A general record of my ongoing battle with all forms of nonsense.

Tuesday 3 August 2010


I wasn’t able to make Frank Swain’s talk at Westminster Skeptics in the Pub on Monday night, but I did catch up with the uncensored parts on The Pod Delusion Podcast later.

Frank is right when he says that there are a whole host of reasons why people believe, and to convince them we need to meet them on their own turf. If anecdotes convince people to believe, anecdotes will be more effective in convincing them not to believe. (I should clarify that I’m summarising what Frank says, these are my words.)

As an example of a campaign that was not effective, Frank cited 1023.

On the point of 1023 being ineffective, I disagree.

What Frank was saying is that the main message of the 1023 campaign is that “there’s nothing in it”. Homeopaths know there's nothing in it. People who have been shunning real medicine in favour of homeopathy for years know there's nothing in it.

And people who already know there’s nothing in it are not going to be convinced by being told that there’s nothing in it. Frank’s right here - but he’s very wrong when he says that this makes it an ineffective campaign.

A tiny percentage of the population shares our skeptical viewpoint. A larger, yet still small percentage; practice homeopathy.

In the middle sits the vast majority, ready to be plucked by either camp. They go to dinner parties and people tell them they’ve visited a homeopath. They walk past homeopathic practices on their way to work. They’re mostly rational, but don’t know what homeopathy is. They may know there isn’t much evidence to show that it works, but they don’t realise that it’s been tested time after time and shown to be ineffective. They don’t realise that it lacks an active ingredient altogether. They don’t realise that it’s a thoroughly discredited absurdity. They don't realise that there's nothing in it.

It is these people who will be convinced by 1023.

If you’re trying to convince as many people as possible, and are within an environment where the vast majority of people are ignorant yet open minded, only a complete fool would target those who already know about the subject, but are so close minded that they ignore the knowledge they already possess.

I have had a couple of opportunities to speak to open-minded, intelligent audiences on this subject. Most people don’t know what it is. Simply explaining it is all that is required to convince them, completely, that it’s nonsense. It takes minutes.

1023 did this on a mass scale. It was a beautiful, engaging demonstration. Hundreds of people took 42 times the recommended dosage of so called "drugs". This impersonation of a crazed religious sect grasped the attention of newspaper reporters. How can a paper not report a mass drug overdose?

The message was clear: we’re able to do something that seems implausible because we’re using implausible medicine. Or - we’ll be fine: there’s nothing in it.

Of course you won’t convince a homeopath. But that homeopath needs customers. And because of 1023, homeopaths are now operating in an environment where many more people know they’re peddling pills that contain nothing. Their customers are socialising with more people who know the pills contain nothing.

Grow this simple understanding throughout the population and you create an environment where homeopathy will struggle to survive. 1023 did that beautifully.

Frank said people aren’t convinced by facts. Telling a story is in many cases more convincing. So I’ll end with a story. Here it is:

Before I was convinced by facts, I once suggested to someone that they might try visiting a homeopath.


Mike Agg said...

I've spoken to a few people who now know what homeopathy is, thanks entirely to the 1023 campaign. But anecdotal evidence is all I've got. I'd love to have something quantitative. Does anybody have any survey data?

Andy said...

I have an anecdote for Frank...

I once saw a whole bunch of people around the world overdose on homeopathy and exhibit absolutely no effects whatsoever.


greggray said...

1023 is a fantastic anecdote in itself. The story of "the people who overdosed on homeo-tablets and lived" is far easier and more likely to spread in the population than any amount of hard evidence. Much easier for non-skeptics to pass on at the dinner table. More of the same please.

Great point of the writer that it's the majority of the population that is important.

greggray said...

Anecdotes aren't facts it's true, which is why 1023 is so useful. The 1023 campaign is a fact that can also be a great anecdote - a nice bite sized, nugget of true that can easily be spread.

Gammidgy, I'd suggest that spreading the 1023 story as an anecdote would be a great way to connect with your friends and when they ask more about it, you'll have the facts to back it all up. I don't see anything wrong with using anecdotes to catch peoples interest - so long as they can be baked up by facts.

Kash said...

It's another anecdote, but I did not know what homeopathy was until the 1023 campaign. I assumed it was the same as herbal remedies.
And I like to consider myself a scientist!
(Well, I study science in my spare time).

Andy said...

I was skeptical of 1023 when it was planned but the media fall out was all good, and it has been cited as far as Germany.

As for an anecdote:
I've even used it to educate my GP. One GP now will think twice before prescribing alt-med, is a success!

Simon Singh said...

I missed Frank's talk, but heard it on http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2010/08/03/westminster-skeptics-frank-swain-the-science-punk/

It reminded me of a couple of TAM8 talks I heard this year in Vegas. For example, Phil Plait argued that we needed to be skeptic diplomats, not skeptic warriors, but I think we need the whole spectrum of skepticism.

As skeptics we have individual preferences in terms of style, medium, subject and audience, and audiences will also have preferences in terms of whether they will be persuaded by humour, facts, anecdotes, etc.

And it is never a single exchange that persuades someone that, for example, homeopathy is bogus, but rather a series of encounters over the course of a year or so (an anecdote plus an article plus a pub chat, lecture, etc.)

So let's all pile in with our favoured approach, perhaps after having considered how to maximise impact. Of course, don't be "bullying, hectoring or arrogant", but whenever I have seen Edzard, Ben Goladacre, etc. debate these issues it seems that their opponents who are more likely to be guilty of such things.

With respect to Frank's criticism of 10:23 - I think this was an excellent example of skeptical activism. It made a serious point in a fun way. It reached out to the general public via the mass media. I strongly suspect that it made many people aware that "there's nothing in it" - my own experience is that many people think homeopathy is herbal medicine.

Finally, I do very much agree with Frank that we do occassionally need to examine what we do, why we do it and how we do it? On the other hand, I am not usually in favour of self-flagellation.

Ps. In terms of maximising impact, I wish more Skeptics in the Pub events were covered in the local press and on local radio, as this turns the inward discussion out to 100,000+ who live locally. The topics are generally interesting and the speakers are often entertaining, so media coverage is worth pursuing. An idea for Winchester - how about a debate between your local MP Steve Brine and a skeptic on the subject of NHS funding of homeopathy. This would get lots of local media coverage. Medical skeptic Les Rose lives in Salisbury.

Andrew said...

IIRC, Frank criticised 10²³ for being "not engaging". I thought that's why it was great. You can engage with individuals, sure, but publicly 'debating' homeopaths is invariably a stupid waste of time, as Radio Five Live proved last week.

Whereas 10²³ simply pointed out that homeopathic medicine is inert, and then immediately, clearly and publicly proved it. No 'dogma', no shouting, no arrogance. It didn't even tell people not to use homeopathy. Just pointed out some stuff and let people draw their own conclusions.

I prefer that to the approach PETA or Greenpeace use. It might not be persuasive, but it's honest. Sure, we might convince someone not to use homeopathy using emotional appeals, but is that a victory for skepticism, or just equal and opposite credulity? Anecdotes are great hooks, but if we're arguing against bullshit then we have to keep our argument about facts, and that's what 10²³, I think, did fantastically well.

Frank the SciencePunk said...

Thanks Simon for a very interesting post. I'm pretty much in agreemnet with you here.

It wasn't my intention to suggest that the 1023 campaign was ineffective - far from it! But I did use it as an example of how we must be careful in assuming that the reason people embrace unevidenced beliefs is because they don't understand the facts - factual evidence being just one small ingredient of the decision making process.

Another problem is that it's much easier to come up with lies than evidence - when we say homeopathy has no active ingredient, the homeopaths simply invent the lie that water has memory. When we take mass overdoses and don't die, the homeopaths say: "Look, this proves how safe our remedies are!". It's a problem I'm not certain how to overcome.

You and the other commenters are absolutely right that the overdose itself becomes a story - it has a narrative and an emotional pull, and it's easy to retell.

RE: Simon Singh's comment, it's interesting because I almost used the exact same phrase as Phil Plait, especially as the Guardian's phrase "Warriors Against Claptrap" seems to be spreading. And of course I'm not trying to prescribe a "best approach" - I think there needs to be far MORE plurality in skeptical activism; what I hoped to do was to encourage more consideration amongst skeptics on how best to achieve their goals (whatever they might be).

Martin Robbins said...

Frank says: "Another problem is that it's much easier to come up with lies than evidence - when we say homeopathy has no active ingredient, the homeopaths simply invent the lie that water has memory."

It's not just another lie though, it's a fundamental change.

The whole point of the campaign was that most people actually don't have a clue what homeopathy is - even the majority of people who take it. They just assume it's some form of herbal remedy, and many homeopaths actively encourage that perception.

Moving from that charade to a situation where homeopaths are actually having to describe and justify what is(n't) in their remedies is an immediate win for public education, and it forces the homeopaths to defend a much less plausible position. It's one thing to justify herbal remedies, another to try and sell magic water...

davidp said...

My placebo effect anecdote, showing things don't have to work for them to be seen to work:

One night I decided to give my sick, distressed one year old daughter some liquid pain killer to help her. It quickly soothed her and she went to sleep. In the morning I discovered I had accidentally given her de-congestant, not pain killer - no analgesic in it, but it worked just as well.

This is a placebo effect - it tasted like medicine, she had experienced medicine helping, so she was soothed.

brillo p. said...

As Dr Dean Adel, from KGO radio in San Francisco, says: if homeopathy works,then take homeopathic birth control pills and see how that works out.

brillo p. said...

DavidP, that is the most disingenuous anecdote; first, you'd have to know what illness you were treating (maybe it was a slight cough or belly ache that heals itself overnight) second, you'd have to have an intelligent conversation with your 1 year old daughter about subconscious behavior to know if what SHE thought, and she'd have had to understand what was going on (unlikely for a 1 year old) and lastly, most decongestants have some form of analgesic or anti-inflammatory, plus something to make you drowsy and/or relaxed.

Hilary said...

I don't mean to be rude, but couldn't those purchasing homeopathic stuff, once they've been told that it doesn't work simply just be thick? And arrogant too. I saw a woman who hadn't gained a single O'level at school try to argue with her niece (the niece had a PhD) about how wonderful a particular homeopathic thing was. It terrifies me this woman could be asked to serve on a jury. I only wish her niece had treated this woman with the contempt she deserved.

Maybe we Brits just aren't the well-mannered, educated population we like to think we are. Perhaps most of us are just plain old rude, disrespectful, uneducated thick idiots!