Reach for the stars

I recently recovered from a nasty virus shortly after eating a piece of my wife's banana cake. Want to get in touch next time you're ill? We can test the hypothesis that my wife's baking has curative properties. I'm fairly sure you won't bother. Generally, our education and experience of the world has taught us to recognise what's plausible and what isn't.

Here's another hypothesis: maybe the stars affect your health. Does your body chemistry respond to balls of burning gas that sit billions of miles away in space? You don't need me to tell you that's a long shot, too. Which makes it all the more worrying that someone in the House of Commons fees office thought it plausible enough for the taxpayer to foot the research bill.

Last year, David Tredinnick, the Tory MP for Bosworth, claimed hundreds of pounds of taxpayers' money - repaid earlier this year - for the purchase of astrology software and the training to use it. This was not a sly attempt to get a dodgy claim through the system. Tredinnick was totally transparent. He approached the fees office and told them that astrological data plays a part in the health-care systems of China and India. Why not here? Perhaps NHS doctors should be looking at our horoscopes?

It seems that Tredinnick's is not the only Westminster mind without a plausibility filter. The science and technology select committee recently examined the hypothesis that homoeopathy works better than placebos, and should be included in NHS provision. After examining the evidence, they decided the hypothesis was false. Tredinnick has tabled an early-day motion contesting the committee's conclusion. It now has the signatures of 70 MPs. It seems that one-tenth of MPs could be persuaded that my wife's banana cake should be available on the NHS. I think we have a problem.

Free homoeopathy isn't the issue; it is the mindset that ignores what the scientists say. It's a short step to cutting their funding, for if the scientists' conclusions can be ignored, why bother wasting all that money on their research?

When science-based industry is a major contributor to the GDP, such thinking is dangerous. Which is why I have been collecting nominations to stand for parliament at the general election in Tredinnick's constituency. I don't expect to win, but here's a final hypothesis to consider. Parliament has just said goodbye to Phil Willis MP, a staunch supporter of a sensible approach to science. Perhaps the cosmos will restore the House of Commons's chi to pre-election levels by getting rid of someone from the other side of the scientific divide. After all, anything's possible. Isn't it?

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 19 April 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The big choice