UK Parliamentary Science and Technology Committee Evidence Check

Today I’m full of admiration for the British Government – all their Select Committee meetings are accessible from anywhere in the world via the internet.  I just finished watching two hours of the committee charged with looking into the evidence for homeopathy, or the lack thereof.

In August the public was invited to submit suggestions for topics this committee should investigate.  Interestingly Homeopathy rose to the top.  On October 20th a call went out for written submissions to the committee – closing date November 6th.  From the multitude of submissions from both sides of the debate, a group would be invited to give oral submissions at today’s meeting. In an efficiency uncharacteristic of government, somehow all the written submissions were reviewed and invitees selected in less than 48 hours……..

The witnesses were an interesting group:
Professor Jayne Lawrence, Chief Scientific Adviser, Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain
Robert Wilson, Chairman, British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers
Paul Bennett, Professional Standards Director, Boots
Tracey Brown, Managing Director, Sense About Science (Parent of network Voice of Young Science)
Dr Ben Goldacre, Journalist, The Guardian. (Bad Science website and many published anti-homeopathy articles)

In the later session:
Dr Peter Fisher, Director of Research, Royal London Homeopathic Hospital
Professor Edzard Ernst, Director, Complementary Medicine Group, Peninsula Medical School (Proud of his closed mind on homeopathy)
Dr James Thallon, Medical Director, NHS West Kent  (Withdrew funding for Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital, now closed)
Dr Robert Mathie, Research Development Adviser, British Homeopathic Association

It was, if nothing else, a peek into the world of spin.

Those who consider there to be no evidence for homeopathy were well rehearsed and fed some excellent questions by MP Evan Harris – who missed his vocation as a prosecution barrister – and they provided their stock answers on cue.  Those who consider there to be ample evidence for homeopathy, three lonely souls in a group of nine, tried to hold their own, but it wasn’t enough to show up with some research papers.  They had to be ready for the cross examination and unfortunately they were not – a couple of shots to the foot went off  and there were several missed opportunities – but these were only people who see the good results of homeopathy every working day, who came unwittingly into the lions den.  Still, for some unfathomable reason they  failed to insist on making some important distinctions before agreeing to begin the Evidence Check.

I am hoping it was clarified in the written submissions, but today there was no attempt to clarify WHY the research into homeopathy has thus far been limited and the results relatively disappointing.
Yes there are issues of lack of funding – but it’s even more fundamental than that.
Homeopathy is a SYSTEM of medicine, not a series of distinct medicines for specific diseases – treatment is of the person not the disease label – so looking for evidence of efficacy for specific named diseases means the playing field is already not level.  Treatment must be individualized – but more than that, resolution of complaints happens in a very particular way.  Assessing progress in a homeopathic case of atopic eczema for example, does not depend first on resolution of the skin lesions.  Many other issues within the patient’s case may need to resolve before the skin resolves – according to a specific hierarchy – so that it becomes absolutely ludicrous to suggest testing homeopathy by the same narrowly defined means by which a pharmaceutical drug can be tested: specific drug – for specific complaint – in specific dose – for specific length of time.  (Amazingly even with the odds of methodology stacked against it, homeopathy has still shown itself efficacious in some trials.)

Homeopathy is an INDIVIDUALISED system of medicine – it may be that as the case progresses, the remedy needs to be changed, the potency adjusted and so on.

So the assertion that because “homeopathy has not been found to be efficacious in any named disease = homeopathy does not work” shows such a profound lack of understanding of the homeopathic process that any discussion should have stopped right there.

But the meeting went on, questions and answers, back and forth, for almost two hours.
Most of the MPs did their job to the best of their ability, asking serious questions and occasionally playing devil’s advocate to get at the answers.
But Evan Harris was a sight to behold – unable to contain his glee as the homeopathic side walked into his traps one after another. To say the meeting was a set up will of course raise cries of sour grapes – but really the game has been transparent from the beginning.  No doubt some feel they are doing the public a service and pints will be pulled in the pub tonight.  The hounds believe what they smell is blood, but the losers of course will be the public, if this fox hunt continues.

Biggest joke of the day: Evan Harris asking Robert Wilson what qualifications he had to make a simple observation  that psychiatry has started using low dose medication.  Someone should have asked what qualifications Evan Harris, Dr Goldacre, Ms Brown and Dr Thallon, have to be discussing homeopathy!  (Professor Ernst has the benefit of my doubt that he knows the basics, it’s only his self-professed closed mind that is the pity.)

Biggest wry smile of the day: an earnest Dr. G alluding to the fact that if homeopathy was a £1.5B industry then:      “ ….it is big enough to influence the activities of the industry regulator, and that’s a problem.”
I agree interfering with industry regulation would be a problem, just like interfering with the democratic process.   And Pharma’s trillion dollar industry ought to be enough to cause quite a bit of interference.
Not that two wrongs make a right of course.  But no wrong has been proven on the homeopathic side – only alluded to – while Dr G on his website has helpfully identified all manner of regulatory interference from pharmaceutical companies.
(By way of a diversion, I marvelled at the myriad ways Dr G could find to insert ‘sugar pills’ into his answers – you have to hand it to the man, he’s good.)

Conclusions and observations:
On the surface it all seemed so quintessentially British – democracy at work – a public meeting of polite questions and answers about the evidence.
But strange that 75% of those invited to make oral submissions clearly do not understand the basic principles of homeopathy, and despite recent advances in science, still cling doggedly to Avogadro’s number.
Ms Brown was surprisingly easily flustered, but was nicely rescued by the gallant MPs.
If the potential loss was not so great it might have been amusing – the materialists on one side and the vitalists on the other – speaking two completely different languages.

Watch for the blizzard of “Homeopathy doesn’t work!” articles in the papers this week – ready to go and just waiting for the sound bites.  No bother that the Evidence Check isn’t over yet.  Unless of course they already know something we don’t………….?

If you want the parallel universe version of what transpired at the meeting, and a quick study in spin – don’t say anything untrue, just quote selected phrases out of context –  that will be Ian Sample’s blog in The Guardian.

Or you can watch the meeting here:

I’m off to deconstruct some arguments.  Written transcript of the meeting coming soon.


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