The Roots of Homeopathy’s Image Problems

Science writer and mathematics teacher David Malcolm Shein shares his view of homeopathy’s image problems.

homeopathic medicine for typhoid fever

Among homeopathic students I am a bit of an odd duck. For most of my adult life I was an ardent skeptic of homoeopathy. Growing up in the 1960’s near Boston, both my parents were in the health sciences. My father was a physician, a medical school professor, a virologist, and a neuroscience researcher.  My mother was a physical therapist. Discussion of science and mathematics was regular dinnertime fare as far back as I can remember. My father would tell me stories about science and scientists, so by the time I was ten, my head was full of stories about Leeuwenhoek, Galileo, Darwin, and even Bernoulli. My father loved science, shared his love with me, and I grew to love it as well. As an adult I made my living as a science writer for the better part of a decade. I taught high school biology for many years and mathematics for nearly two decades.

I first heard about homeopathy in the 1980’s from a friend in Montreal who was experimenting with low potencies.  She started to explain it to me, but I quickly dismissed it out of hand. What she’d said made no sense; it had to be junk. “Potency increasing inversely with concentration? Dilution past Avogadro’s Number? Succussion? Give me a break.”

For many years I did my best to ignore homeopathy, but it eventually sought me out.  In 2010 a close friend and neighbor, Maureen, was at the nadir of a chronic depression she had suffered with for her entire, adult life. She was severely agoraphobic and talked about suicide often. Getting out of bed in the morning was a trial she often failed. She frequently snapped at family members and was harshly critical. She wept at the slightest provocation and lost her temper over trifles. Her antidepressants were not working. She had reached the maximum dosage and was still a mess. Her doctor told her that she would have to taper off her current meds before she could even try anything new. Her marriage was strained to breaking; her kids and her spouse were suffering with her disease. She was in crisis.

When things were at their worst, a mutual friend, Audrey–who is not wealthy by any stretch–paid for a homeopathic consult for Maureen. Abashed, Maureen felt as though she could not refuse. She believed that refusing the gift would deeply hurt Audrey’s feelings and possibly end their friendship. Audrey had already paid the homeopath, and the money was non-refundable. It was both a generous deed and a personal sacrifice. So Maureen accepted. But at her home, alone over coffee, she and I made jokes.  “When are you going to talk to the Voodoo Doctor?” I asked.

Maureen snickered. We were absolutely sure that it was complete garbage. Unicorns and leprechauns.

The next week, Maureen sat and skyped with a homeopath in Florida named Jen Marks. I asked her about it the next day. She told me that the homeopath asked a few questions, but had mostly directed Maureen to talk about herself, a lot–for three and a half hours. The next day, Jen called and told Maureen the recommended remedy was Hyoscyamus Niger 200c, and gave Maureen a list of homeopathic pharmacies where she could order the remedy. Two days later, and still utterly skeptical, Maureen took her dose, and put the pellet under her tongue.

I’m sure we made some crack at the time, but I forget what it was now. I did not see Maureen again until a few days later when I went over to her house for our regular Saturday morning coffee.  As was our custom, as I entered, I shouted, “Hello!” in her front door.  Frying some eggs on the stove for her son, Maureen stood with her back to me. When she turned around, I was able to see her face. Maureen’s expression was calm. It was the face of someone on vacation.

One gets used to seeing the same emotions play on familiar people’s faces. Those emotions, like colors, tend not to change too much.  If you had asked me, I’d have said that the color of Maureen’s emotions were predominantly red and brown and black, but at that moment standing by the stove, pan in her hand, she was a brilliant orange.  Not a happy pink, or an exuberant yellow, but a calm and modestly self-possessed orange.

Wary of upsetting this delicate orange-cart, I kept my observations to myself, and waited to see if it persisted.  It did. And other things began to happen.  For three weeks I said nothing to Maureen about the homeopathy. But she looked great. Not perfect, not cured, but were I pressed to say how much, I’d say that she was about 80% better. Certainly she was functional–which she had not been before. During that time she applied for and was hired at a part-time job; something I had not seen her be able to do for two years.

Finally, one morning over coffee I asked her, “So, that homeopathy. . . did you notice anything?” Her eyes now wide as saucers, she replied, “Um, yeah. Did you?”  I nodded.  In the months that followed she returned to part-time work, but also began to train in order to play women’s amateur roller derby. While training, she broke her wrist; yet she persisted, and after two years of training was accepted as a player for the Women’s Indoor Flat Track Derby Association. At work her part-time job eventually developed into a full-time supervisory position. Maureen who had formerly been unable speak on the phone or go to the grocery store, now had 25 people working under her, and spent many of her evenings, “Kicking other women’s butts.”

When I tell people about this experience, I have often described Homeopathy as “Voodoo.” I tell them that watching a homeopathic remedy yank someone out of a deep clinical depression was like watching a dog recite Kerouac and levitate. Western medicine had failed Maureen. She had tried a dozen or more different medications over two decades, and they had barely managed her depression. But a solution from a poisonous flower diluted to 1 in 10400 vigorously shaken at periodic intervals, had brought her back.

My surprise over Maureen’s recovery was only matched by my curiosity. Homeopathy was not supposed to work. Everything I’d previously heard about homeopathy seemed to be complete crap. Neither Maureen nor I had any faith or inkling that her homeopathic “remedy” would do anything at all.  As the son of a successful research scientist, raised on stories of scientific discovery–as a published science writer–I knew what “placebo effect” was and what it looked like. I knew that what I’d seen was not placebo. The effects on Maureen were too specific, too dramatic, had worked when no traditional medication had, and had a lasting impact. I’d seen a cure, not “disease management.” I had no idea what had happened, but I also knew that Maureen’s changes had not come about based on her belief–or lack thereof–in her remedy. Her alteration was utterly mysterious to me, and I wanted to understand.

I knew what a legitimate subject for scientific study looks like, and I wondered if homeopathy fit the bill. None of the science-based explanations I could muster could begin to explain Maureen’s recovery. The simplest explanation for what I’d seen was that the remedy, and homeopathy, had worked.  But how?

I ed the homeopath who treated Maureen and said, “Give me something to read. I can’t explain what I’ve seen, and that’s unacceptable.” But even as I asked, I was still very much a skeptic. I really, truly, expected Jen to recommend some garbage, nonsensical ramblings about crystals or magnetism or energy, at which point, I could then dismiss what I’d seen as a fluke. To my disappointment I found Miranda Castro’s The Complete Homeopathy Handbook sadly lacking in nonsense. I didn’t fully understand Homeopathy, but in Castro’s work there seemed to be an internal logic and consistency that I had not expected.  I found myself unable to dismiss it out of hand.

“Give me something meatier,” I asked Jen.  “Well, you should read Hahnemann then,” she said. Like Maureen’s recovery, The Organon was a complete surprise.
There were no unicorns in The Organon, no leprechauns, no crystals, no mumbo-jumbo, no speculations. Instead, I found a scrupulously-moral, Enlightenment, chemist and natural philosopher working at the height of his powers. I have my B.A. in philosophy, and fully a third of my coursework had involved reading Enlightenment philosophers–Kant, Hegel, Descartes, Berkeley, Hobbes, among others. Within five pages I recognized the quality and erudition of Hahnemann’s writing. Here was as strict and as exacting a Rationalist as I’d ever read. His writing was precise, lucid, inspired.  Brilliant.

“This is why homeopathy works,” I thought.  Why had I never heard of Hahnemann?  My father had never told me a story about Samuel Hahnemann when I was a boy.  There was no course in Hahnemann offered by the Philosophy Department at the University of Rochester. There was no mention of him. I had believed that all great intellectual work is eventually recognized and lauded by our culture. I’d read Darwin. I knew the stories of many of the early Naturalists. I do not recall even a footnote about Hahnemann.

Homeopaths know that homeopathy works. The Organon is a scrupulously moral and exacting rational methodology that underpins a demanding and effective health treatment modality. I had seen homeopathy work myself..  It quickly became clear to me that Hahnemann and homeopathy are almost entirely ignored by academic historiographers. Even worse, when they are not ignored, a number of prominent scientists, philosophers, and physicians, regularly publish screes condemning homeopathy and its practitioners as deluded fools or con-artists.  Before I had seen homeopathy work, I had arrived at the same conclusions.

When I mulled this paradox over, that line from Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” repeated in my head:

“When you believe in things that you don’t understand,

Then you suffer.

Superstition ain’t the way.”

I had discovered that homeopathy was not based on, nor relied upon, belief or superstition, and it took me a long time to understand why it has this stigma attached to it. In popular culture there is but one path to objective truth–that offered by science and scientific research. Everything else is faith and superstition. This is the orthodoxy of science. Satellites, GPS, electricity, space travel, MRI’s. Science gets results. This is what homeopaths and homeopathy are up against. From the perspective of a scientist, if one chooses to be a homeopath, one must either be operating on faith, or be ignorant, or be foolish, or a liar and scoundrel. If one believes that there is no objective, verifiable truth offered beyond science, then Occam’s Razor directs one to favor one of these more-simple explanations.

For the last five years I’ve struggled to reconcile science’s differences with homeopathy. Hahnemann’s work and the successful treatment of more than a billion people a year, begs the question: does homeopathy represent another way to objective truth?  To health?  The answer is “yes,” at least for Classical Hahnemannian Homeopathy.

Here is what I’ve concluded: For the most part science and homeopathy build their rational arguments largely in reverse of each other. Scientific method is predominantly deductive (top-down) and Hahnemannian is largely inductive (bottom-up). Both seek to generate objectively true rules about nature through the collection of specific kinds of evidence. Both scientists and homeopaths care deeply about objective evidence, but they use it differently. Each method has its own separate approach, its own set of rules to ensure logical validity, and the kinds of information each generates is very different from the other. 

These differences are rooted in the philosophies, the rational arguments, the different epistemologies that were being debated during the Enlightenment. While reading The Organon, it became clear to me that Hahnemann did not merely rebel against the practices of medicine of his time, he rebelled against the predominant trends towards deductive process to be found in most other Enlightenment naturalists. As Hahnemann cautions constantly in The Organon, homeopathic rational process requires the rejection of any theorizing that is not directly derived from repeated and reproduceable observations  –i.e. homeopathic practice is strictly inductive.

In Hahnemannian methodology, the evidence directs any and all generalizations, and all generalizations are strictly limited to what the evidence will allow. This is very different from scientific method in which a hypothesis to be tested can come from any number of sources besides those directed by observational evidence. In turn scientists look at homeopathy’s literature and dismiss it as lacking a theoretical (scientific) framework, as being empirically or anecdotally-based, and without a formal peer review process.

The point is that these differences go well beyond homeopathy as an alternative medicine. Homeopathy is an expression of a different, and rational, way of gathering reliable information about the natural world. It is its own path to truth; its own epistemological system. These differences make the intellectual bar for entry into homeopathic practice very high. One must accept a variety of basic assertions arrived at on the basis of a repeated and repeatable, largely observation-based methodology, which have only very limited, or no deductive or theoretical basis.  Homeopathy makes no sense according to the theoretical framework that science culture accepts as “factual.” None whatsoever.  Succussion makes no sense. Inverse potency/dilution–if it could be called a “law”–makes no sense. The Law of Similars likewise makes no sense to people and a culture that only knows allopathic or antipathic medicine. And lastly, homeopathic practice, philosophy, materia medica, reportization, case taking, are all intellectually challenging.

This is the essence of what homeopathy struggles against as a discipline. It makes the bar of entry absurdly high because people must apply serious intellectual rigor and must be both open minded and possess that rare willingness to question their most comfortable assumptions. The study of philosophy demands these things of its students, and so does homeopathy–with its basis in Western philosophy–make these same demands.

Homeopathy works because it is based on a rational epistemology, yet we do not understand why it works–because theorizing apart from direct evidence is not inductive, it is deductive. As homeopaths we are directed to ignore why something works if it can be demonstrated that it does work. But as a science minded person, I desperately want to know why homeopathy works. To the homeopath, the only thing that matters are the patient and his or her symptoms.

About the author

David M Shein

David M Shein

David Malcolm Shein is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of English and Mathematics at Monroe Community College in Rochester, NY.

13 Comments

  • Thank you for your article. Extremely well written! As you mentioned, as a homeopath, I am primarily concerned with my patients and their symptoms and hardly ever pause to question WHY homeopathy works. It just does and I see it over and over. But it does become hard to explain to disbelievers how and why it does. So if you ever figure it out, please do publish your findings!

    • Roopali,
      Thank you for your kind words. The reason you don’t have an answer to why Homeopathy works is because homeopathy is based almost exclusively on inductive reasoning, and evidence. As you know, Hahnemann was a madman for insisting that NOTHING be included in his system of Homeopathy, that was not reproducible in provings and/or in clinical practice. Hahnemann had no use for any theorization that could not be clearly verified or discarded based on evidence. Even Western allopathic medicine has many examples of pharmaceutical agents or therapies being applied without a theoretical basis because clinical results or trials demonstrated effectiveness. So the allopaths use this logical methodology as well.

      Hahnemann would have told you, “It works because we’ve shown it works. You don’t need more than that to treat your patients.” But I agree with you that an evidence-based theoretical model of how homeopathic remedies function is in many ways the holy grail. I have it on my short list to wade deep into the European studies on succussion and the proliferation of nano particles that I keep hearing about. I think such a theoretical understanding would be transformative for our field.

      –Dave

      • Hi, Dave, I’m recommending a couple of books to point you in that direction–that is, if you haven’t seen my post from yesterday already.

  • David,
    A very interesting and perceptive analysis of the situation. I just got back from a conference where I spoke two hours on the topic “Resistance to Homeopathy.” I have a little different angle on it and you might find it interesting. I can send you my paper if you would like to see it. Thanks for writing the one you did, I will share it with colleagues.
    Richard Pitcairn, DVM, PhD

  • What a beautiful article! Thank you for writing it in such a touching way, thank you for sharing Maureen’s story and for being so honest about your thoughts on Homeopathy while observing its work. Thank you for being curious about Truth and loyal to it.

    • Julia–

      Thank you so much! Hahnemann’s methodology and scientific method are both widely misunderstood and pretty darned important to grasp. Who knew epistemology could be so compelling?

      –Dave

  • Marvellous piece of writing Dave ! I love this picture you have given us of Hahnemannian reasoning starting from the “bottom – up” This fits in with my understanding that his teachings advise us to see the totality – the imbalance affecting the person’s centre ( aka Vital Force) or perhaps the bottom up -:) since a healthy individual is usually well grounded or centered !
    And you outline the beautiful intricacy, that we as budding homeopaths must learn, that of the challenge to learn not only the Materia Medica intimately but the ability to be able to assess and find our patients totality or expression of illness….not nearly so simple as treating ( palliating ) the symptoms as in allopathic medicine. I too, love knowing the science behind how things work, and scientists only understand what they can quantify ….I do think we are closer than ever to discovering the way homeopathic remedies affect DNA expression at a cellular level. Thanks for making the learning journey even more interesting !

  • I recommend *Homeopathy: Science or Myth?* by Bill Gray (North Atlantic, 2000) and the older but denser *Scientific Foundations of Homoeopathy* by Gerhard Resch & Viktor Gutmann (Barthel & Barthel Publishing, 1987). The science behind hormesis is also useful to homeopathy–even though the hormesis folks disavow any connection with it.

  • Thank you for sharing your story. I always knew you had it in you. You are going to do great things in helping people and further improving homeopathy’s reputation.

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