The surrealist overdose
This is a guest post from Naomi Mc, who blogs about science, politics and gender at Vagina Dentata.
On Saturday at 10.23am hundreds of people across the country opened a small vial of pills and swallow them all. There was a group of 42 of these people in Edinburgh (video), but no emergency services were called and no deaths or complications were reported. This was because it was a mass overdose of homeopathic remedies.
The ‘Swallowers’, as they are delicately calling themselves, are conducting this stunt as part of the 10:23 campaign (hence the timing) which seeks to raise awareness about the case against homeopathy and those who supply it.
As one of the organisers of the London event, Carmen D’Cruz put it:
“The public have the right to know what we put into our bodies. “Freedom of choice” is not possible without the ability to make an informed decision. A large part of this campaign is to raise public awareness of what homeopathy actually is. Once people understand both sides of an argument, they are better able to make a real choice.”
Homeopathy was invented by Samuel Hahnemann, a German physician, in the late 18th century. It is based on the principle that “like cures like”, but significantly, that a substance taken in small amounts will cure the same symptoms it would cause if taken in large amounts. And when I say small amounts …
Homeopathic remedies are usually diluted to a factor of 30c, that is:
Or to give you some idea of what that represents; imagine a sphere of water with a diameter from the Earth to the Sun (a distance that takes light, yes light, about 8 minutes to travel), then imagine one single molecule of that sphere is an active ingredient of the substance that is supposed to cure you. Remember, it isn’t a drop; it’s a single molecule. THAT is what 30c looks like.
Homeopaths claim that this works because water “has a memory” which preserves the active ingredient through the dilutions due to a special shaking. After each dilution the mixture is vigorously agitated in a machine that delivers a calibrated amount of shaking (That last sentence was a direct quote from the Society of Homeopaths website, just in case anyone thinks I’m trying to make them sound stupid. I mean actively trying to make them sound stupid).
Many scientists say that the only possible impact of such remedies is as a placebo.
Therefore, there was no need to perform mouth-to-mouth on any Swallowers. But what are the implications? Raise awareness yes, but should these remedies be provided on the NHS? Should commercial businesses be able to sell them?
This is the second aim of the 10:23 campaign, targeting outlets such as Boots. As D’Cruz explains: “It’s a bit unethical for Boots to sell these pills in their medicine section whilst admitting they don’t work. They’re a trusted company. Why are they lying to their customers (or at least being ambiguous with the truth)?”
Many who wouldn’t go so far as to defend the “science” of homeopathy will at least espouse the positive effects of placebo. And indeed the effects of placebo are amazing and well documented. But should we market a product that we know is a placebo with a mythology of how it works? I would argue that this kind of marketing has a corrosive effect on the public’s understanding of science and medicine. Rather than empowering the patient, it dupes them in the time-honoured tradition of the snake-oils salesmen.
But this stunt has got some people’s backs up. “My inbox is full to the brim with people from all over telling me how much they enjoyed taking part,” says D’Cruz, “with only two people contacting me who were against what we were trying to do.”
“One of them was actually really lovely, and seemed glad that I’d replied in a sensible way (I suggested a couple of books she might find interesting to see things from my point of view if I wasn’t being articulate enough: Trick or Treatment and Bad Science). The other said I was an attention seeker and that I should be arrested. I’m pretty sure that was my mum. She’s got a really good sense of humour.”
To those who have taken homeopathic remedies and believe that they cured them, it is scientifically more likely that you experienced the placebo effect (you got better because you thought you were going to get better) or regression to the mean (you were going to get better anyway, like with a cold).
Now let’s not talk down the placebo effect, it is a truly amazing phenomenon. People have even got better with placebo surgery. It doesn’t mean that you were previously faking it; believing an intervention will make you better can really can make you better (listen to Dr Ben Goldacre’s two part radio programme on the placebo effect).
We can and should harness the power of the placebo effect without misleading people. And we should be just as uneasy with the aggressive marketing of the billion dollar homeopathy industry as we are of the (albeit bigger) billion pharmaceutical industry.