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Belgium Skeptics Commit Mass Suicide

Special Report

Luc Bonneux

Volume 28.3, May / June 2004

Last year, the major health insurance companies in Belgium decided to cover part of the costs of homeopathy. “Covering” is a bit strong: only 20 percent of the costs are reimbursed. The Belgian companies nevertheless offer a quality label to quackery and an encouragement premium to convince the uninformed public that homeopathy has medicinal properties. The poor patient remains in the dark about the real properties of homeopathy, a magic as powerful as the miracle at Cana, where Jesus Christ changed water into wine. In homeopathy, alcohol and water are beaten into powerful drugs.

When SKEPP, the (Flemish) Belgian skeptical organization, attacked the health insurance companies for wasting people’s money to promote quackery, we got the traditional response: “People like it.” Insurance payers love to be deceived, so let’s deceive them. SKEPP suggested reimbursing red Bordeaux wine, as people love red wine, too. We were not joking: there is a trillion times more evidence that red wine (taken in moderation) is good for your health. “Traditional doctors do not perform evidence-based medicine.” The CEOs of the insurance companies did not explain to SKEPP how quackery would improve the quality of medical practice. It cannot be the idea to add, to the dangerous quacks abusing modern medicine, the somewhat less dangerous quacks selling water and silliness, or is it? And of course, the final argument was that “Homeopathy is cheap!” It may cost Belgium $18 million per year, or some $1.80 for every Belgian, for something that does not work. Is $1,000 cheap for a car that cannot, and never will, operate? The Belgian health insurance companies deliver astonishing insights in economy.

The Belgian skeptics were exhausted and overwhelmed by such well-crafted arguments. Seeing the errors of the skeptic’s ways, they resigned themselves to committing mass suicide by drinking a lethal dose of terribly toxic and dangerous drugs: snake poison, Belladonna or deadly nightshade, arsenic, dog’s milk, petrol, and cockroach. Dog’s milk does not sound that dangerous, but try milking a pit bull. To assure immediate death, these powerful drugs were immensely dynamized: the daring skeptics selected the over-the-counter 30C homeopathic solutions (reimbursed by the health insurance, if prescribed by a certified quack). A dynamization of 30C means the poison is diluted 10 to the 60th times. That is a one followed by sixty zeros. The whole earth (estimated at 10 to the 50th molecules) is way too small to hold a single molecule in that dilution. That is, in homeopathic terms, an awfully powerful dilution. The immensely “dynamized” spirits of arsenic and snake poison (not to mention the pit bull milk) will rise from the liquid, and kill the skeptic on the spot. All important newspapers and TV stations were recruited to witness the terrible extermination of these dangerous minds.

It would be a great loss to Belgian academia, a terrible blow to all these narrow-minded people that do not understand the miracles of homeopathy. Among the twenty-three suicidals were a hoard of professors from medical and other faculties, a rightly famous publicist and television program maker, and even a few normal people armed with nothing but common sense.

The guy who spawned the idea of the skeptical suicide was Joeri Mesens, indeed an ordinary young man. Once a true believer he became an apostate of homeopathic salvation after conducting self-designed, skeptical experiments on his poor children. Several times he withheld life-saving homeopathic wonder drugs from one of his two sick children, observing that both of them recovered in exactly the same amount of time. The idea of suicide came to him after an argument with his mother, a true believer in homeopathy. She was horrified when he proposed to drink all of her drugs at once.

The idea was taken over by Tom Schoepen, editor-in-chief of the SKEPP’s magazine Wonder en is Gheen Wonder (Miracles Ain't Miracles). The son of a once famous Belgian country and western singer, his looks are better than Johnny Depp’s. He effortlessly raises highly undiluted hormone levels in fellow human beings blessed with a second X chromosome, and bewitches our (female) minister of Public Health. Alas, they fall for his looks, but they resist his arguments. They know someone who has been cured by homeopathy, and even more, they know several people who know someone who has been cured by homeopathy, which is obviously an unbeatable argument to subsidize quackery (some jokes about the average Belgian intelligence seem true). As a matter of course, Schoepen and Mesens were joined by the Fidel Castro of the Belgian anti-quackery rebels, the Scourge of Homeopathy, professor in Medical General Practice Wim Betz.

Betz treated the press and the public to a talk on homeopathy and on the products selected for the skeptical suicide. Betz did not need a Castro diatribe of eight hours; a solid twenty minutes was enough to butcher homeopathy: the homeopaths were so kind to deliver their own satirical texts. To be sure the suicidals knew all the risks, Betz cited copiously from Kent’s Materia Medica, which covers sixteen pages on arsenic, twenty-four on Belladonna, and twelve on snake poison. We learned among other things that arsenic “patients” suffer more at the seacoast, are restless, drink with small sips, and have a tendency to develop wrinkles. If you feel that your organs are escaping through your vagina, or if you bark like a dog, you are more of a Belladonna patient. However, if you lose gas from your vagina and dream of snakes, dog milk is your poison.

Finally the time had come. The skeptics on death row solemnly queued to personally select their own toxin: “In Flander’s fields the skeppies glow, to take their poison, row on row.” In front of the assembled national press they filled their chalices and drained their drinks, fully expecting to meet their Maker (if He existed). The skeptics didn't succeed in their suicide attempt, however. All of them survived. Those who had come by car had to wait before returning home, a bit dizzy from the alcohol on their empty stomachs. Indeed, homeopathy in alcohol at the liberal dose of a bottle a day might decrease your cardiovascular risk (but a good Bordeaux is still a lot cheaper and infinitely better).

The attempt was amazingly well covered by all the national press media. CANVAS, the equivalent of BBC 2, re-broadcast James Randi’s homeopathy documentary, where a carefully controlled experiment showed that Randi’s $1 million was safe: there was not a shred of evidence that homeopathy differed from the pure solvent. It shows that a few drips of acidic humor in a good idea are more efficient than long serious articles. Not so many people know that homeopathy attributes its presumed effects to ridiculously large dilutions (delusions?).

Most of us, including Prof. Betz, who once followed a serious course of homeopathy, have “believed.” Being progressive and social, we were critical about the modern drug industry and embraced “ecological” and “natural” alternatives. But there is nothing social or progressive about deluding people. Permitting yourself to be deceived by a silly theory that was outdated and untenable even in the nineteenth century does not show an open or tolerant mind. It only shows you are gullible and an easy prey to smooth talking quacks. We hope some more people discovered this, thanks to our (unsuccessful) suicide attempt.

Acknowledgments

Luc Bonneux wishes to thank Griet Vandermassen and Paul de Belder for assistance and helpful comments on previous drafts.

Luc Bonneux

Luc Bonneux has been associate professor in public health at the Utrecht Medical Centrum (the Netherlands). A medical doctor and scientist, financially supported by the people, he says he has a duty to protect the public from quacks and frauds. However, he joined the Belgian skeptics (SKEPP) for aesthetic reasons. “In our short journey through Deep Time, understanding makes the trip more beautiful and more enjoyable.”