Is the House of Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology sufficiently rigorous?

26 February 2014 by Lee Turnpenny, posted in Uncategorized

To re-emphasise, the raison d’être of the House of Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology is:

‘… to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence.’

This week (Wednesday 26th February), the Committee holds the fourth evidence session of its ongoing inquiry into antimicrobial resistance. The names/organisations on the consecutive witness panels certainly read reassuringly authoritative, although the last name on the list provokes a quizzical frown. Michael McIntyre is Chair of the European Herbal and Traditional Medicine Practitioners Association,

‘… an umbrella body which represents professional associations of herbal/traditional medicine practitioners offering variously western herbal medicine, Chinese herbal medicine, Ayurveda and traditional Tibetan medicine.’

Its submitted written evidence document tables summaries of seven studies as evidence of ‘Herbs to help combat growing antibiotic resistance’; though of these, only one is summarised as being of ‘High’ evidential strength, two are ‘Moderate’, the remaining four are ‘Preliminary’. Myself, I’m not quite sure what to make of this. Many herbs do contain bioactive compounds, which, when identified, isolated, tested, refined/synthesized, trialled and administered in known safe dosages, have beneficial effects. That is, they become licensed manufactured medicines. I’m not sure whether McIntyre is advocating this sequence, or for the legitimisation of crude parent plant/herb extracts themselves, uncontrolled scoffing of which may be useless, variable or dangerous in effect. Whatever, we can be sure that, what with his other interests, he will have the enthusiastic attention of the Committee’s David Tredinnick. On which…

My letter stating concern at the involvement of this quack’s ally brought what I consider inappropriate response (via my MP) from Committee Chair, Andrew Miller, to whom I duly returned on 17th January. I was informed, following a further polite prod (24th February), that he had nothing to add to his previous pertinent issue avoidance. So I can only assume him to be unconcerned by Tredinnick’s referral to the written submission supplied by Professor George Lewith and Dr Peter Fisher; by whether the Committee is aware that this document contains unsound evidence; whether Lewith and Fisher have been contacted to ask them to either withdraw or substantiate it; whether Tredinnick’s contribution to the Committee’s ensuing report will be modified accordingly. Fairly reasonable assumption, considering that Lewith and Fisher’s joint written submission remains listed as ‘evidence’, along with submissions from: The Society of Homeopaths, the Research Council for Complementary Medicine, the Homeopathy Research Institute and the Alliance of Registered Homeopaths.

During trial in a court of law, expert witnesses may be called to provide information pertinent to establishing the veracity of some aspect of the case. Though not a court, the HoC Select Committee for Science and Technology similarly relies on expert ‘testimony’ to effectively address the problem under inquiry. But what we seemingly have here is provision of opportunity for any old credibility-seeking quack body to get on its propagandising soapbox in its quest for our money, submitting as ‘evidence’ anything it wants the Committee to consider. If you are wont to respond “So what?!”, well that’s all well and good… if we can assume that the Committee is comprised of members with sufficient scientific nous to distinguish the scientifically valid from the invalid.

The (previous incarnation) of the Committee rejected the worth of homeopathy following its Evidence Check in 2009. There is nothing to be gained by re-considering touted remedies that have nothing in them. But the current Committee, in its consideration of material submitted by homeopath organisations, apparently wastes its time (and our money) affording them opportunity to exploit this inquiry to get their agenda back on the Committee’s table. Take, for example, the ‘Bullet point summary’ appearing early in the written evidence submitted by the Society of Homeopaths (AMR005):

  • Homeopathy is a demonstrably effective treatment option for a range of human infectious diseases.
  • Homeopathic treatment can be at least equivalent in effectiveness to antibiotics for certain human infectious diseases.
  • Homeopathy can offer an effective alternative to non-essential antimicrobial usage in animal husbandry.
  • Homeopathy has a robust track record of controlling, managing and preventing outbreaks of infectious diseases on a large scale.
  • Homeopathy provides a rich potential for the development of novel antimicrobial therapies (that are not susceptible to the problems of developing microbial resistance) which deserves adequate research funding and support.

Note the careful construction: the word ‘Homeopathy/ic’ commences each sentence. Sell the message! Yet each mantric statement is palpably false. This is not science – it is marketing. Oh, the authors provide ‘evidence’ to support these claims – scroll down and check out the publications that predominate that reference list. But on your way down, stop off at the immediately preceding item 7. Recommendations, which embeds within more codswallop perhaps the most revealing information contained in this dross: the bleating for funding – including for trials, despite inconsistent assertion by many homeopaths that trials of homeopathic ‘remedies’ are inappropriate. Here we also find appeal to the authority of several (including Russell Group) universities facilitating homeopathy research, thus irresponsibly providing an element of credence to the scientifically incredible.

But this kind of thing is manna to Tredinnick, and seemingly (at least as suggested in his dismissive response to my unanswered queries) troubles not the Chair of the Committee. Here’s hoping the rest of the Committee exerts appropriately sceptical influence on the ensuing report.

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