Tag Archives: bad-science

What the Lib Dem policy on homeopathy is not

I got two rather bemusing emails today. The first was the party’s official line on what our reaction to the Science and Technology Select Committee’s report on homeopathy is. The second one was to inform me that, five hours later, it has been rescinded. I can see why.

The line (and this is not a secret – PPCs were expected to parrot this word for word to the public) was as follows:

As you may be aware, a recent report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee recommended that the NHS stops paying for the provision of homeopathy. This is a decision which I fundamentally disagree with.

The NHS in England currently spends around £10 million every year on homeopathy, we believe that this should continue.

The Liberal Democrats support a review by NICE into the clinical effectiveness of all Complementary and Alternative (CAMs) therapies. It is important to note that there is extensive evidence on the value to patients of CAMs and extensive support amongst patients for their continued use on the NHS.

While the Science and Technology Committee were right to recognise there are some conditions for which CAMs are wholly inappropriate, the measured introduction of treatment with CAMs therapies at primary care level has the potential to reduce expensive secondary referrals and/or long term expensive drug therapy in a range of conditions. The value of CAMs treatments as secondary treatments also needs to be recognised.

The use of CAMs on the NHS must be subject to the same checks and balances as other NHS services, which is why we support the statutory regulation of CAMs practitioners by the Health Professionals Council. This is a vital step to ensure that standards are maintained and patients are protected from misleading claims by practitioners.

What I find really odd about this response is that the select committee were calling for “CAMs” to be subject to the same checks and balances as established medicine, and did support NICE investigating this – thus far NICE themselves have resisted this. The report notes “we cannot understand why the lack of an evidence base for homeopathy might prevent NICE evaluating it but not prevent the NHS spending money on it”.

Norman Lamb needs to make his mind up. He can’t call for established medicine and its alternative to be treated in the same way, and then protest when it is. If the evidence of the efficacy of “CAMs” (and note how this muddies the water by not talking about homeopathy in isolation – presumably he feels the point becomes stronger the more you dilute the argument) is so “extensive”, then where is it and why were Phil Willis et al unable to uncover it?

It all seems a bit rum. Hopefully they’ll have sorted out the party line by the end of the weekend. But what I really don’t understand is why it was, if Norman Lamb feels so strongly about this, he didn’t put out a press release earlier in the week and argue his case? He’d certainly have got a lot of media attention.

UPDATE: Norman Lamb has finally reissued his position on homeopathy, which can be read here.

Homeopaths resort to legal action to cure all headaches

A few weeks ago, the political blogosphere united to condemn the actions of Alisher Usmanov and his lawyers for attempting to shut down Craig Murray’s blog. We were right to do so; what made Usmanov’s actions particularly reprehensible was the way he used the law to intimidate Murray’s hosting company while cowardly avoiding a fight with Murray’s publisher who had already printed the allegations two years previously.

Now, Ben Goldacre draws our attention to another attempt to shut down a blogger. This time the fight is between a scientist and the Society of Homeopathy.

Andy Lewisallegations seem quite straightforward. The Society has clear guidelines and Andy has what appears to be relatively clear evidence that one of its members is in breach of these guidelines. This isn’t about homeopaths making exaggerated claims about curing head colds to middle class Brits either, but involves potentially dangerous attempts to market homeopathy as a cure for malaria in Kenya.

Andy Lewis demanded answers: the response was a writ issued to his hosting company who subsequently took down the offending article. Sound familiar?

Sound familiar? It should do. There’s a growing list of bloggers who are protesting about this. So come on then Tom, Iain, Guido, Tim and others, how about it?

A single cluster (or even seven) does not prove a link to phone masts and cancer

The Times has an article today about how a cancer clusters have been identified around mobile phone masts. Quick! Panic!

Or don’t. I’m frankly amazed that, even taking into account the general appalling reporting of science in the UK press, that a journalist would fall for that one. The story is about seven , isolated clusters, all of which have been ‘discovered’ by anti-phone mast activists around phone masts. They don’t appear to have found a link to a specific cluster, but rather a vague linkage to “cancers, brain hemorrhages and high blood pressure”. Anyone who knows anything about statistics (and I would never claim to be an expert) knows that clustering is a fact of life.

I play a lot of board games, and thus I’m accustomed to the fact that people can roll 12s on two dice with alarming frequency. It doesn’t happen neatly once in every 36 throws. On the road my parents live on, which has around 20 houses, there were 6 instances of breast cancer in a two year period. They have no mobile phone mast nearby – a fact which causes me great inconvenience when I come to stay.

The point is, not only do statistically insignificant ‘clusters’ happen all the time, but our very existence depends on it. If the universe was uniformly spread and had no ‘clumps’ in it, there’d have been no big bang, no universes, no stars, no us. While cancer clusters can indeed suggest there is something in the environment causing it, most don’t: they are simply brutal reminders of reality.

Who is this ‘scientist’ who has co-ordinated this study? Well, Dr John Walker, it emerges, “spent 40 years in statistical research for Dunlop.” I’m afraid that isn’t reassuring. You don’t send a glorified tire number-cruncher in to do an epidemiologist’s job. The biggest nonsense is when he is quoted as saying:

“Masts should be moved away from conurbations and schools and the power turned down.”

The man is clearly as much an expert in radio communications as he is in disease control. You can’t have both. Either you move them away and ramp up the power (in which case, individual phones will have to use more power to work – right next to your ear where they would be doing more damage), or you turn the power down and have them nearer conurbations and schools. I actually quite like the latter idea, but I suspect it has a snowball in hell’s chance of finding favour with Dr Wilson and his anti-mast pals.

UPDATE: Bad Science this week is relevant here.