At 10:23 am on January 30th, several hundred sceptics across the country are planning on taking part in a staged homeopathic ‘overdose’ to prove the ineffectiveness of homeopathic remedies and try and stop Boots selling them. Unfortunately, it will do nothing of the sort.
Now, I’m obviously not saying that there’s anything special about homeopathic treatments. There’s no decent evidence that taking infinitely diluted amounts of a substance which may cause effects similar to the symptoms you’re trying to treat is going to have any specific medical benefits over a placebo and no particularly logical reason to imagine that it should, but trying to show that in this sort of stunt is unlikely to to actually change anyone’s mind. Let’s look at some reasons why:
A homeopathic ‘straw man’
Homeopaths can simply say that a test of this sort proves nothing. It’s not the volume of tablets you take, it’s the frequency of the dosage.
To quote one homeopathic site
A homeopathic remedy acts as a signal which energizes or stimulates the body’s healing power… a sick person (is)very much in tune or sensitive to the correct remedy and only a minute stimulus from the correct signal (or remedy) is required…For the same reason, it is not possible to take an overdose of homeopathic remedies.
So, an overdose isn’t going to do you any harm (well, obviously), but the failure of everyone to collapse isn’t going to change any homeopath believers minds as you’re not doing it properly. They’ll probably just use it as an example of how safe homeopathic remedies are, compared to conventional treatments. Neither are claims like ‘it’s been proven not to work‘ on the front page of the 1023 organisation’s site going to help.. The real position is contained in their open letter to Boots ‘the best and most rigorous scientific research concludes that homeopathy offers no therapeutic effect beyond placebo’. The placebo effect is a powerful one, so to someone who has seen benefits from homeopathy, they aren’t going to care if they would have got the same benefits from a properly presented Smartie, they just care that they got better. It’s no good telling them ‘it’s been proven not to work‘, they have direct experiences to the contrary.
Boots are a business. They sell homeopathic pills because some people want to buy them. It’s as simple as that. They make no claims as to whether they work or not. You’d be better off looking harshly about the claims they do make about anti-wrinkle creams but they’re very good at ducking press on that subject too. They’ll be quite happy to sit on the fence on this one. They might even be getting more stock in to fulfill the needs of overdosing sceptics. There are far more deserving targets out there and singling out a single high-street supplier doesn’t make sense to me. I have heard the claims that they are the main source of pharmaceutical advice for many people, but it’s been a long time since Boots was just a chemist.
Playing with medicines is a bad idea – even ‘alternative’ ones
Obviously the worst that’s going to happen to the 1023 volunteers is a potential head rush from the sugar in the pills, but not all alternative medicines are harmless. Some Chinese remedies involve potentially toxic ingredients and shouldn’t be misused. Again, it’s highly unlikely that someone is going to read about this stunt and take an overdose of something which can actually do them harm, but if they do, you can rely on the Daily Mail to find them and establish that all sceptics are evil.
It’s just a media stunt
Now this is something I’m sure even the 1023 organisers would agree with. They’ve already managed to get a fair bit of press attention but it’s going to be of the Blue Monday type, in the news briefly for a day or so and then fade into the obscurity of other such wacky popular science stories. The trouble is by over simplifying an issue, particularly over simplifying the views of your opponents, you make your arguments easy to dismiss. I appreciate that sometimes a media show is what it takes to get your story covered, but is just getting yourselves in the paper for the day before you’re replaced by a cow on a roof the sole aim of the campaign?
I would have preferred any homeopathic campaign to concentrate on educating people that they shouldn’t be used to treat serious conditions, such as malaria or cancer, rather than Boots who make no such claims, and if you want to actually try and change people’s minds, organise your own double-blind study of homeopathy. That surely would have been a better use of the publicity, to gain possible volunteers. Get Ben Goldacre to tell us how to do it properly and then you have firm evidence to base your opinions on, not just show-boating.
[Edit: Just as a quick follow up, judging by the following quote it looks like they are even buying the stuff at Boots. Ah, blessed irony..
Secured most of what we need for #ten23. Unbelievable, some remedies are sold out at Boots online & instore...