Skepticism

Homeopathic Suicide

You may have heard of this project on Twitter or elsewhere: the 10:23 campaign aims to convince the pharmacy chain Boots to stop selling homeopathic remedies. If you’re in London, you can join in by coming to Conway Hall at 10am on Saturday, January 30. I’m assuming the pills will be provided, but please make sure that they are a truly “strong” dilution, meaning that there are no active ingredients left in the sugar. Consider Zicam, a supposedly homeopathic remedy that actually contained trace amounts of zinc, which may have caused many people to lose their sense of smell.

Thus far, though, no deaths have been recorded as a result of a homeopathic suicide. Blazing this trail previously were James Randi in 1997, the Belgian skeptics in July 2004, Richard Saunders and the Australian skeptics in November 2004, Australian skeptic Peter Bowditch in June 2006, some South African skeptic on YouTube in 2008, and Alexa Ray Joel this past December.

Homeopaths, for their part, agree with the skeptics. They’ve covered their bases by insisting that it’s the frequency and not the quantity, and that you will not feel any effect from a remedy that isn’t made just for your symptoms. Consider the “Dr. Lockie” site where it is written:

As the dosage is influenced by frequency rather than quantity, homeopathic remedies are quite safe however much is taken at once; it still constitutes one dose. If the remedy is taken by someone other than the patient for whom it was intended, it will have no effect anyway as it will not match their symptom picture.

They finish with, “One of the delights of homeopathy is its safety, however keep your remedies away from small children or you may find your collection is wiped out in one go.” This is presumably because the “remedies” are made of nothing but delicious sugar.

Nutrimart agrees with this, saying:

You cannot overdose on homeopathic medicines. If you take fifteen tablets or five tablets (or 100 tablets for that matter) AT ONE TIME it is one dose. You will stimulate your curative response one time. So, it is not a tragedy if more than six tablets fall into the cap, just take them rather than risk putting a contaminated pill back into the bottle to contaminate the others in the bottle.

This is, of course, pure nonsense but I’m sure it’s enough to put the minds of the believers at ease should they happen across a mass homeopathic suicide.

That said, I hope that the 10:23 campaign succeeds in its effort to educate people about the reality of homeopathic remedies. Too many people buy into what has got to be one of the most unlikely pseudosciences masquerading as medicine.

In case you need a refresher, here’s my post about what homeopathy really is and why it’s so, so stupid.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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15 Comments

  1. Thanks for talking about this event Rebecca.

    To particpate in the mass “overdose” as a swallower you need to contact your local skeptics in the pub society. They’re on the contact page on the website 1023.org.uk. You need to provide your own homeopathy. Anything 30c from the Boots brand range will be fine. They have a 2 for 1 offer on at the moment.! If you don’t want to be a swallower you can always be a follower but get in touch with the hub first to find out where to meet.

    I was interested to note yesterday that some homeopaths are posting that participants will indeed experience aggravating symptoms such as those experienced during unproven “provings”. It seems some think it’s safe and some don’t! Is there a breach in the credulity hull?

    Thanks again

    Andy
    10:23

  2. “As the dosage is influenced by frequency rather than quantity, homeopathic remedies are quite safe however much is taken at once; it still constitutes one dose.”

    I think they get a fail in Homeopathy 101, what’s the point in dilution if the doesage doesn’t matter?

    Of course what they’re really upto is baiting skeptics into buying lots of their product in order to do test the frequency over quantity hypothesis.

  3. I’ve heard that homeopathic remedies are totally uninspected (vague recollection, can’t remember source, so don’t quote me on it)? If true, and if you participate in this, isn’t there some risk of getting a large dose of something that’s not supposed to be there (industrial contaminants, etc.)?

    I think some manufacturers also add ingredients to some liquid homeopathic remedies to make them taste or smell like notwater. I would be wary of taking large amounts of things that snake oil salesmen assume will be taken only in small amounts.

    I suspect the risk is pretty small, but it should not be discounted. I couldn’t stand the smug looks from the homeopathic believers as dozens of sceptics are loaded into ambulances. :)

  4. I’ll be at the Leeds event – we’re doing ours outside a Boots store.

    We’ve been advised to avoid the Boots homoeopathic sleeping tablets as they actually have some active ingredients in – ie. they’re not actually homoeopathic.

    Also, diabetics probably should avoid taking a large amount of sugar pills!

  5. “If the remedy is taken by someone other than the patient for whom it was intended, it will have no effect anyway as it will not match their symptom picture.”

    I have a very difficult time wrapping my mind around the idea that people actually truly believe this. I think I need to go have a quick lie down.

  6. @redsky: I agree this is a potential risk. Ironically enough, the reputation and respectability that Boots chemist possess is one of the reasons we’re comfortable using their products – we actually believe they manufacture their magic pills honestly, rather than cynically dosing the tablets with real ingredients. Small-scale tests are being run to make sure there’s no ill effects, too (I’m taking one for the cause at Merseyside Skeptics in the Pub during a talk tomorrow night, after Simon Singh has graced us with his awesome). One of the reason we’re singling Boots out on this is in fact the very reason we think their pills would be safe. Funny old world.

    In terms of any non-UK-based types sympathetic to the cause, fancying joining in, I’d say unless you know for certain the magic-pills’ manufacturers can be trusted, I’d avoid taking the risk. You can make your own homeopathic preparations quite easily, so that’s an option. In fact, at the London event, I believe Ben Goldacre is eschewing Boots’ magic for a concoction of his own making – homeopathic Goldacre-brand faeces. Charming.

  7. Perhaps people who are concerned about contaminants could dilute the pills a few times first. Not only would they be removing the extra substances, they’d be taking a more “powerful” homeopathic preparation.

  8. How much time does one have to wait before taking a new pill is a new dose? Someone should find that out, get a “prescription” from a homeopath for sleeping pills, and take the pills at the maximum possible not-one-dose-rate.

    I’m sure _that_ would shut the homeopaths up…

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