I can make this blog post as it’s still the weekend at the time of writing. Yesterday I tweeted how we all deserved to feel smug for at least 24 hrs. And I meant it. But tomorrow is Monday. Back to real life in many ways because the last 3 months, and the last couple of weeks in particular have been one of the most rewarding periods of my life. Not because I did something amazing. But because lots of people worked together to do something amazing. I know this is a feeling shared by many people this weekend.
The reason this protest was so successful was because of the backstory, the unheard voice of the British skeptical community, the private outrage expressed through blogs and web sites and individual efforts feeling completely unheard by the general population.
The idea belongs to the community. Inspired by the likes of Randi and his famous serial overdosing, egged on by the success of the Belgian skeptics and their overdose a couple of years ago. The Belgians were about 25 in number. And they achieved big headlines.
MSS decided some while back that it would be more than a talking shop. Like so many scousers before us we wanted action and we wanted it now. We also knew that the traditional skeptical battles were already continually being fought out in the blog trenches. Any slight bit of mainstream media coverage for one of the traditional skeptical targets such as psychics or bad medicine or even the dowsing rods being sold to the Iraqis for £40k each showed that the skeptical community had plenty of fight and ability in it. We all felt that focussing this energy was what would bring the best results. Homeopathy was a good target for our effort and we resolved to make this the focus for MSS in the medium term and started thinking about what we might do.
Then we heard about the Belgians. Then some of our number went to TAM London and met others who felt it was a good idea to do a big “overdose” protest. The MSS got to work.
When the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee met to hear the evidence about homeopathy, wheels of dissent began rolling that could not be stopped. A story emerged and Boots was implicated. There was outrage, and it hit the headlines too. Boots took a small amount of fire, which they undoubtedly felt. Perhaps not in their profits but certainly they felt it. The plans changed. We had already written an excellent open letter that we had intended to send to Boots around March time. We brought it forward and published it immediately, in November. The letter got some attention and we were heartened by that. The plan for the mass overdose really got going. We created roles and started getting people to fill them. Campaign project manager, International liaison, website design, website development, PR, research. All these roles were created. Some were filled quickly from within the Society and some took more time.
We recognised early on how importantly the marketing and PR side would feature in the campaign. While we were waiting to find the right person for the PR job, we set about it. Marsh came up with an inspired idea, later characterised as “Curiosity Driven Marketing”. The idea was to take the name of the campaign, by now we had settled on 10:23, and reveal its meaning in a controlled way. So we knew we were going to announce a mass “overdose”, we knew roughly when it would happen and also how it would happen and we had planned roughly the number of swallowers we needed to make it work, PR-wise. But the curiosity driven marketing angle meant we started with just the simple message “10:23” which began appearing at the end of blogs and podcasts. Most people knew it was a homeopathy campaign but very few knew about the swallow. The information was gradually increased. First a website, then twitter and then the big media push in the last couple of weeks before H day. The campaign slogan was also crucial. It had to reflect the entire message in a simple fashion that could be understood by the general, non-skeptic, public. It worked. The focus of many media interviews was in addressing the premise “there’s nothing in it”. Indeed this was the title of a number of articles.
This would be an exciting day for the skeptics but it was all about getting the message out there to the general public. We were shooting for a reduction in demand for homeopathy and so we had to get headlines.
The record needs to show that we approached this as a professional project. We set our objectives, wrote them down, invoked them whenever decisions needed to be made, communicated with the hub leaders and modified the plan as we went along to suit the ever changing circumstances. The record should also show that, alongside the incredible support lent to the campaign from all over the British Isles, Australia, New Zealand, US, Spain, and many others, we weren’t able to get the most prominent skeptical podcast in the world, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, to join in. We can only assume they felt it was UK-only – a bit of a shame, as Steve Novella has often said he thinks that skeptics often fail at the marketing side of things. I think had we been able to overcome that sense of Britain-centricity, we could have had enough time for the rogues to give it a push and take the international effort ballistic. They didn’t, and nor did the JREF. Perhaps there will be an article to follow up.
Still, we kept up the pace and got Martin Robbins on board. As well as proving himself as an outstanding journalist, he advised on the timing and release of news. He also took the trouble to demolish my own writing style. My point being that he took things seriously and made his voice heard.
With two weeks to go, tshirts ordered, the press campaign began in earnest with all the hubs sending out local press releases, and national news being primed with details of what was to happen.
Fairly late in the day we decided it was better to ask permission and advised the hubs accordingly. Which caused problems in Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. These problems were overcome and the thing went off without a hitch really.
Unprecedented publicity both for the truth about homeopathy and for the skeptical community of Britain were two objectives for the campaign. We managed both, and the story is continuing too with further articles and activism planned in the next fortnight. The international effort gained some momentum despite the failure of SGU to show up and full credit to them for capturing the Zeitgeist.
The skeptical community of Britain had a great day on Saturday 30th January 2010. This success had been waiting to happen. All we did was give that powerful body of effort a single point of focus. And everyone who participated did so in an entirely personal way.
Although we all know that trying to have a rational discussion with a homeopath apologist is akin to trying to stop John Prescott talking, we met with them in the battlefield and fought it out on twitter. The writing bloggers created an accelerated amount of content that would be found by the general public when seeking out information. The creating bloggers did cartoons, songs, crazy videos (I even got a mention in Jago’s), and even a book (Ladybird actually, darling).
And then, of course there was the Hub leaders who suffered an almost intolerable amount of paranoid over-controlling emails from yours truly on the event logistics and safety. They did much more than could have been expected, and achieved more than could be hoped for. The swallowers and followers, the journalists, TV and Radio presenters, Evan Harris MP, Dave Gorman, Simon Singh, Chris French all getting beghind this single point of focus…and making themselves heard. It’s not the first time skeptics have worked together in support of an objective. We’ve all been supporting and contributing to the Simon Singh story. The difference this time I think is that people know who we are, and that we speak with one voice.
The protest yesterday has contributed to achieving a rational status for homeopathy in the British psyche. There is more to come and we have several next steps in mind already, some of which will work their way out over the next couple of weeks. For example it’s a little known fact that as part of this campaign we have also sent a series of complaints to the MHRA asking them to investigate some elements of the Boots marketing of Homeopathy (Thanks Dr *T).
We have proven we are capable of effective action. The 10:23 campaign objective of getting Boots to stop selling homeopathy is not yet achieved. So the effort must continue.
I don’t think we’ve even dared to think yet, what we might possibly achieve in the future as a community. Certainly more than we have in this campaign. That’s a lot to look forward to.
Thanks to everyone who played.