“Pioneering Ontario clinic hopes to make naturopathy mainstream” is the headline that the Globe & Mail newspaper put on a Wednesday article, detailing the Brampton Naturopathic Teaching Clinic, described as “the first naturopathic clinic inside a hospital in Canada.” Given the pseudoscientific nature of naturopathic medicine, the term “pioneering” is an odd one here — unless the author was wryly referencing the primitive level of medical knowledge available to the 17th-century pioneers who explored the territory on which the Brampton Naturopathic Teaching Clinic eventually would be built.
The term “naturopathy” includes a large variety of treatments, theories and medicines. All of them generally share the common characteristic of being either well-intentioned placebos involving minerals, vitamins and “botanicals,” or full-blown faux-medical scams that are actually quite dangerous. Sticking needles in one’s skin at arbitrarily designated spots on the body is naturopathy. So is “colour therapy” — which involved shining different colours of light on your body in hopes of balancing one’s “energy” levels. (All naturopaths are big on the idea that our bodies are animated by some sort of mystical life force — like the Jedi in Star Wars.) Naturopathic “iridologists” claim they can diagnose conditions all over your body just by looking at the squiggly patterns in your eye’s iris. Naturopathic colonic irrigators treat patients by … well, let’s just skip that one. And then there’s the fun-to-pronounce, but completely pseudoscientific “homeopathy,” which postulates the magical idea that a molecule or two of some harmful substance, contained in a massively diluted solution, somehow will cure the ailments associated with diseases caused by an excess of aforesaid substance. It’s like saving flood victims by squirting them in the face with a water pistol.
Why anyone — let alone the usually staid Globe & Mail — would want to celebrate the legitimization of naturopathy is beyond understanding. The 4,000-plus medical staff at the Brampton Civic Hospital, where the Brampton Naturopathic Teaching Clinic is located, operate an ER, a cardiac-care center, an oncology department, and other medical services that save people’s lives through the application of state-of-the-art, scientific, evidence-based, peer-reviewed medical standards. Now these accredited medical professionals are sharing their facility with a bunch of placebo doctors. How does this use of limited financial resources advance the cause of quality health care?
The larger problem here is that Ontario, like several other provinces, is set to give naturopaths a semblance of medical respectability by allowing them to requisition lab tests and prescribe some varieties of drugs. Politically, this is seen as a win — because the constituency that endorses naturopathy tends to be passionate and active; while the majority just see it as harmless quackery, and so aren’t likely to object one way or the other.
But this is a mistake: The line between science and pseudoscience is a very real and important one. It’s the line we depend on, from a public-health perspective, when doctors assure parents that vaccines don’t cause autism. It’s the line we depend on when doctors tell their patients that, no, those mail-order vitamins they bought on the internet won’t negate the effects of smoking. Any move that serves to blur that line is a move that, indirectly at least, endangers public health.
What’s worse, this being Canada, it is only a matter of time before government is called upon to fully fund naturopathic pseudoscience as if it were legitimate medicine. As things now stand, Canadians generally must pay out-of-pocket for their needles, chelation treatments, weird colon cleanses, iris readings, and brainwave-changing gadgets. But if governments and hospitals promote the notion that this nonsense actually works, why wouldn’t advocates claim that it falls under the Canada Health Act, along with dialysis and chemotherapy?
Admittedly, the miraculous cures provided by modern medical science cannot cure every condition. And so it is natural that, humans being the hopeful and superstitious creatures they are, would seek out their own “alternative” remedies. They should be free to do so. But the rest of us, and especially our government and mainstream medical community, should not be made to support, fund or legitimize therapies that have no proven benefit — except, in financial form, to those who provide them.
At Best, the "Remedies" Are PlacebosHomeopathic products are made from minerals, botanical substances, and several other sources. If the original substance is soluble, one part is diluted with either nine or ninety-nine parts of distilled water and/or alcohol and shaken vigorously (succussed); if insoluble, it is finely ground and pulverized in similar proportions with powdered lactose (milk sugar).
One part of the diluted medicine is then further diluted, and the process is repeated until the desired concentration is reached. Dilutions of 1 to 10 are designated by the Roman numeral X (1X = 1/10, 3X = 1/1,000, 6X = 1/1,000,000). Similarly, dilutions of 1 to 100 are designated by the Roman numeral C (1C = 1/100, 3C = 1/1,000,000, and so on). Most remedies today range from 6X to 30X, but products of 30C or more are marketed.
A 30X dilution means that the original substance has been diluted 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times.
Assuming that a cubic centimeter of water contains 15 drops, this number is greater than the number of drops of water that would fill a container more than 50 times the size of the Earth. Imagine placing a drop of red dye into such a container so that it disperses evenly.
Homeopathy's "law of infinitesimals" is the equivalent of saying that any drop of water subsequently removed from that container will possess an essence of redness. Robert L. Park, Ph.D., a prominent physicist who is executive director of The American Physical Society, has noted that since the least amount of a substance in a solution is one molecule, a 30C solution would have to have at least one molecule of the original substance dissolved in a minimum of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 molecules of water. This would require a container more than 30,000,000,000 times the size of the Earth.