Guardian article on homeopathy (full MP responses in next post)

November 19, 2007

Tom Whipple

The Guardian

To MPs, Early Day Motions must be much like street petitions. Signing costs nothing, almost certainly changes nothing, and is the easiest way to get rid of someone annoying. So perhaps it was unfair that I individually emailed each of the 206 MPs who signed Early Day Motion 1240: supporting NHS homeopathic hospitals.

EDM 1240 called for more government backing for homeopathy on the NHS, stating that complementary medicine, and by implication homeopathy, “has the potential to offer clinically-effective solutions to conditions such as eczema, depression, insomnia, allergy, and irritable bowel syndrome”. My question was simple: what evidence did each MP use in supporting that statement?

The replies varied from the pragmatic to the genuinely puzzling. What few contained was evidence.Lembit Opik argued – in an admirably bold deviation from accepted medical practice – that taxpayers should pay for treatments until they are shown to fail, rather than the other way round. “The onus is less on homeopathy to prove itself than on its detractors to prove it necessarily does not work,” he said.

Harry Cohen, MP for Leyton and Wanstead, joined him at the more eccentric end of the spectrum by implying that conventional medical treatments were improperly tested (he would not say which ones) and referring to Prince Charles as someone “who has made a very strong case” for homeopathy.

Many were perfectly reasonable though. Some emails bounced and fewer than half replied, but John Hemming, MP for Birmingham Yardley, spoke for many when he said: “Even if you take the perspective that it only acts like a psychological treatment, then it is effective”.

However, the motion did not say homeopathy was a good placebo. It said homeopathy offers clinically-effective solutions to named conditions. A claim that the UK Society of Homeopaths does not even allow its own practitioners to make – its code of practice states a homeopath is required to “avoid making claims (whether explicit or implied; orally or in writing) implying cure of any named disease” .Why the controversy? Homeopathy involves treating people with chemicals diluted in water until not a single molecule remains – based on the idea that the water will “remember” the chemical (but not everything else that has previously been dissolved in it). Scientifically speaking, that’s lunacy. So some pretty powerful evidence is required.

Which is where a second school of thought came in. Around half the respondents spoke of constituents who had told them of the benefits they had gained from treatment – an understandable parliamentary basis for supporting homeopathy.

But medical science has moved on from considering anecdotes to be evidence. Instead it tests thousands of people, and looks for a result better than that expected by taking a sugar pill alone. It would take a particularly stubborn contrariness not to see the logic in that.

Research has been done. Steve Webb, the only MP actually to cite published papers, proved that. The most authoritative of his papers, which included one that just asked homeopathy patients if they felt better, reached the underwhelming conclusion that there was merit in further research. It also said “we found insufficient evidence from these studies that homeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition.”

That was 1997. Since then there has been further research, and it has again shown homeopathy to be no better than a placebo. Homeopathists may dispute the results, but they offer little in return. How much more research is needed? 200 years after Samuel Hahnemann first dissolved Peruvian tree bark in water to cure malaria, there is still nothing concrete to back up homoeopathists’ extraordinary claims.

So despite what Peter Luff, MP for Mid Worcestershire, suggested, there is no conspiracy by “big pharma” to keep homeopathy down. If homeopathy were proved to work then the one certainty, aside from having to rewrite all known chemistry, is that drug companies would find a way to make money out of it. There is no conspiracy by science either – the first ambitious researcher to explain how distilled water could have a molecular memory would be guaranteed the Nobel Prize.

Science is not just another pressure group for an MP to deal with. It is not a point of view or political persuasion. It is the best tool we have for understanding the physical world: when we abandon it, we abandon logic. And if our elected representatives will not respond to logic, then who will?


One Response to “Guardian article on homeopathy (full MP responses in next post)”

  1. itsjustanalias Says:

    Thanks for this, I’ve just written to my MP, who signed the motion but did not reply to you. I’m distressed, but not surprised, that MPs seem to support magical thinking… it seems to apply to so much more than medicine (ID cards, Northern Rock, Education…)

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