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Homeopathy and the Quantum

If you read the journal Homeopathy with any regularity you will have seen a series of articles by LR Milgrom and others advancing theories about how homeopathy may work by quantum entanglement. Milgrom himself stated that this was supposed to be a metaphor, but others seem to have taken it more literally as an explanation for what may be going on.

Although no one has a fully satisfactory theory about how homeopathic medicines might work, the general assumption has been that they do so thanks to some property of the medicines themselves. Theories of this kind treat homeopathic medicines as approximately equivalent to conventional drugs, although no doubt working in a different way.

There has however always been a tendency for some enthusiasts to seek for more esoteric explanations, and in recent years these have sometimes invoked quantum mechanics for the purpose. For some, part of the appeal of these ideas is that they seem to allow homeopathy to get away from linear thinking and conventional pharmacology.

An important notion here is that of quantum non-locality. Quantum entanglement refers to a strange phenomenon whereby the properties of a particle pair can be instantaneously related even if they are at opposite ends of the universe. This is certainly a lot more mysterious than homeopathy but it is mainstream science, fully accepted within conventional physics.

Applying this idea to homeopathy, the authors of these recent papers have postulated a network of relationships involving the patient, the homeopathic medicine, the prescriber, and even the manufacturer of the medicine. Many combinations are possible and the field for speculation is wide open.

One difficulty, of course, is that particle physics is concerned with the very small and it is unclear whether quantum non-locality can be applied to the world of patients and medicines. As the Editor of Homeopathy, Peter Fisher, remarked in the journal in January 2003, quantum non-locality has been invoked in other contentious areas, such as distant healing and parapsychology. He thinks, I'm sure correctly, that many homeopaths would be uneasy to find their form of therapy placed alongside these things. Fisher returned to the subject in another editorial in October 2004, pointing out that the apparent efficacy of self-prescribed homeopathic medicines seems to pose difficulties for
theories of this kind.

I have myself always noted a similarity between homeopathy and parapsychology. Both have a long history; both are largely rejected by mainstream science although supported by a small number of scientifically trained enthusiasts; both have tried to provide evidence for the validity of their claims by means of scientific research, which has not been universally recognized as valid; both are bedevilled by a lack of plausible theory to explain how they might work.

Although the authors who have taken part in the recent debate in the journal have favoured different versions of the quantum non-locality idea, all do at least agree that there is something to be explained. That is, they all think that homeopathy has real effects over and beyond the placebo response.

It has to be said, however, that this has not been conclusively demonstrated to the satisfaction of everyone. In another editorial in April 2003, E. Ernst gave it as his opinion that, in spite of all the research to date, we still are unable to say with any certainty that homeopathy is more than a placebo. If he is right, there is little point in pursuing complex and probably unverifiable speculations about how it is supposed to work.

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