Saturday 30 January 2010

I survived homeopathic suicide! Because there's nothing in it.

Shortly after 9:30 this morning I set off for the 10:23 overdose event - for the reasons I blogged a few days ago. It had hailed before I'd woken up and the car was covered in make-believe snow.

I'd brought the 30C arnica, and there was time to buy a bottle of water - I was a bit nervous in case I couldn't swallow the wretched things (I don't swallow pills easily and prefer tiny ones). I hadn't had much sleep, mostly because of nerves, though my boyfriend had cheered me up over instant messenger. He'd dutifully gone to bed at about 1am, and was then back about two minutes later saying he'd suddenly felt the irresistable urge to calculate how many glucose molecules there'd be in each pill.

I reminded myself of the molecular mass of glucose: 6 carbons, whose molecular weight is 12; 12 hydrogens, whose molecular weight is 1; 6 oxygens, whose molecular weight is 16. That came to 180. What this actually means is that 1 mole of glucose weighs 180g. 1g of hydrogen would contain the same number of molecules as 180g glucose. A mole is Avogadro's constant, a very specific number of atoms: approximately 6 x 10 to the power 23 (I wish this blog did superscript!). In fact, that's what inspired 10:23's name.

I let my boyfriend finish off the maths. He calculated that for every 1 molecule of arnica (assuming that it is, indeed, a pure substance!), there would be a number of molecules of glucose that ended in 39 zeros! Edd made a similar point: enough molecules for 15,000 solar masses ("Broadly speaking, on a clear night in ideal conditions, with your naked eye you will have around the right number of stars to add up to that much matter. Maybe not quite enough, but not far off").

Of course, there are not this many molecules on the Earth, but this is because every single step of diluting involves adding a new 99 drops of water and dispensing with another 99. Most of the substance gets washed away!

To put it another way, to find a single molecule of arnica in little tubes like mine, my boyfriend worked out, at the price of £5.19 per tube, you'd have to buy enough to fund 2 billion billion billion Apollo programs!

Anyway, I wandered back and forth in front of Boots, and at one point went round the back to check there was nobody on that side. Finally Katy Woodhouse, a lovely lady from the Western Telegraph (my local newspaper), arrived with a big umbrella and a little camera and notepad. Her first question to me was: "Why do you feel so strongly about it?"

I had to answer, "I don't - I'm doing this partly for fun! That is, I think there are more important things to worry about - but I also believe the public ought to know what they're getting when they buy homeopathy." Because many people very clearly don't. I explained to her how it's often confused with herbal medicine, and how homeopaths are apt to advise people to give up vital conventional medicine when they need it - as pointed out in a poignant tweet last night from Josa Young: "I support because consulting a homeopath delayed my mother getting proper treatment for her ovarian cancer. She died at 68."

I told Katy that this was taking place all over England, but I didn't know of any other lone demonstrations, or any others in Wales. If either of these did take place, I'd be so glad to know!

She was writing shorthand, which fascinated me. "It took ages to learn," she told me. She asked me if Boots really actually sold this stuff - since she didn't believe in it, she'd never looked for it! I took her in to see the rows upon rows of weird-named tubes. There was no note about "without approved therapeutic something or other" that I'd thought I'd seen. My arnica box was the only product that explained what it actually did. I showed her the "a
rsenic alba". At just that point an elderly gentleman needed to get in between us to pick out a couple, swearing that they cured his bruising. "Do they actually work?" asked Katy politely, and he assured her they did. I kept quiet until he'd gone, then said, "Many different testimonies."

By the time we got back outside, it was a minute or two after 10:23! Hurriedly, I put my bag down by the railings and tried to get the vial open. I couldn't. I tried and tried. You have to press the bottom upwards. Then Katy had a go. It was beginning to snow now. After several mintues of talk and feeling exceptionally stupid, I went back into Boots and asked an assistant - the same lady, I believe, who'd sold it to me! - if she could help me get it open! She gave me a strange look, but found that she had to practically stand on it as well. I thanked her profusely and dashed outside. Katy took a couple of photos, one with the river in the background, the other with the Boots sign. Then I settled down again and started clicking the dispenser. Every few clicks, a little white sugary blob skittered into the cap. I started munching them like crisps.

Katy couldn't help looking a bit worried - especially when I explained the symptoms of ingesting arnica! She asked me to give her a ring later to let her know what happened to me, as she had to go on and do other things. I just remembered in time to give her this sheet from Sense About Science, which is terrific. She was really nice, and let me rattle on about the weird statistics calculated during silly hours! The pills were yummy too - with roughly the crunchiness of especially tiny, dense Mini Egg covering, and not too surprisingly tasting precisely like, well, sugar. "And you believe so strongly that you'll be safe . . ." was one of Katy's parting lines. Yup. And I felt no ill effects at all. There weren't even enough to give me a sugar rush. I'd finished almost all by the time she'd gone. And then I went shopping and then I went home!

It didn't take long for the news to appear on the BBC website and a great many wonderful videos and pictures to appear on 1023. This is probably my favourite photo:

People on the Have Your Say BBC forum are beautifully divided. Many are greatly shocked to learn that such an unscientific quackery is even on sale, let alone in Boots. Others seem to be hurling accusations. Here are some FHA (Frequently Hurled Accusations):

"you are in the pay of Big Pharma"
Not this again. For one thing, the fact that that is wrong doesn't make it right. Does the Iraq war make the genocide in Sudan right? And what about the fact that Big Pharma produces homeopathy?

"it worked for me"
Everything works for somebody, or nearly. One chap's depression was cured after he got a mate to hammer a nail into his head as a suicide attempt. Interestingly, the diseases people were describing were stress-related, and the treatments involved extensive consultation following an annoying sort of time. The real treatment was probably getting a bit of attention, and feeling more positive. Anecdotes are where you start your studies, not where you conclude them.

"you are having a tantrum and throwing your dummie [sic] out of the pram"
Well, I had a great time, looked like everyone else was too. We sure educated some of the commentators, if not all.

"scientists used to say the Earth was flat, therefore homeopathy is right"
No, the ancient Greeks measured the lengths of shadows in different latitudes to work out the Earth's diameter.

And many more amount to - "live and let live" (Yeah - we don't want babies to die because their parents refuse to treat them normally . . . as does happen!); "you people have nothing better to do" (Yeah - I came home and ate a damn good meal!) and "I have an opinion; I am Entitled to My Opinion; This makes Me sacred; therefore homeopathy is right."

I meant to write something more serious than that, so I think I'll stop now.

Good on you folks for organising a hilariously funny day. Actually, sometime, I would be interested in taking on "Big Pharma", because I know that in some countries and situations they are pretty dodgy. I predict with some confidence that the homeopaths will go beserk with rage at us for this shameless attempt to undermine the noble, scientific producers of their . . . er . . . opinion-drink.

I'll post the link to the local rag when it comes out!


MrMMarsh said...

There was at least one other lone demonstration - West Kirkby, the Wirral. She too got press coverage, even though the event at Liverpool HQ didn't!


Anonymous said...

I really enjoy reading your blog, thanks X

Alice said...

Thanks Michael and Leslie. Glad to hear there was another lone demo, and I can't believe the Liverpool lot didn't make their local news!!