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

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Did your personality determine whether you voted for Brexit? Research suggests so

The Online Privacy Foundation found Leave voters were significantly more likely to be authoritarian and conscientious. 

"Before referendum day, I said the winners would be those who told the most convincing lies," Paul Flynn, a Labour MP, wrote in these pages. "Leave did." The idea that those who voted for Brexit were somehow manipulated is widely accepted by the Remain camp. The Leave campaign, so the argument goes, played on voters' fears and exploited their low numeracy. And new research from the Online Privacy Foundation suggests this argument may, in part at least, be right. 

Over the last 18 months the organisation have researched differences in personality traits, levels of authoritarianism, numeracy, thinking styles and cognitive biases between EU referendum voters. The organisation conducted a series of studies, capturing over 11,000 responses to self-report psychology questionnaires and controlled experiments, with the final results scheduled to be presented at the International Conference on Political Psychology in Copenhagen in October 2017.

The researchers questioned voters using the "Five Factor Model" which consists of five broad personality traits - Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness and Neuroticism. They also considered the disposition of authoritarianism (it is not considered a personality trait). Authoritarians have a more black and white view of the world around them, are more concerned with the upkeep of established societal traditions and have a tendency to be less accepting of outsiders. 

So what did they uncover? Participants expressing an intent to vote to leave the EU reported significantly higher levels of authoritarianism and conscientiousness, and lower levels of openness and neuroticism than voters expressing an intent to vote to remain. (Conscientiousness is associated with dependability, dutifulness, focus and adherence to societal norms in contrast to disorganisation, carelessness and impulsivity.)

Immigration in particular seems to have affected voting. While authoritarians were much more likely to vote Leave to begin with, those who were less authoritarian became increasingly likely to vote Leave if they expressed high levels of concern over immigration. These findings chime with research by the Professors Marc Hetherington and Elizabeth Suhay, which found that Americans became susceptible to "authoritarian thinking" when they perceived a grave threat to their safety. 

Then there's what you might call the £350m question - did Leave voters know what they were voting for? When the Online Privacy Foundation researchers compared Leave voters with Remain voters, they displayed significantly lower levels of numeracy, reasoning and appeared more impulsive. In all three areas, older voters performed significantly worse than young voters intending to vote the same way.

Even when voters were able to interpret statistics, their ability to do so could be overcome by partisanship. In one striking study, when voters were asked to interpret statistics about whether a skin cream increases or decreases a rash, they were able to interpret them correctly roughly 57 per cent of the time. But when voters were asked to interpret the same set of statistics, but told they were about whether immigration increases or decreases crime, something disturbing happened. 

If the statistics didn't support a voter's view, their ability to correctly interpret the numbers dropped, in some cases, by almost a half. 

Before Remoaners start to crow, this study is not an affirmation that "I'm smart, you're dumb". Further research could be done, for example, on the role of age and education (young graduates were far more likely to vote Remain). But in the meantime, there is a question that needs to be answered - are political campaigners deliberately exploiting these personality traits? 

Chris Sumner, from the Online Privacy Foundation, warns that in the era of Big Data, clues about our personalities are collected online: "In the era of Big Data, these clues are aggregated, transformed and sold by a burgeoning industry."

Indeed, Cambridge Analytica, a data company associated with the political right in the UK and US, states on its website that it can "more effectively engage and persuade voters using specially tailored language and visual ad combinations crafted with insights gleaned from behavioral understandings of your electorate". It will do so through a "blend of big data analytics and behavioural psychology". 

"Given the differences observed between Leave and Remain voters, and irrespective of which campaign, it is reasonable to hypothesize that industrial-scale psychographic profiling would have been a highly effective strategy," Sumner says. By identifying voters with different personalities and attitudes, such campaigns could target "the most persuadable voters with messages most likely to influence their vote". Indeed, in research yet to be published, the Online Privacy Foundation targeted groups with differing attitudes to civil liberties based on psychographic indicators associated with authoritarianism. The findings, says Sumner, illustrate "the ease with which individuals' inherent differences could be exploited". 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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