Last week I caught some nasty flu like bug and I have been walking around, sneezing, snorting and coughing my lungs out for several days. I am generally not a pill person. A lot of people I know love to pop a pill or two for stuff like migraines, upset stomach, muscle pain, queasiness and etc.. I don’t. I don’t get migraines, I get headaches and they are always explainable: usually it’s because I somehow skipped both the breakfast and the lunch and I’m starving, or I stayed up to late and my body is demanding that I pay off my sleep debt. Maybe I’m just lucky – I don’t know. The point is, I don’t take any medication unless I somehow ascertain that I am genuinely under the weather and I could use some pharmacological help. In such cases I’m usually willing to try anything that will make me feel better.
At some point between my coughing and sneezing someone handed me a small ampule of s drug called Oscillococcinum that was said to relieve flu like symptoms. The packaging assured me that there was no side effects, no adverse interactions with drugs or alcohol and was hypoallergenic which immediately made me suspicious. No side effects and no interactions? WTF? That’s how you know the shit your taking is the good stuff – it has about 10 pages of small print warnings. Intrigued I kept staring at the box trying to figure out what this wonder drug was all about.
I noticed the active ingredient was “Anas Barbariae Hepatis et Cordis Extractum”… Which did not sound like a chemical compound at all. In fact let’s break this down. I am not a linguist and my knowledge of Latin is somewhat lacking but using available online resources and dictionaries I managed to cobble together a rough translation:
Most sources translate anas as duck (or a senile old woman but I’ll go with duck because I don’t like the implications here). In fact, Wikipedia tells me it is actually a very specific genus of the dabbling duck family. Barbariae translates to strange/foreign/barbaric and etc.. Hepatis is the proper name for the liver. Cordis translates to heart/guts and extractum… Well, that’s an extract. So the drug that I have been handed contained the extract from the heart and liver of a strange/barbaric duck… What the… I don’t even… What kind of drug is that?
Oh… Wait… Never mind. I just noticed that the box says it is a homeopathic remedy. It all makes sense now. In case you didn’t hear about this boys and girls, homeopathy is just a fancy name for snake oil salesmanship. But if you don’t believe me, let’s look at Oscillococcinum a little more closely.
Apparently it contains 200CK of the heart and liver of Duck the Barbarian. That must be some strong shit, eh? I mean, if you are a duck you are not really build for doing the barbarian stuff. You can’t really hold a double handed sword due to a lack of hands, you can’t praise Crom because the only word you can utter is “quack” and you can’t really strike fear in the hearts of your enemies when most of them consider you nothing but dinner. So a duck that actually became a barbarian must be a one bad ass dude. Although the barbarian lifestyle is not very good for the liver I hear (with all the ale, spirits, magical potions and all) so effectiveness of such liver as a remedy is probably suspect. In fact, I would go on a limb and suggest that a liver of a seasoned barbarian might actually be toxic to most of us mere mortals.
But what does 200CK mean exactly? According to Wikipedia:
The 200CK indicates that the preparation entails a series of 200 dilutions of the starting ingredient, an extract from the heart and liver of a Muscovy Duck. Each step entails a 1:100 dilution, where the first mixture contains 1% of the extract, the second contains 1% of the first mixture, etc. The K indicates that it is prepared by the Korsakovian method, in which rather than 1% of the preparation being measured out at each stage and then diluted, a single vessel is repeatedly emptied, refilled, and vigorously shaken (in homeopathic terminology “succussed”), and it is assumed that 1% remains in the vessel each time. The 200C dilution is so extreme that the final pill contains none of the original material. Mathematically, in order to have a reasonable chance to obtain one molecule of the original extract the patient would have to consume an amount of the remedy many times larger than the known universe.
So in other words, it’s sugar pills. Very, very expensive sugar pills. Seriously, 6 doses of this shit costs $15. Mind boggles. For comparison, here is a 5lb bag of roughly the same exact shit for under $4.
Homeopatic medicine is worse than folk remedies because those actually can work. In fact many of modern medicines have been made by isolating an active ingredient from that weird herb that your grand-grandma would swear had to be picked under a full moon or otherwise it wouldn’t work. Homeopathy on the other hand is an 18th century pseudo science that says that water can be made to remember healing properties of certain substances by repetitive dilution. It does not work, because it can’t.
And yet, when I try to tell people that munching on overpriced sugar pills (whether or not they at some point have been in contact with a liver of Duck the Barbarian) they give me the same old “but it worked for me” routine. No it didn’t. Flu like symptoms come and go so at best this was just a placebo effect. But what do I know. Anecdotal stories of personal experiences overheard at the water cooler trump hard science every time.