Alexander Panchin: “The term ‘sympathetic magic’ is best for homeopathy”
Why is homeopathy a pseudoscience, why do people believe in it and why ideally this interview should not have happened
The famous Russian biologist, popularizer of science, writer and scientific journalist Alexander Panchin agreed to talk to us about the phenomenon of homeopathy. Why it does not work, what do homeopathy and voodoo magic have in common, and how homeopathy masquerades as science, and about how scientists found kidney colic in sausage by bioresonance diagnostics — read in the interview with Realnoe Vremya.
“Most homeopathic medicines are aimed at treating diseases that can go away on their own”
When was homeopathy born and why it was believed?
Homeopathy was invented by a doctor named Samuel Hahnemann in the early 19th century. Its success seems to me to be due to that in those days people did not have correct ideas about what the substance is. That was more than 200 years ago. Hahnemann proposed homeopathy at a time when people knew little about the structure of substance and how many molecules can be in a particular volume. And so the idea that you can dilute something almost “infinite” number of times did not contradict the known laws of physics. Now we understand what it does. Dilutions, which are used in homeopathy, reach absurd amounts. For example, in one of the best-selling homeopathic flu drugs in our pharmacies, the dilution is up to ten to the minus four hundredth degree. There are no chances to find in such tablet at least one molecule of the active substance.
Second, medicine then was developed very poorly. Ordinary doctors used, for example, bloodletting, which caused more harm than good. Against this background, giving a person a pacifier may have been safer than treating him using existing methods. Therefore, in those days, homeopathy did not look as absurd as it does now.
What is the reason for the phenomenon that it is still believed up to this day?
Even then, there was the main reason for the popularity of homeopathy, which continues to this day — psychological. People tend to easily deduce erroneous cause-and-effect relationships on the basis of single events, chronologically following each other.
Homeopathy supporters (and by the way, not only its but of any other alternative medicine) argue the same way: I was feeling bad, I took a drug, I got better — therefore, the drug helped me. But some diseases go away themselves, just sometimes you need more time. Like in the joke: if a cold is treated, it goes away in seven days, if not — then in a week.
Hahnemann proposed homeopathy at a time when people knew little about the structure of substance and how many molecules can be in a particular volume. And so the idea that you can dilute something almost “infinite” number of times did not contradict the known laws of physics
Therefore, in pharmacy, most homeopathic medicines are intended mainly for the treatment of influenza?
Most homeopathic medicines are aimed at treating diseases that, in principle, can away go away themselves or go into remission. There are several areas of medicine where these drugs are popular: non-fatal diseases that go away themselves and a number of chronic diseases. Chronic disease does not completely go away, the patient's condition may be aggravated or improved. The “treatment” begins at the peak of a disease when a person is very ill. Then there is a natural averaging of health, a return to the average state, and this is attributed to the effect of healing balls. An example of this type of disease is eczema.
What if a patient's condition starts to worsen?
It is subsumed under 'Gering's Law', which isn't really a law. The laws of homeopathy are not really laws because they are wrong. It is rather dogmas and rituals, like in religion. Gering's Law says that in recovery symptoms disappear in the reverse order of their appearance. That is, it is supposedly normal when a patient suddenly has the symptoms that he previously had. And it shows that he is getting better.
If you first have the symptom one, and then the symptom two develops — you are treated for the symptom two, and at the same time, you have the symptom one. And this return of the first symptom, according to the principles of homeopathy, shows that everything is going right. At the same time, it is all very widely interpreted. The homeopath ALWAYS has the opportunity to interpret any outcome as if everything is done correctly and everything is going well. That is, it is uncritical medicine, it can have very serious consequences.
One my doctor friend — a child oncologist — mentioned me about how a 9-month-old boy was treated for cheek cancer using homeopathy. At the same time, his tumour had grown from a few centimetres to twenty centimeters over this time and became inoperable. So, in the course of this treatment, the homeopath gave arguments that everything was good: he said nonsense like “this is normal, the tumour will have to pour out with black water.” They can justify anything.
Homeopath always has the opportunity to interpret any outcome as if everything is done correctly and everything is going well. That is, it is uncritical medicine, it can have very serious consequences
“Homeopath is guided by a set of dogmas and postulates and is not much different from a shaman in this sense”
It’s some kind of shamanism.
Shamanism is a separate term. For homeopathy, the term “sympathetic magic” is best. It was proposed by anthropologist James Fraser.
According to Fraser, sympathetic magic is witchcraft, which is based on the closest magical connection between objects, either similar to each other externally (similarity magic) or once in contact with each other (contact magic).
So, the basic laws of homeopathy fit this sympathetic magic very well. For example, one of the basic principles of homeopathy — like cures like. They treat insomnia with caffeine because caffeine causes insomnia. This, according to Fraser, is the magic of likeness. By imitating something, we can create something. Similar things are used in voodoo magic: we kill a doll and assume that the person it portrays will die from it.
How does the practice of dilution relate to sympathetic magic?
The second law of homeopaths — “the stronger we dilute the substance, the stronger its effect it is” — the magic of contact in its purest form. They believe that if something once came into contact with something, then this connection will not be broken and will exist at a distance. For example, if a person is wounded with a knife, then you can treat the wound by affecting the knife — this is also a very ancient idea. It's as if the wound remembers the knife because they were once connected.
And now it's wrapped in a new cover: the memory of water. Allegedly, the water remembers that it once had some substance. And we diluted this caffeine a hundred times, then another hundred times, then another hundred... They have another magical ritual of potentiation (or dynamization), when they knock on wood, rub, shake their “preparations” in a strictly defined way.
In fact, homeopathy is magic, not medicine. The homeopath is guided by a set of dogmas and postulates and is not much different from the shaman in this sense. The only difference is legal. Shamanism in medical institutions is not taught at medical institutions, but homeopathy is. Gun ointment, which you need to smear a knife to cure a wound, is not sold in a pharmacy, but homeopathy is. In my opinion, this is a big misunderstanding.
According to Fraser, sympathetic magic is witchcraft, which is based on the closest magical connection between objects, either similar to each other externally (similarity magic) or once in contact with each other (contact magic). So, the basic laws of homeopathy fit this sympathetic magic very well
For example, there is a whole course in homeopathy at continuing education courses at the Sechenov University in Moscow — it is hidden under the cover of electroacupuncture.
Electroacupuncture is a separate matter, and that's nonsense, too. There is often a bunch of other nonsense together with homeopathy in one package — bioresonance diagnostics, for example. This is a very “good” scheme, by the way: you can make a fake diagnosis to a person using a fake medical device, the indications of which mean nothing. Then you can prescribe “balls” that a person will drink, and then use the same device — to diagnose an alleged improvement. In fact, this is due to that the device for bioresonance diagnostics has two operating modes — for the first inspection and for the second. With this device, you can diagnose improvement to absolutely anyone.
For example, doctor Alexey Vodovozov with the help of such appliance, which homeopaths also like, made a diagnosis to... a sausage: when the sausage is diagnosed, for example, “renal colic”. Then we put the device in the second mode (re-examination of the sausage) — and it no longer has renal colic.
There is often a bunch of other nonsense together with homeopathy in one package — bioresonance diagnostics, for example. This is a very “good” scheme, by the way: you can make a fake diagnosis to a person using a fake medical device, the indications of which mean nothing
“Average person doesn't have to have medical knowledge”
What do other countries treat homeopathy? Europe and the United States, for example.
Differently. In the US, there is a law on homeopathic drug package providing that it must include no medical statements and it must be written that it has no proven effectiveness. In Australia, where one of the highest life spans in the world, homeopathy is criticized by the ministry of healthcare, and in fact, no one uses it there, although it is not prohibited. And there are countries where there is a powerful homeopathic lobby because it makes a lot of money on it there. One of the biggest companies doing homeopathy is Boiron. It has a big influence, including in Russia, where they sell these drugs — for example, Oscillococcinum. There are countries where homeopathy is even included in insurance. For example, the UK has recently excluded homeopathy from state insurance.
We had a memorandum of the Commission to fight pseudoscience that homeopathy has no proven effectiveness. After this memorandum, the ministry of healthcare promised to conduct its investigation, but it never did. I would add that the problem is not just homeopathy. After all, we have a lot of nonsense promoted under the guise of medicine. They sell hydroplasm, magnetic bracelets, Mishin coils, hydrogen water is declared healing, there is also some black water. For some reason, water, by the way, is a favourite topic for speculation.
There are states where there is powerful enough homeopathic lobby because it makes a lot of money there. One of the biggest companies doing homeopathy is Boiron. It has a big influence in many places, including in Russia, where they sell these drugs — for example, Oscillococcinum
So, everything is bad?
Unfortunately, there are a lot of such drugs with unproven effectiveness in Russia. If you come to a pharmacy, then a significant part of what you will see on the shelf and most of all advertised and sold — it is likely various kinds of either pacifiers or drugs with unproven effectiveness.
I will move on to the biggest, in my opinion, problem. Why do we have to talk about this at all? Because it's all for sale. This is a matter for the regulator.
The average person doesn't have to have medical knowledge. Any person has the right to receive the best treatment that exists and not to receive some nonsense under the guise of treatment. Anyone deserves it — you and I deserve it! And the state, as it seems to me, should realize this human right through a normal system — uncorrupted, unbiased, with a normal system of evidence, which has the main interest in the health of citizens, protection of their interests from all sorts of charlatans, sellers of pacifiers.
In a country where the regulator works well, a person doesn't need this popular scientific literature spelling out why homeopathy does not work. It should be written on the packaging of the drug that it has no proven effectiveness because it is a fact, it is simply true. In order to find out, a person shouldn't have to read your newspaper, listen to my lecture, read books by science-popularizers, google medical sites, read meta-analyses. It should all be presented to him officially. And doctors should be qualified, not trained somehow magical practices of unclear what era.