Many people think homeopathy is just placebo.
In reality, homeopathy is worse than placebo. In fact, it is much, much worse than placebo.
Homeopathic products can be contaminated by heavy metals, pesticides or prescription medicine. It can contain radically different dosages of the alleged active ingredient. It encourages people to rely on fake treatments over real medical treatments, which means a worse prognosis. Homeopathy involves a huge waste of money on the part of the consumer and it dulls critical thinking. In other words, homeopathy is bullshit.
Yet many people do not seem to grasp these simple scientific facts. The newspaper Metro promoted homeopathy right in the middle of a measles outbreak. Sweden has a privately owned homeopathy ER. Just like the Mitchell and Webb sketch. Celebrities like Christopher Titus and Nassim N. Taleb support or defend homeopathy. Some alternative medicine quacks even go so far as to push homeopathy for Ebola. Until recently, the Swedish government kept renewing legal exceptions for homeopathy so that it could keep being sold without evidence for efficacy.
Homeopathy products can be contaminated
Because homeopathy is very weakly regulated (last updated in 1988), there is no guarantee that it is free of contamination. In a 2009 WHO report called Safety issues in the preparation of homeopathic medicines, such potential contaminants include “microbial toxins, microorganisms, metals, pesticide residues or degradation products”. Even more concerning, the report highlights that due “[…] to the large range of potential impurities and contaminants and the varying extent of exposure to them over time, no comprehensive list of all impurities and their limits can be presented.”
For instance, the U. S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ordered the homeopathy company Zicam stop pushing three of their products that contained zinc gluconate after at least 100 people lost their sense of smell. Homeopathic preparations can also be contaminated by prescription medications, including penicillin. For people who have a severe allergy to penicillin, this can be very dangerous.
Homeopathy products can contain radically different dosages
Homeopaths do not need to provide evidence that their products are safe and effective before they are marketed to consumers. This means that homeopathic products can contain, besides contaminants, wildly different dosages of the alleged active ingredients than is stated on the label (if it is even stated at all). The only way regulators can intervene is after this has been discovered after the problem has already been made apparent. After people could have potentially been subjected to harm.
Consider Hyland’s homeopathic teething tablets as a case study. Their alleged active ingredient was belladonna, but supposedly astronomically diluted so that there was, statistically speaking, not a single molecule left of it in the preparation. The plant in question Atropa belladonna (also called deadly nightshade) contains toxic secondary metabolites called alkaloids (atropine, scopolamine and hyoscyamine). It turns out that the homeopathic preparations contained detectable quantities of belladonna. This meant that the homeopathic product was not prepared in accordance with their own principles. Furthermore, different boxes contained different, detectable amounts. They were simply not following good manufacturing practices. A little over two months later, the homeopathic company recalled the teething products that contained belladonna.
Homeopathy discourages use of real medicine
There are many different ways that homeopathy directly or indirectly encourages people to avoid real medicine.
First, the very name “alternative medicine” suggests that it should be used as an alternative or instead of real medicine. In other words, it is marketed as a competitor to real medicine. Other terms that were invented later to hide this trick includes “complementary medicine” or “integrative medicine”. However, complementing or integrating fake treatments with real treatments is a form of deceptive false balance. It attempts to portray fake treatments as if they had the same level of credibility and scientific evidence as real medication. They do not. Not even close. No matter what term is being used, homeopathy discourages real medications or attempt to pollute it with quackery. Either way, it is a loss for real medicine.
Second, alternative medicine involves the systematic demonization of science-based medicine. Homeopaths insist that doctors are evil, do not care about “treating the whole person” and that they are fundamentally corrupted by multinational pharmaceutical companies. They claim their treatments are safe and more effective than real medicine, even though a lot of homeopathic “treatments” have not been tested for safety or efficacy.
Both of these perspectives indicates that homeopathy discourages the use of real medicine. Either by overtly trying to make real medicine look bad or by using false balance in order to make it look like fake treatments and real medicine is equally supported by evidence.
Homeopathy is a waste of money
Since these products does not actually help any real medical conditions, it is a waste of money. The sugar pills or the water itself is much, much cheaper than the price that homeopaths put on their products. In contrast to real medication, homeopathy has no beneficial effect whatsoever above placebo. So, in essence, homeopathy is an overpriced product that does not help people in any real way. It is a waste of money.
Some defenders misleadingly play the “harnessing the power of placebo” narrative. This means that they acknowledge that homeopathy is nothing but placebo, but argue that it “still works”, just via placebo effects. In reality, studies that compare placebo groups with non-treatment groups show that placebo effects are weak, transient and almost always not large enough to be clinically meaningful.
The last-ditch case is to insist that the largest placebo effect is really regression to the mean and that this is not tested in such comparisons because regression to the mean would also be experienced by the no-treatment group. However, regression to the mean is something that one would experience no matter if one was taking a treatment (effective or ineffective) or did nothing. Thus, it cannot be attributed to the homeopathy products or even the treatment context.
Homeopathy dulls critical thinking
Finally, homeopathy discourages people from having a science-based view of life. This is because it is refuted by a massive amount of scientific evidence from physics, chemistry and biology. In order to believe in homeopathy, you have to reject many crucial scientific facts, laws and well-tested models. In other words, if some people are so far removed from reason and evidence, they might believe anything no matter how unreasonable.
It is actually even worse. That is because homeopathy is not merely one kind of fake treatment, but a mature pseudoscience. This means that proponents have developed false claims, misleading narratives and deceptive tactics to obscure reality in a large number of ways.
This leads people further down the rabbit hole of quackery and nonsense. It dulls critical thinking and replaces it with dangerously false claims about the world.
Homeopathy is worse than placebo. Homeopathic products can be contaminated by pesticides, heavy metals and prescription drugs. They can contain radically different doses. They discourage the use of real medicine and they are a waste of money. Finally, they dull critical thinking, a set of skill that is now more important than ever.