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What’s the Harm?

Posted by on March 26, 2012

In the current edition of The Biologist, Edzard Ernst FSB highlights the non-science (and nonsense) of homeopathy. Why is this important? Because I think it is vital to make a distinction between ideas that are based on evidence, and those that are not. I believe that this is a central function of the scientific professional bodies. But what is evidence?

Also in this issue of The Biologist, I write about attitudes to science on the part of politicians. One message from that is that the people to whom we look to make informed decisions, often do not know how to assess evidence – or even worse, they do know and choose to ignore it. That is what the government has done with regard to the provision of homeopathy in the NHS. A very detailed House of Commons report concluded that homeopathy was ineffective and should not be funded publicly, but the Department of Health rejected the advice, in the name of patient choice. On that basis, the NHS should prescribe cigarettes to smokers.

The common challenge, that homeopathy has not been proven not to work, illustrates a widely held misconception as to the nature of evidence. Science is not in the business of proving negatives, it is about the `crash testing of ideas’. There is not really any such thing as absolute evidence, because scientists work to reduce uncertainty. But just because a scientist is 99.99999% sure of his result this does not confer the luxury of continuing to make claims based on the remaining 0.00001%.

Now I am not vindictively picking on homeopathy alone. The Enlightenment is in danger, from a vast range of `New Age’ anti-science beliefs. And I really do mean New Age, because not much of this stuff has anything to do with ancient wisdom. Even acupuncture, increasingly shown by the best clinical trials to be a theatrical placebo, is not thousands of years old. Its fictional ideas about meridians, qi etc only arose about 200 years ago. Very thin needles could not be made before that. Indeed, it was hardly used in China until Mao Tse Tung resurrected it, as a panacea for the poor who lacked real health care. Ear acupuncture was invented by a Frenchman in the 1950s. Chiropractic was invented by a grocer and `magnetic healer’ in the 1890s who falsely claimed that 99% of diseases were caused by vertebral misalignments. More recently, we have the ridiculous ‘flower remedies’, electro-dermal testing, iridology, and colonic irrigation, to name just a few practices that have been shown to be useless and in some cases positively harmful.

As Ernst has pointed out, real harm is done by pseudo-science. But why are we so tolerant of it? Such acquiescence translates to a marked regulatory inaction. The current issue of the Medico-Legal Journal carries a report of a study, carried out by Ernst, myself, and others, which clearly shows that new legislation designed to tighten up on unfair trading – and specifically picks out false health claims as unlawful – is being systematically ignored by Trading Standards. For example no regulatory action was taken against a major high-street chain, a leading purveyor of homeopathy and flower remedies (and many other expensive placebos).

Too many scientists are content to tolerate this situation. We simply do not as a body stand up for science as we should. In today’s networked world, we have no excuse for not making our voices heard.

Les Rose CBiol FSB
Twitter: @majikthyse

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