Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The 10:23 Overdose Protest – And Why I’m Skeptical

On Saturday, January 30th, skeptics groups all across the country are planning a seemingly very worthy protest against the worldwide scam that is homeopathy.  Specifically, they are protesting against UK pharmacy chain, Boots, and their sale of homeopathic remedies.

At first, when I heard that some mass public-awareness-raising actions were being planned in opposition to homeopathy, I was eager to join in.  Homeopathy has long seemed self-evidently preposterous to me, and the fact that it is endorsed and promoted by a supposed chemist like Boots as legitimate medicine is a crime.  The idea that a sugar pill dripped with the vastly diluted “memory” of a illness could cure you (so diluted, in fact, that most of the time there is literally nothing left of the original element) is not only prima facie ridiculous, but has been demonstrably proven as ineffective time after time in scientific studies. 

The idea of knocking some sense into the people at Boots, therefore, and letting them know we will not stand for their malicious profiteering off the vulnerable and ill-informed was appealing.  I haven’t been to a good protest in a long time, and the idea of standing up for rationalism and science against the forces of ignorance and superstition seemed as good a cause as any.

But then I heard what the actual protest was going to entail, and I completely changed my mind.

On January 30th, at 10:23am, across twelve British cities, skeptics groups intend on buying up various homeopathic remedies sold at Boots branches and then publically “overdosing” on them, to prove that there is nothing in them but sugar.

On the surface, this seems to have all the elements necessary for a successful protest – it has a cause, a righteousness, a gimmick and a visible action that will help highlight and expose the issue.  The more I thought about it though, the more I began to see that this strategy is misguided, and that it is less of a meaningful protest than it is a lame publicity stunt.

Firstly – I think the idea of protesting against the homeopathy industry by buying a whole bunch of homeopathy products is ridiculous.  Three hundred people are supposed to be doing this across Britain.  Here in Birmingham, we were told to bring ten pounds each for the occasion.  Essentially, therefore, the big plan is to fight homeopathy by giving the industry an extra £3000 from people who normally wouldn’t buy their products.  Yeah - that’ll teach ‘em!

If anything, this approach shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the economic principles which guide the decisions of companies like Boots into what they choose, or choose not to, stock.  At bottom, Boots sells homeopathic stuff, because people buy homeopathic stuff.  The aim of the protests, therefore, should be to make people stop buying homeopathic stuff through education, petition and boycott.  What the proposed strategy of the 10:23 campaign will do instead, however, is show Boots shareholders that, in January, 2010, homeopathic products at Boots did very well indeed, and earned the company at least an extra £3000!

As companies have a legal obligation to make their shareholders money, so long as homeopathic products are making Boots money, then Boots will be legally obliged to keep selling them.  Their accountants won’t care that the £3000 this month came from protesters, they will simply reflect the success of the homeopathy range this quarter and want to repeat that success again.

But I suppose this is the point of the actual protest – the cost of the remedies is a necessary evil for the big mass action that follows, which will show people how useless homeopathy is. 

You can’t make an omelette without breaking some eggs and though, yes, a downside to the methodology might be a momentary increase in Boots’ profits in the short-term – in the long-term, now educated by the “overdose” demonstration, people will stop buying homeopathic remedies in their droves, and the losses to business as a result of this will far outweigh the small but regrettable gain the company made one day in January.

This, however, is flawed thinking, because I don’t think that the “overdose” demonstration – though surely quirky and “newsworthy” enough to draw attention – is actually going to change many minds when it comes to people who already use, and buy, homeopathic remedies.  The reason for this, is because the idea of an “overdose” of the remedies in question – though certainly showing how harmless these sugar-pills might be – is actually disanalogous to the way that people who use these products actually take them.

The argument a skeptic really has against a person who believes that homeopathy works, is not whether or not large doses of the product would be harmful or ineffective, but about whether or not the remedy actually works as prescribed.

To the idiots who take homeopathic sugar-pills whenever they have a migraine, an asthma attack, or suffer from chronic insomnia, it will not matter a jot that we have ingested an entire bottle of the things and suffered no ill-effects. 

What exactly has that proved? 

All that they know, is that when they take the pills “sensibly”, as directed, and in the “correct” dosage: for them, placebo or no, it works.

In many ways, battling against the users of homeopathy and preaching the virtues of real medicine and science is like arguing against religious people if you’re an atheist: at some point in the argument you realize that you will never get through to these people because you are using completely different systems with which to process and analyse the available facts.  I, the atheist, am using logic and reason, and they, the theist, are using faith and belief.  I can tell them a million ways in which it is clear that God doesn’t exist, but they can tell me a million times more that none of that matters, because they have faith.

Now I’m not for a minute defending that kind of idiocy – in my opinion the theists who ignore logical argument for faith and dogma are morons, pure and simple.  But I am saying that sometimes you have to be aware of who your audience is, and work out what the best way is to circumvent their particular defences so that you don’t just spend your time banging your head up against a wall.

When it comes to homeopathy, it already seems clear that battling believers with science and reason doesn’t work.  The science and reason is already irrefutable, and has been told to them often – yet still they keep on believing. 


Not because they have been convinced via logic and argument, but because they have logic-busting, rationale-ignoring, anecdotal evidence that trumps all science and will never ever sway: you may well say that in double blind lab tests all of this stuff is demonstrable bullshit, but when I had pneumonia last winter and took some homeopathic medicine, I got better.  So there.

Logic is closed for business.

I simply don’t think that hearing about how a bunch of skeptics overdosed on an intentional excess of homeopathic remedies will make these people any more likely to reassess their opinions than any other fact they have previously had thrown in their face.  They’ll simply shrug their shoulders, note that the protesters weren’t taking the stuff properly, as directed, and say well, it worked for me.

As I said before – on the face of it, this is a righteous battle, and a worthy idea.  It’s execution, however, is clumsy and ill-thought out, and on January 30th, at 10:23am, I will be not be participating in this protest because I believe, much like homeopathy itself, there is nothing in it.


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