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Do Nice Girls Finish Last? by Lynette Nusbacher

This essay was originally posted on Skepchick back when we were a humble monthly e-zine. I’ll be periodically re-posting the articles that were on the original site so that they can find a new audience. In this case, I’ve added otherwise random photos that weren’t in the original.

Do Nice Girls Finish Last?

Lynette Davidson
Originally posted June 2006

You may never have heard of arnica if you’re not British. It’s an unproven herbal remedy which is bizarrely also a homeopathic remedy, but which is almost universally accepted as effective in Britain: midwives, nurses, doctors … all sorts of people will say that it reduces bruising. The National Health Service will buy it for you if your doctor prescribes it – and many do.

On one hand, there’s no clinical proof that Arnica montana will do much other than poison you (if you eat a lot of it). On the other hand, it can be unpleasant to try to tell people that this wonder herb is just another pretty flower; and maybe women are especially eager to avoid this sort of awkward scepticism. And maybe this makes me more vulnerable to quackery.

So my dearest friend gives birth, and I’m going around with her mother from out-of-town who is picking up a few things, and she’s buying homeopathic arnica: Little pellets of sugar that was once introduced to sterile water that was once introduced to other water which was once introduced to arnica which is a flower. The big Boots shop in our town (the biggest pharmacy chain in the country, comparable to CVS in the US) had a brand-new complementary therapies section and a young “Alternative Therapies Assistant” whose job was to direct the innocent towards the appropriate sort of buncombe. And he helps her to find the arnica.

I started chatting with this Alternative Therapies Assistant about what was in the little tablets (homeopaths use the term “pillules”, which is the French for “pills”). He had no trouble admitting that the tablets were certainly entirely free of arnica, and that the whole theory of homeopathy was unsupported by any clinical evidence … and I was being polite but, shall we say, strident.

The young fellow was taking it well – he wasn’t lying about any of the “therapies” sold in his section, and he was answering all my questions very politely. I’d almost forgot about my friend’s mum. I hadn’t noticed her getting redder and redder in the face until she burst out with, “The MIDWIFE says that she NEEDS the arnica to stop her BRUISING!”, she snatched the little tube of placebos from the man and bustled to the till to exchange good money for little bits of chalk.
I was sceptical and assertive in a retail environment, and I don’t think that’s socially awkward or unfeminine. (I learned it from my mother, anyway.) Being assertive in the face of authority might be, but disagreeing with Conventional Wisdom, and doing so in a way which threatens to deprive others of a “therapy” is unwelcome.

Had I been very academic, and given her copies of scientific papers to prove my point; had I been very sensitive, and gently explained it all over coffee in Starbucks instead of making a scene in the chemist’s; had I been Miss Sweetness and Light instead of the Stern Schoolmistress … no difference. What I was doing was standing between the Loved One and the Therapy. Maybe this makes women at special risk of quackery.

According to iVillage.co.uk, a web site aimed at women, “Arnica works by stimulating the activity of white blood cells which process congested blood, and by dispersing trapped fluids from joints and muscles and bumped and bruised tissue. It also has anti-inflammatory and anti-bacterial qualities and it is these that help to reduce pain and swelling as well as improving wound healing.” Pretty impressive claims for any substance, you would think: that “congested blood” stuff in particular. But even setting aside these magical claims and mumbo-jumbo medical terms, something fishy is going on.

One of the main principles of homeopathy is that “like cures like”. This means that to cure bruising and inflammation, you’re meant to take a substance that causes bruising and inflammation, soak it in alcohol to create a “mother tincture” which is then diluted over and over again until there is nothing of the “mother tincture” left. Then you dilute it more, shaking well each time. (The shaking is important: it helps the water “remember” the mother tincture. Homeopaths have a word for it: “sucussing”.) Surely the last thing you’d ever want to use to cure bruising with homeopathy is arnica! Yet often the same source advises using herbal arnica (made out of comparatively strong solutions of arnica) and homeopathic arnica.

I’ve had more than one arnica moment. Once I was told that my older daughter had bumped her head at school and had been given Arnica cream. This isn’t arnica in homeopathic (i.e. nonexistent) quantities: it’s a tincture of the herb mixed in with some creamy base.

I was livid: this girl has a number of allergies, and all I needed was a day of antihistamines and steroids because some quack remedy provoked a reaction or was provided in a base containing soya oil or something she’s allergic to. I completely lost it on the care assistant: “You won’t give her a bloody children’s Tylenol without phoning me at work, but this rubbish you’re willing to rub in higgledy-piggledy?!” (I probably didn’t actually say “higgledy-piggledy”, but you get the idea.)
The headmistress had a word with me about being harsh on her staff — and I suppose I might have used a more moderate tone — but what really made it difficult for the people at school to understand was the idea that I should oppose the use of a well-known and widely-accepted quack remedy. I was standing between my little girl and her “therapy”.

So maybe I’m breaking the social convention of being a “good girl” and accepting what Authorities have to say, and maybe that makes a sceptical message less-effective. More important, perhaps, is the idea that openly expressing scepticism about some (important!) subjects equals coming between a sufferer and a “therapy”. So it’s easy to see why the British are so fond of their arnica. Nobody, not even the National Health Service, wants to be so rude as to tell anyone else that it’s just a tube of sugar pills.

Lynette Nusbacher, Senior Lecturer in War Studies at The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst, has recently returned from a three year loan to the Cabinet Office where she was Head of the Strategic Horizons Unit. Before that she enjoyed the title Devil’s Advocate.

She was educated at the University of Oxford, the Royal Military College of Canada and the University of Toronto. She has two daughters and lives in Surrey where she practises religion.

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10 Comments

  1. Yeah, so arnica is supposed to heal bruises when taken as an herbal supplement and also supposed to have the same effect when taking in a homeopathically diluted dose? How is that even internally consistent?

  2. I’m conflicted about Boots. On the one hand, they’re peddling snake-oil cures. On the other hand, they’re pretty open about the status of these ‘herbal remedies’, if you actually read the labels or ask someone. Arnica is a great example.

    And to muddy the waters still further, some of the lotions and potions provided do actually have an effect; it’s not all homeopathic in that aisle. Whether it’s a beneficial effect remains unclear :)

    Perhaps we cold lobby for clearer signage in drug stores, with a bold, clearly-marked “placebo” aisle, an “unregulated/potentially harmful” aisle and a “medicine” aisle.

  3. I don’t know how Boots does it, but at the drugstores in Canada they sell the homeopathic remedies right next to the scientifically-proven remedies, and if you aren’t careful to look at the ingredients you could buy the homeopathic remedies by accident.
    They have just come out with a new set of homeopathic remedies for children with the brand name “Kidz” – a cure for everything that might ail a child, and a godsend to anxious parents – until you realize they are placebos.
    Also they sell little hazelwood bracelets and necklaces to help with teething problems in babies. I’ve seen loads of babies wearing them. I worry a bit about the health hazard of putting something around a baby’s neck (though prob. it’s fine). But really! In a pharmacy? Hazelwood for teething?!! It should be illegal to try to fool desperate, sleep-deprived and therefore highly vulnerable parents.
    /rant.

  4. @Kaloikagathoi: On the plus side, I had a really hard time finding homeopathic stuff in my local CVS for 10:23 day. All I could find was occicillium (about a $1.50 per pill, world’s most expensive sugar), Calm Forte (which I picked) and some kind of Zinc-laced cold remedy that wasn’t really homeopathic at all. Don’t remember seeing any arnica, but the homeopathic and “natural” remedies were mixed in with the real medicine, so I could have been looking on the wrong shelf.

    What was worse was while I was sitting on the floor trying to read the labels on the shelf, my cell phone rang and it was that recording telling me it was my very last chance* to pay off my credit cards with a low-interest-rate loan, and to press “9” for more information. I’m glad there was no one else in that aisle to see me sitting on the floor screaming and swearing into my phone (of course I dialed 9) telling the f’er what I hope will happen to him in prison, once the other prisoners find out what he was in for. (It involved stabbing in the face with shivs.) Of course he insisted (as they always do) that neither the federal nor state “Do Not Call” lists apply to him, that they had just as much right to call a cell phone as any other phone, and because I had a credit card (any credit card, doesn’t matter who issued it), they had the right to call me. My current goal is to waste enough of their time that they eventually go out of business. I think if enough people did that, it might work. There are a lot more of us than their are of them.

    One time, I got the caller so pissed off that he called me back after I hung up, and I may have got his real phone number, which I reported to the FTC. (The Caller ID number is always fake on these calls. the FCC should prohibit that. The switching system always knows where the call came from, there should be at very least a call back (like *69) that you can do to initiate an FTC complaint complete with originating circuit information, rant rant rant.)

    Necklaces for infants? That sounds incredibly dangerous!

  5. Lynette makes mention of women being “at special risk of quackery” and “eager to avoid this sort of awkward skepticism.” I never thought of women as being more vulnerable to quackery. Is this so? Perhaps women gravitate towards different woo than men?

    Overall, I think humans are equal opportunity marks for snake oil salesmen/women.

  6. “I’m conflicted about Boots.” –cantor

    I’m not. They’re deceiving and defrauding people and making a substantial contribution to the promotion of pseudoscience and pseudomedicine. Unlike some quacks they don’t even have the ‘excuse’ of ignorance or delusion.

    Pseudomedicine is evil.

    http://www.dcscience.net/kevin-smith-homeopathy-ethics-2011.pdf

    “I was sceptical and assertive in a retail environment, and I don’t think that’s socially awkward or unfeminine.” –Lynette

    It isn’t. It’s the right thing to do. Arnica is just the thin end of the quackery wedge. Here is the (utterly horrific) thick end:

    http://www.safetyandquality.health.wa.gov.au/docs/mortality_review/inquest_finding/Dingle_Finding.pdf

  7. Hi, can you please point me at some sources for arnica (not the homoeopathic one, but the one with actual ingredients) not working?

    I have first hand, if obviously anecdotal and subjective, evidence that it SEEMS to work. I expect to be convinced, but I do need sources :)

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