Nick Little is the vice president and general counsel of Center for Inquiry (CFI), the organization that oversees the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI), which hosts CSICon. Nick will be speaking at CSICon on Saturday, October 19, at 10 am.
Susan Gerbic: Hello there, Nick. So nice to get a chance to talk to you. You are the person responsible for reading all my Skeptical Inquirer online articles I write about grief vampires, keeping me from being sued. I suppose you have to review most controversial writings before they are published.
Nick Little: I do. It’s the fun part of my job in many ways, getting a preview on all these great stories. I do feel bad when I have to tell authors to scale back the criticism, in particular the words used, in certain situations. Like, for example, quack is a word that troubles a lot of lawyers!
Gerbic: Please tell readers about yourself. I understand that you were born and educated in the U.K., one of my favorite places in the world. What brings you to the USA? Certainly not our free health care.
Little: Yes, born and raised in England. I met my (now former) wife when I was doing my undergrad at Oxford. After some graduate study, we married and moved to the U.S. in the mid 90s. I worked in the financial sector for a while until I decided on a major change of direction, went to law school at Vanderbilt (hence me owning three pairs of cowboy boots and a Stetson, and, believe me, people look at you oddly when you have that and an English accent), and started practicing law. Everyone always joked that my ex-wife was more British than me and I am more American than her. I get a lot of flack from my old friends about how native I have gone—talking about elevators and apartments and loving baseball. But I still miss British pubs and cricket.
Gerbic: You have been active in the church-state separation arguments for some time now. I understand that you had some success in the secular wedding celebrants area, making sure they receive equal rights.
Little: Yes. Most of the legal work I have done since joining CFI has been in the church-state area, though I have tried to carve us out a position as the defenders of science among the secular groups. The marriage celebrants is just such a no brainer. In most states, you can only be legally married by a member of the clergy or a judge/mayor, some kind of state official. And of course, as we all know, people who want someone else to do their wedding just go online and sign up for $10 to be an internet minister. Good luck to them. But our people, who we train, who aren’t willing to say “I’m religious” to be allowed to do the same thing as other people, are excluded. It just makes no sense in the modern world. So I try to tell people: let people have the wedding they want. The state should be allowed to insist on paperwork being filed, but it really isn’t their business whether you get married by a Catholic priest in church, by an Elvis impersonator in the casino, by a Wiccan in the woods, or, for atheists, by a fellow atheist who isn’t going to sneak references to God into the ceremony.
We’ve had success here. We’ve seen the law changing by lobbying in Oregon and DC, for example. And we sued and won in both Indiana and Illinois. Currently we have active lawsuits in Michigan and Texas that we expect to win. Next we are looking to Minnesota, Ohio, and California. What I love about these cases is that they aren’t taking anything away from anyone. Where the state has a cross on public land, that’s unconstitutional, and it should be challenged, but religious folk always look at us as the mean atheists coming to stop their fun. With celebrants, we are simply saying “You get the marriage you want, how about letting us as well?” It’s much less confrontational that way.
Gerbic: You have called homeopathy the Scientology of medical woo—I think I have that right? I suppose some would say it is low-hanging fruit that badly needs to be picked? In the work I do with Wikipedia, I see so much woo passing itself off as medicine that I don’t know how I would choose which to focus on. Before we get into the suit you have filed against CVS, can you explain why homeopathy and not other alternatives to real medicine products like magnet therapy, detox products, and other products sold at CVS?
Little: That’s the line I use. And it’s true. Scientology is the real out there one of all the religions. I mean, watch that South Park episode and try to keep a straight face. And that’s homeopathy too. As we repeatedly say in the law suit, it isn’t just that it doesn’t work, it’s that it can’t work. At least with much other woo, you can see some possible method of it impacting you. The idea of diluting something down such that there can’t be any of the original left, and that makes it stronger because water has a memory, is just plain stupid. As we Brits would say “that’s a load of bollocks.” But, unlike the other things you mention, people don’t see it that way, and that’s the stores’ fault, largely. When someone gets acupuncture, they go to an acupuncturist. When they get magnet therapy, they have largely sought out something “different.” But when they have a cold and they walk down the aisles at CVS or Walmart, homeopathy is right next to real medicine. And the homeopathy says on the front “safe and natural.” So they think they are getting something with the efficacy of the scientific medicine, without the negatives people associate with drug companies. It’s a scam, a rip off, a con job. And it’s disgraceful it is allowed. Besides, we’re a one-person legal shop here at CFI. I’d love to sue everyone, but I need at least a couple of hours sleep a night.
Gerbic: You have filed a consumer protection suit against CVS pharmacy not to have homeopathy removed from shelves but to force them to clearly label them as such. Have them put in a separate section where people can purchase homeopathy if they mean to purchase homeopathy. The problem is that CVS is putting these products on the same shelves mingled with real medicine. There is labeling on the product, but as you say in some of the interviews you have given, when you are rushing to the store to pick up something to stop your child’s cough, parents don’t always take the time to read the fine print.
Little: That’s it. We can’t stop them selling it, but we think, and I think CVS should agree with us here, that it is better if someone who wants homeopathy knows where to find it and someone who doesn’t want homeopathy doesn’t buy it by mistake. Inform the consumer. Anyone who is a parent has picked up their kid from day care with a runny nose or a sore throat, taken them crying and screaming to the drug store, and just wanted to get something that’ll make them feel better quickly. That’s what the homeopaths rely on. And they focus in on parents’ fear of side effects to sell “natural and safe” products with “no drug interactions.” Of course there are no interactions! It’s a sugar pill. There’s nothing to interact!
Gerbic: I’m looking at the CVS Pharmacy website right now after searching for homeopathy. I see twenty products, a lot of them aimed at children. I guess they market to children because there are no side-effects to homeopathy … because there isn’t anything in the pill. I see cold syrup, anxiety tablets, and pimple cream. I see Doctor Wise Homeopathy for menopause, all set to fix moods, energy, and bladders for only $20.49 each. These products are so simple to test; I don’t understand why they aren’t forced to just remove the labels from all the bottles, assign them a random number, and then test the product to see which liquid is different from the others. They don’t even have to set up tests to prove they work; just proving they are different would be a great start.
Little: The problem is the government agencies (the FDA and FTC) aren’t doing their job. The homeopathic lobby has been pretty strong in the past and still is. As a result, anything that is listed in the Big Bumper Book of Homeopathic Nonsense, the HPUC, is allowed to be sold in this way. The FDA and FTC have rules and guidelines, but they don’t enforce them. And to an extent, I can see their point. When you have limited funding, and an environment that’s very anti-regulation, would you spend your capital trying to take a sugar pill off the market that people take for a cold, which they are going to get over in a week anyway, or would you focus on cyanide being sold as a cancer treatment? I feel sorry for them, but they have a responsibility to stop people being ripped off by homeopathy, and they aren’t. So we are stepping in and saying “Hey, the stores have skin in the game too. They chose where they position these products, and they are making a false claim by putting it next to a real medicine.”
Gerbic: There is a disclaimer on the product on the website that is informative and confusing. “Disclaimer: This homeopathic product is based on traditional homeopathic practice and theory. The FDA has not evaluated this product and is not aware of scientific evidence to support homeopathy as effective. 90 day money back guarantee.” How can there be doses for adults and children and also have no evidence that it works?
Little: That is indeed a mystery. If you notice as well, they also label things by homeopathic dilution. For example, 200X rather than by weight. 200X looks damn powerful. In fact, it means that there is 1 molecule “active” ingredient to 10400 molecules of water or sugar. They also can list the active ingredient in Latin. You see anas barberiae on the package of Oscillococcinum, and it looks scientific. What most people don’t know is that means “heart and liver of the Muscovy duck.” Which, admittedly, makes me grateful it is actually diluted out of all existence.
Gerbic: There is a comment area on each product. I suppose the skeptic community might want to offer feedback?
Little: I am sure they might. Unfortunately, like anti-vaxxers, many of the people who support homeopathy are actually so far down the rabbit hole that evidence has a negative effect on them. I am sure, though, there are some people reading the reviews who don’t have an opinion one way or the other. They might be able to be helped.
Gerbic: Okay, please explain where CFI is at on this suit. When will we know something? I also understand that CVS was first because they are the biggest. You have also filed suit against Walmart pharmacy?
Little: Where are we… Well, we are in the wild and wonderful (to lawyers at least) world of pretrial motions. In the US, cases don’t tend to go to trial. They either settle (and we’ve been involved for months talking to CVS about a mutually agreeable solution that would include properly informing customers about homeopathy), or often get dealt with by motions. We’re at the first stage—a motion to dismiss. There the defendant (CVS) argues that there are no set of facts possible under which the plaintiff (that’s us) can win, that CFI has no legal case regardless of the facts, so there’s not even any point in going to discovery and finding out those facts. It’s a significant burden for CVS to prove. They are making arguments such as we don’t have a right to sue them because we aren’t consumers who have been hurt and that this should be a matter of federal law because the FDA regulates labeling. We, obviously, think they are wrong and are filing our opposition. The judge will then decide on that, probably around the end of the year. Once we win that, we move forward, either with discovery—depositions and document requests to find the facts of the case—or with settlement negotiations, with an even stronger hand than we walked in with initially.
And yes, we’ve sued Walmart too. That case is currently in approximately the same place. Walmart is showing less of a willingness to negotiate, and I think they might be waiting on the result of CVS’s motion to dismiss. But we aren’t finished. If major chains don’t change voluntarily—and we would love them to do that—we will make them change by lawsuit. And that hits their bottom line hard.
Like everything we do, we couldn’t do this without our members and donors. And in particular, I hope you don’t mind me giving particular thanks to Todd Stiefel and the Stiefel Freethought Foundation, who have underwritten a lot of the current and future costs of this litigation. CVS and Walmart have got deep pockets, and, to be totally honest, we don’t. But Todd has really stepped up and leveled the playing field. I can’t thank him enough.
Gerbic: I’m sure you have heard of the 10:23 campaign. It was made popular by the Manchester skeptics a few years ago. Skeptics all over the world gathered to overdose publicly on homeopathy. I took a whole bottle of Belladonna when we did the challenge, and I’m still walking around. I was thinking … maybe CSICon attendees might want to participate in an overdose? There is a CVS only a two-minute walk from the Flamingo. If we give them advance notice, people might mix up their own homeopathy and join with others for a fun video.
Little: I think there is definitely a fun aspect to that. As I have said here, homeopathy is just plain stupid. It is worthy of having fun made of it. It is ridiculous, and the more people who know that, lawsuit or no lawsuit, the better.
Gerbic: I’m sure this suit has been keeping you really busy these days. What else is on the agenda?
Little: Well, there are the secular celebrants cases. There are a couple of alt med things I have got on the radar that I want to go after—possibly including the nonsense that is colloidal silver. This theory of going after the retailers using consumer protection law is one I am pretty proud of, and one I think has great legs. We’re also working with a major law firm exploring the possibilities of working in the vaccination area by helping teenagers who desperately want the safety and security that vaccination provides but whose parents have bought into the religious or pseudoscientific nonsense peddled by the anti-vaxxers.
We’re also not holding back on the church-state side, though with recent Supreme Court developments we are being careful on what we bring and accept we are going to be fighting a defensive battle for a while.
If you chose to fight both pseudoscience and religious influence in government, as we at CFI do, you’ve not just got a full plate constantly, you’ve got a whole buffet to pick from.
Little: Wow, any tips? Have fun. Meet people. Talk to everyone and anyone. Come listen to my talk! CSICon (it was my first last year) was incredible. I’m not a scientist, and meeting and hanging out with so many incredibly smart scientists, who were willing and able to dumb things down for my lawyer brain, was such an experience. I’ll admit to being terrified when Bill Nye asked me a question about the homeopathy suit. I’m hoping that this year I can get to see as many talks as possible, because I also have lots of other duties both to do with the conference and to do with my normal job (which unfortunately doesn’t stop when I am in Vegas). But I’d be lying if I told you I wasn’t going to make damn sure I get to listen to Brian Greene.
Gerbic: Nick, don’t forget that on Saturday night there will be a 1950s themed Halloween party. These are such a blast! Last year’s pajama party was a hoot. I am trying to work out a costume for this one. I’ll certainly see you there…
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.