One of the ways that homeopathy manages to look like a science, rather than essentially the practice of magic, is through the use of detailed and systematic methods that resembles those of real science. One example of this is the “proving,” or what is sometimes called a “pathogenetic trial.”
This experiment resembles clinical trials used in science-based medicine in some superficial ways, and it is often misrepresented as a form of research study. However, the fundamental purpose of true scientific research, including clinical trials, is to control for the misleading effects of various sources of error, most notably biases and other errors arising from subjective human observations. Provings, however, are entirely subjective and so have no control for such errors.
The core principle of homeopathy, that “like cures like” rests on the notion that if a homeopathic remedy causes a specific pattern of symptoms in a healthy person, that pattern of symptoms can be reliably associated with that remedy and used as a guide to when to employ the remedy in treating disease. If a patient has a pattern of symptoms that match those listed in homeopathic references for a particular remedy, that remedy might be the best one for that patient, regardless of what scientific medicine might consider his or her actual diagnosis.
This sound deceptively reasonable, until we look into how it works in detail. I have covered the concept of like-cures-like before, as have many other authors (e.g. Science-Based Medicine, Skeptic’s Dictionary). Basically, homeopaths accept a version of the ancient and widespread, and completely false, theory of sympathetic magic. This is the belief that things which have some sort of superficial resemblance must have a fundamental connection such that one can be used to manipulate the other. The voodoo doll is a classic example. In this case, homeopaths claim that substances which cause certain symptoms in healthy people should be used to cure the causes of those symptoms in the ill. This is a notion that has stubbornly resisted all attempts to prove it is actually true.
In any case, even if this notion were true, there are some pretty seriously problems with how the symptom pattern for a given remedy are defined and identified through provings. Basically, presumably healthy people (no systematic effort to ensure they are healthy is generally made) take a remedy and keep a diary of every experience, physical or mental, they have for a period of time afterwards. After the trial, homeopaths look at these diaries and decide what patterns of symptoms are meaningful, and this becomes the defining characteristic pattern of that remedy.
The subjective nature and potential for bias in this approach has long been recognized. One of the most incisive criticisms of hoemoapthic provings was written by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions in 1842, while Hahnemann was still alive. Nothing of consequence has changed in the intervening 173 years.
The effects of drugs upon healthy persons have been studied by Hahnemann and his associates. Their results were made known in his Materia Medica, a work in three large volumes in the French translation, published about eight years ago. The mode of experimentation appears to have been, to take the substance on trial, either in common or minute doses, and then to set down every little sensation, every little movement of mind or body, which occurred within many succeeding hours or days, as being produced solely by the substance employed. When I have enumerated some of the symptoms attributed to the power of the drugs taken, you will be able to judge how much value is to be ascribed to the assertions of such observers.
The following list was taken literally from the Materia Medica of Hahnemann, by my friend M. Vernois, for whose accuracy I am willing to be responsible. He has given seven pages of these symptoms, not selected, but taken at hazard from the French translation of the work. I shall be very brief in my citations.
“After stooping some time, sense of painful weight about the head upon resuming the erect posture.”
“An itching, tickling sensation at the outer edge of the palm of the left hand, which obliges the person to scratch.” The medicine was acetate of lime, and as the action of the globule taken is said to last twenty-eight days, you may judge how many such symptoms as the last might be supposed to happen.
Among the symptoms attributed to muriatic acid are these: a catarrh, sighing, pimples; “after having written a long time with the back a little bent over, violent pain in the back and shoulder-blades, as if from a strain,”—”dreams which are not remembered—disposition to mental dejection—wakefulness before and after midnight.”
I might extend this catalogue almost indefinitely. I have not cited these specimens with any view to exciting a sense of the ridiculous, which many others of those mentioned would not fail to do, but to show that the common accidents of sensation, the little bodily inconveniences to which all of us are subject, are seriously and systematically ascribed to whatever medicine may have been exhibited, even in the minute doses I have mentioned, whole days or weeks previously.
Provings are still conducted in this way, with no real effort to control for bias of any kind. And the kinds of symptoms attributed to the remedies tested are as arbitrary and irrational as even. I recently ran across a beautiful example in a proving conducted by a senior homeopathy student about five years ago.
Homeopathic proving of Procyon lotor (Raccoon fur). Sonya McLeod and Kathleen Taylor, 2009.
That’s right. These homeopaths decided to test the potential medicinal properties of raccoon fur. Well, since they used mostly a 30c preparation, this means they mixed the fur (from a dead raccoon found “in the wild”) with a solvent (water or alcohol) and successively diluted it until there was no chance of any molecules of raccoon fur remaining. So actually they were testing the effects of water that had once had some raccoon fur in it. But the issue of ultradilute substances is a different subject.
At this point, it is also important to mention that what homeopaths consider relevant symptoms is quite different from what science-based medicine considers relevant. Homeopathy is ultimately a practice for healing spiritual ills, of which bodily symptoms are only one manifestation. So mental, emotional, even spiritual “symptoms” are included in the characterization of remedies and the evaluation of patients. Homeopaths also view as salient features like the time of day symptoms are experienced or the side of the body in which they manifest.
While this may sound thorough and “holistic,” it is quite misleading. Since no human is capable of considering the influence of everything in the universe on a patient’s condition, all practitioners make decisions about what is or is not relevant. Science used systematic methods with controls for bias and error to do this. Homeopaths just pick what to pay attention to and what to ignore with no objective attempt to determine which factors really are relevant to maintaining or restoring health.
If I have a dog who is vomiting, what they have eaten is very likely to be relevant to why they are vomiting and what can be done to help them. This has been established by extensive research into how the gastrointestinal system works and how various substances affect its function. The fact that my patient may dream of rabbits, may have been born under a particular constellation, or may live in a house with hardwood floors rather than linoleum are probably less likely to be relevant or useful facts. Without a systematic and objective process of establishing whether these factors are actually connected to disease or the success of treatment, we end up arbitrarily considering anything and everything, which is not a rational or efficient way to practice.
In the raccoon fur proving, 8 individuals were chosen to take the remedy, at a variety of doses and dilutions. None of the methods used in true clinical trials to control for the influence of differences between individuals or groups of subjects were employed. No effort was made to establish the pre-existing physical or mental condition of the subjects or to control for differences between the individual subjects or between the subjects and the population who might one day be treated with this remedy.
The homeopaths did include one individual who received a “placebo” (how this is defined in homeopathic trials is always problematic, since the actual test remedies contain no active ingredients). However, the authors write, “we decided to include symptoms experienced by the prover who took placebo as well.”
This is clearly inconsistent with the approach of scientific research, which uses placebos to control for the influence of belief and expectation on the reports of subjects in a trial. The authors of this proving justify including the individual receiving the placebo with reference to an essay which makes it clear, yet again, that homeopathy is a variety of religion or magic, not science. According to this author, placebo controls are unnecessary since it is not the remedy itself that influences subjects but the idea, intention, or “immaterial essence” of the remedy.
A proving begins, in a literal sense, with the intention to prove a thing, with it being imagined, identified, obtained, and possibly potentised. Should the name of the thing be kept under wraps, double blinded, picked at random out of a hat, the proving date sprung upon the proving group, nonetheless the event field of the proving is the moment in time that intention arose.
…The concept of participation mystique comes to mind in order to afford a description of this phenomenon. In the case of the School, provings have become a recognised corner stone of homeopathic training. This plus familiarity, shared endeavour and healing ideals combine to engender group consciousness and participation mystique. That those who did not ‘take’ the thing, that those who did not even know that the proving would take place within the group, had been affected demonstrates the dynamic nature of the phenomenon.
It is only matter that is bound to space and time. The immaterial essence of the thing, actuated by the intention of the proving group constellates the action field. Forgive me labouring the point: the thing that we are dealing with is essence, spirit, call it what you will, and is not bound within the constraints of space and time. Those who key into it are part of it irrespective of distance or time; they know it telepathically.
The action field of a proving is not necessarily set up by taking orally or sniffing, nor is it necessarily either substance or potency. It may be derived from and by these means or not. Directed meditation and attentive listening is sufficient to initiate and sustain a proving. We have invoked group provings by one member ‘holding’ the concept/image of a thing…Rajan Sankaran experimented with music provings, while at the School we have experimented with ‘thought’ provings. In none of these was pharmacy involved. There was no use of potency, no ‘memory’ of water, no nuclear or crystalline patterning, because there was no substance.
One can see pretty clearly why the claim that provings are in any way at all equivalent to scientific clinical trials is nonsense. The similarity is more that between astrology and astrophysics, or between meteorology and divination.
The symptoms reported in the raccoon proving, which presumably will be used to decide when to employ this remedy in treating actual patients, reads, in some ways, like a horoscope. Vague or ambivalent descriptions are given which could apply to anyone at one time or another, or patterns of completely opposite symptoms are recorded and both interpreted as resulting from the remedy. For example:
…there are periods of effort alternating with inactivity…there were days where they were very active and restless, alternating with times when they had no energy to do much of anything.
Many of the provers also experienced menstrual symptoms…Two of the provers had their periods come as early as 9 days early. One supervisor had intermittent bleeding that came and went. For two provers it either caused or cured heavy period flow.
Many of the provers experienced more ideas and flow of thoughts after taking the remedy.
Sometimes this rush of thoughts increased at night, preventing sleep. Other provers found it very difficult to think and to concentrate, like their minds had become foggy, becoming absentminded and confused.
For some provers, their normal anxiety was ameliorated during the proving. One supervisor experienced a pronounced anxiety on waking at 5am.
The subjective symptoms, including emotions and dreams, show such obvious bias associated with pre-conceptions about the nature and cultural symbolic attributes of raccoons, it is difficult to imagine anyone could be unable to identify this obvious bias.
A few of the provers felt dirty or ugly…There was also a lot about survival.
People needing this remedy will fight for their survival…There was a lot in the dreams about victimization and subordination, abuse, being attacked, and then fighting back or protecting oneself or others.
Many provers…had an increased need to take care of and nurture their children. Many also had dreams of family members. This theme of nurturing and family also came out in the dreams of many of the provers. This is a them common to all mammal remedies, including raccoons who can stay with their young for up to a year.
We also found it interesting that two of the provers had itching and dryness of the nipples. This symptom fits in with the theme of nurturing.
Fear of snakes is also common to all mammal remedies. This symptom showed up in a few separate dreams of one of the provers.
Some provers became sensitive to colour and to bright light. One prover had the desire to wear black, as she found bright colours too stimulating. We can guess this symptom may be related to the raccoon’s increased sensitivity to light since their eyes are suited to night vision.
There were lots of dreams about committing crimes, stealing, criminals, and police. One of the provers had her proving journal stolen during the proving. The raccoon’s reputation as a sneaky bandit and thief comes through very strongly in this proving.
Lots of dreams about food and eating. Many of the provers had increased appetite, perhaps mimicking the raccoon’s voracious appetite in the fall, in preparation for sleeping away the winter.
[Raccoons are] also excellent climbers. In the proving, many of the provers had dreams of trees, and of climbing those trees.
The symptoms attributed to the remedy included things which could not be seen in any rational way as related to the preparation tested except through magic. These included:
Provers and their supervisors often had difficulty getting hold of each other during the proving. At the extraction meeting, the master prover’s internet stopped working,
A few days before the extraction meeting, the master prover’s parking lot was flooded. [categorized with symptoms related by “Flow & Lack of Flow: Water and Dryness”]
As is often the case, the ideas put forward by homeopaths can, at first, seem rational and even superficially similar to scientific practices. However, any investigation into the details of their claims and methods makes it clear that this is a relic of spiritualism and faith healing with no fundamental similarity, or even compatibility, with contemporary science. The methods rely entirely on subjective personal experience and make not even the most minimal effort to acknowledge or account for the biases this introduces.