Anybody who has watched Western movies is familiar with the character of the faith healer selling snake oil. He is the only one who knows what is in the bottle. But we, the audience, know he is a fraudster and quack. Germans love watching Westerns, as it happens. That makes it all the more ironic that Germans by the millions buy a homegrown form of snake oil, offered by at least 7,000 quacks masquerading behind the fake authority of white coats: homeopathy.
Homeopathy was invented in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, a freemason from Saxony. Today it is the most popular branch of so-called alternative medicine in Germany. Practitioners offer their customers tiny pills — Germans call them globules. Technically, these practitioners aren’t lying. But they betray their patients and themselves because they rely on substances without any plausible proof of being better than a placebo. There have been dozens of clinical studies. None has proven any clinical benefit of homeopathy.
Why then does the appeal of homeopathy persist so stubbornly in its home country? The resurgence of its appeal in our lifetime has much to do with the counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. Out of that anti-authoritarian zeitgeist, people lost trust in experts. And that included medical doctors and scientists. Women felt that gynecologists had gained too much power over their entire life cycles, by prescribing hormones from age 16 to 90.
Especially well-educated Germans became steeped in an intellectual milieu where democratic impulses for regaining control over one’s own life mixed with esoteric and mystical interpretations of the world. Out of this culture grew what is nowadays called alternative or complementary medicine. Homeopathy was a good fit: A strange 200-year-old theory claiming that substances that have been diluted until not a single molecule is left can have therapeutic power.
Legislators have privileged homeopathy by exempting its pills from the regulatory requirements all other drugs must meet.
In an irony lost on many of the consumers of homeopathy, a movement that began in anti-authoritarianism instead delivered them into a paternalistic mindset. Patients are told that they must find the “right” medicine for them, from the “right” person, who is to be trusted. If the first one doesn’t work, the prescriptions are changed. Eventually, some people might feel better, because of the placebo effect, or because their own immune systems have done the job. And voilà: They see evidence of alternative healing.
What they don’t see is the weird process behind the fabrication of their little pills. Production starts with things including dead animals, snake poison, mucus, arsenic, even bits of the former Berlin Wall. These materials are pulverized and diluted almost endlessly — until the resulting homeopathic “drug” consists of nothing but water, alcohol and sugar.
A big advantage for homeopathy in the days of Samuel Hahnemann, more than two centuries ago, was the available alternative. Official medicine at the time generally included bloodletting or other treatments that poisoned, sickened or killed patients. Swallowing a homeopathic drug that contained nothing — no identifiable compound — was at least safe by comparison.
But there is no excuse to buy into this mythology today. That would mean accepting that the pills without remaining molecules have “water memory.” Animals, plants and stones, homeopathy claims, have healing powers that are embedded in the water molecules at the end of a dilution cascade. I’d sooner reconsider the benefits of snake oil instead.
That said, homeopathy appeals to people in at least two ways. First, people have always been intrigued by the idea of magic healing. Neither the Enlightenment nor the modern era of science changed that.
Second, many patients have had negative experiences with modern medicine – i.e., with the doctors they have seen and the clinics they have entered. They feel that they are not properly seen, heard and respected. Their doctors didn’t have good bedside manners. They didn’t listen, didn’t ask questions, didn’t show interest in the whole person sitting in their offices.
That’s why “alternative” healers typically start right there: by carefully listening to the patient’s story. That can be the beginning of a long-lasting relationship. At some psychological level, patients lose interest in whether homeopathy (or kinesiology, or anthroposophy, or whatever form of quackery they are confronting) has a clinical benefit. It is the relationship and intimacy with their practitioner they cherish.
Homeopathy is not the leading form of complementary medicine in all countries. It has lost influence in Britain, where the government heeded scientific expertise that homeopathy is free of medical benefit. (Even so, the National Health Service is allowed to offer it, and about 20 percent of health districts currently do so.)
The situation in Germany is different. Here legislators have privileged homeopathy by exempting its pills from the regulatory requirements all other drugs must meet. Homeopathic pills are instead approved by a commission of whom a majority are themselves homeopaths. Public health insurers are in fact becoming more likely to reimburse for homeopathic treatments. They do so to earn the loyalty of their policyholders.
That is why I have been on a campaign to persuade the German government to provide fair and unbiased information about the risks and benefits of all medical procedures on the market. Such disclosure, scientifically vetted, would expose the quackery of homeopathy for what it is.
In their conversations with patients, homeopathic practitioners constantly claim, for instance, that they can cure cancer or other chronic diseases. Whenever you press representatives of the homeopathic lobby about such claims, they backpedal: They only market homeopathy as a supplementary treatment to classical medicine, they say.
That is not true, as I showed by analyzing the incredible practice of the Swiss MD and homeopath Jens Wurster. He persists in claiming that he has cured cancer patients with advanced metastases solely by prescribing homeopathic pills. This irresponsible person was celebrated as a hero during the homeopathy congress in 2017 in Leipzig.
Of course people in a democratic society are free to make their own choices. But scientists and the government have a duty to make available information that helps people to make good and rational choices. It is time to do to homeopathy itself what its practitioners have for centuries done to their concoctions: To dilute it until no single intellectual molecule is left.
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