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Diluting the message: Why the 10:23 campaign is a bad idea

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Homeopathy: A drop in the ocean

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.

Why Boots?

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...

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2 Responses

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  1. Andy says

    What I would say to these criticisms is the following:

    1) I don’t believe for a minute that the aim of the 10:23 campaign is to change homeopaths’ minds. The aims are more to a) highlight that Boots are selling pseudo-medicines knowing that they are inert and b) to demonstrate the absurd nature of homeopathic remedies (there’s nothing in it.)

    2) It is only a straw man if you accept the validity of homeopathic arguments. The fact that the overdose will ‘not work’ according to the internal logic of homeopaths is irrelevant since this logic is so obviously flawed. The campaign demonstrates the pills do not work according to real world logic.

    3) Critics have highlighted very clearly in the press that homeopaths should not be treating diseases such as malaria. It is essentially fruitless as the homoeopathic authorities will do nothing about it an most of what goes on is outside of the jurisdiction of UK bodies.

    4) I have some sympathy with the problems of ‘playing with medicine’, but one has to balance that against the fact that homeopathic pills are not medicines and that it is also irresponsible for Boots and their pharmacists to claim that they are.

  2. Alan says

    Hi Andy,

    Thanks for your comments. To take them in turn.

    1. If they aren’t trying to change anyone’s mind about homeopathy then what’s the point? If people believe that the remedies are effective then they will continue to buy them, Boots are just responding to an existing market. Take away that market and they’ll stop selling them. I don’t agree that people shouldn’t be allowed to buy things which are ineffective, unless they are being advertised as doing something they don’t. As far as I’m aware (and I’d welcome information to the contrary) Boots just label up homeopathic remedies with the ingredient of the base it’s made from and the fact that it’s homeopathic, they’re not claiming that it will do anything. You could argue that homeopathic remedies should have a warning “Does not actually contain any active ingredients” but that’s a matter for regulation, not for Boots.

    2. That’s the sort of argument which allows believers in all sorts of nonsense to discount the claims of sceptics. To homeopaths, their logic is perfectly sound and many sceptical arguments against it can just be rejected immediately without thought because what they actually say isn’t followed.
    Homeopathy isn’t just repeated dilution, there are specific mechanisms which are supposed to be followed during the process. Now, you and me will say that those mechanisms don’t make any difference, but that doesn’t mean you can just ignore them as to homeopathic believers they are the essence of the process.
    If you do everything according to their rules and it still doesn’t work, then you’ve got them. It’s an onerous process, particularly if those rules don’t make much sense, but it’s the only way to do it.

    3. Absolutely, and that’s something which should strongly continue. That’s not something which is being targeted by this campaign though that I can see. We should be highlighting that taking homeopathic medicine isn’t going to project you from diseases like Malaria, not showboating for the press.

    4. I’d be incredibly surprised (and shocked) if you found an actual pharmacist in Boots who claimed that homeopathic remedies are medicines, any more than they would claim that shampoo is medicine. Boots are a general store which contains a pharmacy but they sell lots of other things as well.



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