Alternative Medicine and the Laws of Physics
So-called “alternative” therapies, mostly derived from ancient healing traditions and superstitions, have a strong appeal for people who feel left behind by the explosive growth of scientific knowledge. Paradoxically, however, their nostalgia for a time when things seemed simpler and more natural is mixed with respect for the power of modern science (Toumey 1996). They want to believe that “natural” healing practices can be explained by science. Purveyors of alternative medicine have, therefore, been quick to invoke the language and symbols of science. Not surprisingly, the mechanisms proposed to account for the alleged efficacy of such methods as touch therapy, psychic healing, and homeopathy involve serious misrepresentations of modern physics.
The No-Medicine Medicine
Homeopathy, founded by a German physician, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), is a relative newcomer. Homeopathy is based on the so-called “law of similars” (similia similibus curantur), which asserts that substances that produce a certain set of symptoms in a healthy person can cure those same symptoms in someone who is sick. Although there are related notions in Chinese medicine, Hahnemann seems to have arrived at the idea independently. Hahnemann spent much of his life testing natural substances to find out what symptoms they produced and prescribing them for people who exhibited the same symptoms. Although the purely anecdotal evidence on which he based his conclusions would not be taken seriously today, homeopathy as currently practiced still relies almost entirely on Hahnemann’s listing of substances and their indications for use.
Natural substances, of course, are often acutely toxic. Troubled by the side effects that often accompanied his medications, Hahnemann experimented with diluting them. After each successive dilution, he subjected the solution to vigorous shaking, or “succussion.” He made the remarkable discovery that although dilution eliminated the side effects, it did not diminish the effectiveness of the medications. This is rather grandly known as “the law of infinitesimals.”