The Science and Technology Select Committee’s report [PDF] on homeopathy and the accompanying press release are rather critical of some of the individuals and groups referred to in the report. Here is just a sample of the targets for criticism:
The “selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base” by advocates of homeopathy; the MHRA “conferring upon [homeopathic remedies] some of the status of medicines”; and the length of time the RPSGB takes to investigate cases where it has been alleged that guidelines on the sale of homeopathic products have been breached.
Also criticised in the Press Release are the government’s policies on homeopathy:
“This was a challenging inquiry which provoked strong reactions. We were seeking to determine whether the Government’s policies on homeopathy are evidence based on current evidence. They are not.” [Phil Willis]
In the Labour Party’s 1997 Manifesto, Tony Blair claimed that: “New Labour is a party of ideas and ideals but not of outdated ideology. What counts is what works.”
This position was reaffirmed in 2002 by David Blunkett in a speech to the ERSC: “This Government has given a clear commitment that we will be guided not by dogma but by an open-minded approach to understanding what works and why.”
The Modernising Government White Paper (Cabinet Office 1999), meanwhile, states that: “policy decisions should be based on sound evidence. The raw ingredient of evidence is information.”
This is of course far from the first time that it has been noted that pledges made in a manifesto or a speech have been broken. The government may well have had every intention of basing policy decisions on sound evidence at the time, but they perhaps did not consider that, on occasion, evidence may well be inconvenient.
In this case, it seems plausible that the government had ignored evidence in forming its policy on homeopathy in order to avoid upsetting advocates. These advocates would have been, at the very least, potential voters – and the government may therefore have decided that abandoning a commitment to evidence-based policy would be worthwhile in terms of votes gained/saved.
In other cases, it may be that the government had other reasons to ignore the evidence.
Whether due to a moral objection to (certain, specific) drugs* or due to a fear of the headlines to be written by the moralisers in the popular press, the government has consistently ignored scientific advice on drug policy.
Professor Nutt’s sacking showed what can happen when evidence and policy collide. As I wrote at the time, policy should be based on evidence – not on the fear of what journalists will write about you in tomorrow’s paper.
I only hope that, this time, the clash between evidence and current government policy will end rather differently.
* With regard to policy being based on morality or evidence, I would argue that there are times when it is acceptable to base policy purely on morality – for example, I believe that murder, torture, and rape should be prohibited.
The government’s current policy on drugs would seem to be based on neither morality nor evidence. If intoxicants are considered to be morally wrong, then they could all be prohibited on this basis. If the evidence showed that currently illegal drugs were more harmful than currently legal drugs and that prohibition was effective, then the status quo could be maintained on the basis that it was supported by evidence.
The current drugs policy would seem to be both morally inconsistent and contradictory to the evidence.
Gimpy and David Colquhoun have blogged on aspects of the report. Gimpy notes that the report is damning of both the plausibility of homeopathy and the evidence of efficacy. David Colquhoun writes of the criticism of the MHRA and includes a summary of the report. Quackometer. Ben Goldacre has also blogged this and has a request (see the third para, just below the edit).