UK reader Malcolm Dodd gives us this most informative series of exchanges between himself and the “Customer Care” official at the prestigious Boots Pharmacy chain. Lest you think this is a fly-by-night operation, you should know that it began 150 years ago, when chemist John Boot (1815-1860) opened his first herbalist apothecary shop in Nottingham, England. Things went well for him, so well that today 1,450 Boots stores are found across Britain, Scotland, Wales & Ireland. They employ over 68,000 people in the UK and overseas, and dispense over 85 million prescription items each year, which amounts to one every nine seconds of the working week. Internationally, they are found in twelve overseas countries, covering Asia, Europe, USA, and Australasia. In the USA there are Boots Pharmacy outlets in 108 Target stores, alone, as well as some CVS outlets.
Mr. Dodd came upon a Boots booklet in a hospice for the terminally ill – which he correctly describes as, “a very vulnerable community.” The booklet touted homeopathy, which prompted Mr. Dodd to write an email message to Ms. Sue Williamson, the Boots Customer Care consultant. Following his first email inquiry to her on July 7th, he also had some telephone conversations with her giving details of the data in the publication. His June 7th email to her read:
I have read a Boots publication concerning homeopathic medicine in which it is stated that research has proved their efficacy. Will you please provide details of any research in which their efficacy has been proven?
On August 15th – 39 days after his first inquiry – a reply came from Ms. Williamson:
Subject: Leaflet on homeopathic medicine
Reference number 2750220
Hello Mr Dodd
I'm writing further to our conversation some time ago and may I firstly apologize most sincerely for the delay to this reply.
I'm really sorry that I've been unable to obtain a copy of the leaflet you referred to and I'm therefore having difficulty in pursuing this matter any further.
However, I've spoken at length to our Project Manager who is responsible for our range of homeopathic medicines. He has confirmed that unfortunately due to confidentiality we wouldn't be able to share any information concerning the research quoted in the leaflet.
Randi comments: I’ve long been aware of the strong English tendency toward privacy – they seldom even provide a return address on the outside of their posted mail – but this seems rather more than normal reluctance to provide basic, pertinent, information about a business that would be expected to share such important material with interested customers. What could be the dreaded “confidential” information about their safety/efficacy “research” that they would opt to keep from their clients? And, in passing, I find it strange indeed that an officer of the company was not able to obtain a copy of their own printed literature! Ms. Williamson continued:
I do understand your concern and appreciate that you feel very strongly about the fact that the leaflet was found in a hospice where vulnerable people may read it, and be given what you believe to be false hope of a recovery, if they use homeopathic medicines. I've passed on your views concerning this to the Product Team for consideration at their next review.
I'm sorry that I'm unable to help you any further but thank you very much for taking the trouble to give us your view on something that is obviously very important to you.
Mr. Dodd responded the very next day:
Thanks for your reply.
Is your homeopathic medicine Project Manager implying that there is research that proves the efficacy of the product? If so, please agree to submit the relevant product to The James Randi Educational Foundation for assessment; if the efficacy is demonstrated under agreed test conditions, $1 million will be paid to Boots PLC [Public Limited Company]. Your company may say that they are not interested in the prize; however, please think of the benefit that could be gained by donating the prize to a charity of your choice. See this link for details and an application form http://www.randi.org/research/index.html
If there is no research to confirm the efficacy, Boots PLC (a respected international company) should withdraw all of these products due to the danger that they pose to gullible, desperate people who may be distracted into abandoning conventional, proven medicine. If Boots do not remove these products, they are abandoning principles for the sake of profit.
Please note that I am skeptical about these products, it is not a case of whether I believe in them – it is for you to demonstrate their efficacy. Is it not significant that you are not permitted by MHRA rules to state any indications on homeopathic medicines?
Randi comments: The “MHRA” referred to by Malcolm is the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the executive agency of the UK Department of Health, charged with protecting and promoting public health and patient safety.
Since you are unable to find the relevant publication, I am attaching copies of the relevant parts of this 28-page booklet. Please note the "Does it Work?" section for the categorical statement about research confirming the efficacy. I look forward to your response and to hearing from the JREF that you have submitted your products for testing.
On August 17th I wrote to Malcolm, simply stating:
I'll be interested in any reply you receive.....
He immediately responded:
You will be the first to know – do not hold your breath.
Ms. Williamson answered Malcolm:
Customer Reference number 2750220
Thank you for your further email.
I've now spoken to our Medical Director regarding your concerns about Boots selling homeopathic medicines. We suggest that you refer to the British Homeopathic Association website for further information on the efficacy of this type of medicine.
Our view is that homeopathy is an established brand of therapeutics serving a wide customer base. It is intended to provide symptomatic relief in certain conditions, and not a cure.
Although you found the leaflet in a hospice I can confirm that we don't deliberately target this type of institution with these publications. The likelihood is that the leaflet was taken into the hospice by a visitor or another patient.
I'm aware that our correspondence has now been ongoing for quite some time and I feel that we should now bring it to a close. As we don't have anything to add to what has already been said on this subject, unfortunately we're unable to enter into further correspondence.
I do understand how strongly you feel and thank you for giving us the opportunity to comment.
Remarkable! Ms. Williamson takes her proof for the reality of homeopathy – her stab at real scientific research on behalf of Boots – from the website of the British Homeopathic Association. Gee, I wonder if that group might be biased in favor of the quackery on which they survive….? And, we can only imagine the terror felt by Boots’ Medical Director when he was informed that someone had dared to ask for the scientific data upon which their booklet “Homeopathic Medicine” was based. For Ms. Williamson’s information, that Boots publication she can’t find, and which so rightly alarmed Malcolm Dodd, is #98-62-358, and bears both the official Boots logo and the imprimatur “The Boots Company PLC, Nottingham, England.” I’ll bet Sue could find a copy somewhere, maybe in the Boots publicity office that prints and distributes the book internationally…?
And her comment that homeopathy is “intended to provide symptomatic relief in certain conditions, and not a cure,” is certainly not what homeopaths claim, nor what Boots’ customers would suspect of these products, at all! Those trusting souls probably naively buy homeopathic “remedies” as if they’re real medicine. And, the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “medicine” as: “Any substance or preparation used in the treatment of disease,” though Ms. Williamson – and Boots’ Medical Director – might well have selected from the O.E.D. the alternate – no pun intended! – definition of “medicine”:
Applied to drugs used for other than remedial purposes: e.g. to the philosopher’s stone or elixir, to cosmetics, poisons, philtres [philters] etc.
That sounds much more likely. Homeopathy ranks right along with the Philosopher’s Stone, and works equally well. Malcolm, sending me the Boots response above, added:
You are probably as unflabbergasted at their reply as I am unoverwhelmed by it. Notice that their spelling is as efficacious as their homeopathetic medicines!
I took pity, and made certain corrections. This was not an examination of spelling skills, but of the willingness that Boots might have to share with their customers information about the products they sell to those customers. Malcolm continues:
The Boots booklet is quite clearly aimed at the desperate and vulnerable; hospices are the perfect place to promote quack medicines. I have since checked with the hospice and discovered that they originally had a large number of these booklets; hardly likely to have been taken in by a casual visitor – most likely by the Boots Homeopathetic Expert Salesman?
They do not seem to be very enthusiastic about the JREF $1million – what a surprise, especially after the recently published Swiss research!
I believe that companies like Boots do not hide under the Sylvia Browne stone, they actually hide under someone else who is hiding – in this case the British Homeopathetic Association.
Back in the 1800’s Mr. John Boot might have been expected to offer homeopathic preparations to his clients; today the Boots management should be expected to know better. Much has been discovered in the century-and-a-half since. Pharmacology has moved on. Will Boots join that advance?
The “Swiss research” reference is at www.randi.org/jr/200509/090205alley.html#5, and I believe that Mr. Dodd’s misspellings in this last letter, were intentional for emphasis…
Danish reader Claus Larsen tells us about one of the programs in the “Is It Real?” series on the National Geographic Channel:
In the show "Superhuman Powers" (where Gary Schwarz and John Hagelin are also spouting their crap), there's one classic excuse from a martial arts expert and "Ch’i" thrower, George Dillman. After one of his top students has – unsuccessfully – tried to knock down [Luigi] Garlaschelli with "Ch’i," Dillman offers this explanation on why it didn't work:
The skeptic was a totally non-believer. Plus – I don't know if I should say that on film – but if the guy had his tongue in the wrong position in the mouth, that can also nullify it. You can nullify it – you can nullify a lot of things. In fact, you can nullify it if you raise those big toes! If I say I'm going to knock you out, and you raise one toe, and push one toe down....I can't knock you out. And then, if I go to try again, you reverse it. If you keep doing this, I won't knock you out.
Gee, whiz...not much use for this "Ch’i" force, then...
So it would appear, Claus. I’d never heard this variety of alibi before, but I’m not much surprised by it. We at the JREF will intensively research tongue positions and toe movements to provide sure-fire protection for our readers against the magic of Ch’i-throwing, which I believe is closely related to bull-throwing. I suspect that almost any tongue-in-cheek maneuver will be sufficient protection. I remind USA readers to watch this show either September 22nd or 28th on the National Geographic channel.
Reader Vern Rieck of Merrimack, New Hampshire, comments on the silly aspects of the recent hurricane disaster here, excerpting from a New York Times online article:
But in Houston, there were hot showers, crates of Bibles and stacks of pizzas, while in New Orleans, many refugees scrounged for diapers, water and basic survival.
Randi, Bibles may have a sort of placebo effect, but the idea that a single bottle of water didn’t make it on a truck of relief supplies because that space was occupied by a Bible makes me want to dope-slap the living hell out of someone.
I think the way to test such a matter would be to set out the Bibles and the pizza side-by-side and see which a caring mother would reach for…
Reader Matthew Funke reports on his spare-time search for knowledge:
Over vacation, my lovely bride and I went up to Rangeley, Maine. They have a "museum" of sorts up there dedicated to the work of one Wilhelm Reich. I normally like museums (musea?), so my wife and I traipsed on out to look it over.
Oh my. It seems that poor Wilhelm, who worked circa 1930, was convinced that all life has a form of energy; and that once we trap and channel that energy, we can cure all manner of diseases. The U.S. FDA (thankfully) won an injunction against the promotion of his "medical treatments." The museum itself makes no mention of whether these theories have any actual scientific validity or not, though it hints strongly that they do, even going so far as to say that Reich had isolated "bions", the generators of this energy (they're bluish, according to the introductory video). They also point out (erroneously) that his energy collector violates the Second Law of Thermodynamics, "proving" that our hero had figured out how to collect Orgone (the name he gave his life-energy).
Unfortunately, the introductory video is also of such a tone that it could induce a coma in an insomniac. Poor Michelle fell asleep, so when we were exploring the artifacts left from Reich's practices, she asked in a whisper, "This is all fakery, right?"
"Big, huge, steaming piles of it," I whispered back.
We looked around – we'd paid the money to do so, after all. In addition to the various pieces of equipment that had supposedly been used to collect Orgone (or prove that it exists), there was a rather large device that was supposed to allow its user to make clouds appear – or disappear. One end gets pointed at the sky, and the other end (the open parts of long, flexible hoses) gets put in a lake.
Randi comments: This was known as the “Cloudbuster” device, and it was sold to several US state governments to precipitate rain. Guess what? It didn’t work. Matthew continues:
The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the French say.
Their feedback page was a full sheet of paper, so I used the Suggestions space to point out that the JREF would offer one million dollars if it could be proven in a double-blind test that there was something to this "Orgone," since it clearly appeared to be paranormal. I gave them my address, telephone number, email address, and the URL of the JREF website. So far, I've heard nothing, and I assume that you haven't, either.
In the meantime, I found this: http://foia.fbi.gov/foiaindex/reich.htm
Thank you for continuing to be a voice of sanity in a world that has been so screwy for so long.
Matthew, they caught and convicted Reich back in 1956, before Federal agencies like the FDA discovered that it was easier and cheaper to ignore such scams. Their attitude today seems to be that citizens who invest in such nonsense should pay the price; they’re expendable. And you’re right about the museum; for some reason they’ve not reached us.
(To stun the peasants, use “Plus que ça change, plus que ça reste la même chose” on them…!)
Reader Simon Nicholson, who we met back at www.randi.org/jr/082704gluton.html#12 and at www.randi.org/jr/102904swing.html#12, provides this progress report on the City of Bristol College:
…I am aware I have not, as promised, updated you on the situation at City of Bristol College regarding the teaching of Reflexology, Crystal Healing and other assorted quackery; this is, I'm afraid, because there is simply nothing to feed back! The silence from on high is deafening! It is as if the college authorities, having graciously decided not to actually discipline me for raising objections and stating my point of view, feel that the matter is resolved. The sort of response I get when I do manage to engage a manager in conversation is basically, “People want these sort of courses – they are always popular, so we are fulfilling a community education need, as per our charter.”
So we continue to teach mumbo-jumbo under the same roof as Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Engineering, etc. The fact that one set of courses completely contradict another is perfectly okay, because, as I was told last week “they're just different philosophies'”!
If any breakthrough occurs, I will of course inform you – but don't hold your breath!
That started back in August last year, but college deans take a long time to get around to handling such matters, I guess. However, just this last week there was an item in the UK press that echoes Simon’s concern. Excerpted from a Guardian article by Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne:
Intelligent design is not an argument of the same character as these controversies. It is not a scientific argument at all, but a religious one. It might be worth discussing in a class on the history of ideas, in a philosophy class on popular logical fallacies, or in a comparative religion class on origin myths from around the world. But it no more belongs in a biology class than alchemy belongs in a chemistry class, phlogiston in a physics class or the stork theory in a sex education class. In those cases, the demand for equal time for "both theories" would be ludicrous. Similarly, in a class on 20th-century European history, who would demand equal time for the theory that the Holocaust never happened?
You can see the entire Guardian article at www.guardian.co.uk/life/feature/story/0,13026,1559743,00.html and as reader Kostas Koukoumpris points out, an excellent pdf file on the subject is to be seen at www.simonyi.ox.ac.uk/dawkins/jacNR.pdf.
While we’re in the UK, Dr. Colin Frayn, Research Fellow at the School of Computer Science, University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, gives us these observations on a recent very naïve and shallow TV treatment of ghosts:
I'm sure you've been told a few hundred times already, but just to add my voice to the almost-certain disgust being felt by my fellow countrymen (and -women) at the utterly indescribable documentary [recently] on the BBC about the Spiritualism movement, "Science and the Séance."
It started out with the Fox sisters, continued with a series of hideously biased reviewers including a selection of “scientists” whose grasp of experimental technique appeared mind-numbingly absent. It managed to involve practically every reputable physicist of the last 150 years with the implication that Spiritualism was a discipline endorsed by, or confirmed by, the majority of them. And never once did it mention that the Fox sisters admitted to their hoax. It even covered ectoplasm and other ridiculous frauds.
This ludicrous waste of money truly made me ashamed of my national television station, which has produced so much good output in recent years. This, however, was a very dark hour and it made me very angry indeed.
The one answer I had a hundred times in that hour to offer the interviewees was quite simple: "If you had seen those same phenomena performed by a stage conjurer, how would you respond?" I've seen many tricks on stage that I cannot explain rationally but I accept that there is a simple explanation to be found, were I inclined to look for it.
The only one very relevant part of the show, I believe, was when it mentioned how so many people were moved towards spiritualism during the wars because their conventional religious beliefs were not able to offer them sufficient emotional comfort at such a harrowing time. I think that says it all.
Very true, Dr. Frayn. Vulnerable and grieving people often turn to the fakers for more satisfying answers. Ask Sylvia Browne, James Van Praagh, and John Edward about that. Lies can bring about excellent delusions. But viewers love all this…
I note that in the commentary section of the BBC website dealing with that program appeared a short comment by Ian Tobin, London:
Two words: "Derren Brown." Watch his programs and you will see that the whole "modern spiritualism" is fake. Talking to dead people and psychic forces, yeh right! It's a trick!
Ian refers, of course, to the superb work of magician/mentalist Brown, which goes far toward disenchanting victims of such flummery. Look him up at www.derrenbrown.co.uk.
Reader Helder Nascimento writes us:
I'm writing this from Portugal, and let me start by saying that I've been following your work and the work of the foundation with much interest! Your books got me aware of critical thinking and its importance to our society.
The world is really crawling with charlatans, pseudo-science and – as Penn would say – b*llsh*t! Let me thank you for all the effort that you put into debunking and exposing these kinds of things! Maybe if a couple of your books could be a required reading in classrooms all over the world, we could turn this "tide" around...
Well, anyway, just to give a bit of background, Portugal is a small country in the western end of Europe... we have all the conditions to be a really nice and developed country, except we aren't. One of the many problems is the public unawareness of science: like there in the US, many people here are very little aware of the scientific method, skeptical way of thinking, or even what distinguishes a "pseudo-science" from a science – you know, peer review, experiments, tests, the works.
And the kind of events that are described in this link just make things worse: www.portugaldiario.iol.pt/noticia.php?id=577639&div_id=291. Basically it's an annual "Congress of Popular Medicine" (the 19th!) i.e. a showcase for charlatans, crooks, a breeding ground for more b*llsh*t, all mixed up with lots of faith – and money, of course. By the way, the "congress" is organized by a priest, Father Fontes…
The text is in Portuguese, but I'll translate some nice bits:
About 30 thousand people are expected at the event, which will cover around thirty themes, like tarot, the St. Cyprian book, cancer treatment [!] and the healing power of countless plants.
“Psychics, mediums and persons who are dedicated to magic are welcome here too, to demonstrate their abilities,” emphasized Father Fontes. [I wonder if skeptics and proper scientists would be welcome, too?]
“This is also a way to promote the region, its gastronomy and its tradition,” said Father Fontes. [Nice way to do it... maybe they could throw in a bit of witch-burning and stoning of "slutty" women in public... all in the name of the "tradition," and promoting the region.]
I guess you got the idea. Exorcisms will also be covered, as well as homeopathic medicine and the like, I'm sure. This is happening in a country that should be trying to modernize and develop itself. We are in a very bad position, economically and socially, but instead prefer to "promote" our regions using b*llsh*t and pseudoscience.
We still don't have the insanity of the IDiots of “Intelligent Design” trying to push it into the public school curriculum, but by the look of things, it won't be long before we see something like that around here.
Well, anyway, as long as there are people like you keep devoting some time to try to bring a little sense – and a little critical thinking – to your fellow man, we can still have hope!
An anonymous – of course – reader sent an outraged letter to us following our comments last week about whether God should be blamed for our current hurricane disaster. He/she seemed very angry that such a question could be asked, ignoring that persistent “freedom of speech” situation that so irks many people. My response to this complaint:
You ask, “Why weren't compassionate atheists everywhere passionately calling for donations to the Red Cross before Katrina rather than, say, urging that people spend their money having a good time in Las Vegas at a debunkers' convention?”
This is an excellent example of how atheists – and the JREF organization – are misunderstood, probably purposely, by those who are offended by their positions. Personally, I’ve always supported the Red Cross as a well-managed and socially valuable charity, as much as I’ve supported – continuously since the 50’s – what used to be called, “Foster Parents Plan,” and is now just, “Plan.” Why? Because they know how to really help the unfortunates among us, they react quickly to emergencies, and they do not push religious or political agendas while they do their saving of lives. Hurricane Katrina – as the tsunami disaster recently – created urgent, immediate needs for financial support, and those who cared responded by not only “calling for donations,” but by making their own donations. Just what is so difficult to figure out, here? Is this too much of a mental task for you to handle?
As for our “urging” people to spend money having a good time, that’s not what we do, at all – though sometimes people actually have a good time while they’re investing in their education and helping a good cause. Try it sometime; you’ve obviously never had that experience. What “debunkers convention” you’re referring to can only be another mystery to me; we investigate, we don’t debunk – unless that appears to be the obvious manner by which we can show others the facts behind the scams we look into. Do you go to conventions of those who create scams?
I regret that our existence so offends you. When you’ve accomplished as much as we have to bring some light and some hope into other lives, maybe you’ll begin to get the idea behind our work. Give it a try.
Next week the generous discount on the TAM3 DVD offer runs out. See it at www.randi.org/shopping/index.html#tam3.
Next week, a purveyor of Magnetic Qi Gong and an exposé of the Raelian cult….