Sceptics take mass overdose to prove homeopathy is a hoax


Sceptics overdosed on homeopathy pills to prove their point. Photo: Anneka James

Protesters have staged a mass “overdose” of homeopathic pills outside Boots stores around the country to prove that the remedies have no effects.

The protest, which took place on Saturday, January 30th, was run by the 10.23 group, named after Italian chemist Amedeo Avogadro’s number which determines the amount of molecules in a given solution. The group was set up by the Merseyside Skeptics Society, one of a number of linked skeptic groups from around the country joining together for the protest.

The 10.23 group sent an open letter to Boots in January, imploring them to remove homeopathic treatments from their shelves. They argue that Boots, as a respected and trusted retailer, has a responsibility to their customers to sell products that work. In the letter to the company, the group points to evidence that Boots recently gave to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, where the company admitted that they believe homeopathic remedies do not work.

According to the British Homeopathic Association’s (BHA) website, homeopathy works on the principle of “like cures like”. What this means is that a tiny amount of a substance will cure the symptoms of what a large amount of that substance would cause. In effect this means that in homeopathic practice water dilutes the “active ingredient” until there is little or none of it left. The BHA explains that the more dilute the solution, the more “potent” the treatment.

The pills sold in Boots must be extremely powerful then, by this thinking. Matt Parker from the School of Mathematical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London explains in The Times, referring to arnica homeopathy pills: “The arnica is diluted so much that there is only one molecule of it per 7 million billion billion billion billion pills.”

Martin Robbins, a spokesman for the 10.23 group, disputes the claims of the BHA and says that the purpose of the protest is to make people aware of what homeopathy actually is and the dangers of it being stocked in shops like Boots. He says: “The pills themselves may be harmless, but there is a real indirect danger to public health. For a major registered pharmacy like Boots to sell the products alongside real medicine suggests to the public that homeopathy is somehow equivalent to medicine, or an acceptable alternative.”

One participant, Dale Williams, who “overdosed” in Leeds, explains that many people have a real misunderstanding of what homeopathy actually is. He says they view homeopathy as some sort of herbal medicine, but in fact all it is water and sugar, with no active ingredients and no clinical effect, apart from the placebo effect. He also points to the findings of a BBC Newsnight investigation from 2006 which found that holiday-makers were being advised by homeopaths to stop taking anti-malarial drugs and instead take homeopathic treatments, which are completely ineffective against a disease like malaria. The disease killed 863,000 people in 2008 according to the World Health Organisation.

As well as convincing retailers like Boots to stop selling homeopathic treatments, the 10.23 group is eager to bring an end to homeopathy on the NHS. Robbins explains that the NHS spends over £4m a year on homeopathic treatments, the equivalent to the salaries of 200 nurses.

Unfortunately, although the British Homeopathic Association were contacted, no one from the organisation was available for comment. On their website the organisation claims: “There is a substantial and growing body of published research in good quality peer-reviewed journals showing that homeopathy has a positive effect,” although this is much disputed.

13 Responses to Sceptics take mass overdose to prove homeopathy is a hoax

  1. James Pannozzi says:

    Hoax? In my opinion, the only hoax I see is the attempt to denounce Homeopathy before research with modern scientific instrumentation and modern studies has had a chance to establish an opinion.

    In order to pull off this hoax, the experiments of several researchers, confirming biological activity causative from high dilution solutions needs to be ignored; existing studies, including one in the Cochrane database showing efficacy of a Homeopathic remedy in lessening the duration and severity of the flu needs to be ignored; the curative effects of low dilution remedies 1X -5X needs to be denied, other curative effects of Homeopathy need to be acknowledged but then written off as “placebo” effect, and last but not least, 200 years worth of clinical reports, case studies and books written by MD’s, and other qualified health professionals, some of them the finest medical minds of their day and many of them fully sceptical of any effects at all from infinitesimal doses until after they had proven it to themselves, needs to be somehow written off as the greatest collective delusion in the history of science. Trying telling that to the patients successfully treated.

    The sceptics expect us to somehow trust their opinion and theirs alone, even while genuine modern lab research in Homeopathy has barely begun. It took over a half century of research and a Nobel prize winning discovery to finally identify the bacteria that “could not possibly be” which were involved in Pyloric ulcers Good thing the 1023 ers weren’t around to interdict that one, eh?

    The overview of statistically significant high quality research given by Dr. Iris Bell MD, PhD in a presentation at a debate on Homeopathy here:

    Journal citations of research mentioned in the presentation, here:

    http://nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org/articles/view,173

    STILL think it’s a … “hoax”?? Perhaps it is time for us to start getting more sceptical of the “sceptics”.

  2. Dr Divyakumar Verma says:

    There are enough evidences to prove the efficacy of this science. We see the results daily in our clinic. Go and sit in one homoeopathic clinic for a month or so and you will see results. Without knowing anything do not comment.

    There is one article in Journal of Herbal Medicine and Toxicology. January edition on homeopathy. I’ve mentioned enough evidences. There are certain phenomenons which happen. If the current science can’t explain this phenomenon then I would say that this science is a bogus and biassed science. Wait for time to come when this concept will rule the world.

  3. Mark Bowery says:

    Thank you for your comments, I’m glad that my article has provoked debate on the subject.

    While I am neither a scientist or homeopath expert I do believe that homeopathy is pseudoscience.

    In a review of studies carried out by scientists from Oxford University they re-analysed 6 sets of meta-analysis and also took the findings of 11 other reviews. What this research found was that:

    “None of these systematic reviews provided any convincing evidence that homeopathy was effective for any condition.” [1]
    A second study by homeopaths themselves also came to the conclusion: “homeopathy should not be substituted for proven therapies.” [2]

    Here is Richard Dawkins (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jYqQ_n2vOOI) with an explanation why so many are at least sceptical of homeopathy, indeed he sights a meta-analysis of data in the Lancet which found no solid evidence of homeopathy being effective.

    Until the positive effects are proven and not just a hunch, or homeopaths can do better than ‘it works but we can’t explain why’, I’ll stick to clinically proven medicine thanks.

    References:
    1. E Ernst. A systematic review of systematic reviews of homeopathy. British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 2002 54: 577-582.
    2. WB Jonas et al. A critical overview of homeopathy. Annals of Internal Medicine 2003 138: 393-399.

  4. James Pannozzi says:

    Mark it is OK if you think it a pseudoscience but I believe neither the 1023ers nor you has anything more than opinion, same as me, and…. excuse me for saying this but I don’t think they have “proved” anything.

    In particular, the idea that it is a “hoax” implies intentional deception on the part of the “hoaxer” and, excuse me again, that would impugn the reputation of numerous MD’s, scientific researchers, scientists and other supporters and users of Homeopathy both here and abroad.

    Now stop and think Mark – have you been sucked into a deliberately vituperative media campaign which seeks to impugn the motives of researchers and MD’s involved in Homeopathy?

    The Ennis experiment in which she set out to disprove the water memory theory but which instead ended up supporting it, and which she published in Inflammation Research vol 53, p181.
    You think that was a “hoax”.

    Or was the BBC Horizon documentary that purported to repeat it, with negative results, failing to mention that their researcher had not only changed the test protocol but also failed to notify the test proctor from the Royal Society of this change – was THAT a hoax? Yet this documentary is frequently cited, erroneously, as having demonstrated her experiment was invalid.

    Your opinion I respect fully, it is one that I held not so long ago until I made careful investigation of the facts and got past the easily found misrepresentations of Homeopathy.
    But I urge you to rethink the use of the word “hoax” as part of a politicized inflammatory campaign against Homeopathy.
    Do you really want your opinion attached to this sort of lunatic fringe theatric at the same level as the moronic “million dollar” challenge?

    And I strongly suggest you search out the history of the Ennis/Sainte-Laude experimentation. And the comments by Dr. Rustum Roy PhD, and Dr. Iris Bell MD,PhD, and Nobel prize winner Brian Josephson, and Dr. Tiller PhD, all easily found on the web – and then re-examine your assertion of Homeopathy as pseudoscience.

    Thanks!
    JP

  5. Mark Bowery says:

    James,

    I believe you are absolutely correct regarding the argument that the 10.23 group haven’t proved that homeopathy doesn’t work with their ‘overdose’. I’m sure you’re as aware as I am that this was a publicity stunt to raise awareness of the issue.

    I also take your point that the word hoax is perhaps unfair to many homeopaths, who I’m sure are entirely sincere in their attempts to treat and heal people. However anecdotes of positive outcomes from homeopaths like Dr Verma aren’t enough.

    The power of placebo’s has been shown to be significant and also positive effects from homeopathic treatment can also be accounted for by ‘regression to the mean’. If you take homeopathy treatment when you feel ill, unless it is a serious illness like HIV or malaria, you will get better. The logical thing to assume is that the pill/remedy made you better.

    Again, in danger of repeating myself the Lancet reported the findings of five large meta-analyses of homeopathy research and found that overall homeopathy was no more statistically beneficial than placebo.

    Further to this Paul Bennett, a Boots representative admitted to the Commons Science and Technology Committee that he believed homeopathy to be ineffective.

    Finally you refer to some kind of media conspiracy to undermine homeopathy, the media is not the only critics of homeopathy. For example a number of respected MD’s and scientists wrote an open letter to the World Health Organisation imploring them to condemn the promotion and use of homeopathy in the treatment of serious disease in the developing world. Professor of surgery at University College London Michael Baum has described homeopathy as a “cruel deception” and called for it to be banned and other alternative medicines to banned on the NHS.

    Thanks

    Mark

  6. Oliver Dowding says:

    To Mark, and any other sceptic who reads this.

    You fail (perhaps that is telling in itself), to respond to the point about Pyloric ulcers. Can I therefore take it that, should you be unfortunately struck down with such an affliction that you will be rejecting anything other than the previously thought only option (as far as I am a layman, am aware) of ant-acids and dietary control as your solution, declining the effective solution? Let’s face it, we all use in our daily lives many things, many processes, many pieces of received wisdom, without necessarily knowing the mechanics by which many of them operate, and all the supporting science.

    The other point you make which is bizarre, is to back up your argument by suggesting that just because “Paul Bennett, a Boots representative admitted to the Commons Science and Technology Committee that he believed homoeopathy to be ineffective” then he must be right. Could you quote me what scientific papers Mr Bennett used in support of his observation? I suspect he was doing no more than expressing a personal opinion.

    As ever, humans sometimes try to be so clever that they almost themselves up. Luckily, those without, preordained agenda is, such as animals, haven’t learnt to be cynical or suspicious, or to develop hidden agendas, and simply respond positively when treated correctly. And no, it’s not something to do with suggestion or misinterpretation by the person administering remedy to the animal, in case you were going to suggest that. It’s reality, which I understand fully to those who are cynical and sceptical, must be most uncomfortable. Therefore they have to think of all possible reasons why the person treating the animal must have done something wrong, suggest that they have conducted themselves correctly, or some other such red herring.

  7. You’ve failed to provide one journal article to support your claims. In fact, all you’ve done is voice an unsupported opinion.

    Care to back up your claims like Mark has his?

  8. Mark Bowery says:

    Hi Oliver,

    To deal with the issue of pyloric ulcers that James Pannozzi referred to earlier, I think you missed the point of his argument. He wasn’t claiming there is evidence that homeopathy treats these ulcers, as I think you are suggesting. I think what he was saying is that science at one point prior to the discovery of a bacteria called Helicobacter pylori believed no bacteria could survive in the gut. It was discovered and found to cause ulcers and two doctors who discovered it won the nobel prize. Pannozzi was arguing that sceptics would have disagreed with these men, as sceptics are disagreeing with homeopathy. It’s a bit like the argument that people laughed when Columbus said the world was round, but he was right.

    I didn’t reply to this argument because it doesn’t need replying to. You criticise me for being sceptical of something that can’t be explained, hasn’t been shown to work and any evidence of its effectiveness is sketchy at best. Yes I am sceptical, being sceptical is a good thing. In 2006 the South African health minister encouraged HIV sufferers to deal with their illness by eating garlic. What you are suggesting is that just because we can’t explain it or it has no evidence we should trust it anyway, this has potentially catastrophic consequences. I’m not suggesting if the overwhelming majority of the scientific community changed their minds because some new evidence comes to light I won’t change mine too. Of course I would. This is the beauty of science, it makes conclusions based on the best available evidence. At the moment the best available evidence is that homeopathy doesn’t work. And lets be fair homeopathy has had a couple of hundred years to scrape some solid evidence together.

    You also talk about agendas and questioning such agendas, why not try questioning the agenda of those who have had positive results in homeopathy research. How do these people make a living, do you think that the majority of them may have some links to the multi-billion dollar homeopathy industry perhaps? Whereas independent researchers and experts tend not to find positives effects of homeopathic treatments, strange!!

    The reason I refer to Paul Bennett, the Boots representative is because if you read the story, it’s about Boots selling homeopathic treatments that they don’t believe work. Do you not think this is slightly disingenuous? Would you be happy walking in to any other shop and purchasing something that the shop keeper knew didn’t work/or contain the substance that it claimed to?

    As well as Bennett I have also referred to meta-analyses carried out by Oxford University and a separate report in the Lancet, Richard Dawkins, a number of MD’s and scientists who wrote a letter to the WHO, Michael Baum and will now will refer you to Dr Ben Goldacre’s book ‘Bad Science’ or his column in the Guardian.

    Thanks

    Mark.

  9. Bill Alexander says:

    I apologise for a somewhat late re-awakening of this article, I’ve only just found it amongst the mire.

    What a fascinating little cameo of the pseudoscientistic arch-skeptic argument versus the rational homeopathic position!

    As a genuine skeptic – one skeptical of much convention – who is interested in the practise & emerging science of homeopathy, might I make a few belated comments?

    Firstly, your article, Mark.

    Do I take it that you support the attempts of zealots in 10:23, and their chums, to eradicate homeopathy?
    They really are a faintly ridiculous bunch, who can’t even quote Avogadro correctly, then go on to mis-apply the science of it. On the other side of that coin, they clearly “have a real misunderstanding of what homeopathy actually is”. Rather less understanding than practising homeopaths, that is. And a real misunderstanding of what science actually is, too.

    I don’t see the homeopaths, or their patients, campaigning to stop conventional medicine, the preponderance of which is not good EBM, and which is about the second or third highest cause of death in major western countries. (Correctly prescribed interventions, as well as the mistakes, with inherently toxic treatments.)

    I agree with James Pannozzi, the only hoaxes I can see here are perpetrated by the likes of 10:23, Randi, et al. Does the 10:23 demo fulfil *any* of the expectations of proof they demand of homeopaths?

    About Newsnight on malarial prophylactics.
    If I go into a bookshop, I expect to be offered books for sale. If I went to a church, I’d expect to find some religion there. Is it so unexpected that if a bunch of axe-grinders go to a homeopathic pharmacy, they get offered homeopathy? It isn’t EBM, because it isn’t EBM, that’s it, it’s a choice.
    Those total numbers dying from malaria exist in the context of available conventional anti-malarial, many of which have dire side-effects in a minority. Here you are indulging in three+ fallacies, one that conventional prophylactics and treatments are always effective (thank you, Cheryl Cole, for disproving that one), more obviously, that this big number is somehow relevant to the effectiveness or otherwise of homeopathic prophylaxis (Disproportionate Weight). Then there is an implication that the total homeopathic method has been proved not to work against malarias, which is also untrue. There’s Appeal to Authority in there somewhere, too.

    That’s almost up to Ben Goldacre standards!

    There are some wonderful early quotes out there from the blood-letting authorities of the time, attacking the ineptitude of homeopaths for not releasing the blood. How could they possibly cure anything otherwise?

    Sadly, some of the homeopaths caved in to the malarial thing as well.
    Some money for more, genuine research would be welcome, but does not seem to be forthcoming, perhaps not in established interests. I emphasize ‘genuine’.

    Finances.
    On to the £$mill NHS spend on homeopathy.
    It’s a contentious figure, much is made up of hypothecated donations from supporters (The homeopathic hospitals were themselves charitable intitutions, before being confiscated into the NHS. I hear no word of them being returned to the benefactors if the NHS stops supporting them.)
    Looking at 2009, most recent adjustments, we see
    total govt. health spend ’09 £220,726.0mill
    let’s see 4/220726=?
    It’s probably less than is spent on external consultants and furniture, I’m not sure.

    When you factor in the cost of medicines no longer required after a homeopathic cure or amelioration, the ratio still isn’t quite Avogadro’s expectation of molecules in a gas, but it’s a start..

    Money not spent there, of course, is money lost to pharmaceutical profits, not that I’m suggesting an unsubtle, uncoverable conspiracy, but there inevitably is a limited consensus amongst graduates of the system, who also have their authority to protect, and often rewards for good sales figures.

    How long did you wait for a response from the BHA before publishing? I suspect they had more than one response on their website, maybe they were overwhelmed with requests, or didn’t consider you important enough.. Have they replied yet?
    Did you also bother to ask the HMA, the ARH, or the director of the RLHH (as was)?

    On to the responses…

  10. Bill Alexander says:

    So I had a look at the responses. Very polite, no shouting, no football hooligans, quite a relief. Maybe it’s the mods.

    Mark, you believe that Homeopathy is a pseudoscience, which I understand as a pejorative term to mean it is not genuine. You then go on to quote the ‘gang of five’ (Dorkins, Earnst, Goldigger, Bumm, & Al., sorry..) all arch enemies of homeopathy. Weren’t some of those the ones that fraudulently used NHS notepaper to try to shake LAHAs & PCTS away from funding anything not pharmaceutical?

    Seems a little biased to me, for a good skeptic. How much have you actually looked into the other side, homeopathic practise? Or is examining two sides of an argument rather beneath you? (I don’t mean to be rude, it’s just about how one forms one’s opinions.)

    If you yourself would not therefore use homeopathy, is it really reason to deny it to others of different judgment?
    Because that’s the effect of the proposal.

    But maybe you don’t want ‘public money’ spent on those other little people, referred by GPs, who want it, find it works, and have no conventional cure on offer?

    That is about hypothecation of funds; which I think you’ll find is generally considered to be a bad thing – where would it go next?
    The spend is peanuts, and would not go to help anyone. On top of that, where it works (and if it never worked, I reckon it would have gone by now), it generates savings to the NHS from drugs no longer required.

    You don’t want to use it yourself ? Fine. Don’t. But don’t militate to have it denied to others.

    There are the attacks on Paul Bennet & Boots, for selling customers what they want, despite official skepticism. Strange. They’re in the business of selling to people, you know. This isn’t exactly heroin.

    You mention the Horizon hoax, which purported to show that homeopathy doesnotwork, and misrepresented itself as somehow scientific. (Why a senior FRS lent himself to this stunt, I have no idea, other than the onset of dementia.) Of course, even if the experiment had been genuine, it would have proved no such thing. So far as I know, it was never accepted for peer-review anywhere, and my requests for the full protocol and results have been ignored, each and every time I have asked.

    Then there is the Great Placebo Hoax, in which pseudo-skeptics keep repeating and repeating that “Homeopathy is no more than a Placebo effect”.
    Even though they must know that this theory does not hold water at all.

    Which reminds me of the saying that, whilst proper Zen often looks ridiculous, this does not mean that anything which looks ridiculous is therefore Zen.
    This applies both to to placebo contention, and to the points about useful novel theories, like those of Lister, or Marshall & Warren, being initially unacceptable to the establishment.

    And the Meta-Study Hoax, where papers are discarded if they don’t fit convention, and one gets a giant, biased, garbage-in, garbage-out machine with extrapolated and tailored conclusions. (Chris Ofili?)

    No-one mentioned the re-definition of rules of proof and of evidence, or the desire to discard a mountain of experiential phenomena in favour of orthodoxy. These are areas from which science itself emerged.

    Another piece of compounded fallacy, Appeal to Authority, Disproportionate Weight, Invitation to False Conclusion, etc.: you mention that “a number of respected MD’s and scientists wrote an open letter to the World Health Organisation imploring them to condemn the promotion and use of homeopathy in the treatment of serious disease in the developing world”.
    Headlines maybe, but not respected by me. No mention of the scandal of WHO employees taking kick-backs from pharmaceutical companies, either. And in complete contrast to earlier WHO attitudes supporting local medical systems, and their protection from corporate theft.
    Prejudiced self-interest groups do this sort of thing.
    Yet there are many thousands of comparatively silent MDs, and respected Homeopathic physicians, who completely support the use of homeopathy wherever applicable.

    I should add, though it’s big politics and a bit cynical, that for a poor country, giving garlic as treatment for HIV may well be ineffective (studies, anyone?), but a great deal cheaper than shelling out to greedy pharma giants, with much the same outcome. There may well be other effective remedies, such as education, but not such great money-spinners.

    Call yourself a skeptic?

  11. dave says:

    Plenty of attacks on Big Pharma but totally diversionary from the crux of the issue:

    Ultimately there’s NO high quality medical trials that show homeopathy has any effect beyond placebo. It doesn’t stop this archaic nonsense from being peddled for anything from cancer and breast enlargements to quitting smoking however.

    So, attacks on everyone who mocks homeopathy but no substance to the outrageous claims for homeopathy? Homeopathy is being disproved out of existence and the sooner the better.

  12. Rose says:

    I would just like to say, My age is 41 and I’m a mother of 4. I have been using homeopathic medication for over 20 years. My Doctor is a Alopathic doctor who was disillusioned with modern medicine and studied homeopathy in Germany.

    My childrens ages range from 8 years to 16 years. They have never had a antibiotic in there lives and my daughter who got tick bite fever was cured by Homeopathic means.

    6 years ago I developed ME which was TOTALY cured with Homeopathy and Vitamins.

    My friends father died from Malaria – he took alopathic Malaria medication.

    I really feel sorry for those who belive that there is only placce for Alopathic medication both forms of medicine are very necessary.

  13. Greg says:

    In answer to that: good anecdotes. But the pills do nothing. Read up on the Placebo Effect, and understand that the human body can heal itself. If your condition was cured with Homeopathy and Vitamins, then it was cured with Vitamins.

    In fairness, all we are asking for, is reasonable proof that the pills are any different from simple sugar pills. Of course, it is widely acknowledged that it is impossible to do this with any kind of chemical analysis. So, the claim remains that these chemically indistinguishable pills have a special therapeutic effect! That is an extraordinary claim, contradicting basic chemistry, which requires reasonably extraordinary evidence to back it up (especially in view of the simple placebo effect alternative). Any intellectually and morally honest homeopath should be very interested in setting up a trial to prove this, I would think; yet none have. When you properly consider the concepts of experimental control and bias elimination, you will realize that a stack of testimonials from people claiming that it made their kids better and cured their aunt’s friend means very little. We have no idea what would have happened if the same subjects had been given plain tablets under the same circumstances.
    I believe that many, if not all, homeopaths are earnest and well-intentioned, so I don’t understand why such a test has not taken place. I’m really at a loss to understand this. If they are right, they have so much to gain by proving it, and it’s really not that hard to set up a real trial.

    However, I am deeply of the opinion that such a test would fail to find any difference between homeopathic pills and untreated sugar pills. Which is not to say that there wouldn’t be results; but the plain sugar pills would generally produce the same results as the magic dilution pills. I do have to wonder if, deep down, the homeopaths realize this too; this would explain the refusal to provide real proof (and the mountains of non-proof they come up with instead).

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