Homeopathy and public policy - a match made in the moonlight?

Something in the water...

Such delicious paradoxes are rare events and should be relished. The House of Commons science and technology select committee exists “to ensure that government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence”. David Tredinnick, the MP for Bosworth, has just joined it. Upcoming business includes a discussion of how we can reduce the presence of pollutants in our water. The idea is to look at what chemicals should be allowed to remain in water discharged into public resources and at what level. Who better to assess the evidence than a champion of homoeopathy?

Homoeopathy involves dilutions of chemicals, often to the point where the medicine contains not a single molecule of the chemical that is supposed to be doing the healing. The higher the dilution, the more powerful the medicinal effect. Tredinnick has been a fervent supporter of the idea that the National Health Service should offer patients free homoeopathic treatment if they request it.

Scientists have suggested this is not the best use of scarce NHS resources, given that homoeopathy has been shown to be no better than a placebo. Yet Tredinnick has used his position in parliament to request that the government respond to “attacks by the socalled scientific establishment” by being “robust in [its] support for homoeopathy and consider what can be done so that it is used more effectively in the health service”.

Proponents of homoeopathy suggest that water “memorises” substances that have been dissolved in it. If this is true, not only is there no prospect of extracting pollutants from water, but the more we try to clean it, the more dangerous the water becomes. A logical position for Tredinnick to take is that the European Union’s Water Framework Directive is based on a misguided premise and the whole project should be dropped.

It will be interesting to see what Tredinnick makes of the evidence submitted concerning clinical trials by pharmaceutical companies. Submissions close on 22 February; we wait with bated breath for his interpretation of the question, “Can lessons about transparency and disclosure of clinical data be learned from other countries?” He has asserted in parliament that the long traditions of astrology-based health care in Chinese, Muslim and Hindu cultures make it worth considering introducing similar practices in the NHS.

Tredinnick knows, at least, that science isn’t easy: he has gone on the record to declare that radionics, which involves “the transmission of a signal that sends a healing process to someone remotely”, is “difficult for science to test”. That didn’t stop him suggesting that radionics might also be of interest to the NHS.

Tredinnick did go on to applaud science for discovering that “pregnancy, hangovers and visits to one’s GP may be affected by the awesome power of the moon”. Sadly, science hasn’t made this discovery; neither has it proved his assertion that arson attacks “increase by 100 per cent during a full moon”. This is a man who will be weighing up evidence about the best way to improve the use of forensic science by the police force in the UK.

When Richard Feynman defined science as the art of not fooling yourself – “. . . and you are the easiest person to fool” – he might have been thinking of Tredinnick. However, Andrew Miller, chair of the select committee, is unlikely to take Tredinnick’s assessments seriously. Miller is an Aries and they’re always very sceptical.

Pills for homeopathic remedies. Photograph: Getty Images

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.