Archive for April 7th, 2010

Pro-reality activism soundbite – from the desk – UPDATED

April 7, 2010

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.