Webster’s dictionary offers several definitions for “science”; two of the most striking ones are “something that may be studied or learned like systematized knowledge” and “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method”.[i] The same source also defines “scientific method” as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses”.
My own understanding of “scientific” is that it is an ability to recognise (and detach from) our own biases, belief systems and assumptions that we might have created in our mind. One of the most important aspects of the definitions above is probably that the process starts with listening and observation, not making assumptions and theories and then making “discoveries” that would prove them.
I understand that Hahnemann got the first glimpse of principles of homeopathy upon reading explanation of healing properties of chincona and subsequent experiments that were sparked by his interest and dissatisfaction with explanation in the article. From this angle I believe it is safe to say that homoeopathy was “scientific” from day one: the law of similars that were defined as a result of decades of experiments and clinical observations were not based on assumption, personal belief or bias. Hahnemann did not conduct these experiments in order to “prove” his assumptions (and dismiss those results that were contradictive); he was simply exploring what was out there and drew the results from his observation. Similarly, process of potentization was spawned from experimental clinical applications, rather than from a theory (for example that “water retains memory”).
One of the most stunning aspects of homeopathy is that it does not really matter which remedy will be prescribed to the patient; to prepare Arnica costs no more than to prepare Lycopodium. A homeopath cannot make more money nor have better results by prescribing specific family of remedies. Again, during the process it is essential not to be biased (and hence be “scientific”) during the whole process.
In order to investigate properties of various substances and remedies, a protocol of “proving” was established. During this process a substance (destined to become a homoeopathic remedy) is being administered to a group of healthy individuals, who record the way the substance is affecting them physically, emotionally and mentally. The provers are not being told to focus only on specific symptoms, they are not being asked whether they feel specific emotions. The prover is also not paid more or less money if he or she elicits more or less symptoms. The provers are not also being told what is the source of the substance administered so they cannot create bias, as for example with certain poisonous substances.
Development of “orthodox” pharmacology-based medicines is a difficult, rigorous and a very expensive process. It costs the companies millions (and perhaps billions) of dollars to develop certain medicine. At the very beginning, such a development is triggered by expectation that the propose medicine will be effective, side-effects free and will prove to be financially beneficial to manufacture this given drug. Is it possible that people involved in decision making are influenced by the fact that not introducing this specific medicine to the market would represent a significant financial loss? Of course it’s possible and arguably happens a lot. In such situations, the properties of the medicines are often kept secret, as for example in the case of Thalidomide birth defects that were finally admitted (and apologised for) only decades later.[ii] This is not “scientific”.
I find it interesting when some people argue that everything we do has to be “scientific” and during the process they grossly deviate from the dictionary definition I have written above. With homeopathy, a frequent argument is that minute dilutions cannot have any effect, because there is no trace of the original substance. “It makes no sense”, they say. Ironically, insisting on things making “sense” is referring to things we already know; it is a comparison of things that are laid before us to what we have stored in our memory. If these two things do not match, there is a “problem”. This way, we could not learn anything new, because we would have to dismiss everything we come across for the first time. Isn’t it interesting that insisting on everything “making sense” starts with bias, and as such is highly “unscientific”, though this is exactly what the sceptics insist on?