An article from the Times Online today about the mathematics behind homeopathic remedies, written by a mathematician at the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary, University of London.

He describes exactly what it means when arnica is sold at 30C dosage:

…to make a homeopathic remedy, they start with the active ingredient and then proceed to dilute it to 1 per cent concentration. Then they dilute that new solution again, so there is now only 0.01 per cent of the original ingredients. For my 30C pills this diluting is repeated thirty times, which means that the arnica is one part in a million billion billion billion billion billion billion.

The arnica is diluted so much that there is only one molecule of it per 7 million billion billion billion billion pills.

It’s hard to comprehend numbers that large. If you were to buy that many pills from Boots, it would cost more than the gross domestic product of the UK. It’s more than the gross domestic product of the entire world. Since the dawn of civilisation. If every human being since the beginning of time had saved every last penny, denarius and sea-shell, we would still have not saved up enough to purchase a single arnica molecule from Boots.

Great scam if you’re selling it though!

OK – so why does arnica (cream & pills) work??

Sure – my point wasn’t to knock arnica specifically, or even herbal medicine in general, but homeopathy. Arnica cream and pills, both of which I used after I had my wisdom teeth out, will generally have a reasonable concentration – maybe 1% or so – so that you actually get a real dose of medication. Not a homeopathic “dose”, at 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001(that’s 60 zeroes after the decimal point) %. Which as the article points out, isn’t going to do anything at all, except for take your money for a sugar pill. They could easily have chosen to use examples of caffeine, or paracetomol, or any other medication at homeopathic levels.

Arnica actually does contain ingredients which really help reduce swelling and bruising, and has been proven effective in scientific studies. There are no accepted studies showing that homeopathic medication is any more effective than a placebo dose.

I’m sure you’ve seen it already, but here’s the great follow-up about a bunch of sceptics taking a massive overdose of some of these drugs: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/8489019.stm

Oh, and on a related note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RFO6ZhUW38w

As with many things which heal, there’s a huge amount no-one understands. I’ve used homoeopathy successfully (often more successfully than antibiotics, for the same condition) for over 20 years. The strange thing – OK, one of the strange things – is that there might only be a tiny difference in symptoms which indicates one remedy rather than another. For example, the left side of the throat rather than the right side of the throat itching. I suspect that’s part of the reason why conventional double blind tests aren’t effective. One theory is that homoeopathic remedies work in a similar way to catalysts. I’m certainly not knowledgeable enough to be able to say.