The 10:23 Campaign Wants Your Help

Michael Marshall

The 10:23 Campaign in 2010
saw 400 skeptics in the United Kingdom publicly protest the use of homeopathic
remedies by taking mass “overdoses” of the pills. In 2011, the campaign
wants your help in expanding the protests internationally, as Michael
Marshall—co-founder of the 10:23
Campaign—explains.

On January 30, 2010, I stood
on the steps of a local landmark here in Liverpool, England, and watched
as more than 30 of my friends swallowed entire vials of pills they’d
purchased from the pharmacy that morning. Ordinarily I’d be horrified
and try to intervene to prevent such reckless action. On this occasion,
however, I joined in—in fact, I’d been the ringleader. Fortunately,
as I’m sure you’ve no doubt figured out by now, no harm was done
because the mass overdose was in fact of the homeopathic variety. This
was the first event of the
10:23 Campaign
.

The origins of the campaign
were encouragingly simple: myself and the other leading members of the Merseyside Skeptics
Society
, looking
for a cause to get behind, settled on countering the nineteenth-century
pseudoscience of homeopathic remedies. Homeopathy here in the U.K. is
no trifling matter—with the much-lauded (and rightly so) National
Health Service deigning to plow £4 million of taxpayer money each year
into the quack therapy.

Further to that, Boots pharmacy—the
nation’s most trusted name in home health care, its Main Street stores
ubiquitous in towns across the land for well over a century—stocks
its own-branded homeopathic range. Their reasoning for stocking disproven
remedies alongside actual health care products is based, as is so often
the case, on the illusion of patient choice. Of course, that the choice
between a working medicine and a phony medicine is hardly a choice
at all is not a point made clear by the chain. The cynicism of their
stance became apparent in testimony by the Professional Standards Director
of Boots, Paul Bennett, given
to a governmental committee
:

“I have no evidence to suggest
they are efficacious. It is about consumer choice for us and a large
number of our customers believe they are efficacious.”

To paraphrase, “we sell them
simply because they sell”—hardly the desired opinion of a company
seen to have the nation’s health at heart.

It was this latter revelation,
and the associated canard of “patient choice,” that galvanized our
group’s resolve to tackle homeopathy in the U.K. Our thinking was
thus: if the scientific consensus of over a century isn’t enough to
end support for homeopathy, then a different tactic was needed. Rather
than debate and squabble with entrenched supporters of homeopathy, educating
the public as to what homeopathy actually is—and, crucially, what
it entails—seemed a far more effective goal.

This approach wasn’t without
precedent, either. Opinion polls consistently showed public understanding
of homeopathy to be low, with many people unable to distinguish it from
“natural” and “herbal” medicines (they being subjects for a
whole other campaign, I’m sure). With this in mind, the way ahead
became clear: do something the public would notice, keep the science
relatively simple, and present a clear message.

After we’d settled on a campaign
name, the message seemed to write itself—the 10:23 Campaign refers
not only to the time at which the “overdoses” took place (hence
the notation), but also to Avogadro's
constant
, which
describes the point at which a homeopathic product becomes (due to extreme
dilution) chemically indistinguishable from water. Homeopathic products
of course are routinely diluted many times beyond this point, a fact
that most casual homeopathy users are unaware of. To enforce this point,
we settled on a crisp, succinct slogan: “Homeopathy: There’s
Nothing In It.”
Usefully, the combination of the obscure numerical
name and short slogan made it almost impossible for media reporters
covering our events to avoid explaining why homeopathy was of no use—a
fact that worked to communicate our message with great effectiveness.

Grabbing the public’s attention
was an element much easier to devise, but harder to achieve. Homeopathic
“overdoses” were of course nothing new—similar individual demonstrations
had been a staple of skeptical activism for decades, and even small-group
“overdoses” (like that
carried out by the Belgian skeptics in 2004
)
were not unheard of. It was the scale of the 10:23 Campaign events that
we were most excited about—by making use of the burgeoning crop of Skeptics in the
Pub
groups here
in the U.K., we were able to coordinate a dozen simultaneous events,
spanning the length and breadth of the country.

By the time January 30 came
around, the 10:23 Campaign had almost 400 people taking to the streets
to protest, swallowing a total of around 30,000 (entirely inert) pills.
The events gathered a quite
staggering level of media coverage
,
almost all of it positive (even in the usually
pseudoscience-friendly
Daily Mail
).
Reports of the protests appeared not just in the U.K. media but made
the front page of Germany’s
prestigious
Der Spiegel magazine
and formed the basis of a documentary
that will air soon in France—even sister
events in New Zealand
made
national news in the Southern Hemisphere. What's more, the effect on
the U.K. skeptical community was an unpredicted bonus—with many groups
working together, the previously disparate bands of skeptics across
the country started to form into a network, the fruits of which are
being reaped today. Attendance at events across the country saw a significant
boon too—a fact that would be arrogant to attribute solely to our
campaign, though it would also be falsely modest to deny the part that
the 10:23 events, and the publicity around them, played. The 10:23 Campaign
became a banner that activism against homeopathy could gather behind,
and provides
a handy tag to identify other homeopathy activists
—this, we hope, will be its lasting
legacy.

You may be wondering why I’ve
recounted the story of the 10:23 Campaign. Well, in part, we’re immensely
proud of it—from a humble origin with three skeptics in a pub in Liverpool,
we managed to engage thousands of people, spur hundreds into action,
make headlines across the world, and pour some much-needed light on
the pseudoscience that is homeopathy, all on a shoestring budget (despite
the sadly inaccurate reports of Big Pharma’s backing that many of
our detractors alluded to). We never imagined we could have so far a
reach.

However, there is another reason
I’ve presented our history here. In 2011, we intend for the 10:23
Campaign to be even bigger. We’ve recently launched the 10:23 Challenge. This year, we’re looking to see
protests in 10 countries and 23 locations. On February 5, we’re inviting
skeptical groups and activists the world over to join us in a unified
stance against quackery. Though we of course urge caution to any groups
wanting to get involved (there are always reports of supposedly homeopathic
products like Zicam being found to contain non-homeopathic levels of harmful
ingredients, with disastrous consequences), we’d like to help support
skeptics in the fight against homeopathy worldwide. Already on board
are a significant number of countries throughout Europe, plus support
in North America, Oceania, and Asia. If we can help spread some of the
successes of the 2010 campaign—educating the public about the worthlessness
of homeopathy, spreading a positive and engaging view of skepticism
in the media, and bringing skeptical groups across the world closer
together—then this February’s events could be significant in the
fight against homeopathy, and immensely exciting too.

If you run a local skeptics
group, or you are aware of one, and you would
like to help bring the 10:23 Campaign to your area, email
contact@1023.org.uk and get involved!