The tension in the debate aroused by homeopathy is stretched between two relatively static poles. Around one gather those who have had clear and often dramatic results and who don’t care that the overwhelming majority of modern scientists consider homeopathy cannot possibly be effective. The other is home to those who have not had any such experiences and are thereby confirmed in their conviction that there was no possible way that homeopathy could work. 25 years ago I realised that I fretted in a restless grey area between these two islands of calm. I had had a few positive results after using homeopathic remedies on myself and others, but I could not swear for sure that these would not have occurred anyway or that the placebo effect was not in some way responsible for any objective improvement.
All my training reinforced a desire to side with those who were incredulous that any grown up could believe the homeopaths’ nonsense. My clear-thinking teachers guided me into and through disciplines which confirmed that homeopathy could not be effective simply because of how the remedies are made. One need not try such things in the same way that one need not head-butt a charging bull to know the general outcome. It was a ‘no brainer’. Was I going to abandon clear and rational thinking and go over to those who were surely acting on faith alone – and misplaced faith at that? Had I not heard of the enlightenment? Could one not evaluate the relative merits of faith’s abuses and power trips and its malleable wisdom based on dogmatic and nebulous texts, and discriminate between that and scientific knowledge which leaves one free to embrace what is manifestly effective and also to move on as insights evolve. Faith brought inherently unresolvable conflict and slovenly thinking. Science brought clarity both in its method and conceptual tools enabling one to overcome differences with ones peers in a respectful and peaceful way. What are you going to chose in this light? OK, just look at the clinical trials, I was told.
Whilst tempted to move that way, making me look over my shoulder and drag my heels was the sight of all the good people in the other direction. It could not honestly be said that these were all stupid and/or gullible. These were not all the ‘worried well’ who were unaware of the copious and authoritative literature on the placebo effect. Indeed there have been hundreds of thousands of people, administering, and diagnosing and being diagnosed who were convinced they had been propelled towards wholeness by homeopathy, often after the best efforts of the opposing ‘scientific’ school of healing had been ineffective. Also making me procrastinate over what seemed a simple decision was the 200 year history of relatively good results and harmlessness: homeopathy compared very favourably with the early attempts of the currently orthodox approach, and also seemed free from the occasional calamities of later attempts – thalidomide etc. Then there were my own experiences with homeopathy: were they really coincidences or the result of the placebo? There was also ‘Herrings law of Cure’ the absence of which played its part in winkling me out of my medical training. Only later did I find that this was an insight of Hahnemann’s that had been given form by one of the many doctors who came to discredit, and stayed to learn and practice. But if I asked the convinced how homeopathy could possibly be effective the answers were not up to scratch. OK, there was Hahnemann’s ‘law of similars’ which I found satisfying: its roots stretched back via Hippocrates and the Vedas into the mists of time and formalised common-sense confidence in the ‘hair-of-the-dog’. But if this was supposed to hold good towards and over the Avogadro threshold I was very sceptical. OK, just look at the clinical results they too urged me.
So let’s consider the issues one more time from the no-mans-land between these factions, and then I’ll tell you what I’ve done to try and bring resolution. First, the history.
The German physician, Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), was not convinced that what he was trained to do was helping anybody. He was so disillusioned that he stepped back from practice and turned his talents to translating medical texts. A decisive moment occurred when he was translating Cullen’s materia medica.1 Hahnemann was interested to see Cullen’s description of a Peruvian tree whose bark was used by the natives to protect themselves from malaria. The Peruvian Bark or Chinchona tree might help malaria sufferers but it was also clear that when the unafflicted took it they developed symptoms very like malaria anyway: rounds of intermittent high fevers with drenching sweats followed by penetrating chills. The
symptoms induced in the healthy were similar to those that were cured in the sick. Was that a coincidence or was this a specific instance of a general principle? History shows that Hahnemann considered Peruvian Bark to be his first meeting with a law which he formalised as similia similibus curentur – usually translated as ‘let like be cured by like.’ In 1807 he named the discipline based upon this motto, ‘homeopathy’ which could be translated as ‘matching suffering’. This was one of Hahnemann’s discoveries but, as we have mentioned, this was probably actually a rediscovery.
His second and more relevant discovery does not have an obvious precedent but he was lead towards it as a corollary of the first. Logically one would want to populate a homeopathic materia medica with substances that caused symptoms but these already have a very serviceable name: poisons. Indeed Hahnemann got a lot of his early information from descriptions of poisonings. Remember the surgeon’s dark humour: “The operation was a complete success but, unfortunately, the patient died.” It is no good curing a person by killing them with poison so one must reduce the dose to something that can be tolerated. Hahnemann did this by taking a certain amount of the original herb or compound and putting it into solution in alcohol and/or water to make the ‘mother tincture’. He mixed it up and then took a fraction of this solution and put that into another bottle, topped it up with fresh water/alcohol and shook (‘succussed’) it again to create his first potency. This dilution and shaking can be repeated, in theory at least, ad infinitum and in practice people seem to have given it a pretty good try. The series of dilutions is regularly hundreds of bottles long, and some substances have been taken to the millionth potency – a lot of glassware! These incredibly diluted remedies are still given to patients and are said to be effective. Whilst overdosing is certainly addressed, a whole new problem arises.
We can address this by introducing Avogadro, a contemporary of Hahnemann’s, whose work brought a practical side to an ancient thought-experiment. Democritus (b. ~ 460 BC) wondered whether one could cut a rock indefinitely ie, if the practicalities of knife sharpness and acuity of eyesight were ignored, could one cut bits of rock for ever or would one get down to a basic indivisible bit? Democritus was of the opinion that these fundamental particles or atoms – named after the Greek for not cuttable – do exist, and that their varying geometrical properties result in the different substances.
Lorenzo Romano Amedeo Carlo Bernadette Avogadro di Quaregna e Cerreto was born twenty-one years after Hahnemann. Avogadro’s work helped differentiate atoms from molecules. Shortly after his death his work was recognized, and 40 years later when Josef Loschmidt estimated the number of these smallest defining units of substance in a ‘mole’ or gram-molecule (thus enabling chemists to weigh equivalent reactive amounts of substances of different atomic mass), this value was named in Avogadro’s honour. If one has a molar concentration of a substance, say 58.44 grams of sodium chloride in one litre of water, there will be approximately 6.02214179 x 1023 salt molecules in that litre. Back to Hahnemann…
Let us suppose, for the purposes of illustration, that Hahnemann’s mother tincture of the major homeopathic remedy natrum muriaticum – as salt was called when Latin was the language of the formally educated – was molar. (Incidentally this shows that Hahnemann’s process of potentisation was able to develop a useful remedy picture from non-toxic materials.) Hahnemann often diluted his mother potencies a hundred-fold to make the daughter potency so although his first bottle of mother tincture would have around 6 x 1023 salt molecules in it, the second would have only about 6 x 1021 salt molecules, the third bottle 6 x 1019 and so forth. At the 12th bottle, assuming scrupulous pharmacy protocols, there ought to be just a handful of salt molecules left. The 13th will probably not have any of that salt at all, and the 14th would have only about a 1:1000 chance of having any of the original substance left in it. This twelfth centesimal potency (12C) marks the stage at
which the Hahnemannian process of potentisation becomes fundamentally incompatible with the orthodox understanding. At the higher concentrations, from the first bottle or mother tincture to the 12C, the debate is dominated by the evaluation of clinical results. Beyond this 12C potency the tussle is re-invigorated. Even the homeopaths agree that there will be none of the original matter left in the remedy given to the patient. A recent vocal anti- homeopathy group calls itself 1023 to emphasise how stupid homeopaths must be not to understand the implications. ‘It’s impossible’ they assert. ‘But it works’ the homeopaths retort. With this stalemate the entrenched boundary between ‘sound science’ and homeopathy found its location.
The two camps are still hurling invective over my wishy-washy head with rare instances of courteously restrained debate to see if there has been any movement in the opposition’s stubborn stance.
Although I have only focussed properly on this aspect of the debate over the last decade, my adult life has not strayed too far from it. I trained as a homeopath after dropping out of medical school but by the time I finished my training I was designing and making ecological water treatment systems. However, in the same period around 25 years ago, my interest in water brought me to Flowforms2 and then to biodynamic agriculture as part of an active search for ecological sanity within our destructive culture.
HOMEOPATHY FOR PLANTS
Like homeopathy, biodynamic agriculture (BD) uses substances in infinitesimal quantities, but these are sprayed on soil and plants or put in compost heaps, and not administered to people or animals. There are many aspects of BD that are troublesome to the modern scientific mind. Indeed much of the practices appear so weird that many people do not get beyond the first shock. BD growers use the ‘preparations’ after instruction from Rudolf Steiner in 1924, and his eight agriculture lectures don’t show enough of his thinking to be self-explanatory. Herbs, manure and crushed crystals are put into parts of a dead animal (stag’s bladders, cows horns etc) and buried for a few seasons before being exhumed and used in minute doses!! Two of these biodynamic preparations are sprayed over crops after being stirred in alternating directions for an hour in plenty of water.3
My early exposure to BD was influenced by loving the food and the care brought to the garden, and by the community that had grown and grown up around the farm and garden where I first met BD. Although the activities seemed to be like something out of a pantomime or the ‘new age’, they were undertaken soberly and thoughtfully by grounded people. I know such things are not pertinent to a scientific evaluation of a technique but I tell you this because they are some of the biographical reasons that carried me over the shock to become involved in BD. Added to these social lures was a hope that if I read and understood these lectures and hung around long enough, I might find some answers to the enigmas of homeopathy from what I sensed was an agricultural cousin focused on the health of the natural world. I hoped that these two eccentric traditions would illuminate each other. Whilst my head was initially nonsed, my heart was quickly and increasingly attracted to find out what on earth was going on.
I was also interested to see that Steiner had given other lectures after being invited by doctors and medical students to address them about the implications of his general approach within the healing arts. In these lectures he discussed various homeopathic remedies within a systematized framework. Furthermore, Steiner had guided some of his contemporaries to potentise various substances in a Hahnemannian way and apply these to plants. Together, these struck me as being potentially fruitful for addressing my fundamental questions. Firstly, working with plants would remove the uncertainty of subjective results such as are thrown up by the placebo effect. Second, it gave the possibility of multiple replications enabling statistical analysis, free of the procedural and ethical issues that go along with human and animal testing. Third, if Steiner’s clues and intimations were right, he was proficient in a systematic approach to the preparations as opposed to relying on trial and error alone. Homeopathy has its similia principle but a new substance needs a proving to reveal its uses. (To the chagrin of the modern objectors it has to be admitted that homoeopathy is, if nothing else, evidence based!) Just below the surface of biodynamics is the hint that one could observe the form of, say, a plant and by understanding the metamorphosis4 of its developing form one could, in theory, have a pretty good idea of its medicinal properties. In short, all the best bits from the science camp could be brought to bear on the homeopathic-biodynamic world so that one would not need to ‘believe’ in it. It would be a critical as opposed to a dogmatic discipline, leaving the practitioners free and creative to address our urgent ecological issues with non-polluting tools.
THE KOLISKOS: DOES IT WORK?
The results of the co-workers who potentised Steiner’s biodynamic preparations from the 1920s onwards were published in a book called ‘Agriculture of Tomorrow’.5 What was outstanding was the work that Lily Kolisko had done, even if we just stick to the efforts expended upon what were called the ‘smallest entities’ and ignore the equally phenomenal work on crystallisation and quality testing. Here was someone who had developed tests that revealed how potentised preparations affect germinating plants and seedlings. This enabled relatively quick feedback – in weeks ratherthan months. The results were shown in graphs of plant measurements plotted against potencies on either side of the Avogadro threshold. Thousands upon thousands of experiments with replications and controls were the fruit of her sustained and focussed activity over 20 years. This priceless treasure is all the more remarkable because Lily and her husband Eugen were interrupted by the inconvenience of escaping the Nazi’s and settling in the UK. Just as WWII was unleashed between her adopted and native countries and as her husband died young, Lily wrote her book across the River Severn from where I am sitting now. She continued her labours there until her death in 1976. Respect is due.
It seems petty to find fault but the issue relevant to the current subject is that although the graphs remain, the data from which these graphs were plotted do not. This means that no one can check whether the results are statistically significant. As far as resolving the debate between the homeopaths and theoretical scientists her work is holed beneath the water line. Whilst ‘Agriculture of Tomorrow’ shows that potentised preparations – even over the Avogadro threshold – affect plants in a regular fashion, this cannot meet the benchmarks of statistical proof due to lack of evidence. Lily’s work can be used as part of the peace talks but one should not expect it to be the definitive piece of evidence.
So I started to do some of my own experiments. The only unambiguous result was that my admiration for Lily and Eugen’s work multiplied significantly. It is not easy to do even one test thoroughly and convincingly whilst bringing up a family and doing ones day job. That Lily did this … wow! I quickly came to the conclusion that I was not going to be able to nail this issue alone and lapsed, temporarily, into impotent inactivity.
PEERS: DOES IT WORK?
As I was digesting the pre-war work the internet began to stumble from geeky academic beginnings to popular and simple access. An English-speaking discussion group formed concerning itself with biodynamics6 and a few things dawned on me. The first is probably not unique to BD but is characteristic of communication between farmers and gardeners in general. There seems to be a great hunger for communication but spending all God’s hours working in the fields and gardens amongst Nature’s many
ever-varying factors makes growers reluctant to come to firm conclusions and then to share them. The stereotype of the heavy-booted taciturn farmer trudging contemplatively after the cows is not without foundation in my experience. But get a few of them together at the market and a strange rumbling noise will rise from beneath the hats into which everyone is listening with great focus. ‘What did you do for the mastitis? How’s the turnips his year? Did you try that thing you tried last year again? What happened this time? …’ The internet is brilliant for such growers. You can just listen, or occasionally drop in a timid word. You can put forward an outrageous and essentially anonymous hypothesis with a confidence you do not really possess in order to try and flush out some thoughts about what is really bothering you
– all in your jimjams once the chores are done for the day. No one need know if you are stunning or hideous, male or female, smell of fresh hay or old bedding. In some ways, for many growers, the net is an improved version of leaning on the edge of a pen at the market and wondering how to admit you are stumped by the many draining demands of agriculture, all without losing face with your neighbours.
So I had found a garrulous community of BD practitioners who shared stories of their successes and failures. Here was an informal and international nucleus of BD growers who might conceivably pool energies and amass evidence in relation to the questions that troubled me. Simultaneously it would be possible to see which of these stories of success might be useful to anyone else.
CONSIDERA: TWO SLUGGISH DATABASES, ONE ACTIVE
So I took a gamble and my family and business partner supported me in reducing my other work to concentrate on the questions that homeopathy and biodynamics stimulate. The fates have been good to us and the money is only just running out now, almost a decade after making this the primary focus of my working time. What has emerged from this period are several pertinent publications7 (mainly translated rather than my own) and a website based around 3 databases8 which can be found at www.considera.org.
The first database I put together collected results from planting by the Moon, planets and stars – the heavenly bodies! What has this to do with homoeopathy? I hope this will become clear by the end of this article, but in the early lectures of his Agriculture course Steiner suggested a key to this ancient and once-ubiquitous practice. There has been a lot of research on this since and the main researcher in this field is Maria Thun – another BD heroine. However, her efforts are not always replicable and when one looks
into planting by the Moon one finds lots of contradictory but firmly-held convictions. It occurred to me that much of this disagreement might resolve if we didn’t just buy planting calendars – the results of people’s conclusions – but actually had the ‘raw data’ from the experiments. If we knew what was done and when and knew the characteristics (weight, taste etc) of the plants that emerge from all these experiments, then we could put all these results together and analyse them by computers. Looking for patterns in stacks of data is a computer’s strength. One researcher may have concluded that the plants respond to the synodic cycle – full and new Moon phases – whilst another might find greater yields of roots when the Moon’s arc across the sky is getting lower night by night, and of viable seed if the Moon’s arc is rising. But if we had the raw information it is conceivable that we would find that the correlation was much greater when compared with the activity of, say, Jupiter. This would be a step towards transparency and bring credibility to the discipline – and it would be cheap and organic if the world were sufficiently impressed to adopt it. It might even be used to anticipate future issues, and successful projections based on statistics make a discipline eligible to be considered a science. Win win win win, I thought.
I asked the people who had compiled the digital Swiss Ephemeris if there was a way to do this ‘reverse astrology’ – one which went from data to heavenly correlations (if not causes) rather than from star-chart to prediction – and although they thought this would be possible, no one was then available to do the work. However, they pasted my query onto their bulletin board and I got an answer the next day from Tallinn from someone who had been, ‘wondering that morning if plants responded to the constellations’ or some other segmentation of the starry background to the wandering stars. What is more, Abhi was already working on reverse-astrology algorithms. If I was wasting my time the fates seemed to want me to waste it thoroughly. Abhi and I put the first iteration of the Considera project together. It was quite a buzz.
Around the same time I did a proper experiment with the assistance of my wife and her dad. We already rented some land for our community composting scheme. The operation did not use the whole area so when my ‘in laws’ came to live near their young grandchildren, Grandad Billy used some of the compost to grow veg in the same field. (The inflexible and short-sighted regulations, brought in after the UK’s foot and mouth and BSE epidemics, closed us down. This is barely related to the subject in hand except it is the reason there was so much compost available, but I am still frustrated that a beautiful thing was crushed as it was coming into its prime. But I digress…) An eclipse of the Sun was scheduled to occur on March 29, 2006 at 10 am. So every day at 10am between
March 26 and April Fools day (I kid thee not) we planted two rows of 22 seed-potatoes in the soil enriched with the compost we were now forbidden to sell. We sprayed the area with a potentised BD preparation called E19 and stood back. Very soon it was clear even to a cursory glance that the potatoes grown before and after the eclipse rows were doing much better than those planted on the 29th. We harvested in August and the yields from those grown on the 28th and 30th were both one and a half times greater than those from the 29th. I felt that we were on to something
However, this part of the project does not seem to have caught the public imagination so, to some extent, we can call it a failed initiative. The second database had a similar fate: this involved a simple nudge of the existing software and interface to make it fit for weed and pest control experiences. Both are still accessible and although there have been some noticeable results, the servers have never been in danger of crashing due to the traffic. Hey ho.
As I settled into the demands of this project and by digging into the coffers again, we designed a third database. This was intended to address a third defining technique of BD which is the use of the biodynamic preparations. One of the great examples set by homeopathy, as a collaborative discipline as opposed to as a scientific enigma, is the homeopathic materia medica and its accompanying repertory. The homeopathic materia medica for humans was originally populated by observations of poisonings. Later the symptoms induced by other barely toxic and even seemingly inert substances like silica were added through an experimental process known as provings. Finally, symptoms which were not evoked but which were regularly found to be cured were added to assist the practitioner to find the right remedy or similimum for the person who had come for healing. For over 200 years homeopaths from all corners of the world have collaborated to build up this freely accessible heirloom as a common-wealth for all practitioners present and future. If this were a software programme it would be called ‘open source’. It is the Linux process as opposed to the proprietary OS process which is more analogous to the practices of pharmaceutical businesses. Everyone contributes to it and everyone gets to use it if they agree not to misuse it. It was this model that appealed to me and I just needed to take a deep breath and contemplate creating an appropriate interface.
Again the fates seemed to want to hang me for a sheep rather than a lamb: the search engines showed that there was already a format including some data for such a thing, at least in someone’s private papers. At an international permaculture gathering Ben Rozendal and Eric O’Gorman discussed their ‘Similicure’ initiative which had great results from using homeopathic remedies upon plants. It took me a lot of Googling before I could find Ben since he usually works under the name given through his spiritual tradition. However, I found a blog by a veteran of the 1992 Gulf war who was suffering from his wounds who described how he had been greatly assisted by a homeopath who had reduced the scar tissue with the remedy silicea. The homeopath was the same Mr Rozendal. After a few emails, a phone call, and a meeting in Amsterdam we agreed to polish and publish the
youthful materia medica Ben had developed for plants. The book emerged as ‘Homeopathy for Farm and Garden’10, and Ben’s materia medica primed the pump of the third Considera database – the materia medica agricultura and the repertory which accompanies it. A materia medica lists each preparation with the symptoms which it addresses. A repertory lists each symptom and all the preparations which address that symptom. One could say that they are indexes to eachother. Which you go to first depends on whether you have symptoms or preparations to consider. We built the database structure and then the web interface so any English-speaker can add their own experiences. What is more, whilst Ben used remedies from the homeopathic pharmacopoeia, we could use the same structure for adding experiences of the BD preparations and ‘magic potions’ from different traditions and businesses11. I laid