Throughout its defiant 230-year history, homeopathy has attracted the disbelieving fury of doubters from Richard Dawkins today all the way back to Charles Darwin. Will Storr describes witnessing the fury in his book The Heretics: Adventures with the enemies of science. What follows is a heavily edited extract.
They have gathered for the ‘QED Conference’ that has been organised jointly by the Merseyside and the Greater Manchester cells of Skeptics in the Pub. It will culminate in a mass international homeopathic overdose – a stunt that will seek to demonstrate that, as the campaign’s marketing slogan has it, ‘There’s nothing in it’.
They dress in comfortable jeans paired with strange polemical T-shirts (‘Stand back, I’m going to try science’, ‘I reject your reality and substitute my own’, ‘Over 1000 scientists named Steve agree’) or in dark-coloured knitwear, sleeves pushed up to elbows to regulate temperature.
The theory of homeopathy says that illnesses can be cured by taking minute portions of substances which cause similar symptoms to those which ail you. So, if the bark of a toxic Peruvian tree causes symptoms similar to malaria, say, then a tiny dose of that can cure malaria.
The truth is, if you buy a standard ‘30C’ dose of any homeopathic treatment, it means the active ingredient has been diluted thirty times, by a factor of 100. That might not sound like too much, until you realise that your chance of getting even one molecule of the original substance in your pill is one in a billion billion billion billion.
After a day of presentations and talks, the final event of the evening is a set by a sceptical musician from the US named George Hrab. As I leave the convention hall for bed, he is leading the crowd in a sing-along, the chorus of which goes: ‘You won’t believe what a Skeptic I am/I can’t believe you believe in that sham/We disagree but I still give a damn.’
And in the morning, I overdose.
One of the convention’s organisers, Michael ‘Marsh’ Marshall, arrives. Charismatic, confident and eloquent, the twenty-seven-year-old marketing executive in the crisply ironed shirt seems at ease both on stage addressing the conventioneers and on television news shows, on which he has recently been in demand on account of his campaign against the homeopaths.
And then the moment arrives. The crowd shouts, ‘3, 2, 1, There’s nothing in it!’ And the sound of three hundred nerds crunching nothing fills the conference hall. Marsh happily surveys the room.