I did something different this Saturday. I stood in a freezing park in London and took a deliberate overdose of tablets in the company of some of the UK’s most well known scientists.
No I haven’t joined some kind of doomsday cult. In fact, none of us were ever at any risk. We were overdosing on homeopathic remedies…
For those of you who don’t know what homeopathic remedies are (I know I didn’t understand it until recently) I suggest looking at this website. Homeopathy means taking a (usually scary sounding) active ingredient like Nux Vom (Strychnine), Belladona(Deadly Nightshade) or Arnica and diluting it to 30C – in other words until there is 0.000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 1% active ingredient in each tablet. To put this in perspective, there is probably about as much of Julius Caesar in the tap water of Rome than there is active ingredient in these tablets. However, homeopaths claim that water retains a memory of the substance, which has a therapeutic effect. They then mix this water ‘solution’ with sugar and lactose and it retails for £4.99. A packet of sweetener costs £1.
Although the tablets themselves are not dangerous, people sometimes take them instead of taking actual medication in the belief they will cure real illnesses – and that is potentially dangerous. So last Saturday, a group of scientists decided to stage a publicity stunt to draw attention to this.
It would have been easy for me as a journalist to just report on this story and let this bunch of sceptics take the ‘risk’. Except I am also a sceptic so I wanted to know for myself. And having had only 5 hours sleep the night before the stunt, I desperately needed some sugar…
So on Saturday morning I found myself getting out of bed at the ungodly hour favoured by a bunch of atheists to stand in the freezing cold outside Conway Hall in London. After deliberation I selected some Sepia (Cuttlefish ink) tablets for the job – they had an old school photographic appeal. The packaging said you should only take two. Presumably in case you are a diabetic.
Among my fellow overdosers were Simon Singh, Lib Dem MP Dr Evan Harris and the comedian Dave Gorman. There were also about 80 other protestors, some of whom had travelled across the country to take part in the stunt (and got up much earlier than me).
I had to film everyone taking their tablets first and then take mine afterwards. This was not a cunning plan to watch and see if anyone dropped dead before following suit – it’s just impossible to overdose and shoot good hand-held footage at the same time.
Watching a mass overdose ought to be spine chilling. It ought to make you think of KoolAid and Waco but unfortunately there is something undeniably comical about a whole load of people making the same action at the same time. It’s like synchronised swimming.
What was even more amusing was that, for the benefit of the hungry media, the protestors had to simulate the overdose a further 4 times so everyone could get good footage. If you can just imagine a bunch of press photographers shouting “Simon, could you just overdose again for me please?”…
Finally, the time came for me to take my own overdose. This was harder than I had hoped because while everyone else managed to take the end off their tubes and dispense all the tablets into their palm at once for dramatic effect, my tube malfunctioned. I was forced to dispense the tablets one by one into my hand like Pez – a frustratingly slow protest.
Eventually I managed to pop out a handful – enough for a serious attempt – and with my friend the mathematician and comedian Matt Parker holding the camera I knocked back the tablets – without a drink. I figured the tablets were diluted enough already without washing them down with water.
It’s now three days later and nothing has happened to me whatsoever. I feel no more or less healthy than I did prior to the overdose and I felt no more or less healthy immediately after the overdose either. It’s an unscientific form of research – and it was never meant to be anything but: it’s a publicity stunt. For the purpose of legality, I should say that I do not condone or encourage you to take an overdose of anything at all (however benign) – this was a personal decision to prove a point.
The NHS currently spends somewhere in the region of £4 million on homeopathy – money which could be funding life saving research into genuine non-placebo medicine. I hope this little protest did change some minds.
As a footnote to this story, after the event only one of my friends bothered to enquire after my health on Facebook. One sorry person. I would like to think this is because they were all really well informed on the subject of homeopathy and knew I was in no danger but I suspect the real reason was they were too busy watching Murray v Federer.