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21/10/2014

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Why argue with magic medicine?

Tracey Brown lambasts regulatory flattery

Does it matter if people want to spend their money on homeopathy? If a half-hour consultation with a herbalist makes some people feel better, and they’ve got the money, where’s the harm? I don’t think there is much, most of the time. I come across many people who use those things but see a doctor when they need medical advice for serious ailments.  

I have been contemplating this since I found myself described by some alternative medicine companies last year as leading a campaign against homeopathy. I have never given a fig about any private, reason-defying rituals that people engage in — whether taking magic ‘medicine’, chanting prayers or dressing up as traffic wardens after dark. In fact it is a common misconception among promoters of science that people should live their lives in a way that is consistent with evidence. Why so? Private life is not policy making. For science in civic society, public life should be what matters.

This is not to say that critics who challenge any practice for its lack of foundation should be asked to hold back. On the contrary, it is vital that misleading claims are addressed loudly and publicly and scientific reasoning is available to all. This is doubly so when dubious remedies such as homeopathy are promoted to people more susceptible to their promises, such as those suffering from chronic diseases for which medicine offers little, or when they are pitched as an alternative to life-saving anti-malarials and anti-retroviral drugs.

Farce

But if then, knowing for example that there is no active ingredient in homeopathy or that some minor ailments may be symptoms of an underlying condition… if then people say ‘oh well’ and take it anyway, this shouldn’t be high among the concerns of science communicators. Official flattery of such practices, on the other hand, should be top of the list.

This was why so many of us objected when the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) introduced a licensing scheme for homeopathy a few years ago.  MHRA is the statutory body with responsibility for reviewing the safety and efficacy of medicines, its roots in the post-Thalidomide Medicines Act of 1968, and we depend on it to tell us ‘what works’. When it started counting ‘homeopathic provings’ as evidence, in order to remove ‘barriers to the expansion of the industry’, it seriously let the public down. As communication of medical science and evidence, this is farcical.

Private magic

Now we are facing yet more official flattery of pseudo-medicine. Last autumn, the Government began seeking responses to its catchily-titled ‘Joint Consultation on the Report to Ministers from the DH Steering Group on the Statutory Regulation of Practitioners of Acupuncture, Herbal Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine and Other Traditional Medicine Systems Practised in the UK’. It is minded towards professional registration as set out by the Prince of Wales’ plans for legitimising alternative medicine. At his behest there has been a huge expansion in pseudo-medical professional registration, accreditation, courses and diplomas. Absent medical training, such schemes offer the form of science-based medical registration, but not the content.

Under pressure of objection, the official argument (and the argument of companies such as Boots for selling remedies that don’t work) has been not that they have evidence or believe it’s beneficial (apparently they don’t) but that the public want the stuff. Well, since when does indulging in a bit of private magic mean the public wants official regulators to abandon standards of evidence? This kind of regulatory flattery is both deeply patronising and incredibly cowardly, which may befit its Royal origins but is no gain at all for the public, whatever they continue to do in private.

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Tracey Brown is Managing Director of Sense About Science
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