The “Incoherent Mess” That Is Homeopathy: Old and New Insights

Back in 1943 a Dutch physician, David Karel de Jongh, wrote a PhD dissertation on homeopathy. It was based on his experience working in a homeopathic hospital and on all the published information he could find, and was highly critical of homeopathy. It was an impressive opus, with over 200,000 words. It is way too long for the average reader to wade through; and since it is in Dutch, few of us could read it even if we wanted to. Jan Willem Nienhuys, secretary of the Dutch skeptics’ organization Skepsis, has done us a great favor by summarizing its contents and updating it with information about recent developments. He has kindly had his summary translated into English and published in full on the Skepsis website. He comments “Basically Dr. de Jongh’s conclusions were that homeopathy is an incoherent mess.”

We all should know by now how monumentally silly homeopathy is (“delusions about dilutions”). I had investigated the subject and knew enough about it to have written about it repeatedly, but there is much more that I didn’t know. Nienhuys’ article is full of surprising facts and fascinating details.

It seems Hahnemann didn’t originate the idea of “similia similibus” (like treats like) after all. He borrowed it from earlier authors. And when he said he got a fever after taking cinchona bark, he was using a contemporary concept of “fever” that might have referred to other things like the effects of strong coffee.

I didn’t realize how many variants of homeopathy there were early on, including isopathy, constitution theory, complex-homeopathy and so-called “biochemistry.” Nienhuys describes all of these and more. In a variant of isopathy, they used diluted organs to treat sick organs. They used morbillin to treat measles; morbillin was obtained from sugar globules that had been held by a measles patient. Hahnemann was strongly opposed to isopathy; he said that by diluting something you change its nature and therefore you must first do provings with healthy people to establish its symptoms.

In constitutional homeopathy, symptoms are disregarded and remedies are based on the patient’s constitution, which might be hydrogenoid, oxygenoid, or carbo-nitrogenoid. In cell-salt homeopathy, highly dilute solutions of a dozen important salts were prescribed to correct the imbalances of salts in cells that were the cause of disease. Complex homeopathy used combinations of remedies in direct violation of Hahnemann’s ideas. Drainage therapy claims that homeopathic remedies magically drain away the toxins that are the underlying cause of all disease.

Nienhuys explains how Hahnemann failed to understand the concepts of blinding and experimental controls, how he never explained his switch to high dilutions or why it was necessary to shake the remedies after each dilution, and how he explained away the failure of his treatments by inventing the three universal causes of disease: syphilis, gonorrhea, and psora. He describes the silliness of the Materia Medica and the Repertory. He provides some insights into how homeopaths were (and still are) able to fool themselves. De Jongh reported fantastic explanations of the mechanisms by which homeopathy is supposed to work; Nienhuys brings the list up to date with a discussion of Benveniste, the memory of water, and other modern fantasies. He also updates the research showing that homeopathy doesn’t work.

His conclusions

…homeopathic practice does not correspond with homeopathic theory… homeopaths make their treatment decisions in a completely arbitrary way… homeopathic physicians are primitive thinkers. Their writings abound with fallacies. They are strongly inclined to ascribe any improvement of their patients to homeopathy. Actually they think medicine is too difficult, so they stick to all kinds of ‘rules’.

Nienhuys’ article is a valuable addition to the literature on homeopathy. He deserves a hearty “dank je wel.”

This article was originally published in the Science-Based Medicine Blog.

Dr. Hall is a contributing editor to both Skeptic magazine and the Skeptical Inquirer. She is a weekly contributor to the Science-Based Medicine blog and is one of its editors. She has also contributed to Quackwatch and to a number of other respected journals and publications. She is the author of Women Aren’t Supposed to Fly: The Memoirs of a Female Flight Surgeon and co-author of the textbook, Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions.