MD, PhD, FMedSci, FSB, FRCP, FRCPEd

It is time, I think, to call an end to this series of articles on ‘drowning in a sea of misinformation’. Not that I have covered every contributor to and aspect of it. On the contrary, I could have carried on for another couple of weeks writing a post every day as I did during the last 15 days. But it was getting a bit boring – at least for me. So, for the last post, I have decided to briefly discuss politicians. In my view, they are crucially important in this context, as they create the general atmosphere and framework in which all the other mis-informers can thrive.

Peter Hain (Labour) is a campaigner for homeopathy and wants to see it widely used on the NHS. He was quoted as saying: “I first came to know about homeopathy through my son who as a baby suffered from eczema. He had it a couple of years but with conventional treatment the eczema was getting progressively worse and at the age of four he also developed asthma. We turned to homeopathy out of desperation and were stunned with the positive results. Since then I have used homeopathy for a wide variety of illnesses, but I rely on arnica as it’s excellent for treating the everyday bruises and shocks to the system we face. My view is that homeopathy and conventional medicines must remain side by side under the NHS to offer the best to patients”

Politicians who put anecdote before evidence do worry me quite a bit, I have to admit; by doing this, they provide us with strong evidence that they would be wise to keep their mouth shut when it comes to matters of science and medicine. But Hain is in good company: Jeremy Hunt (conservative), the current Secretary for Health, signed the following Early Day Motion in 2007: That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets.

The wording here is remarkable, I think: “…believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients…” What is this supposed to mean? Health politics based on believe??? What it, in fact, implies is that there is merely belief but no evidence. Bravo! This looks like an own-goal to me.

And there are many, many more politicians who seem to prefer belief over evidence - not just in the UK but in virtually every country; our US friends would probably want me to mention Senator Tom Harkin who is responsible for spending billions of tax-payers’ dollars on researching implausible concepts with flawed studies. To make things worse, it is not just individual politicians who promote woo, as far as I can see, most political parties have a group of members promoting pseudo-science.

But why? Why do so many politicians misinform their voters about the values of unproven and disproven treatments? And I do not mean those members of parliament who nobody seems to be able to take seriously, like David Tredenick; I mean otherwise respectable politicians with real influence. Should they not be the first to insist on reliable evidence? Do they not have a mandate and an ethical/moral obligation to do so?

Call me cynical, but I have come to the conclusion that the answer is actually quite simple. Politicians need to be (re-)elected, and therefore they have to run with whatever subject is popular – and, like it or not, alternative medicine is popular. Politicians rarely take a reasonably long view on health care (in fact, very few understand the first thing about science or medicine); their perspective has exactly the same length as the current legislative period. They usually do not even attach much importance to alternative medicine; after all, it only amounts to a tiny fraction of the total health care budget.

Tony Blair (Labour) is as good an example as any other politician; in relation to homeopathy, he is quoted saying: I think that most people today have a rational view about science and my advice to the scientific community would be fight the battles you need to fight. I wouldn’t bother fighting a great battle over homeopathy – there are people who use it, people who don’t use it, it is not going to determine the future of the world, frankly. What will determine the future of the world however, is the scientific community explaining for example the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issue to do with climate change and so on.

Sounds reasonable? Almost, but not quite. Firstly, if people employ homeopathy to protect themselves from infectious diseases like malaria, typhus, TB, AIDS etc., or if people believe those charlatans who promote it as an effective cure for life-threatening conditions, we do have a serious public health issue at hand. Secondly, why should the vast majority of health care professionals bend over backwards to do their very best implementing the concepts of EBM, if homeopathy is being given a free ride to continue existing in a virtual universe of belief-based medicine? Thirdly, how on earth can scientists possibly explain “the science of genetics and how it develops, or the issue to do with climate change”, if they lack the skill, courage, power or honesty to adequately respond to harmful quackery masquerading as medicine?

It is not difficult to criticise politicians but what might be the way forward and out of this mess? Because of the central role they play in all this, I think that it would be important that those politicians who take up posts in science-based areas be adequately educated and trained in science. I know this may sound naïve, but I think it would be an essential step towards avoiding politicians regularly making fools of themselves, misinforming the public and misguiding important decisions which might affect all of us.

23 Responses to Drowning in a sea of misinformation. Part 15: Politicians

  • Guy Chapmam says:

    I think the last but one paragraph is rather significant. As long as homeopaths stick to the agreed fudge of pretending to cure minor self-limiting ailments, they are politically ignorable. Once they start making claims to treat, cure or prevent serious diseases such as cancer, measles, HIV and so on, then they become a public health danger.

    A campaign to stop delusional claims to cure cancer is much more likely to be effective than a campaign against bogus cold remedies.

  • Irene says:

    While I agree that some politicians simply “run with whatever subject is popular”, I would bet that it is not the main reason they support woo-oriented legislation. Tom Harkin, for one, is a true believer. He uses woo and offers tons of anecdotal evidence. There are also those such as Senator Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) who is a shill for his state’s huge supplement industry. He is also a woo-user and believer in addition to being a promoter. Senators Barbara Mikulski, Bernie Sanders and others also promote (and personally believe in) woo. There are a number of Representatives who support anti-vaccination views as well, and they seem to be true believers in the “evidence” they have been presented from a small number of very vocal constituents.

    It is interesting that true woo believers come from both sides of the aisle, while climate change deniers seem limited to the right side (of the aisle, not the science!).

    • George says:

      Dr Ernst the fact that politicians support sometimes homeopathy would seem less paradoxical to you- if you accept that there are notable scientists who have been researching and publishing on homeopathy in high impact journals and they don’t regard it as placebo – they think it has a place next to conventional medicine.

      • Mojo says:

        … if you accept that there are notable scientists who have been researching and publishing on homeopathy in high impact journals and they don’t regard it as placebo – they think it has a place next to conventional medicine.

        Can you name some, and cite the material they have published in high impact journals that supports your claim?

        • George says:

          Of course – these are the same ones skeptiks say that despite their statements —-

          “Several meta-analyses have also concluded that homeopathic treatment is significantly better than placebo (Table ​(Table11).45-47 The first was carried out in 1991 by Kleijnen et al.45 They identified 107 published papers that scientifically evaluated the efficacy of homeopathically prepared treatments. Of these studies, 81 reported positive effects for homeopathy, with 9 of the 11 highest quality trials showing positive results.”

          That they essentially ….mean that homeopathy = placebo.

          http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1847554/#!po=30.9524

          • Mojo says:

            Actually, Kleijnen (1991) concluded that “the evidence of clinical trials is positive but not sufficient to draw definitive conclusions because most trials are of low methodological quality and because of the unknown role of publication bias”. That means that the evidence was not good enough to say that homoepathy is not equal to placebo. If it can’t refute the null hypothesis then it’s a negative result.

  • Ah, Blair, eh. As Prime Minister, he also argued (in the same interview) that as long as teaching creationism in schools is not becoming mainstream, then it’s not a problem, because that would be when to worry. I’ll say, because it would be a bit bloody late then, wouldn’t it?!

    But CAM is ‘mainstream.’

  • George says:

    Dr. Ernst the paper above states that the majority of meta Analyses report positive but inconclusive besides Shangs which – according to the authors- is problematic.

    This does not prove homeopathy but it is a strong reason to continue the research and funding since not all researchers agree that it is only placebo.

    So the politicians who support homeopathy are not so unreasonable. aI think …

      • George says:

        I know that Dr. Ernst – but the authors of that paper – even if it is not a systematic review they do not concur with you. And the obvious diversity of opinions on homeopathy effectiveness justifies research public funding and availabilty .

        That’s all I m saying ..

        • Edzard says:

          in this case, you are uttering platitudes: there is a diversity of opinions on any subject!!!
          what matters is the consensus amongst people who do not have an axe to grind.

          • George says:

            By the same “logic” should we accept that all research ( including vaccines) by pharmaceutical companies is biased and their results and conclusions are suspicious because of they “have an axe to grind.” ????

  • Alan Henness says:

    George said:

    This does not prove homeopathy but it is a strong reason to continue the research and funding since not all researchers agree that it is only placebo.

    If you believe more research is necessary, who do you think should fund it and what should happen meantime?

  • L. Barton says:

    I would be intersted to see how many of our local MPs signed this parliamentary motion. Is there a list of the signatories online anywhere

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