Wednesday, June 17, 2009

When is Homeopathy not Pseudoscience?

A funny thing that happened recently. Zicam, a supposed homeopathic medicine was pulled from the shelves because it caused some people to loose their sense of smell.

I actually have some Zicam in my medicine cabinet. Never used it, but it had some cool packaging that screamed powerful medicine. Mainly bought it because it isn't marketed as homeopathic, rather a sort of vitamin for your nose. At least my reason and I am sticking too it. Tried zinc lozenges for a cold once and they soothed my throat, why not my nose?

You find this sort of stuff right next to the heavy duty drug-based nose candy in the drug store. It isn't on a shelf in the alternative medicines sections. It isn't on a shelf next to the magic crystals from magic healing land or voodoo dolls and bat wing.

Why is a non-drug next to a drug? The fact is, there are ingredients in Zicam. But that is only sort of true. The whole idea of homeopathy is that somehow the poison (and it is usually a poison), is no longer in the solution, but has its aura or essence (whatever, don't get me started) memorized by the water.

Zicam is considered homeopathic because of a law created in 1938. That makes it a drug, but not worth testing like a real drug because it contains naturally existing substances. Of course, many poisons are 'naturally occurring substances'. Just saying.

Love this, it is from a PDF from the Zicam folks FAQ:

Why is zinc gluconate considered homeopathic?
Zinc gluconate is recognized as a homeopathic drug because it has known "homeopathic provings" and/or known effects which mimic the symptoms, syndromes or conditions associated with the common cold, which it is administered to treat.

So, what does that mean? Essentially, if you take enough zinc gluconate you will get a runny nose. That's not good. But if you dilute it in water such that there is no trace... Well let's just say a magic fairy gives it the opposite effect. So, it is a medicine because, wait for it, in quantity it makes you feel sick, but diluted it makes you well.

You gotta love logic. It is so easy to twist. And we have believed this since 1792. Just goes to prove, illogic ages like a good wine.

Anyhoo, what is the effect a active dilution could have to cause smell blindness? Possibilities range from coincidence to other factors. Could be contamination, the fact that they use alcohol, or even that the dilution isn't really all that diluted and can cause problems in some people. Even mass delusion is a possibility - rumors can cause health effects too. Of course it can also be a bad coincidental sniffer failure experienced at the same time as using Zicam. When you roll the dice that someone gets well on their own, sometimes they get sick on their own too.

As you might guess, my Zicam is in the trash. Not that it can kill my sense of smell, but because it is homeopathic. Please don't get me wrong. Nothing wrong with homeopathy. Placebos are great stuff. I just don't believe in it and therefore I am immune to its effects.

There is another reason. The nocebo effect is also very powerful as we have discussed before. Just knowing that others have lost their sense of smell could cause your brain to kill your nose just from the belief that it could happen to you too.

Of course, I avoid homeopathic drugs as a matter of course becaue of the nocebo effects. If the whole idea is that it is a diluted poison (or whatever causes the bad effect like a runny nose), I have a tendency to believe in the effects of the poison rather than some anti-poison effect. I have a lot of faith in poisons rather than homeopathy. Call me silly, but this is my motto: That which does not kill me is probably not a poison.

You know I have not really offered up any experiments. Let's create an experiment worthy of a Boys Book Lab experiment!

  1. Take an over the counter stool softener and dilute to 10,000 to 1 so as to create the homeopathic equivalent of an anti-diarrhea medication.
  2. Take highest dose you can stand of an over the counter stool softener (contracting Montezuma's Revenge will also suffice for this experiment).
  3. Take a teaspoon or so of your homeopathic anti-diareah mixture.
  4. Call the Oprah show from your touchtone phone from the privacy of your bathroom throne to report your results.

Got a homeopathic experiment? Write it up in the comments and maybe I'll put it in my book! You too can get published!