It was the kind of humor that the British love. In several cities across the country, mostly young crowds marched into their local branches of the drug store Boots. Each purchased a small bottle of the homeopathic remedy Arsenicum album, which is used in the treatment of anxiety and food poisoning.
At 10 a.m., they all opened their bottles, full of remedy globules. One man wearing a hat shouted out that he was sacrificing himself for the sake of science. On command, the entire crowd began swallowing the globules -- not two or three of the small pills, but the entire bottles. "Mmm, delicious," some said. Others just laughed.
But nothing happened. And that was exactly what the demonstrators had hoped to prove. Not a single member of the "Overdose" Campaign documented on the website www.1023.org.uk, was poisoned or injured in any way.
The campaign had been organized by a network of British homeopathy skeptics. "We wanted to show that homeopathic globules contain absolutely nothing but sugar," said co-organizer Simon Singh, a former BBC journalist and author of the book "Trick or Treatment," which has become the standard of critical books on the use of alternative medicines.
For months now, a bitter battle has been taking shape in Great Britain between defenders of homeopathy, who are supported by no less than Prince Charles, and detractors who point to the lack of scientific evidence that the remedies offer anything more than a placebo effect. The royal family themselves have been adherents to homeopathy for generations and even Queen Elizabeth is given homeopathic remedies. After the war, her father King George VI even saw to it that Britain's National Health Service (NHS), the country's subsidized healthcare system, picked up the tab for homeopathic treatments.
Homeopathy is based on two fundamental ideas that skeptics like Singh can only shake their heads at. The first is the idea of the law of similars. The inventors of homeopathy believe that the cause of a symptom should also be treated with the cause. When treating someone, a homeopath considers which substance would cause the same symptoms in a healthy person. Arsenicum album, for example, which the activists in the campaign tried to overdose on, should in theory cause restlessness and nausea in a healthy person. But in an ill person, it is supposed to heal exactly these symptoms. If a patient has a fever, then a homeopath will look for a substance than can cause a fever in a healthy person.
Shaken and Diluted
The second principle is that of dilution: The more a medical ingredient is diluted and shaken, the stronger its effect will be -- at least that's the assumption. But most homeopathic substances are so strongly diluted that molecules of the active ingredient can no longer be traced. Homeopaths still believe in the effects because they are convinced the water has a "memory." Scientific proof for the claim is wanting.
At a time when British patients are forced to wait as long as two weeks for simple operations like appendectomies and when expensive medications are often rejected, many are asking why the government continues to pay for treatments whose effectiveness hasn't been proven.
In a comprehensive report released in February, Britain's House of Commons concluded that, "to maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS." Several months later, the British Medical Association decried homeopathy as "witchcraft" in a resolution agreed to by hundreds of doctors belonging to the group, which represents the interests of more than 140,000 doctors across the country. So long as there is no scientific proof of its medical effectiveness, then homeopathy should no longer be covered, the doctors argued.
Critics don't need to dig very deep into the cannon of homeopathic literature to find fodder to feed their arguments. A quick look through the "Handbook of Materia Medica," uncovers a list of odd homeopathic agents: Aphids, ovary extract from cows, hornets, cockroaches, woodlouse, toad poison, mercury, saliva from rabid dogs or skunk secretion. You'll even find Coca-Cola, rotten beef, canine excrement, condom rubber, human testicle extract and horse hair in the lists.
The practice of homeopathy was first invented in the early 19th century by Samuel Hanemann of Germany. At a time when "traditional" medicine called for bloodletting, enemas and similarly dangerous methods that were painful to patients, did little to help them and could even lead to death, it was considered real progress. Centuries later, Hanemann's ideas would be taken up by the Nazis, with a World Congress on Homeopathy taking place in Berlin in 1937. Eventually, even the Nazis turned away from the alternative therapy, seeing it as nothing more than a placebo.
In times of economic uncertainty, austerity measures and generally tight budgets, experts in Britain and elsewhere in Europe are questioning whether national health care systems should continue to foot the bill for alternatives to traditional medicine like homeopathy if their usefulness hasn't been backed by science.