The (un)acceptability of pseudoscience in Parliament

23 January 2014 by Lee Turnpenny, posted in Uncategorized

The transcript of the second evidence session of the Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology’s inquiry into Antimicrobial resistance is now available. Here, I edit and compile contributions to proceedings by Committee member David Tredinnick:

‘Much of the Government’s antimicrobial resistance strategy, perhaps naturally, focused on increasing supply—looking at new ways of finding antibiotics and looking at encouraging drug companies to produce them. Would you agree that we should be looking at reducing demand much more and looking at some of the other options that are currently available, perhaps not tested as much as other drugs, such as acupuncture, herbal medicine and possibly homeopathic medicine, which is used widely outside this country? What do you think about reducing demand through looking at other options, and should more research money be spent on these topics?’

‘Briefly, just to go back to my suggestion that we should be looking at other options more thoroughly, according to a briefing we have received, “Primary Care Research Projects on Herbal Medicine in Infectious Disease,” already “A number of research projects with implications for AMR, particularly around herbal treatment, are in progress at the National School for Primary Care Research.” These include one on a herb called Uva ursi for acute urinary tract infection and another relating to probiotics and vitamin D and infections. Do you not think this is the big clue that we should be spending more money on looking at remedies that have been with us for thousands of years, rather than spending so much money looking at new treatments? They are staring us in the face, so why don’t we do more research on treatments that have been available for thousands of years?’

‘Developing this theme for a second, according to a submission from the Chinese Medical Institute, research in China tells us that the “immunomodulatory actions of traditional Chinese medicine formulations have a stimulatory effect on immune cells, immune organs, cytokine production as well as inhibitory effect on inflammations, allergies and autoimmune diseases. Studies on acupuncture have shown that this treatment can increase the release of endogen opioid peptidesthat affect the immune system. Indeed, acupuncture can strengthen the immune system. The effect can be further enhanced with acupuncture when combined with Chinese herbal medicine”—and western medicine. Is this not something that we should be looking at more carefully? They have a body of knowledge there that has been developed over thousands of years.’

‘I have just one more question. I think I am right in saying that none of you are qualified as homeopaths, but, Professor Lewith, I think your submission was in conjunction with Dr Peter Fisher, who is the Queen’s physician... He also runs the London hospital for integrated medicine. He draws attention in your submission—I assume it is him—to a health technology assessment commissioned by the Swiss Federal Government which found that “29 clinical trials of homeopathy for upper respiratory tract infection or allergies found 29 clinical studies of which 24 were positive for homeopathy.” He also refers to a study supported by the Indian Ministry of Health, which “involved collaboration between conventional ear, nose and throat specialists and homeopathic doctors in a randomised controlled trial of homeopathy versus conventional treatment in acute otitis media.” It suggests that the numbers of antibiotic prescriptions in the homeopathically treated group were much lower. Although this is not particularly your field, would it not be sensible for us to make further investigations in this field to establish whether its usage is effective?’

If concerned by removal from context, you can check against the transcript. Note how he frames and then delivers his questions. Am I biased in detecting bias here? Is this the way to go about things on a Committee with the role ‘… to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence’? Worth a letter:

 

Dear [MP],

I write to communicate a concern about the House of Commons Select Committee for Science and Technology – specifically the membership thereon of David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth.

According to the Parliament website, the role of the Committee is ‘… to ensure that Government policy and decision-making are based on good scientific and engineering advice and evidence’ … and to scrutinise the Government Office for Science (GO-Science), which ‘supports the Government Chief Scientific Adviser… to ensure that Government policy and decision-making is underpinned by robust scientific evidence.’ (I deliberately emphasise ‘scientific’.)

Based on David Tredinnick’s various unscientific and pseudoscientific opinions and beliefs, I have been concerned since he was co-opted a year ago. And it is now overtly apparent that his own wishes and wants are compromising his membership of the Committee.

An inquiry is currently underway in to Antimicrobial Resistance, an increasingly serious public health problem. During the second evidence session of this enquiry last week (Weds 8th Jan), Tredinnick clearly demonstrated his own agenda – that the government should fund research into ‘alternatives’ such as (for example) acupuncture and homeopathy, erroneously implying they might be considered effective alternatives to antimicrobials.

Aside from the fact that Tredinnick is working to ensure that the Committee hears what he wants it to hear, he re-provided misleading information to the Committee. For example, arguing that other countries’ governments fund such research, he cites evidence provided in a written submission – http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/WrittenEvidence.svc/EvidencePdf/3412 – jointly by one of the witnesses, George Lewith, Professor of Health Research in the University of Southampton Medical School, and Dr Peter Fisher, Clinical Director of the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine, University College London Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust.

In this submission, Lewith and Fisher cite a Health Technology Assessment commissioned by the Swiss Federal government in 2011, purporting to provide positive evidence for homeopathy (in the treatment of upper respiratory tract infection or allergies). Not only has this report subsequently been exposed as (at best) dubious, but it was also not a Health Technology Assessment, and was not authorised by the Swiss government.

This submission therefore includes misleading information supplied to a Government committee (by Professor Lewith and Dr Fisher, who fail to provide information on the follow-up exposé of the report they cite); which in turn was re-supplied by a Committee member – David Tredinnick – because it apparently endorses his wish that our government commit our money to funding of research into homeopathy, which the Committee has previously accepted as scientifically invalid and recommended the Government not commit funds to.

As someone who sits on a Government committee that ultimately ‘works to ensure that Government policy and decision-making is underpinned by robust scientific evidence’, David Tredinnick ought to possess a reasonable grasp of what constitutes sound scientific evidence – and what does not. (It is worth mentioning that he also attempted to similarly influence the Select Committee for Health during its recent evidence sessions on the Management of Long-Term Conditions.) Pseudoscience has no business here. He should not recycle misleading information provided to the Committee. This strikes me as an apparent abuse of proceedings.

I would ask you to communicate this through the appropriate channels.

With thanks for your time,

Yours etc,

This letter was copied to the Chair of the Committee. I haven’t sought permission to reproduce his response, repeat reading of which increased its irksomeness, provoking the following (sent six days ago and as yet unacknowledged):

 

Dear [Chair],

Thank you for your response to my e-mail of 13 January 2014, which I have received via [MP]. Perhaps I may now take the liberty of replying directly.

I can assure you I am not neglecting the ‘more fundamental principles of Parliamentary democracy’. This is nothing to do with the democratic election of any MP to Parliament. I am not concerned here with Mr Tredinnick’s suitability or otherwise as an elected MP; although I am interested in his ‘party’s acquiescence’ to his desire to be appointed to this particular committee. Was this by vote? Or just a shoo-in when no objection was raised? As such, I do not consider it ‘undemocratic’ to raise legitimate concerns regarding his continued membership of the Committee. It is somewhat vexing that you present this as a ‘free speech’ issue? Whilst I uphold Mr Tredinnick’s right to express his opinion, I do not, however, quite see how opinion is relevant here. The role of the Committee, as I understand it, is to consider good scientific advice and evidence. As such, it ought to have no truck with logical fallacies and pseudoscience.

You state ‘there are no requirements to have expertise or qualifications on the key topics of the Committee.’ That is why, presumably, the Committee invites experts to submit written evidence and appear as witnesses. However, one might reasonably expect that an MP who seeks to serve on the Committee necessarily has some interest in, and understanding of, scientific evidence. Mr Tredinnick, as you will be aware, also serves on the HoC Select Committee for Health. During its third oral evidence session on the Management of Long-Term Conditions on 29 Oct’ 2013, he made clear his attitude to the findings of the Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check on Homeopathy in 2009. He is apparently biased/pre-disposed towards information that accords with his own preferences, as he demonstrated during the second evidence session into Antimicrobial Resistance last week (Weds 8th Jan’), when he repeatedly drew attention to misleading evidence supplied in a joint written submission by Professor George Lewith and Dr Peter Fisher – a point of concern your response did not acknowledge. Is the Committee aware that this constitutes unsound evidence? Have Professor Lewith and Dr Fisher been contacted to ask them to either withdraw or substantiate it? Will Mr Tredinnick be modifying his contribution to the Committee’s ensuing report accordingly?

Mr Tredinnick is obviously of the opinion that the government should fund the research and provision of (for example) homeopathy (as an alternative to antimicrobials). This is of no relevance to the Committee, or the current inquiry if there is no evidence for the efficacy of homeopathic remedies (against infectious disease; or anything else, for that matter). Mr Tredinnick’s preference and opinion apparently do not accord with the stated role of the Committee.

With thanks for your attention,

Yours etc,

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