Pro-reality activism soundbite – from the desk – UPDATED

In which Dr Aust embraces a small bit of activism, though without rising from a sitting position.

As some readers will know, following the damning (and admirably well reasoned) House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Report on Homeopathy, long-time Pro-Unreality campaigner David Tredinnick MP (noted, inter alia, for claiming his astrology CDs on expenses as “research materials”) put down an Early Day Motion. Said Early Day Motion, EDM 908, asks MPs to support the idea that local Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) – the main “gatekeepers” in the National Health Service of what treatments are acceptable – should continue to be able to contract for homeopathy services.

This EDM has attained a certain amount of fame online, with Ben Goldacre and other Bad Science and/or Pro-Rationality types (e.g. Professor David Colquhoun) noting that it gives you a quick way to tell if your MP really understands the concept of scientific evidence. Or as Ben more pithily puts it:

“Does your MP seriously believe in fairies and magic beans?”

Obviously at election time these issues come to have more of a significance – especially given the oft-expressed sentiment, which I have heard from quite a few of my friends and colleagues, that the main UK parties are so indistinguishable on many issues that it is hard to see any point which way you vote. This is especially noticeable on healthcare, as anyone who follows UK medical blogs like Dr Grumble and the Jobbing Doctor will know. I think I personally expressed this not so long ago as it being  “hard to get a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories on their attitude to the NHS” (particularly their mystifying enthusiasm for more private sector involvement in UK healthcare, but that is a discussion for another time.)

Times Science Editor Mark Henderson wrote an interesting opinion piece a few days ago in which he argued that one could and should distinguish, regardless of political affiliation, MPs that were generally “pro-science”. The obvious implication would be that this might give one a reason to vote for a particular candidate, or at least to quiz all the candidates in one’s constituency on their position on scientific issues.

Now, when I looked at the list of signatories to Tredinnick’s EDM 908 I was rather disappointed to see my own MP, who is generally pretty sane on most things, on the list. So I sat down to write them a letter explaining my unhappiness. I should say that I have written to said MP a few times before, the issues that prompted me being:

- the attempt in late 2006 by some religious groups to blizzard schools with pro-“Intelligent Design” literature

- the May 2008  House of Commons vote on stem cell research (and time limits for termination of pregnancy)

-  the BCA v Singh case and more generally the campaign for libel reform.

So it seemed like about time for my annual letter to the MP. Anyway, here is what I penned and sent off last night.

——————————————–

Dear xxxxxxx

As one of your constituents I was disappointed to see that you had signed David Tredinnick MP’s EDM 908 on NHS support for homeopathy.

As a scientist, and the husband of an NHS doctor, I feel strongly that homeopathy has no place in the NHS. As my wife says, when other services – things like health visitors, and home occupational therapy services for people housebound with disabilties – are under threat due to financial shortages, it is indefensible to be spending money on placebo therapies. Even if the actual amount is small, it could be better used elsewhere. Funding homeopathy on the NHS has no place in the era of basing medical treatments on evidence.

Moving to evidence, from a scientific standpoint the EDM, like the evidence the homeopaths gave to the recent Science and Technology Select Committee Hearing on homeopathy, is misleading. In any discussion weighting scientific and medical evidence, the simple NUMBER of published results is not the most important thing. It is the quality of the data – things like the size of the trial (number of patients enrolled) and in particular a trial’s freedom from obvious biases – that counts. Simply totting up the number of trials is a bit like assessing the value of the ideas in a book by asking how many pages it has. The overall verdict on homeopathy is quite clear, and that is that it is no more than a placebo.

Mr Tredinnick does not appear to understand the idea of scientific evidence, and has a long history of bizarre pronouncements on health matters, such as commending astrology and suggesting it is worthy of consideration as a health intervention. His views on the subject of Alternative Medicine are regarded, by every doctor or scientist I have ever discussed them with, as utterly partisan and wholly at odds with the evidence.

The provision of homeopathy is often defended as a matter of “choice”. I should say that I am entirely happy that people CHOOSE to use their own money to visit a homeopath, in the same way that they can choose to join a health club, take a spa break, or patronise a fortune teller. It is clearly their right to do so. But funding such things from the public purse is something else.

Could I ask you to please re-consider whether you wish to support EDM 908.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Aust

—————————————————————————————-

I have so far received the form “received your email” reply from my MP’s office, noting that it is a very busy time so a proper reply may take a while. Given the imminent election they have more of a point than usual. But I will let you know when I hear anything, and add any replies below.

—————————————————————————————

UPDATE April 9th.

Hurrah! – I am gratified to see that my MP has removed their signature from the EDM.

Though I wouldn’t presume to claim the credit – I suspect s/he was getting admonished (or let us say “informed” )  by sceptical members of his/her own parliamentary party.

Meanwhile, to see the kind of crap that is going on in the NHS as it struggles, under political Diktat, to make cuts whilst simultaneously saying “there will be no cuts”, see here.

And fear not, the Peoples’ Medical Journal knows what is needed in healthcare. This tragic story manages to suggest it is the Tories, while this one suggests hypnotherapy. *sigh*

Off-topic PS: For those interested in the Daily Fail’s tragic-cancer-patient-can’t-get-drug-due-to-Labour-NHS-meanness story alluded to above:

(i) a response from Sir Michael Rawlins of NICE (I can’t quite tell if he is bemused, or angry, or both – though I suspect the latter) ;

(ii) note that the Daily Fail story quotes Karol Sikora. Enough said.

23 Responses to “Pro-reality activism soundbite – from the desk – UPDATED”

  1. Allo V Psycho Says:

    This was mine to my local MP, slightly altered for anonymity.

    “I was very disappointed indeed to see that you had signed the EDM motion on homoeopathy proposed by David Treddinick. I am sure you know that Treddinick holds views which are eccentric in the extreme, including the use of medical astrology. However,homoeopathy is not much better. Can I ask you to read [the evidence submitted to the Science and Technology Committee's evidence check on homoeopathy], available through the STC website, and in the light of that, consider withdrawing your name from the Motion? I have no wish to prevent individuals using homoeopathy if they wish, but I have a strong aversion to paying for their use of it through the NHS, especially when in other parts of the NHS, financial shortfalls have serious health consequences. I fear that I (and members of my household) would be reluctant to vote Labour in this constituency under present circumstances”.

    Reply so far was an offer to read the evidence, which is fair enough, but shouldn’t he have read it first before signing the EDM? What’s the ‘recruiting process’ for getting folk to sign – does it happen in the bar? Will post any further replies.

    Cheers,

    Allo

  2. draust Says:

    Nicely put, Allo.

    I suspect often MP’s offices sign EDMs for them – this is certainly what an MP told me used to happen. On some EDMs on subjects where there is a direct party policy, they may get a steer (or direct advice) to sign – or not – but for miscellanous stuff I understand it is probably word of mouth, and not even necessarily by MP.

    I think EDM 908 is a bit of a Trojan horse, since it is couched rather deliberately in “restriction of choice or of local autonomy” terms. Personally I think that is a con, since it is fairly evidently Tredinnick “fronting” for the Society of Homeopaths – at least, that is my opinion and that of various other people in the Bad Sci world. However, the “restricting choice” line makes a good way of sliding it past unwary MPs, or their offices.

  3. Felix Says:

    I have written to my MP and local candidates on this matter, one of whom (Wilfred Emmanuel-Jones) replied that he supports homeopathy.

    Just wanted to say that it seems a bit odd that you have X’ed out the name of your MP, I presume you must be trying to protect your own privacy rather than theirs?

  4. draust Says:

    Quite correct, Felix – this site maintains at least a veneer of anonymity / pseudonymity, so it was to avoid definitively identifying my location.

    To which party does the candidate you refer to belong? One of the interesting things about the list of those who have signed EDM 908 is that it suggests Magic Beans, if one can put it like that, are a non-partisan issue, with the Left just as likely to be Believers as the Right. MPs from all parties have signed, though as I said before I wonder how many of them really understood the intent behind the EDM, see above.

    Interestingly, one of the most pro-homeopathy of all MPs, Labour member and ex-Minister Peter Hain, does not appear among the signatories.

  5. Cybertiger Says:

    My MP’s Nadine Dorries.

    Whoops, my big mouth (replete with glistening fangs). Does that mean I’m now going to get a call from a genocidal homeophobe called Herr Dreary Draust?

    Before you come knocking, Herr Draust, remember that I have sharp claws too.

  6. Felix Says:

    The MP in Question (Emmanuel-Jones) is Conservative.
    You may have heard of him as “The Black Farmer”.

  7. draust Says:

    Felix: Emmanuel-Jones seems to be an interesting character – I found an interview with him on Llewtube. His gluten-free sausages sound good, but I was a little unnerved that he employs a “nutritionist”. While the advice on the Black Farmer site about coeliac seems pretty sound, if you go to the nutritionist’s personal site it has a fair bit of the usual nutri-bollocks on it, and she is heavily into NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), which is to mainstream psychotherapy rather as “Nutritionism” is to dietetics. More about what scientists think of NLP here.

    Shabby: there are few things you could say to make me feel any sympathy for you, but having Mad Nad as your MP is one of them. Commiserations.

  8. Bellerophon Says:

    I also wrote to my MP. Although he has not signed the EDM he wrote back a letter expressing the view that homeopathy should be available in the NHS. From a thread on quackometer it seems that the letter I got is a standard letter sent by all Tory MPs to those who write on the subject. Have decided this time round to vote for someone else.

  9. draust Says:

    I hope you emailed the MP back to tell him that his (i) laziness in sending a stock reply; and (ii) failure to actually engage with the issues about evidence in healthcare; are a major factor in your decision not to vote for him, Bellerophon.

    Given that the parties are so close to indistinguishable on many major ideological and policy questions, it would good to impress upon the next intake of MPs that there are voters out there who consider politicians’ readiness to take decisions on the basis of evidence – rather than of lobbying – a reason to vote one way or another. It might help to keep them more honest. The libel reform campaign has shown what power a grass roots movement can still have, and we need to keep pushing for other things. I predict that a movement to repeal the idiotic Digital Economy Bill will be the next biggie.

    Anyway, getting back to homeopathy, I think writing to MPs like yours again is necessary to “close the loop” and tell them that their positions have consequences. Am I more or less likely to vote for my sitting MP after he took his name off EDM 908? The answer, obviously, is more.

  10. Dr Evan Harris Says:

    I am pleased to see that the only MPs to remove their names were Lib Dems presumably whose offices had signed up on request from constituents lobbying. No other parties MPs appeared to have listened, and it seems the Tories were told to stick to the position.

    Wilfred Emmanuel Jones is not an MP. Chippenham is a new seat which is a LD/Con marginal. LD cand Duncan Hames is very sound.

    Peter Hain is not allowed to sign EDMs as cab minister.

  11. draust Says:

    Thanks, Evan, and welcome.

    I figured that (not allowed to sign EDMs) might be the case with Peter Hain, but good to have it confirmed. And my MP is indeed a Lib Dem, though I haven’t named him/her specifically here. S/he has always been good about responding to emails.

    From Wilfred Emmanuel Jones’ interview (the one in Robert Llewellyn’s car – ! – linked in a comment above) he seems a rather odd fit for a Tory candidate. A lot of what he says has a distinctly “libertarian” feel, so perhaps that is the underlying reason (though I am unconvinced myself that the Tories are going to de-regulate anything much if they get elected – see e.g. the Digital Economy Bill).

    I was wondering whether, given Wilfred E J’s non-“Tory central casting” persona/views, he hadn’t been selected for Chippenham specifically because it was an LD/Con marginal.

  12. Dr Evan Harris Says:

    Sorry – what I meant was that while Wilfred is indeed the Tory cand in Chippenham but is not sitting MP as this is a new extra seat.

    He is nice bloke but very strange btw.

  13. draust Says:

    A list of the MPs who have signed EDM 908, including the LibDem ones who withdrew their signatures, can be found here.

  14. Allo V Psycho Says:

    My MP has just told me (following a phone conversation and me encouraging him to engage with the Select Committee evidence ) that he would withdraw his name from the EDM (today is ‘the last day’ apparently, but last day for what I do not know). Still, shows that it can be worth while, if he does indeed do so.

  15. Cybertiger Says:

    Dr Evan Harris may remember that Professor David ‘the jammy dodger’ Colquhoun alleged that the NHS spends £10m per year on homeopathy. Of course, Dr Evan Harris will remember that the Professor dodges the question of NHS spending on the useless statin drugs and the whole cholesterol nonsense – currently around £2bn a year. As we approach the election, the country needs a little less nonsense about science and a a whole lot more honesty. Eh, Dr Harris?

  16. Cybertiger Says:

    Stop the madness, stop the nonsense about science, stop the crankiness over the basis of medical evidence.

    http://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2010/04/10/wakefield-interview.aspx

    Evan ‘cranky’ Harris MP is mandated to watch this YouTube video, the whole video and nothing but the YouTube video, so help you God, Dr Harris.

  17. draust Says:

    *Loud Yawn*

    I see Orac describes the video interview Shabby just linked as:

    “[A full hour of] Wakefield’s unctuous “poor, poor, pitiful me” whining and Joe Mercola’s chipper conspiracy mongering”

    Sounds about right to me. Cranks of a feather flock together.

  18. Cybertiger Says:

    *Yawn”

    Feeling dreary are we, Draust?

    “Cranks of a feather flock together”

    Sounds like the Fab Four Feathered Flockers of the New Crankies ….

    http://draust.wordpress.com/2010/04/12/an-outbreak-of-crankiness/

    PS. Orac is too burningly stupid to be a crankie.

  19. Cybertiger Says:

    *Loud Yawn*

    I see Herr Draust is now feeling drearily dreadful.

  20. draust Says:

    Shabby

    I’m tempted to delete the last few of these, since they are pointless and off-topic. But I think I’ll leave them up so any readers can make their own judgement as to who is, or isn’t, a crank.

  21. Cybertiger Says:

    Censorship is the last resort of the scoundrel … well remembered, Herr Draust.

  22. Osteopathy Cheshire Says:

    I did exactly the same thing as many of you, wrote to my MP, ironically it turns out his wife owns a Holistic treatment clinic, I guess that answers it!

  23. draust Says:

    I’ve posted that last comment, which is, er, spam-ish, since if you follow it you will find a memorably bonkers Alt.Therapy Practise website. If you are one of the Worried Well of Wilmslow, one of the more affluent parts of Cheshire (Northern WAGs and Wannabes territory) they will hose out your colon in a trice.

    They also offer an extensive range of other complete nonsense.

    On second thoughts, maybe that should have read “effluent” parts of Cheshire…

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