The placebo protest: under the microscope

Placebo pills

Protesting makes me feel good.

At the end of April last year, I wrote an essay on the rise of protest-based demonstrations as a means of engaging with the public on certain irrational beliefs. While the 10:23 homeopathy campaign and the so-called Boobquake protest were the two references I provided, other examples such as the atheist billboards in the US can be arguably included in the category of what I termed the ‘placebo protest’.

In its simplest terms, protests can be described as any collective’s attempt to coerce others into changing behaviour or taking action, making it a fairly broad category that can include many different forms of public engagement. However, the term also suggests the active opposing of an existing social condition, so is commonly negative or antagonistic in nature. A campaign that promotes the message ‘don’t eat pizza from Joe’s” is a protest, while ‘eat at Joe’s Pizzeria’  is less likely to fall into that category.

While academic literature varies somewhat in the precise boundaries of what constitutes a protest, there is a consensus amongst outreach researchers that any attempt to impact on public behaviour relies on specific environmental conditions (termed ‘opportunities’) to succeed. Identifying these conditions can make the difference between winning people over and wasting resources trying.

A good example of identifying opportunities involves understanding how a target demographic interprets a particular message. Using communication tools that convey subtle variations in meaning between sub-cultures risks losing key messages in translation; using stunts, demonstrations or slogans that mean one thing to the protester (or extend from a culture within that group rather than one understood externally) and another to an audience could make any effort to change behaviour somewhat impotent, or even counter productive.

A significant impediment to identifying opportunities in a demographic is a lack of  – or wide variation in – explicit goals. Terms such as ‘promoting education in…’ and ‘raising awareness of…’ are commonly bandied about without objective qualifiers or even a hint of an observable indicator. Often, the qualities of the target audience might be too broad or be presumed without good evidence. Without clear aims or targets there is an added risk of ad hoc justifications of success, typically relying on output (audience scope and reach) to represent impact (change of behaviour).

For a form of outreach to be a placebo protest, however, there is one last important feature – those engaged have to demonstrate little interest in evaluating the circumstances or effectiveness of their actions. Like placebo medicine, placebo activism is practiced not with a true desire to blind oneself to bias, but simply to feel better on having acted, regardless of the true impact of their efforts.

While I can’t accuse all individuals who are engaged in any single protest campaign of doing so for merely placebo reasons, there is some irony in that a number of people will happily offer explanations for their participation that aren’t unlike the same explanations many users of homeopathy or natural medicine offer; ‘soft science like sociology or psychology is too ineffective to study the effects of what I intuitively already suspect to be true’, ‘it takes all types of action to make a difference’, ‘doing something is better than doing nothing’, and ‘it might not work for all people, but what’s the harm in trying?’

Central to the placebo protest is the apparent assumption that sharing feelings is synonymous with sharing knowledge. An emotional reaction to a wrongdoing leads to encouraging others to see it as silly, immoral or dangerous. That’s not to say this is always ineffective (history is full of examples of fear campaigns that are immensely successful in changing behaviours), however when it comes to rational outreach, should it be the desired approach?

Boobquake was proposed as a scientific study, for example, however was presented more as a satirical exercise poking fun at an Iranian prayer leader’s claim that the exposed skin of females is positively correlated with earthquakes. Either way, it’s unclear as to what – precisely – the point of the exercise was, if not an outlet for indignation. Many people have their own view of the agenda, whether it was to promote scientific values, encourage people to understand more about tectonics, or to simply ridicule a specific view (thereby encouraging an emotional reaction in the population to an emotional claim).

The actual impact, regardless of the intentions, is unknown. Was it antagonistic towards the goals of many feminists? Did it polarise views or change them? Were a significant number of people more aware of the science of earthquakes, or of the importance of statistics in science? It’s not clear. Yet there was still a sense of ‘success’ given it had a large output.

When the sense of success carries more importance than a true understanding, however, science loses out. This is the placebo protest. For a community of people protesting in the name of science, it is a rather bitter hypocrisy.

Likewise, when the association of American Atheists launched a billboard campaign in time for Christmas, 2010, telling people ‘You know it’s a myth!’, it’s hard to know what the real aim was. At face value, it might serve as encouragement for members of the driving public who hold some theistic beliefs to abandon them. How successful was it? Are billboards an effective means for spending such funds, or could they have achieved the same (or better) results by spending it elsewhere? If they’re successful, how did it compete against the reciprocal billboard funded by Catholics stating ‘You know it’s real’?

What of the 10:23 campaign, now in its second year? Interestingly, one individual decided to take a closer look at the 2010 homeopathic ‘suicide’ stunt and seek some evidence of its impact.

As a part of a research project, David Waldock sampled reports from the mainstream and social media and analysed them in relation to the event. Focusing on a single objective of the campaign – ‘To educate the public about the full story of homeopathy, to cause them to question and become opinionated about homeopathy’ – he found that the context of the various forms of media discussion changed from being more scientific and clinical to being more political, tending towards language that reflected regulation rather than the specific mechanics of the practice.

Of course, this lays the foundation for a rather interesting discussion. Given evidence of a discourse that is leaning towards regulation, should this be the goal of future protests? Is it better to influence politics and act top-down, or should activists continue to focus on changing attitudes from the bottom-up? Are resources being well used if this is the response, or should they change?

The important thing is, useful discussion can now progress further on the back of potential evidence than on blind assertions. David’s work is by no means the final word on the matter, but it has at least provided grist for the mill and is a clear attempt at marrying observed consequences with actions.

For activism to be successful, it needs to be done with evidence, experience and expertise. Currently, protests and stunts seem to be performed more as a means of expressing frustration, anger or bigotry than a measured way of encouraging a change of culture. As such, success is measured by how many people know you’re upset.

Yet if we truly wish to combat the poor consequences of irrational thinking, we need to identify what makes outreach effective, and distinguish this from occasions when it is merely a way to placate the irate.


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13 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. We in Canberra are participating in 10^23 this year, but not in the form of an overdose. We’ll be doing a demonstration instead.

  2. Hi Mike

    One thing I didn’t touch on in my project (it was out of scope!) is that the act of participating in a protest event can be legitimate in it’s own right.

    I hesitate to say this to an anthropologist, but if we view participation as a ritual (hi, Durkheim!) which promotes belonging and belief then protests have their own inherent value to the individuals, groups (and if some research on membership of social groups is to be believed then it also has societal benefits) even if there is little or no value in furthering specific social change goals.

    Indeed, the 10:23 campaigns 3rd objective was very much this sort of a goal (and could probably only be identified by some longitudinal ethnography for which I didn’t have the time or budget, but sounds like an interesting PhD proposal!).

  3. I completely sympathise with the desire to encourage people into accepting that, scientifically speaking, homeopathy is no more likely to work than sympathy and a good cup of tea. However, I feel the picture is a complicated one that requires more informed strategy than is currently being offered.

    There is a sense of ‘we have to do something’, however this emotional drive tends to conflate a number of assumptions about alternative medicine use, and (importantly) on what might help change it. In the very least, if such assumptions are made, it would be great for skeptics to address them critically and come out of the event with some data which could be used to improve future outreach.

  4. That’s very true. However, this is a little like the use of ridicule in outreach – it can have a positive effect on in-group dynamics, yet there question is then ‘how does this impact on those outside of the culture?’. If the intention is explicitly to placate those who wish to vent their frustrations, then we can indeed say it’s successful. But if it conflicts with other goals, then it might pay to ask if there are other actions which still promote group cohesion without such costs.

    In any case, well done on the research. It would be great to see collaborations in the future between 10:23 groups who collected raw data for the purpose of somebody analysing it one day in a similar way.

  5. arthwollipot – It’ll be very interesting to see how your demonstration goes and how you are planning to handle the safety issues, as I’ve been very skeptical of the overdose as a method of outreach/activism:

    Mike – From a scientific perspective, we should assume that any protest is a “placebo” protest until it is demonstrated to be effective as outreach.

    David – Building community from within is critical to activism. But, the effectiveness of 10:23 in motivating “skeptics” is not relevant to whether 10:23 (or billboards, etc) should be held up as a model of effective skeptical activism.

  6. Josh – you make a good point about the boring stunt. My main reservation about demonstrating how a 30C preparation is made is that it takes quite a long time, and isn’t really all that interesting to watch. I’m hoping to be able to maintain a patter to avoid the “talk amongst yourselves” moments.

  7. Arthwollipot – The use of HCl introduces some safety issues, but could you attempt to recruit “audience” participation. Or perhaps organize the preparation as a line of people between two places so it is visually interesting and visually emphasizes the dilution (I know this poses issues with organization & public safety authorities)?

  8. I’ve used HCl before in metalwork, so I’m familiar with the safety protocols. 🙂 That’s one reason I chose it. Well, that and you can get a really nice reaction when you put a drop onto a seashell. After diluting it 1:100 thirty times, it’s pretty clear that it’s not going to get the same reaction.

  9. I had no doubt that you were familiar with handling HCl, but it does make safety a priority, and if one is to invite audience participation, one needs to make sure that such participation is only occurring at a dilution where those safety concerns are no longer an issue.

  10. “outlet for indignation” – there is worth in that though, even if it’s not outreach. I do also think that this sort of outlet can be an opportunity for people who agree with each other to bond and then go off and do something with a broader impact later.

    (though entirely agree that if campaigners want to campaign they could be better at it…)

  11. Most definitely. We all feel frustrated at others not sharing our values, especially when we assess the risks to be greater for it. And believe me, sitting around a pub with some mates venting over how some person is an idiot is one of my favourite past times. 😉 It’s a relief finding others who share that sentiment.

    But to conflate that emotional sense of shared frustration with the understanding that expressing that frustration publicly will change culturally embedded beliefs is, IMO, a little naive.

  12. The author of this post seems to think arguments are won through evidence and clarity. But it’s the distinguishing feature of science that it works like that, not everyday life.

    Almost everyone believes whatever it makes them comfortable to believe, so the point of a protest it to make the belief less comfortable – by ridiculing it, appealing to authority, creating cognitive dissonance etc.

  13. I’m not sure where you got that from at all. I never made that claim; I stated that actions should be based on more than intuition, guesswork and an amateur understanding of psychology and sociology – that by understanding how a target audience might respond to an event based on research, experience and expertise, there is a greater chance that goals might be achieved.

    That said, I feel many protests have no explicit goal, but are engaged in simply for emotional reasons. As such the results are rarely evaluated objectively for effectiveness, as the biased appearance of success is sufficient.

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