It turns out, though, that Wheen was wrong about oscillococcinum. A manufacturer of homeopathic pills, Boiron, is currently making legal threats against an Italian blogger who dared to make fun of oscillococcinum. This piece of lawfare got a mention on quite a few web sites, including a couple I follow, with links to some articles about oscillococcinum. Wheen was right about the absurd levels of dilution, but interestingly wrong about the allegedly active ingredient of oscillococcinum. Wheen thinks it's duck's liver. In fact, it's a bit more complicated than that:
In the 1919 flu epidemic a physician who did not understand that artifacts on the slide, probably bubbles, move randomly due to Brownian motion. Looking at the tissues of flu patients with a microscope, he found what he thought was not only the cause of influenza, but the cause of all diseases: small cocci (round balls) that oscillated under the microscope. He found these wiggling bubbles in all the tissues of all the ill people he examined and thought he discovered the true cause of all disease. Sigh. Yet another cause of all illness. He is the only person, before or since, to see these oscillating cocci. Hence the name.From Science-Based Medicine. Apparently, the researcher who "discovered" these oscillating cocci thought he'd seen a lot of them in duck livers. So homeopaths mashed up duck liver because they thought it contained flu-causing cocci, presumably on the homeopathic principle that "like cures like." Only it was a mistake. There is, literally, no such thing as oscillococcinum. The term "daft" no longer seems adequate.
Right, I think I've got my head round this. To make a best-selling homeopathic flu remedy:
- Take an ingredient that doesn't exist.
- Dilute it to a point where, even if it did exist, it would stop existing
- Add sugar and evaporate the water containing the non-existent trace of the non-existent ingredient to make a sugar pill.*
- Flog sugar pills at whatever price the market will bear.
*These are just the most outrageous stages of the process. As Guy Chapman points out in his detailed dissection of "the canonical quack remedy", 'Oscillococcinum exhibits fractal wrongness. However you zoom in on its errors, you just find more errors just as big.' Massive kudos for the phrase "fractal wrongness."