Overdosing on homeopathy: there’s nothing in it


10:23, London, 2010 (photo by Kelly Haddow)

10:23, London, 2010 (photo by Kelly Haddow

This post was originally a guest post I wrote for The Times Eureka science blog, which can be found behind the paywall.

On Sunday, February 6th, at precisely 10:23am, I will be hoping over a thousand people around the world will have spent the last 24 hours joining me in a so-called mass “overdose”.

Don’t worry, I’m not following in the footsteps of Jim Jones, nor will there be any Kool-Aid anywhere to be seen. Instead, there will be 28 countries, 69 cities and over one 1023 consumer rights activists, each passionate about spreading genuine healthcare information. And there will be a hell of a lot of little homeopathic pills.

Let me explain. In September 2009, myself and a couple of other members of the Merseyside Skeptics Society (a non-profit, voluntary organisation set up to promote critical thinking) settled on a project to help spread genuine information about what homeopathic remedies are, and how they are produced. Opinion polls suggested members of the public thought homeopathic products were synonymous with ‘herbal’, ‘natural’ and ‘chemical-free’ – when in reality they couldn’t be further from all of those things.

Faced with this low level of public understanding, the £4million+ per year spent by the NHS on homeopathy was hard to swallow, and out of the frustration at this disconnection the 10:23 Campaign was born. The aim was simple, to raise awareness among the public that homeopathy is not a valid or useful medical alternative, due to thestupendously dilute nature of each remedy. Put simply: ‘There’s Nothing In It’.

After much careful planning, by the 30th January 2010 we’d raised such interest in the campaign that we’d gathered over 350 protestors in more than a dozen UK cities. Each supporter came armed with an off-the-shelf remedy from their local Boots pharmacy (the high street giant drawing particular ire for their admission that they sell homeopathic products not because they work, but because they sell), and a simple mandate – at the stroke of 10:23am, they were to swallow the entire contents of the homeoapthic vial. The event is pictured above (photo by Kelly Haddow).

In reality, somewhat disappointingly, this amounted to a rather meagre capfull of little sugary balls – while homeopathy is nonsense, it’s also a very expensive nonsense (gram for gram, homeopathic pills sell for twice the price of sterling silver). Still, the event must have proven to be something of a spectacle, as it garnered a quite staggering level of media attention, spreading our message that there really is nothing in homeopathic remedies.

This year, we’re aiming to spread that message even further, organising our campaign to run in cities across the globe – and I believe with good reason. While homeopathic products might, at the thin end of the wedge, represent a waste of a reasonably small amount of UK tax payer’s money (albeit at a time when NHS budgets are being pushed to breaking point), there are some desperately worrying signs that undeniable harm is being done – even if unwittingly – by proponents of this disproven treatment.

A recent BBC investigation found homeopaths in Scotland selling homeopathic (read: ineffective) alternatives to anti-malarial pills and childhood vaccinations. A recent documentary on CBC in Canadaunearthed homeopathic cancer cures. Homeopaths practicing in Africa push sugar pills as substitutes for anti-retroviral drugs. This is how people get hurt.

Fortunately, we’re not alone in helping the public understand what homeopathic remedies are, and – crucially – what they fundamentally aren’t. And this is where the so-called mass “overdose” of this weekend comes in: while I and the 10:23 Campaign supporters in the UK will be collectively quaffing homeopathic potions at the QED science festival in Manchester, equally-passionate consumer rights advocates across the world will be joining in with their own protests. In Spain, over a hundred protesters will take part in the campaign. Outside of the Place du Luxembourg in Brussels, home of the EU parliament, homeopathy skeptics from across Europe will protest against the convoluted EU directives that uniquely allow homeopathic products to be sold as medicines without evidence that they’re anything more than sugar pills.

Hundreds of campaigners in America and Canada will appeal to Wal-Mart to cease stocking ineffective homeopathic products on their shelves, while across Australia and New Zealand protesters in nine cities will be joining the campaign.

Alongside the large-scale events, the smaller stories promise to be equally interesting. In Puerta Galera, Philippines, a lone SCUBA diver will demonstrate the fallacy of homeopathy by creating a homeopathic remedy for Nitrogen Narcosis, using entirely-genuine homeopathic preparation techniques. Fortunately, and much like real homeopaths, he won’t be putting his concoction through any rigourous tests of efficacy. Even more amazingly, a lone scientist in Antarctica will take time out from his research to take his own ‘overdose’ – the icy continent providing a pertinent backdrop to his protest: the chances of finding a homeopathic arsenic pill buried randomly in the snow somewhere across that vast landmass being dramatically higher than the chances of finding a single arsenic molecule in that same pill.

Of course, these worldwide demonstrations won’t prove that homeopathy doesn’t work – but nor are they designed to. Two centuries of clinical data, endlessly repeated controlled trials and a basic understanding of chemistry all tell us conclusively that homeopathy doesn’t work. The testing has been done to death, and the results have come back time and time again – homeopathic remedies, on balance, perform no better than placebos (and anyone planning to bring up the common canard that ‘placebo effects don’t work on animals or babies’ at this point, please do so only after having been corrected by a vet or paediatrician). What the 10:23 Campaign will prove, however, is that there is a growing body of people not only unwilling to allow the continued harms done by these ineffective ‘treatments’, but also willing to stand up for genuine science. That, I hope, will be the legacy of our homeopathic “overdoses”.

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  1. #1 by Tom Williamson (The Skeptic Canary) on February 9, 2011 - 23:55

    SHILLS! BIG PHARMA SHILLS! DON’T YOU KNOW THAT YOUR GROUP WAS STARTED BY THE ROCKEFELLERS, BILL GATES AND MONSANTO!?! HOMOPATHY USES THE LATEST QUANTUM VIBRATIONAL SPACIAL EFFECTS TO WORK! WE WIN YOU LOSE!

    Ahem…

  2. #2 by Paulo on February 10, 2011 - 00:24

    Does homeopathy work if used as poison? (e.g. for rats). Or it’s just for the “good”?

    It’s a good thing to think…

    And for those who are against “big and evil pharmaceutic’s industry”, the homeopathyc labs are making money too! And the good thing is: there’s a low cost of raw material!

  3. #3 by Michael Kingsford Gray on February 11, 2011 - 00:58

    “Does homeopathy work if used as poison? (e.g. for rats). ”

    Yes. You can drown them using lots of true homeopathy.

  4. #4 by Niki M. on February 11, 2011 - 02:58

    Hey you guys, seeing the NPR report really made my day:

    http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2011/02/08/133569580/homeopathic-medicine-overdosers-survive-unscathed

    And while tangling with someone on FB, I gave this response to the claim that “Homeopathy can’t be tested”, pretty much using the arguments we’ve heard a billion times:

    “Homeopathy can’t be tested! It must be made individually for each person!” – By that logic, cupcake, it can’t be tested for effectiveness either. And if it’s so individualized, then where’s the outcry for the “remedies” that are sold in Wal-Mart? Those are about as individualized as a Big Mac (though I’m sure I could at least ask them to leave out the onions on a Big Mac).

    And if that’s the reason it can’t be tested, bullshit. Real scientists can actually work around that little problem. Get a practioner or several to asses the needs of a group of people with the same ailment, agree on a treatment for them, then prepare the “medicine. Give some the “medicine” and some a sugar pill (I know, not much difference), so the practioners don’t know what they’re giving and the patients don’t know what they’re taking – ya know, all double blinded and shit. Then see their reactions.

    Ta-da, and I don’t even have a fucking college degree.”

  5. #5 by Michael on February 12, 2011 - 18:05

    Remember “..you can compress all the matter in the universe into the volume of a bowling ball” Its the quantum vibrational energy which individualises the water memory for each patient. Gosh! Are you lot thick or what? “Gimme some of that shill pharma money” has got to be in a song, n’est-ce pas?

  6. #6 by Eugene on February 12, 2011 - 19:16

    You will find a list of scientific trials of homeopathy and homeopathic dilutions, published in mainstream peer-reviewed magazines here:
    http://eugenegp.livejournal.com/26209.html

    There are some comments and discussions in Russian, but 98% of content is English.

    I believe these data goes against your conclusion that clinical data and controlled trials “tell us conclusively that homeopathy doesn’t work”.
    To the contrary, as Ludtke and Rutten (see: J Clin Epidemiol. 2008 Dec) say “The conclusions on the effectiveness of homeopathy highly depend on the set of analyzed trials.”

    It looks that information on homeopathy controlled trials is being repeatedly misrepresented to the public, which suggests extremely strong bias.

(will not be published)