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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Politicians: it's no longer OK to know nothing about technology

It’s bad enough to joke about not being "techy"; it's worse to back a piece of legislation from a position of ignorance. 

Earlier this week, facing down a 600-strong battalion of London’s tech sector at a mayoral hustings in Stratford, Zac Goldsmith opened his five minute pitch with his characteristic charm. “I’m not very techy!” he exclaimed. “I understand coding about as well as Swahili!”

Pointless jibe at a foreign language aside, this was an ill-chosen way to begin his address - especially considering that the rest of his speech showed he was reasonably well-briefed on the problems facing the sector, and the solutions (including improving broadband speeds and devolving skills budgets) which could help.

But the offhand reference to his own ignorance, and the implication that it would be seen as attractive by this particular audience, implies that Goldsmith, and other politicians like him, haven’t moved on since the 90s. The comment seemed designed to say: “Oh, I don't know about that - I'll leave it to the geeks like you!"

This is bad enough from a mayoral hopeful.  But on the same day, the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament filed its report on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill, the legislation drafted by the Home Office which will define how and how far the government and secret services can pry into our digital communications. Throughout, there's the sense that the ISC doesn't think the department behind the bill had a firm grasp on the issues at hand. Words like "inconsistent" and "lacking in clarity" pop up again and again. In one section, the authors note:

"While the issues under consideration are undoubtedly complex, we are nevertheless concerned that thus far the Government has missed the opportunity to provide the clarity and assurance which is badly needed."

The report joins criticism from other directions, including those raised by Internet Service Providers last year, that the bill's writers didn't appear to know much about digital communications at all, much less the issues surrounding encryption of personal messages.

One good example: the bill calls for the collection of "internet connection records", the digital equivalent of phone call records, which show the domains visited by internet users but not their content. But it turns out these records don't exist in this form: the bill actually invented both the phrase and the concept. As one provider commented at the time, anyone in favour of their collection "do not understand how the Internet works". 

Politicians have a long and colourful history of taking on topics - even ministerial posts - in fields they know little to nothing about. This, in itself, is a problem. But politicians themselves are often the people extolling importance of technology, especially to the British economy - which makes their own lack of knowledge particularly grating. No politician would feel comfortable admitting a lack of knowledge, on, say, economics. I can’t imagine Goldsmith guffawing "Oh, the deficit?  That's all Greek to me!"  over dinner with Cameron. 

The mayoral candidates on stage at the DebateTech hustings this week were eager to agree that tech is London’s fastest growing industry, but could do little more than bleat the words “tech hub” with fear in their eyes that someone might ask them what exactly that meant. (A notable exception was Green candidate Sian Berry, who has actually worked for a tech start-up.) It was telling that all were particularly keen on improving internet speeds -  probably because this is something they do have day-to-day engagement with. Just don't ask them how to go about doing it.

The existence of organisations like Tech London Advocates, the industry group which co-organised the hustings, is important, and can go some way towards educating the future mayor on the issues the industry faces. But the technology and information sectors have been responsible for 30 per cent of job growth in the capital since 2009 - we can't afford to have a mayor who blanches at the mention of code. 

If we’re to believe the politicians themselves, with all their talk of coding camps and skills incubators and teaching the elderly to email, we need a political sphere where boasting that you're not "techy" isn’t cool or funny - it’s just kind of embarrassing. 

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