A few weeks ago I talked about a strange hockey-skepticism convergence on Radio Freethinker. That convergence of course is about the goaltender for the Montreal Canadiens in particular.
What is Oscillococcinum you might ask? Some sort of herbal remedy or natural product? Nope. It’s homeopathy. And that means it’s a form of alternative medicine wherein the ingredients are diluted repeatedly in water over and over again transferring via supernatural means its “essence” into the memory of the water.
Oscillococcinum is in reality, duck liver. As explained by Dr. Joe Schwarcz on his blog and podcast “The Right Chemistry”
“Take the carcass of a duck and place 35 grams of its liver and 15 grams of its heart in a one liter bottle filled with a solution of pancreatic juice and glucose. Wait forty days until the liver and heart have disintegrated and then dilute the solution to 100 liters. Then take one liter of this solution and dilute it again to 100 liters. Repeat this dilution process another 199 times, shaking the solution in a specific fashion each time. Then take a small pellet of milk sugar and moisten it with the resulting solution. Package the pellets in a box labeled as “Oscillococcinum” and market it to consumers who wish to prevent or treat the flu homeopathically. ”
As with all homeopathy the end result is you have a sugar pill that been exposed to a drop of water that supposedly contains this active ingredient but instead has been diluted so much (diluted to 200C—a ratio of one part duck offal to 100200 parts water) that you would need to consume an amount of the remedy roughly 10321 times to get one molecule of the active ingredient. For reference the number of atoms in the observable universe is about 10040
Boiron, the company that produces Oscillococcinum recently partnered with the Montreal Canadiens to promote their products.
One might ask what the harm could be with such an arrangement. Surely the Montreal Canadiens are not a medical organization and their endorsement of Boiron is not the same as a medical establishment. But if we consider the implications of what message this sends to the public, we see where this can become harmful.
As a professional sports team the Montreal Canadiens do have considerable sway on what is considered healthy or at least, what helps athletic performance. Consider how coaches for children base coaching methods on what is taught at the professional level. Or consider how athletic training equipment used by professional sports teams is likely to be used by local gyms and college teams. We are talking about organizations and athletes who are not just role models, but also measuring sticks that many in the public use for determining how to stay in physical shape and have a healthy lifestyle.
Boiron has also been in the skeptical news cycle recently. In California the company was being sued for fraud and unfair competition because of their homeopathic remedy Coldcalm, which contains no active ingredients.
Boiron was also threatening to sue an Italian blogger claiming his posts about Oscillococcinum are defamatory. However their attempts to intimidate this blogger backfired. It simply drew more attention to what he wrote and resulted in more criticism against Boiron for selling a product that contains no active ingredient. The situation eventually came to the attention of the British Medical Journal at which point, Boiron backed down and apologized.
Listeners may recall when I was on CBC’s consumer protection show CBC Marketplace where a group of Vancouver skeptics overdosed on homeopathy. The producers of Marketplace talked with Boiron but received some pretty unsatisfying answers. They suggested that the idea that not having an active ingredient was just the “point of view” of science, and not important.
The producers of Marketplace also asked us what we thought about the Montreal Canadiens partnering with Boiron, although that part didn’t make the final cut of the episode, we all agreed as Canuck fans, if the Montreal Canadiens wanted to be silly that was up to them. However they should be honest with their fans at least.
During our second homeopathic overdose in Vancouver, which we did during the international 10/23 event, I consumed a case of Oscillococcinum in under 10 minutes. Had I done that with medicine that contained an active ingredient I may not be here today.
One of the ways that alt-med has gained popularity is by infiltrating popular culture. A surprising amount of progress can be made if your products are mentioned on famous talk shows, endorsed by celebrities or appear in TV shows and movies. The current trend, as it seems to be, is to distance oneself from the reach of “Big Pharma” and embrace a more holistic health approach. What people are often not aware is that the holistic approach isn’t any more independent of big business than drug companies are.
“Big Placebo” as its come to be known in skeptical circles, is a massive multi-billion dollar empire that sells products to anyone willing to buy. Homeopathy is only one example of this. Consider the value of this endorsement deal Boiron has lined up with the Montreal Canadiens, one of the most valuable franchises in sports entertainment.
It’s obviously disappointed to see the Canadiens endorse this. I was somewhat surprised that I didn’t hear more from this from our skeptical community. Perhaps we can change that and make this a bit more front in centre when it comes to encouraging science based medicine in our popular culture.