Scientists, doctors, and other rational thinkers in Belgium were dismayed last year when the country’s major health insurance companies announced that they would begin covering part of the costs of homeopathy, a widely-used but medically invalid and worthless form of quackery. Responding to the protests, the companies justified their action by claiming that “people like it.”
Critics were incredulous. SKEPP, the Belgian skeptical organization, promptly suggested that costs of Bordeaux wine also be reimbursed. Why? Because, unlike the situation with homeopathy, there is substantial evidence that red wine, taken in moderation, is good for your health. When this argument failed to prevail, according to a report in the Skeptical Inquirer by public health professor Luc Bonneaux, the skeptics decided to make their point by staging what they called a mass “suicide.”
In front of reporters from Belgium’s major newspapers and television stations, 23 volunteers—respected medical professors, a well-known TV producer, a top publicist, and several ordinary citizens—gulped down large quantities of over-the-counter homeopathic solutions based on deadly poisons. These included snake venom, deadly nightshade, arsenic and, just for the hell of it, dog milk. Dog milk was included because a homeopathic reference book (materia medica) actually says that undiluted dog milk can cause such disturbances as vomiting, bloody pus discharges, sciatica (right side) and “dreams of snakes.”
Even more ominous, the solutions were labeled “30C.” This meant that one part of the original substance had been diluted in 100 parts of water or alcohol, shaken, and then diluted again at a ratio of 100 to one, a process that was repeated 30 times. According to homeopaths, each time a solution is shaken, the properties of the original substance are miraculously transferred to the water or alcohol solvent, and each cycle enhances or “dynamizes” the :properties of the solution. Shouldn’t that make the original poison even more potent? Apparently not. All of the 23 volunteers survived, but some who came by car had to wait before returning home because the alcohol in their homeopathic solutions had made them too dizzy to drive.
The assembled press also heard a brief talk by medical professor Willem Betz, whom Bonneaux describes as “the Scourge of Homeopathy.” Dr.Betz read some ludicrous passages from a materia medica and explained that 30C homeopathic solutions are essentially just water or alcohol—plus any impurities introduced during their manufacture. Indeed, in homeopathic potions labeled 24X, produced by diluting the active ingredient 24 times at only a ten-to-one ratio, the laws of chemistry dictate that there is just a 50% chance that a single molecule of the active substance remains.
In the aftermath of the mass “suicide,” says Dr. Betz, “the homeopaths were spitting undiluted venom,” but refused to participate in a test proposed by Belgian skeptics. Summarizing what the public should have learned from the demonstration, Bonneaux writes, “Permitting yourself to be deceived by a silly theory that was outdated and untenable even in the nineteenth century does not show an open or tolerant mind. It only shows you are gullible and an easy prey to smooth-talking quacks.”
Mr. Jaroff is a science writer for Time magazine
This article was posted on July 22, 2004.