Cut free from the tethers of evidence and reason, homeopathy, as a system of thought, is free to soar into lofty heights of wild fantasy. Unrestrained by the weight of reality and the heavy ethical demands of accountability, practices and principles are able to float into almost any area that the imagination will allow. There are no maps to guide this flight of the bizarre and no compass to return the traveller to a safe base.
Despite two hundred years of existence, you will still find vigorous debates on homeopathic discussion boards about what exactly homeopathy is. There are homeopaths who will only ever give one pill. There are homeopaths that do not mind mixing pills. Some only accept remedies based on the original forms of testing, known as the ‘proving’. Others allow themselves to dream what a remedy might do. Homeopaths squabble about what is right, but can never resolve their difference because they have long ago abandoned objective means of settling disputes. An uneasy truce exists between the various schools of thought with only occasional cold war like peripheral fights breaking out, mainly in the form of a diatribe by one side denouncing heresies and calling for all homeopaths to unite under the scriptures of Hahnemann, the founder, and the One True Authority.
A few common principles bind the various factions together – the idea of similarity, that like cures like; the need to match the totality of symptoms to a remedy; and the idea of minimum dose – use the smallest amount of remedy possible. This last point means that homeopaths most often give no dose. The medicine has been so diluted away that not a single molecule remains. The beauty of homeopathy, and probably the reason that it is has done so well, is that it is a pure placebo therapy. There are no risks of side effects and the patent is quite free to allow nature to take its course and the complaint to get better on its own.
When the actual physical acts of homeopathy are completely inert and when practiced by people with no regard for critical self appraisal, the scientific method and the objective collection of data, one can expect a certain amount of arbitrary evolution of ideas and the generation of whimsical variants. The only criteria that restrain such ideas are the need to keep the treatment inert, the philosophical acceptability to the vitalist mindset of the homeopath and, most importantly, its profitability in practice.
Thus, in the UK, we have seen the former founder of the Society of Homeopath, Peter Chappell, invent the homeopathic delivery of remedies by MP3 file. Since homeopaths invent cod explanations for their work along the lines that it is an ‘energy medicine’ or a ‘vibrational medicine’ then the thinking goes that because MP3 files can encode sound vibrations, then they can also encode ‘healing vibrations’. And so, we find Chappell running a little business where people can download MP3 files and play sounds of waves crashing as they worry that they might have swine flu.
It is in India though that we must look to see some true inventiveness. The country has more homeopaths than any other and the government appears to be quite happy to support all manner of quackery in the name of political expediency.
And so, I stumbled across the works of the followers of Dr. B. Sahni who runs the Research Institute Of Sahni Drug Transmission & Homoeopathy (risdth.org). Without a hint of irony, the home page proclaims “Welcome to Medicine Free World“. The Sahni protocol is rather wonderful: a homeopathic remedy is chosen in the classical way, by matching symptoms to a remedy. The chosen pill is then dissolved in a vial and a single hair is then plucked from the customer’s head and placed in the vial with a little bit sticking out. The hair is then able to transmit the remedy back to the owner.
Naturally, there are great benefits in this method. Once the homeopath has the hair, then no further visits are required. A letter or telephone call can update the choice of remedy (“Yes, don’t worry. I am dipping your hair in the new remedy now. Can you feel that? Good.”) If a patient’s illness gets worse (as homeopaths come to expect – they call this an aggravation and this shows the remedy is working) then the hair can be removed from the vial until the aggravation passes. All marvellous stuff.
Naturally, the most wealthy homeopaths in India are not those that stick to treating customers, but those that manage somehow to take money off other homeopaths. The Sahni institute is able to train other homeopaths in the invaluable hair dipping technique for the sum of US$500 (a rather large amount in India where the annual average per capita income is under $1000).
Claims for the technique are of course high with case histories of customers with renal failure and diabetes. Online customers are invited to come forward for the treatment of cancer and multiple sclerosis, fill in a form, send in up to $300 if you are from the USA or Europe, and, of course, send in a sample of your hair.
Nice work if you can get it.
Of course, we will not see any homeopaths here in the UK condemning such practices. They will look on. Wonder if it is strictly Hahnemannian. But ultimately let a fellow homeopath do whatever they like. It does not matter how much such delusional thinking might end up hurting vulnerable people. This is an evidence free environment. A criticism void. What matters is that the Sahni Institute is finding another means to denounce ‘allopathy’.
It would be tempting to ignore and dismiss this variant of homeopathy as utterly bizarre. But it reminds us that all of homeopathy is just as equally implausible and nonsensical. What you might find in Boots the Chemist is just as daft. The NHS Royal London Homeopathic Hospital is dealing in similarly batty ideas. We become numb to the idiocy of our own local brands of quackery and heightened to exotic forms. We must remember that all forms of homeopathy are essentially forms of sympathetic magic – the idea that an object once in contact with something either good or bad can inherit those properties. The sugar pill, once associated with a healing object can retain healing properties. The hair on your head retains a connection with you and can transmit the goodness of the remedy to you. The pin stuck into a doll wrapped in the torn corner of your skirt can inflict pain in you. Its all voodoo. Let’s not kid ourselves that our NHS is beyond such superstitious thinking.
The justification for supporting homeopathy in India comes in some part from references to the old colonial power that still provides homeopathic hospitals under its National Health Service and is supported by the Royal Family. The NHS, by allowing this vestigial remnant of pre-enlightenment shamanism to remain, and keep certain aspects of the middle class and worried well happy, is responsible to helping to allow the Indian government to deprive some of the poorest people of even basic medical care.