Americans are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year on homeopathic remedies believed to relieve the flu, colds, allergies and more, but the effectiveness of many remains debatable.
Lots of people believe in the products. Cher says she used homeopathy. So have Martina Navratilova and actress Jane Seymour (aka "Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman"). The queen of England has her own homeopathic doctor.
In support of homeopathy, there are clinical studies that have found some of the medicines can help people with various conditions, such as the flu.
"There is a body of evidence to show that homeopathy is effective," author Dana Ullman told ABCNEWS. He's homeopathy's foremost spokesman and has written seven books on the subject.
But I'm skeptical. There are also clinical studies that have found many homeopathic products don't work. In fact, the National Institutes of Health says a number of its key concepts "do not follow the laws of science (particularly chemistry and physics)."
"You can choose to call us suckers," said Ullman. "But we have experience which suggests otherwise."
How It Works
Homeopathic researchers look for substances in nature that mimic the various symptoms of a sick person. It's similar to the theory behind vaccinations. You're given a little bit of the disease to keep you from getting sick. In homeopathy, if you're allergic to cats, they may give you a tiny bit of cat hair that they claim will alleviate your sneezing and itchy eyes.
But many homeopathic products are diluted to such absurd degrees that it defies science and common sense.
"We do this process of serial dilution," explained Ullman. "Diluting it and shaking it, diluting it and shaking it. Diluting and shaking."
To understand the proportions, one drop of medicine in 99 drops of water is referred to as 1 C. Then often, homeopaths just keep diluting it. At 6 C the amount is like one drop of medicine in 50 swimming pools. Taken further, 12 C is like one drop in the entire Atlantic Ocean.
The theory claims the more the medicine is diluted, the stronger it becomes. "Not only does the medicine get stronger, but we need less doses of the medicines," said Ullman.
And how far do they go? The Food and Drug Administration says some of these things have no molecules of the medicine left.
Ullman says that's true, but maintains even when the molecules are gone their message remains. "The water gets impregnated with the information or memory of the original substance," said Ullman, who asserts the water remembers the information.
"It's nonsense. Total nonsense. It's mythology," said James Randi, a former magician known as the "Amazing Randi," who now runs a foundation that specializes in debunking what he calls pseudo science.
"Dilution is a term that they don't know the meaning of," said Randi. He said the process leaves them with "water."
"If homeopathy can be shown to work, [I'll give you] a million dollars," said Randi. His foundation offers that sum to anyone who can demonstrate any paranormal or supernatural phenomenon works. He says that includes homeopathy.
Putting Homeopathic Dilution to the Test
To take the challenge, we checked with Ullman, who described a scientific process for testing the effectiveness of homeopathy. "One way to test it is by using different homeopathic doses of histamine and seeing its effects on a type of white blood cells," said Ullman.
"Homeopathic doses of histamine would have a dramatic effect upon the white blood cells — these basophils," said Ullman. "And they would decrease in number."
So we set it up, in Europe, where similar published tests claimed to find that kind of effect. Scientists at Guy's Hospital in London prepared samples of the type of histamines that Ullman said would relieve allergy symptoms.
They tested them at the kind of ultra-diluted levels that many homeopathic products use, and that Ullman himself recommended.
Would the histamines affect the basophils more than plain water?
They'd test 400 samples and see. And if it was shown to work, Randi would cough up a million bucks.
"You want it personally or should I send it to a relative?" Randi asked. We offered to give it to a charity.
And the Results Are …
The test took a week. Three homeopaths were there to make sure the dilutions were done properly.
When the results came in, the homeopathic preparations had no demonstrable effect.
"[There's] no evidence at all that there's any difference between the tubes that started up with histamine and the tubes that started up with water," said Professor J. Martin Bland. "Mr. Stossel can kiss his million dollars goodbye."
The results were no surprise to James Randi. In fact, before the test, he predicted the homeopaths would make excuses if the test failed.
Dana Ullman tried to get the test called off before it even began, saying it was not an exact replica of earlier tests. He later complained the test wasn't designed or conducted properly. We then consulted leading university scientists who reviewed the test protocols and said they were "technically sound" and "meticulously conducted."
Ullman said our one test proves nothing, but I doubt any test would discourage the enthusiastic believers.
"I recognize that the nano-doses, these extremely small doses that we use at homeopathy at first blush may not make sense," said Ullman. "Well there may not be any molecular dose, but somehow the water does change."
The water remembers? Give me a break.