Safe and Effective Skeptical Activism – The 10:23 Campaign

At 10:23AM on 30 January 2010, the 10:23 Campaign staged a mass overdose of homeopathic “medicine” to protest the sale of homeopathy products in Boots pharmacies, especially under the Boots brand name. The event generated a considerable amount of media attention and increased public awareness of the nature of homeopathy, although it has not yet succeeded in getting Boots to disavow homeopathy.

Spending on homeopathy by the government and private individuals is medically indefensible. Furthermore, wasting money on medically ineffective water and sugar pills at a time when local NHS trusts regularly run out of funds, and education and scientific research budgets may be slashed is ridiculous. Therefore, I am a strong supporter of the 10:23 Campaign’s goals and want nothing more[1] than to see them succeed.

But[3] I have concerns about the safety and efficacy of the 10:23 Campaign’s approach, which I have helpfully categorized as Economic, Philosophic, Scientific, Pedagogic, and Safety.

Boots sells homeopathic products because people buy them. If obtaining homeopathic products involves buying them from Boots, then those purchases go down as customer interest in homeopathy. I doubt Boots has a hipster flag for ironic purchases.

This is not a very important concern.

“10:23” is a reference to Avogadro’s number, because homeopathic remedies are frequently diluted until the odds of finding even a single molecule of the “therapeutic” compound in solution are astronomical. Thus, the tagline, “There’s nothing in it”.

Unfortunately, many homeopaths will agree that there are no molecules remaining in solution. Instead, they suggest that the water “remembers” the compound through some vague hand waving mechanism that invokes “quantum mechanics” and is potentized by succussion.

Water memory” is thoroughly implausible, but it is the proposed mechanism for homeopathic action and, therefore, is the hypothesis to address.

The mass overdose stunt is not a scientific test, but it may provide data that is detrimental to the anti-homeopathy campaign. The stunt’s efficacy is predicated upon participants suffering no ill effects after “overdosing” on the homeopathic remedy. The odds of something happening because of the “overdose” are small, the odds that something bad will happen by chance grows as the popularity of the campaign increases. Unfortunately, bad things randomly happen to people, and if one of those things happens close in time to the overdose it may be used as evidence of homeopathic efficacy. The Boobquake protest was similarly undermined by the virtual certainty of a 6+ earthquake occurring within 48 hours of the protest time.

Most people do not believe in the Law of Similars or the Law of Infinitesimals. They think homeopathic remedy means herbal remedy. Therefore, explaining that “there’s nothing in it” may seem like a straight forward educational approach. But, as a friend who is a Christian minister[4] says about atheist arguments:

“I don’t believe in that jerk either.”

Homeopaths can say the same about the “there’s nothing in it” argument and invoke “water memory”. In the same vein, the lack of harm from mass overdose stunts can be presented as a lack of side effects. Remember, homeopathy advocates are not operating from a biochemical understanding of therapeutic action.

Therefore, it is not clear that mass overdose stunts are the most effective tool for teaching the public about homeopathy. While the “water memory” mechanism cannot be directly refuted in a publicly dramatic way, the implausibility is evident when one sees the preparation of a homeopathic remedy, as demonstrated by Crispian Jago:

The overdose is a staple of homeopath opponents. Homeopathic overdoses appear safe because homeopathic remedies are diluted until they are just water or sugar pills.

The homeopathic industry, however, is poorly regulated. It is not unknown for so-called “homeopathic” remedies to contain physiologically significant doses of active compounds (e.g., zinc in Zicam). The alternative medicine industry is notorious for the presence of undeclared drug ingredients in their products. A mass overdose of such products could pose a health risk to activists.

I do not know what the 10:23 Campaign has planned for 2011, but I would hope that future stunts maximize participant safety. I also hope that they embrace the opportunity to make their stunts more than a way to generate publicity, but also to creatively educate the public in an effective manner.


  1. Technically untrue. I want my kids to be healthy and a tenured faculty position a lot more. It’s just a figure of speech. Jesus[2].
  2. Also, just a figure of speech.
  3. Yeah, you knew that one was coming. So clever, that one.
  4. Apologies for any misquoting and for lumping a lovely man in with homeopaths.

Author: Josh Witten

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