source doesn’t even say what you say it says.

    Pardon us for preffering to have “evidence” that something works, rather than just believing someone that’s told us it’ll work.

  7. @ Al: Fair enough then, let’s for a moment pretend the world of health and wellbeing is as small as you seem to be implying it is, prove me wrong, answer my question, don’t attack me, attack my arguments with what you seems to believe is a superior information base.

    Why are Big Pharma strangling the markets, buying up research done by smaller, independent practitioners, and suppressing it? Why do so many people get sick after vaccinations and yet the vaccinations continue to be pedalled? Why are there more illnesses now than there were in times past? I have more but I’ll leave you with these for the moment.

  8. There’s homoeopathic St John’s Wort?! Presumably it is intended to intended to cure conditions that cause a symptom of being a little bit too happy.

  9. Why are Big Pharma strangling the markets, buying up research done by smaller, independent practitioners, and suppressing it? [Citation needed.]

    Why do so many people get sick after vaccinations and yet the vaccinations continue to be pedalled? [Citation needed.]

    Why are there more illnesses now than there were in times past? [Citation needed.]

    Jack Mackarupp, can you provide evidence to support the assumptions implicit in the questions you ask?

    Were there really fewer illnesses in the olden days? Or is it the case that we now more likely to identify diseases or to categorise illnesses differently?

    Do many people “get sick” after vaccination? Is there a causal link between vaccinations and these illnesses? Are side-effects other than “sore arm” really as prevalent as you imply? Are you arguing that anything that has risks attached should be avoided rather than considering the benefits and risks?

  10. Pingback: Homeopathic Confusion « Stuff And Nonsense

  11. Jack Mackarupp’s big pharma arguments miss the point. Even if they were true (and I don’t believe they are), this still does not make any difference to the truth or otherwise about homeopathy.

  12. Pingback: uberVU - social comments

  13. Pingback: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing | And another thing… | Health News

  14. Pingback: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing | And another thing… | Health News

  15. Do you not think it would be smart to think carefully about this? That’s not to say you are incorrect, but when you say something similar to this, it’s going to upset some folk. And I speculate if you’ve given thought to the opposite side of this post.

    • I think that I have thought a lot more carefully about it than the authors of the article and many of the people who commented on the article.

      I have taken the time to research the difference between homoeopathic and herbal products, I have read the papers and studies done on homoeopathic products. Can you say the same?

  16. This is a very interesting information and very helpfull because im one of these people who are left with loads of questions about homeopathic pills. I am taking them at the moment and i had this simple question which i wanted to ask: Does homoeopathy pills affect on contraception pills and is there any chance it can affect and lead to pregrancy ? I am very worried because im on the pill at the moment and im still talking my homeopathic pills which are very simple by eye they are very small and white pills which are even sweet when you take them and are made by speciall program just for my body . Can anyone answer my question above ill be very thankful. Thanks

    • They have no affect on contraceptive pills because they have no affect on anything. As the blog explains, they are just water, so they are unlikely to impact on any other medications you may be taking.

Comments are closed.