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

GERRY BRAKUS
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“Like a giant metal baby”: whether you like it or not, robots are already part of our world

For centuries, we have built replacements for ourselves. But are we ready to understand the implications?

There were no fireworks to dazzle the crowd lining the streets of Alexandria to celebrate Cleopatra’s triumphant return to the city in 47BC. Rather, there was a four-and-a-half-metre-tall robotic effigy of the queen, which squirted milk from mechanical bosoms on to the heads of onlookers. Cleopatra, so the figure was meant to symbolise, was a mother to her people.

It turns out that robots go back a long way. At the “Robots” exhibition now on at the Science Museum in London, a clockwork monk from 1560 walks across a table while raising a rosary and crucifix, its lips murmuring in devotion. It is just one of more than 100 exhibits, drawn from humankind’s half-millennium-long obsession with creating mechanical tools to serve us.

“We defined a robot as a machine which looks lifelike, or behaves in lifelike ways,” Ben Russell, the lead curator of the exhibition, told me. This definition extends beyond the mechanisms of the body to include those of the mind. This accounts for the inclusion of robots such as “Cog”, a mash-up of screws, motors and scrap metal that is, the accompanying blurb assures visitors, able to learn about the world by poking at colourful toys, “like a giant metal baby”.

The exhibits show that there has long existed in our species a deep desire to rebuild ourselves from scratch. That impulse to understand and replicate the systems of the body can be seen in some of the earliest surviving examples of robotics. In the 16th century, the Catholic Church commissioned some of the first anthropomorphic mechanical machines, suggesting that the human body had clockwork-like properties. Models of Jesus bled and automatons of Satan roared.

Robots have never been mere anatomical models, however. In the modern era, they are typically employed to work on the so-called 4D tasks: those that are dull, dumb, dirty, or dangerous. A few, such as Elektro, a robot built in Ohio in the late 1930s, which could smoke a cigarette and blow up balloons, were showmen. Elektro toured the US in 1950 and had a cameo in an adult movie, playing a mechanical fortune-teller picking lottery numbers and racehorses.

Nevertheless, the idea of work is fundamental to the term “robot”. Karel Čapek’s 1920s science-fiction play RUR, credited with introducing the word to the English language, depicts a cyborg labour force that rebels against its human masters. The Czech word robota means “forced labour”. It is derived from rab, which means “slave”.

This exhibition has proved timely. A few weeks before it opened in February, a European Parliament commission demanded that a set of regulations be drawn up to govern the use and creation of robots. In early January, Reid Hoffman and Pierre Omidyar, the founders of LinkedIn and eBay respectively, contributed $10m each to a fund intended to prevent the development of artificial intelligence applications that could harm society. Human activity is increasingly facilitated, monitored and analysed by AI and robotics.

Developments in AI and cybernetics are converging on the creation of robots that are free from direct human oversight and whose impact on human well-being has been, until now, the stuff of science fiction. Engineers have outpaced philosophers and lawmakers, who are still grappling with the implications as autonomous cars roll on to our roads.

“Is the world truly ready for a vehicle that can drive itself?” asked a recent television advert for a semi-autonomous Mercedes car (the film was pulled soon afterwards). For Mercedes, our answer to the question didn’t matter much. “Ready or not, the future is here,” the ad concluded.

There have been calls to halt or reverse advances in robot and AI development. Stephen Hawking has warned that advanced AI “could spell the end of the human race”. The entrepreneur Elon Musk agreed, stating that AI presents the greatest existential threat to mankind. The German philosopher Thomas Metzinger has argued that the prospect of increasing suffering in the world through this new technology is so morally awful that we should cease to build artificially intelligent robots immediately.

Others counter that it is impossible to talk sensibly about robots and AI. After all, we have never properly settled on the definitions. Is an inkjet printer a robot? Does Apple’s Siri have AI? Today’s tech miracle is tomorrow’s routine tool. It can be difficult to know whether to take up a hermit-like existence in a wifi-less cave, or to hire a Japanese robo-nurse to swaddle our ageing parents.

As well as the fear of what these machines might do to us if their circuits gain sentience, there is the pressing worry of, as Russell puts it, “what we’re going to do with all these people”. Autonomous vehicles, say, could wipe out the driving jobs that have historically been the preserve of workers displaced from elsewhere.

“How do we plan ahead and put in place the necessary political, economic and social infrastructure so that robots’ potentially negative effects on society are mitigated?” Russell asks. “It all needs to be thrashed out before it becomes too pressing.”

Such questions loom but, in looking to the past, this exhibition shows how robots have acted as society’s mirrors, reflecting how our hopes, dreams and fears have changed over the centuries. Beyond that, we can perceive our ever-present desires to ease labour’s burden, to understand what makes us human and, perhaps, to achieve a form of divinity by becoming our own creators. 

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution