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Would homeopathy be verifiable according to the logic positivists (and thus science)?

On the one hand, one could, in principle, observe patients recovering after being given a homeopathic medicine. On the other hand, one could say that the homeopathy can't be verified since one cannot empirically observe that homeopathy will work in any future cases. (There is the induction problem, preventing any x amount of obervations from being sufficient evidence to prove a general law such as homeopathy does.)

Just a note: I do not believe in homeopathy myself, I am not asking to justify homeopathic claims.

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    But the logical positivists look at being verifiable in principle, right? Regardless of whether the actual theory is true or not. – Dasherman Dec 3 '14 at 18:33
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    Homeopathy is a pseudoscience - it does not adhere to a valid scientific method, it lacks plausibility, and cannot be scientifically tested. Therefore I would argue that homeopathy is not verifiable. – wildBillMunson Dec 3 '14 at 18:37
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    The first two points do not seem to contradict the verifiability of homeopathy to me. The last point, however, does. Why do you think homeopathy cannot be scientifically tested? – Dasherman Dec 3 '14 at 18:40
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    In brief: homeopathic claims are testable and have failed. Some claims lead to trivially-deduced absurdities; others require testing, and tests have failed. Homeopathy isn't untestable, it's just wrong. – Rex Kerr Dec 4 '14 at 5:10
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    @wildBillMunson That's not what verifiability means. – ChristopherE Dec 5 '14 at 22:56
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In conventional medicine, the relevant definition is clinically effective -- basically that there is a statistically significant effect in a suitably controlled (and randomized) test sample. This includes accounting for the placebo effect. If a treatment is clinically effective, that should satisfy the logical positivists. It is not impossible for alternative medical practices to satisfy this requirement in principle (to my knowledge homeopathy specifically does not, but acupuncture has for some forms of pain management). Note that there is no problem of induction in applying the criterion of "clinically effective" to proposed medical treatments.

One can also put this into a more Popperian (sic?) framework, e.g. setup a scientific hypothesis like "Homeopathic treatment X is statistically more effective at treating condition Y than conventional treatment Z", and then go forth and do the clinical trials to falsify this hypothesis. If the trial comes back with a result that there is no statistically significant improvement from using X, then that hypothesis is false. If there were a statistically significant positive effect, then this hypothesis would not have been falsified. The key thing is in constructing the hypothesis to be specific enough to be falsifiable.

  • Does this mean that you would also say that homeopathy is falsifiable? – Dasherman Dec 3 '14 at 19:10
  • Edited to include the idea that "failing to be clinically effective" corresponds to falsifying the hypothesis. – Dave Dec 3 '14 at 19:20
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    Depending on what exactly you mean by "homeopathy is falsifiable" it may or may not be true. It's impractical to test every possible homeopathic treatment against every possible condition, so we'll never get there; but the specific hypotheses themselves are falsifiable. – Dave Dec 3 '14 at 19:28
  • Theories, and not facts, are or are not falsifiable in a Popperian sense. If a theory is in fact falsifiable in principle, there is no need to test each application, only a few. But homeopathy does not have an underlying structure that allows each failure to be accounted against the theory as a whole. Multiple failures cannot add up to a single overall disproof except in a subjective way. And the complexity of the path from basis to effect is so complex that the subjective judgement takes forever. That makes the theory unfalsifiable, and in Popper's sense non-scientific. – user9166 Dec 3 '14 at 23:19
  • @jobermark Your comment is a different take on why I flagged the meaning of "homeopathy is falsifiable" -- if it is a disconnected set of hypotheses, then it is not falsifiable (in any practical sense) and thus not scientific (this is in addition to the lack of parsimony). If the failure of specific homeopathic treatments to meet medical standards constitutes "falsifying homeopathy", then it can, and has, been falsified. – Dave Dec 3 '14 at 23:35
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There are two dominant ways of looking at what is and is not scientific. Neither of them ever considers any theory 'verifiable'. The kind of truth that has constructive verification is not something science really has access to, perhaps outside of mathematics, and there only by convention.

One of them is Kuhn's notion. It focuses on science as a communal activity. The basic idea is that sciences work within paradigms, and that when a paradigm cannot be convincing to a critical mass of invested practitioners, it is abandoned. Then our understanding moves forward sociologically, not based on its content, but on the intellectual honesty of its practitioners. Those who cannot make their case, but insist on operating on a discredited paradigm are being intellectually dishonest, and have become invested in their own paradigm over the progress of the explanatory mechanism as a whole.

The other position is Popper's, focused on individual theories. It considers a theory scientific if it is applicable, falsifiable and parsimonious. Theories that are not 'applicable', i.e. that predict falsely at their inception, are not good candidates for truth. But a theory must go beyond that, and honestly risk 'falsification'. It must predict solutions to problems that are currently debatable. Otherwise it becomes a simple repository of memory, a craft and not a science. If those predictions do not pan out, other contending theories should be used to complement or replace the theory in question. At the same time, to prevent the result from becoming an intractable pastiche of theories that really have nothing in common, each theory should be judged according to its 'parsimony', the degree to which it does or does not truly require additional vocabulary and different ways of thinking. Theories that can let other accepted theories do most of their heavy lifting are preferable, in that they are more likely to merge into a single overarching theory and make science itself simpler to use. But if those underlying theories fail, then the whole content of the reliant theory subsumes the complexity of the working part of the failed underlying theory. (So, for instance, when chemistry was created, 'humour theory' consequently became much less parsimonious, and highly questionable. Other alternatives that were no more effective, but only equally effective with less complexity, largely won over the practice of medicine.)

Homeopathy is discredited sociologically, in that its working assumptions are based upon alchemy, which has been replaced by chemistry as a predictive basis. And it is not parsimonious, in that it is complicated, but one cannot make the case experimentally the complexity actually improves its performance.

Don't take this as an attack on old-fashioned medicine as a craft. There is a lot of room for effective unscientific medicine.

For instance, several forms of psychotherapy are equivalent to the 'client centered' approach in effectiveness. 'Client centered' therapists simply cultivate a way of being honestly interested in their clients in a way that does not require a mechanism or theory. But most people cannot do it very well, outright. Therefore we fall back on mechanisms and habits that produce that attitude within us, or the equivalent complementary attitude within the client -- theories of behavior, investment in family dynamics, etc. Those theories are seldom parsimonious, and they are generally unfalsifiable, or even outright unapplicable. So, in the end, the process is primarily still wholly unscientific.

At the same time, a vast majority of the curative power of physical medicine is also psychological, in a way we still have very little access to or control over. If you can offer a more convincing placebo with extra machinery, more side-effects, or magical explanations for the reasons behind your suggestions, you may still be doing effective medicine, if quite bad science.

  • In a world of 'relativism', what paradigm is discredited? Discredited by whom? By what process? Don't say, "the scientific method as a process." Whose method and process is that? You point out, "it's intellectually dishonest"; but, this is nothing more than a 'jab'. Sticks and stones. Whose 'group theory' or 'group dynamic' are you appealing to? I'm not defending homeopathy (T.E. Frazier characterized such as 'magic'); but, "Whose magic?" Perhaps a 'power' group? Might not the modern scientist be any different? Remember: in a postmodern, relativistic world there is no authority. – Darcy Davis Dec 4 '14 at 18:59
  • @DarcyDavis the context of the quote you pulled regards Kuhn's description of science; and thus the relevant community is that community that works in (and occasionally changes) the existing scientific paradigms. – Dave Dec 4 '14 at 21:34
  • @DarcyDavis In a world of sociological conventions, credit accrues via social means and authority comes with it. But there is still authority. By what power do you assert there is no authority? Are we to take that on your authority? You seem awfully certain your judgments are absolute, for a stated relativist. I don't know what planet you live on, but I am surrounded by authorities, and they have guns. If you accept an authority, say by getting a degree, or by otherwise borrowing against its reputation, and then you flout it, it will demand its due whether or not it 'no longer exists'. – user9166 Dec 4 '14 at 23:59
  • What? You talking to me? – Darcy Davis Dec 5 '14 at 19:14
  • @Jobermark What would Kuhn's demarcation criterion then be? Simply what agrees with the current paradigm? – Dasherman Dec 5 '14 at 21:47
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Homeopathy is NOT verifiable (in the sense of "statistical effectiveness").

Homeopathy IS falsifiable (in the sense that it can be statistically proven ineffective BOTH against a placebo AND against a conventional remedy).

(Oh, BTW, the infamous "research" on "water memory", published by Benveniste on Nature in 1988, and later proved impossible to reproduce, was paid for by the by the French homeopathic company Boiron)

  • How would one prove that something is statistically ineffective? After all, statistics is really just chances, which don't really prove anything if a finite amount of test subjects is used. – Dasherman Dec 5 '14 at 19:00
  • @Dasherman, what one means by saying that something is "statistically ineffective" normally is that "there does not exist evidence that there is a more than 95% (or 99%, or 99.9%...) chance that the effectiveness is more than X amount." That such a statement means anything is the premise behind classical Statistics. – James Kingsbery Dec 5 '14 at 19:56
  • @Miguel, I think you need to distinguish between "verifiable" and whether it has been verified. (As Rex pointed out, it is testable, it just has failed the tests.) – James Kingsbery Dec 5 '14 at 19:58
  • @ James. You are right, I was conditioned by the way the original question was formulated. Thank you for pointing out Rex' comment, whith which I fully agree. – Miguel de Servet Dec 6 '14 at 19:31
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    @ jobermark. It was precisely using the criterion of falsifiability that Popper concluded that psychoanalysis and Marxism ar NOT scientific. – Miguel de Servet Dec 15 '14 at 10:17
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I don't know where else to make this comment. I find @Dr Nancy Malik's answer well-informed and helpful and would vote to undelete it. It seems such a good answer that I can't understand the deletion, but perhaps it's been edited since then.

I have no idea whether homeopathy works but I tentatively believe it saved my son's life at six months old. The pediatric consultant (who had advised we had no choice but life-threatening surgery) was gobsmacked by the sudden improvement (a complete cure for pyloric stenosis) but refused to discuss what might have caused it. The problems never returned. When (two months later) a second homeopathic treatment also cured related breathing difficulties predicted by the consultant to continue into his teenage years he would barely speak to us at all. Two pills and two cures is not a bad hit-rate or quite a coincidence.

It's an anecdote and not a proof of anything, or course, but I wouldn't hesitate to contact a good homeopath in future under similar circumstances. I thought my wife was nuts for going down this route but almost immediately and very happily ate my words.

As for how it might work I have not the slightest idea.

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Homeopathy is not verifiable because of the concept of 'individualization'. The Homeopathic doctrine considers each person as a unique entity. Hence, the effects produced by Homeopathic medicine may not be observed in another person.

The question keeps coming up: 'Is Homeopathic medicine really effective or not?'

The answer is 'Yes'...provided it is given by following Homeopathic methodology. The Homeopathic doctrine proposes the principle of 'like cures like'. The natural drug substance which causes disease would be capable of curing similar disease symptoms. The meaning of Homeopathy lies in the word 'homeo' meaning 'similar'.

Dr. Samuel Hahnemann developed this science when he observed the effect of Cinchona bark on himself. Cinchona is used as an anti-malarial agent. Hahnemann thought that apart from bitterness there must be something more which cures malarial symptoms. There are multiple bitter substances but not every bitter substance cures malarial symptoms. Hence, he diluted the Cinchona bark and administered it to himself. To his astonishment, he got malaria-like symptoms, i.e., fever, chills, joint pains, etc.

He repeated this experiment again and again. He observed similar symptoms at every attempt. He concluded the natural law of healing: 'like cures like'.

He then experimented with hundreds of natural substances and recorded his observations. He also found that extreme dilution and shaking of drug substances enhanced its medicinal power dynamically.

Here is a definition of Homeopathy

Homeopathy is the alternative medicine system in which diseases are treated by minuscule doses of natural substances that in larger amounts would produce symptoms of similar diseases in healthy individuals.

Unfortunately, the efficacy of Homeopathic remedies can not be tracked via current statistical methods. That's why many claim this science is quackery or the positive results obtained were due to placebo effects.

Like other modern medicines, there is no ADME (Absorption, Distribution, Metabolism and Excretion) for a Homeopathic drug. In fact, it is diluted to the level where one hardly could trace the drug substance in the final preparation.

It is utterly necessary that the remedy be similar (matching) to a given person and to his disease symptoms.

It is hard to obtain satisfactory outcomes by mixing multiple Homeopathic medicines in one single preparation. This is another reason why it is supposed to not working effectively.

In my view, to verify Homeopathy one has to follow a reverse path. Just check if a person actually received benefit from Homeopathic medicine. Try to understand exactly what worked in that person and how.

You will surely get the answer.

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    "Unfortunately, efficacy of Homeopathic remedies can not be tracked via current statistical modules." Is there something that made you know otherwise? What is this method? Maybe science lacks those methods? "In my view, to verify Homeopathy, one has to follow reverse path. Just check it in a person who actually got benefit from Homeopathic medicine." Science used these methods. But developed much faster after rejecting them. This is the way confirmation bias work, which is destrunctive for science. – rus9384 Jul 16 '18 at 23:52
  • I edited the answer hopefully making it clearer. You are welcome to roll this back or to edit further. To see the edits I made click on the "edited" link above my icon. It would be helpful to add even more references supporting your answer. – Frank Hubeny Jul 17 '18 at 0:37
  • "The efficacy of Homeopathic remedies can not be tracked via current statistical methods" - verifying (or falsifying) the treatment's results is independent from understanding its mechanism. If homeopathy, acupuncture or prayer work for a sufficient number of people, this should be visible by ordinary statistical means. And if their efficacy has no statistical proof, then how can they be marketed to the wide public? – IMil Dec 17 '18 at 3:21
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I can verify without any doubt whatsoever that homeopathy has cured me of a lifelong problem that I thought was incurable, and is the only thing that has had any curative effect on another ailment that started about five years ago. If I hadn't had the problem of the more recent ailment, I never would have searched for a cure, and probably never would have found homeopathy. I tried what seems like every other natural cure in the world and none of them helped at all. The reports of efficacy and the risks of pharmaceuticals doctors sell for my problem made it clear that pharmaceuticals would have made me sicker or done nothing. So I tried homeopathy in 2017, and accidentally discovered a homeopathic remedy that cured me of the lifelong problem. The problem was mostly gone within a month or two, and continued to improve as I continued to learn about and use homeopathy. I'm still using homeopathy for the more recent problem, as well, and it is very slowly healing me. It's been two and a quarter years so far, and I think the healing is going to continue for at least another year. I wish I had known about homeopathy when I was a child. When I was a young adult, someone told me about it, and I dismissed it as another category of nonsense that couldn't be true. That was a very costly misinformed judgment. I wasted enormous amounts of time and money on stuff that either did nothing to help, or made my health worse, and on natural healing that was quite helpful but not the deep-down cure that homeopathy can be and, in a couple cases for me, actually is. Nobody knows why homeopathy works. Nobody knows how any living thing works. Nobody knows how living systems heal themselves, or come to life, or organize themselves into incomprehensibly complicated organisms, or transform other organisms and water and carbon dioxide into fuel for survival... We could go on and on and on with this line of thinking. Obvious point is, if you require that your humble human brain comprehend how/why any medicine does what it does before you will make use of it, you won't ever be taking any medicine at all. Nobody knows why the chemicals in pharmaceuticals have the effect they have. Nobody knows why the non-chemicals in homeopathy have the effect they have. But it definitely does work. I am unspeakably grateful for the life and work of Samuel Hahnemann and his predecessors and the people who listened to Hahnemann and everyone who has done the hard work of preserving the practice of homeopthy and keeping it going. If they had not done what they've done, I would be in serious trouble health-wise.

  • What was your problem? How do you know it was placebo effect? – curiousdannii Jun 25 at 2:14
  • Are you therefore saying that in fact one cannot verify homeopathy? Since finding out how it works would impact on its efficacy? – christo183 Jun 25 at 4:09
  • Do you mean: How do I know it wasn't placebo effect? Well, I didn't really believe it would work when I tried it, but it did, And I was certain other things working when they weren't. So what didn't work should have, based on my certainty, and the homeopathy should not have worked based on my doubt, right? ... Problem is a fungus on my skin. ... On the verification question: I don't think I said or suggested that understanding how homeopathic or pharmaceutical medicines work would affect whether or not they work. I think the post above about the conundrum of verifying hmpthy is probably right. – auser Jun 26 at 3:36
  • You can help the reader by dividing this answer into paragraphs. 350-400 words, single-spaced, becomes difficult to read. – Mark Andrews Jul 7 at 0:05

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