How Smart Are Politicians?

July 11, 2008 at 8:12 pm (Alternative Medicine, Bad Science, government, Nutritionism, Supplements, Woo) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )

Not very smart at all if David Tredinnick is anything go go by. I wrote about him speaking on homeopathy back in February and today I noticed a link on the Improbable Science miniblog to an old speech he gave [see first link for full debate]. His opening remarks included this gem: “Regrettably, the availability of complementary therapies on the health service has declined since primary care groups and primary care trusts came into being.” Um, perhaps that’s because “decision making on individual clinical interventions, whether orthodox or complementary treatments, is a matter for local NHS service providers and practitioners” and “in making such decisions, they have to take into account evidence of the safety, clinical and cost-effectiveness, the availability of suitably qualified practitioners, and the needs of the individual patient. Clinical responsibility rests with the NHS professional who makes the decision to refer and who must therefore be able to justify any treatment they recommend.” From my query to the DoH on homeopathy. My italics. The decline in availability of CAM on the NHS is not regrettable. If CAM treatments cannot show evidence of the clinical and cost-effectiveness as well as safety then they quite simply should not be funded by the NHS. I’m not saying ban CAM, I’m just saying that I think our tax and National Insurance should go to treatments that have a sound evidence base rather than to crystal healing, homeopathy or aromatherapy.

Tredinnick also said that “the Hinckley and Bosworth primary care trust, which is in my constituency and which will cover west Leicestershire, is seriously considering providing acupuncture for pain relief, and a qualified doctor in the constituency wants to use that treatment.” Oh goody, one single doctor (albeit a qualified one, as our Chief Woo MP stresses) wants to use aupuncture. Is that instead of or as well as anaesthetic? I’m just asking, because a BBC2 documentary about alternative medicine [see here and particularly here for more] showed:

“a 21-year-old Shanghai factory worker undergoing open-heart surgery with only the needles to control her pain”. It turns out that this was a sham. The patient was doped on opiates and local anaesthetics. The needles were merely cosmetic. Why were we not told?

The quote above is from Improbable Science and there’s more on acupuncture here: acupuncture. So Tredinnick is trumpeting the fact that one doctor wants to use acupuncture? Improbable Science details scientific trials of acupuncture that show sham acupuncture has the same effect as the ‘real thing’ – while I’m sure there is a place for clinical experience, I don’t think one doctor’s opinion should be somehow assumed to override the evidence.

What else? “I have written on numerous occasions about the way in which homeopathic services especially have been cut as a result of the introduction of primary care trusts, and we should study the issue.” No – we should celebrate a tiny victory in the struggle against the endarkenment. At least acupuncture may have some small effect by virtue of its ability to provoke transmitter release, there is a plausible mechanism by which it could work. Homeopathy works no better than placebo and we could not expect it to – the ‘most potent’ remedies contain no active ingredient. Not a molecule. There may be a place for placebo treatment if someone can figure out solutions to the ethical dilemmas posed by provision of ineffective medicines [in effect, to provide a placebo without lying to patients – see Improbable Science for more on the ethical dilemmas posed: here and Bad Science for more on placebo: here]. This is The Truth About Homeopathy.

Tredinnick’s opening comments finished with this:

I saw the Under-Secretary of State for Health in Committee the other day and I told her that I was grateful to her for having agreed to talk to me, as treasurer of the parliamentary group for alternative and complementary medicine, with an industry expert and a couple of other colleagues the day before. However, I had to warn her that if the issue was not taken seriously, there were people-I did not use the term lightly, it just came out of my head-who were tooling up for war. She looked at me as if to say, “I don’t like the sound of that, and I don’t like the way in which it has been put across,” but when our eyes met, she knew that I was sincere. I was speaking for the vast number of people who see a serious threat to their well-being. Under this European directive, about 160 nutrients, supplements, medical treatments-call them what we might-will be removed once and for all.

War? Really? That’s a bit of an overreaction isn’t it? And I think the claim that 160 nutrients, supplements, medical treatments would be removed once and for all may have been a tad disingenuous. The final directive 2002/46/EC, as published, stated that “specific rules concerning nutrients, other than vitamins and minerals, or other substances with a nutritional or physiological effect used as ingredients of food supplements should be laid down at a later stage, provided that adequate and appropriate scientific data about them become available” – and that until such time, member states could allow continued sale of these nutrients. The directive also had this: “the chemical substances used as sources of vitamins and minerals in the manufacture of food supplements should be safe and also be available to be used by the body. For this reason, a positive list of those substances should also be established”, which seems reasonable to me. The directive stated that “in order to keep up with scientific and technological developments it is important to revise the lists promptly, when necessary”. I don’t really see how any of this equates to 160 nutrients being banned forever [perhaps a pre-publication draft stated that the EU were going to consign supplements to the same fate as bendy bananas? Oh, hang on – that was a myth too*] and I have certainly never been made aware of what the 160 refers to. Is there a list somewhere? Did anyone ever write down all the nutrients that would be ‘banned’ [i.e., allowed for sale – it’s funny what words can come to mean isn’t it?] and did the number come to 160? Did Tredinnick see this list? Did someone he knows from the supplements industry tell him it was 160 and he just believed them? I don’t know, but in a few months time you will have a vague memory of reading this post and you may remember that 160 nutrients were banned by the EU – if I say something often enough, someone is bound to believe me and that is a danger with unfacts, counterknowledge and misinformation. MPs generally have always been (at least for as long as I can remember) offenders against the truth, it should surprise no-one that they are purveyors of misinformation when it comes to CAM – they tell far more serious lies about the terror threat and why they have to take away our hard-won civil liberties and take us to war to bomb America’s latest enemies.

*In the style of the newsreader Martin Lewis, I will end with something on a lighter note as talking about politicians is making me depressed. I looked up bendy bananas and the EU and found this article: The EU Strikes Back!, which contained a beautiful quote:

there’s a huge difference between a long, straight one from Costa Rica and a short, curvy one from Cyprus or the Canaries

I am five years old. And that quote is funny.


  1. dvnutrix said,

    The over-heated rhetoric of these people makes it hard to take them seriously in the event that they may, someday, have something worthwhile that they need to say. As with the celebrities and the Cochrane antioxidant review, it seems that the supplements industry does not brief people with any degree of accuracy.

  2. jdc325 said,

    Absolutely dvnutrix – this next bit is a bit tenuously linked to your point, but I think one reason some people were so keen to hear about Leo Blair’s vaccine schedule is that the press and public were so accustomed to Blair failing to tell the truth that they wanted to hear what Tony told them because they could then reassure themselves that the opposite was true. Blair was stuffed with those questions on MMR because he was going to be damned whatever he said. As others have pointed out, to confirm that Leo had had the jab would recall to mind the Gummer Burger incident and if for any reason Leo had been unable to get the jab (like one of the reasons listed here), then that would have been the point at which every worried parent decided not to get the jab – on the basis that if Tony wasn’t vaccinating his child, then there *must* be something wrong with the jab. Private Eye didn’t cover themeselves with glory in going after Blair on this.

    By the way, I missed out some of the best bits of the speech: E Numbers Make You Fat, apparently. “The problems of people who are overweight largely result from the consumption of far too much fat and, secondly, from the consumption of E additives.”
    I’m not sure how food colouring or ascorbic acid is supposed to make you fat – perhaps I should ask Tredinnick about the mechanism(s) involved.

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