No Evidence Allowed: The Government on Pseudoscience & Homeopathy
As recently mentioned, the firing of Professor David Nutt has brought into focus politics’ deep seated discomfort with scientific evidence. In a world where vague weasel words are part of day-to-day survival, the scientific method’s disregard for political ideology can understandably create no end of problems for politicians with an agenda.
However, the government has at least had the decency to practically admit as much. There are systems in place which attempt to hold the government accountable for the way they use evidence in policy decisions. The Commons Science and Technology Committee (CSTC) “exists to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence”. The committee recently selected a number of areas for enquiry and asked the relevant government departments to explain the evidence used to justify their policy decisions.
In October of this year the Committee identified the government’s licensing of homeopathy for further investigation and asked the Department of Health for clarification on three key issues: government policy on licensing of homeopathic products, government policy on the funding of homeopathy through the NHS, and the evidence base of homeopathic products and services.
The Department of Health’s response was short, but very telling. They admitted that “no scientific evidence was examined in drawing up the National Rules Scheme” for licensing homeopathic remedies, and “elements of the licensing regime probably lie outside the scope of the IUSS Select Committee Inquiry (the former name of the CSTC), because government consideration of scientific evidence was not the basis for their establishment”.
This is apparently not a problem for the Department, “[b]ecause homeopathic products have a long and established traditional use in the UK, [and] the licensing regime functions primarily to ensure that they are both safe and of suitable quality” and “[o]nly products which are indicated for the relief of minor symptoms and minor conditions in humans are eligible for a homeopathic marketing authorisation”. Despite the Department’s dismissing the need for scientific evidence, they claim that the “onus to provide supportive scientific evidence is on each individual product that manufacturers put through the scheme – to demonstrate that the product is used as a homeopathic medicine, that it is safe, and that it is of suitable quality.” This becomes interesting when we consider that just a few years ago the – NHS funded – Royal London Homeopathic Hospital underwent a £20 million pound makeover. That’s a lot of money for not a lot of evidence.
The committee also asked the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills for clarification on the teaching of pseudoscience in universities. In particular they sought clarification on the government’s interpretation of the term ‘pseudoscience’, and what the government’s position is on universities that award degrees in subjects that are generally deemed pseudoscience. The committee also asked if, when recruiting staff, the government recognised such qualifications as providing the holder with scientific expertise?
The Department’s response is located on page 10 of the article linked above. Their response was depressingly facepalm inducing: “The Government does not find it helpful to define pseudoscience.” Really? Not even just a little? The response goes on to claim that they are “committed to policy-making based on scientific evidence. By science [they] mean all-encompassing knowledge based on scholarship and research which is underpinned by methodologies that build up and test increased understanding about the world and beyond.” The world and beyond?! Is the government now making policies based on information from the afterlife? From some other esoteric dimension? From the dank recesses of crack-pottery and all-around woo-ness?
Maybe that’s being a little harsh, and we should assume that they weren’t using the word ‘beyond’ to mean something so, umm, pseudoscientific (aha!). After all, it was this very department that recently launched a campaign to increase public awareness of science; In a twist of irony, the campaign is called Science: So What? So Everything. And that is just the point: Just because something might look like science, does not mean it is (see previous example on homeopathy). Pseudoscience is one shady lady: Get in bed with her and you can guarantee that at some point, it’s gonna burn. Although I’m sure the homeopaths have a cream for that.
When politicians claim that they use scientific evidence to inform their policy decisions, it’s important to know what they consider good evidence and good science. While we can’t expect policies to be created in a scientific vacuum, policy decisions that affect society are only as good as the evidence upon which they’re based.