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Doctor Strange: The only way to make homeopathy work

i-07d0cd8a1bd48b3c93ef58e81c7edc6c-newavengers_28.jpgIt would appear that I must respectfully disagree (or be Respectfully Insolent, if you will) with fellow comic fan Scott over at Polite Dissent.

Two of my all-time favorite comics are Fantastic Four and (believe it or not, given my present day disdain for woo) Doctor Strange. Doctor Stephen Strange, for those of you not familiar with him, started out as an incredibly arrogant and greedy neurosurgeon who was involved in an auto accident in which he suffered nerve damage to his hands that impaired the fine motor control to the point where, while he could function normally in every day life, he could no longer operate. This led to his downfall as he searched the world for someone who could repair the nerves in his injured hands. Just as he hit rock bottom, though, he managed to make his way to Tibet, where he found the Ancient One, a mystical wise man who, it was said, could cure anything. Ultimately, through a confrontation with the Ancient One’s disciple at the time, Mordo, Strange rediscovered the goodness in his nature and became the Ancient One’s disciple himself, ultimately becoming his successor as Sorcerer Supreme, the title given to the one sorcerer sworn to protect Earth and its universe against mystic threats such as the Dread Dormammu.

Scott objected to Dr. Strange’s use of the term “homeopathic” in an appearance by Dr. Strange in The New Avengers #28, as illustrated in the panel to the right, stating:

This is yet another example of the word homeopathic being used as a buzzword in a situation where it makes no sense…

Medically, Homeopathy is nonsense and bunk. Logically, it makes no sense, and multiple rigorous scientific studies have confirmed that it works no better than placebo. I’ll grant you that there are no side effects — but that’s just because the treatment is simply water. But let’s assume for a minute that Homeopathy does work — and even then Dr. Strange’s statements make no sense. Is he casting a spell that actually worsens her vital signs, but “diluting” the magic? Casting a placebo spell?

I beg to differ (not with Scott’s contention that homeopathy is bunk, I hasten to add).

In reality, this context is the perfect use of the word “homeopathic” and the only situation (i.e., a fictional situation using magic) in which the use of homeopathy makes sense. Although Scott is certainly correct that, scientifically speaking, homeopathy is utter bunk, at the very core of homeopathy is a concept that can only be considered to be magic. In homeopathy, the main principles are that “like heals like” and that dilution increases potency. Thus, in homeopathy, to cure an illness, you pick something that causes symptoms similar to those of that illness and then dilute it from 30C to 40C, where each “C” represents a 1:100 dilution. Given that such levels of dilution exceed Avagaddro’s number by many orders of magnitude, even if any sort of active medicine was used, there is no active ingredient left after homeopathic dilution. This was known as far back as the mid-1800’s. Of course, this doesn’t stop homeopaths, who argue that water somehow retains the “essence” of whatever homeopathic remedy it has been in contact with, and that’s how homeopathy “works.”

A better example of magical thinking is hard to come by. Indeed, homeopathy can best be described as a spell being cast. Indeed, it’s been pointed out that homeopathy’s Principle of Similarities (“like cures like”) actually resembles Frazer’s Law of Similarity from the Golden Bough, one of the implicit principles of magic:

IF we analyse the principles of thought on which magic is based, they will probably be found to resolve themselves into two: first, that like produces like, or that an effect resembles its cause; and, second, that things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed. The former principle may be called the Law of Similarity, the latter the Law of Contact or Contagion. From the first of these principles, namely the Law of Similarity, the magician infers that he can produce any effect he desires merely by imitating it: from the second he infers that whatever he does to a material object will affect equally the person with whom the object was once in contact, whether it formed part of his body or not. Charms based on the Law of Similarity may be called Homoeopathic or Imitative Magic. Charms based on the Law of Contact or Contagion may be called Contagious Magic.

Actually, come to think of it, homeopathy seems to use both principles, the Law of Similarity, and the Law of Contagion, given that it postulates that water somehow remains influenced by substances that it’s been in contact with even after that substance has been diluted away to not a single molecule. It just reverses the concept that “like produces like” (the Law of Similars”) to “like heals like” (or “like reverses like”). Given that homeopathy is magic, what better person to actually make a “homeopathic” spell work than the Sorcerer Supreme?

In fact, Dr. Strange appears to be taking homeopathy to a whole new level. Notice how he’s eliminated even the use of water. Instead, he’s just using the symbol (language) that represents the “cure” to take care of the problem. Why bother with all that silliness regarding water somehow retaining “memory” of homeopathic cures when you can just eliminate the water?

Yes, this is the only place where the use of homeopathic spells (which is, in essence, what all homeopathy is) might be appropriate: By a fictional character who is a sorcerer!

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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