Homeopathy in a chemistry book

Homeopathy in a chemistry book

According to a widely used chemistry textbook for 3 VWO, homeopaths can increase the potency of a medicine by diluting it strongly. This also allows them to prevent the drug from having harmful side effects, as is common with ‘allopathy'.

In the November issue of the journal NVOX (2009), the publisher promised that such and other statements about homeopathy will be critically examined in a subsequent edition of the book. However, not much has changed on the accompanying website, which does not have to wait for a new print.

What is the case? Recently I studied Chemistry everywhere for 3 pre-university education, one of the new chemistry textbooks of recent years. The renewed fifth edition from 2006 has been set up according to the concept-in-context method. In the book, three concept chapters and three context chapters alternate. A good idea, because chemistry education is not only about abstract theoretical concepts, but also about the practical context in which chemical knowledge functions and is applied.

Unfortunately, a piece of historical context is missing. The abstract concepts of atom and molecule are already introduced (posed) in the first chapter, while the decomposition reactions are only discussed in chapter five. The didactically logical and clear route from the observable world to the abstract particle world is turned upside down. But perhaps this was the most ‘economical' ordering of the subject matter, because one can now immediately use the particle model to explain all kinds of phenomena.

The book is richly illustrated. In the sixth and final chapter, ‘Drugs and Poisons', I came across a nice historical picture of a friendly-looking boss. Samuel Hahnemann! What the hell is that supposed to be in a chemistry book? A few pages earlier I also found a picture of Paracelsus. Was this medieval alchemist a pioneering toxicologist?

Where were the images of the heroes of the trade? The iconic portrait of the genius schoolmaster John Dalton, with his pince-nez, hand under his head, and the famous big-eyed image of Amadeo Avogadro, who first formulated the modern concept of a molecule? Nowhere to be found. Fortunately, my third hero was not completely missing: on page 58 is a tiny version of the well-known picture of Antoine Lavoisier at work in his laboratory.

It's not saying much that the founders of chemistry are hidden away in a chemistry textbook – the history of chemistry has always been a neglected child in the curriculum. But it is significant that the founder of a pseudoscience is prominently depicted.

Disembodied healing power without side effects

The chapter on ‘Drugs and poisons' deals with homeopathy in the section ‘Effect and side effects of medicines' (6.4), with one of the three learning objectives: ‘After this section you will know more about homeopathy'.

The homeopathic theory is explained as if it were facts, without a word of criticism. An EPN publisher website associated with the textbook allows students to test the knowledge gained by rating several statements, including the following:

‘By diluting homeopathic medicines, you can increase the healing power.'

Anyone who believes that this statement is incorrect will see a red cross and the message ‘That is incorrect. Try again.' The answer must agree with the homeopathic teaching, although it has not been proven and, moreover, very implausible. Hahnemann used such high dilutions that no molecule of the original substance could be found. The supposed healing power was immaterial and thus had nothing to do with chemistry.

For more information, the educational publisher refers to a Word document on the same didactic site . This appears to be an uncritical piece with statements such as: ‘A homeopathic remedy fits a person like a key in a lock and activates your whole body to work better.' The quote below also makes it clear that the information has been copied indiscriminately from a homeopathic source:

Homeopathic medicine is much older than you might think. Before our era, the Greek scholar Hippocrates -who lived from 460 to 377 BC- already wrote about this method. From him also comes the principle that is called in Latin: “Similia similibus curentur”.

Homeopathic writings regularly refer to the Greek physician Hippocrates – known for the Hippocratic Oath , which physicians still take. It is claimed that Hippocrates was a forerunner of homeopathy, but this information is incorrect .

In the pre-university education textbook, regular medicine is referred to as ‘allopathy'. This was originally a kind of swear word Hahnemann used for eighteenth-century horror medicine (he meant “treatment with the unsuitable”). Today, only adherents of homeopathy and other alternative medicine use this word for scientific medicine. It doesn't belong in a chemistry textbook.

The text of Chemistry everywhere is implicitly very critical of regular medicines. In the above paragraph (6.4) the biochemical effect of such agents is not discussed, despite the nice title, but the students are extensively informed about the harmful side effects.

Section 6.5 discusses the pharmaceutical industry and discusses the concept of ‘double-blind research'. Why is it not stated that the effect of homeopathic medicines has never been properly demonstrated with double-blind research? We only read about homeopathy: ‘That theory is not recognized by the western scientific world. Nevertheless, homeopathy is popular in the Netherlands and many people find that it helps to relieve their complaints' (p. 121).

Superstition in context

Since many people believe in homeopathy, apparently this topic also had to be covered in a chemistry textbook pdf. That is an innovative interpretation of chemistry-in-context. As if scientific knowledge were a matter of numbers of adherents. This is all the more pressing, because for more than half of the students, the third-grade material is the only thing they will ever learn about chemistry, apart from what they learn in the upper years from the compulsory subject General Natural Sciences.

In itself it does not seem objectionable to me that the subject of homeopathy is discussed, but then explain clearly and understandably for 15-year-olds (and their teachers!?) why homeopathy is not recognized by the scientific world. And don't try to subtly give the impression that the teachings of Samuel Hahnemann and his followers should actually be accepted as valuable. Isn't it written about creationism in a biology textbook, or about chakras in an anatomy book?

I set out the above in a letter to NVOX , the journal for science teachers, resulting in the above response from the publisher. As long as there is no new print of Chemistry everywhere , it seems sensible to at least change the aforementioned statement on the accompanying website to: ‘Homeopaths believe that the healing power of a homeopathic remedy can be increased by diluting it strongly and to shake.'