House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee
Evidence Check: Homeopathy

"There is no argument against homeopathy that stands up to scientific scrutiny. 
They are simply slogans, distortions and downright lies." www.hmc21.org

In November 2009, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee held the following oral evidence sessions in relation to its Evidence Check: Homeopathy inquiry.  The purpose of these meetings was to consider the
evidence that supports government policy towards homeopathy.  If you are interested and have the time, the meetings make very interesting viewing, and the the written evidence submitted is also available to read.  The debate, as usual is very polarised, so you might want to bear the following information in mind when considering the backgrounds and motivations of the panelists and others involved in the meetings.

Out of nine 'witnesses' giving evidence on the first day of the inquiry, only three can be said to represent homeopathy (Robert Wilson, Dr Peter Fisher and Dr Robert Mathie), and only one of them is a practising homeopath (Dr Fisher), so the panel was not very balanced, nor were the majority qualified to give evidence on the efficacy or effectiveness of homeopathy.  At least three of the panelists are members of Sense About Science: Tracey Brown, Ben Goldacre and Edzard Ernst.  Tracey Brown used to work for a PR company that defended biotech companies against GM protesters, Ben Goldacre is a journalist, not a practicing physician, and Edzard Ernst is widely quoted as a proffessor of complementary therapies, yet he has never been a practitioner of any therapies, unlike other professors, such as David Peters

Sense About Science is also an organisation who's spokesman Simon Singh was successfully sued for libel by the Chiropractic Association.  Another of their spokesmen, Edzard Ernst, has also freely admitted that he has no homeopathic credentials at all, and he has never been qualified in any field to treat any patients (hardly an expert then).  Singh and Ernst co-wrote the book: "Trick or Treatment? Alternative medicine on trial" that has been shown by HMC21 in Halloween Science (a free ebook available here) to have no scientific validity.  As can be seen from their own website, Sense About Science are a lobby group funded by big business, who are aggresively pro-GM, pro-nuclear power, anti complementary therapies, who deny the toxicity of many banned chemicals, and are funded by the pharmaceutical and biotech industries (including by AstraZeneca and Unilever) among others  - for more about this organisaion see George Monbiot's article here and Zac Goldsmiths article here

It should also be noted that according to the
British Medical Journal, out of 25000 treatments covered by the NHS, the proportion of commonly used treatments that are supported by good evidence and rated as 'beneficial' is just 12% (see graph on left, and the original source of these figures here).  The research community therefore has a large task ahead, not only in relation to homeopathy.  Given this lack of evidence, accross the board, almost all medical decisions about treatments can be said to rest not on 'hard evidence', but on the individual judgements of clinicians and patients.  Did you know, for example, that no randomised control trial has ever been conducted on any vaccine?  So where is the evidence to support government policy on vaccines?

Having said all this, why not read the evidence submitted to the 'Evidence Check' for yourself, watch the oral evidence sessions from the links below - and make up your own mind!



Meeting held on Wednesday 25 November 2009, 9.30am to 11.21am - view online here.

Witnesses
  1. Professor Jayne Lawrence, Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain, Robert Wilson, British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers, Paul Bennett, Boots, Tracey Brown, Sense About Science, and Dr Ben Goldacre, The Guardian
  2. Dr Peter Fisher, Royal London Homeopathic Hospital, Professor Edzard Ernst, Complementary Medicine Group, Peninsula Medical School, Dr James Thallon, NHS West Kent, and Dr Robert Mathie, British Homeopathic Association
Meeting held on Monday 30 November 2009, 4.15pm to 5.35pm - view online here.

Witnesses
  1. Rt Hon Mike O’Brien QC MP, Minister of State, and Professor David Harper CBE, Chief Scientist, Department of Health, and Professor Kent Woods, Chief Executive, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency

On Monday 22 February, the S&TC published their report, available here:

UK Parliament - S&T PN21/100222 (one page press release)

On Wednesday 24th February, about 250 people lobbied their MP's in support of NHS homeopathy and handed in a petition of nearly 30,000 signatures declaring 'Homeopathy Worked for Me'.

YouTube Video


My response:

Homeopathy is the second most popular system of healing in the world today (WHO 2005), and is estimated to be growing at about twice the rate of conventional medicine (which in some fields is declining).  This fact is just one of the reasons why the tirade against it is so strong at the moment, as it represents a threat to pharmaceutical profits in many areas.  Given that iatrogenic (medical induced) disease, remains one of the leading causes of death, this is another reason why so many people, increasingly concerned about the long-term effects of repeated courses of drugs such as antibiotics, steroids and anti-depressants, are turning to homeopathy. 

Even the Science and Technology Committee agrees that many people do get better with homeopathy, but their best explanation for this is the placebo effect.  A brief look at just some of the research done on homeopathy however shows this is ludicrous.  Also, how do they explain that animals, infants, plants and cells in petri dishes can all repond to homeopathy, but clearly not to the placebo effect.  Even since Darwin's time we have known of homeopathy's effect on plants, and according to Darwin's own letters, he would not have lived long enough to write The Origin of the Species, were it not for his own homeopathic treatment (eCAM 2010 7(1): 33-39).

"In summarising that there is no evidence for homeopathy, the committee inexplicably overlooked the fact that, by the end of 2009, there were 74 randomised controlled trials (RCTs) of homeopathy published in peer-reviewed journals which describe statistically significant results, from which firm conclusions can be drawn. Of these RCTs comparing homeopathy either with placebo or established conventional treatments, 63 were positive for homeopathy and 11 were negative" (Society of Homeopaths).  The S&TC however refused to recognise any of this evidence, and refused to allow any oral evidence from any patient representatives, a Primary Care Trust currently commissioning homeopathy, or the Society of Homeopaths, the largest organisation representing professional homeopaths in Europe with over 1450 members on its register.  (Illustration by Alan V. Schmukler).

In Scotland, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde confirmed in the same week that it will continue funding the Glasgow Homeopathic Hospital.  Cristal Sumner, chief executive of the Faculty of Homeopathy that represents medical homeopaths, many of whom work in the NHS, said:

"One should keep in mind the Science and Technology report is from only four MPs, one of whom dissented. It seems a dysfunctional way to govern if the suggestions from three MPS can possibly determine the health and welfare of thousands of patients, after a cursory review, which consisted of a few hours of oral testimony and a few dozen 3,000 word written submissions." 

Moreover, of the three MP's who ratified the report, two were never present at the committee meetings and one was not even a member of the committee when the hearings were held and is due to stand down at the election this May.  Also an Early Day Motion (EDM 908) was tabled in parliament expressing MP's concern about the conclusions of the Science and Technology Committee report and was signed by 70 MP's, so the S&TC report can hardly be said to be representative of MP's views in general.  In 2007, a similar EDM in support of homeopathy on the NHS (1240) was signed by 206 MP's.  And in 2011 Homeopaths were honoured at the House of Commons at a reception to raise money for more research into homeopathy.

In a far more comprehensive report on complementary and alternative therapies published by the House of Lords in November 2000, homeopathy is considered as one of five ‘group one’ therapies (out of thirty examined) judged to have convincing research evidence of effectiveness that should be more widely available on the NHS.  Mike O'Brien, Minister of State for Health Services, has already indicated that NHS funding of homeopathy is justified, while Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Wales has been quoted as saying: "Complementary therapies, like homeopathy, get to the cause – rather than just treating the symptoms…..I know from my own experience that they work…I’d like to see doctors prescribing homeopathic treatment…". 

An objective critique of the report on homeopathy has also been circulated in both Houses by Earl Baldwin of Bewdley, condemning the report as “unreliable”.  He states that personally he has failed to derive much benefit from using homeopathy, yet he has supported its use and development in the UK, and raises concerns about the Committee’s interpretation of the written evidence presented, and their apparent bias when selecting witnesses to give oral evidence.  He concludes that: “these limitations make the Committee’s report an unreliable source of evidence about homeopathy.”  He has circulated this critique throughout the House of Commons and the House of Lords with the aim of retaining homeopathy on the NHS.

When we look back at the effect of this report, those of us who whould like to see more homeopathy on the NHS may well be thanking the authors for publicising NHS homeopathy so widely.  It is hard for the public to ask for or defend something they don't even know is there, and I for one have been trying to highlight it's existence for a long time!  Similarly, the highly publicised '10:23' campaign, despite it's misgivings, only served to underline the safety of homeopathy, and that thankfully, unlike with other medications, it is impossible to 'overdose' on homeopathy.

The final chapter on this report however is that the government has stated it will not be publishing a response to the report, but have issued a statement to H:MC21, saying:
"The Department of Health is currently unable to publish its response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee's Evidence Check on Homeopathy now that the Genneral Election has been called and Parliament has been dissolved. The Department cannot comment on the matter at this time....The current position, that decisions on the provision and funding of all types of treatments are the responsibility of the NHS, remains unchanged. What happens on this issue in the future will be a matter for the incoming government."
(Quoted from H:MC21's Newsletter, 19 April 2010)

On one had this is rather disapointing, as there are indications that the government may have responded favourably.  On the other hand, it does mean that this sham report is now propably dead, as it seems unlikely that an incoming government will bother with a report that has provoked so much controversy, and which offers so little benefit to the electorate or the NHS.  Any such decisions will therefore be up to the next government to decide, or rather for us to decide when we cast our votes.  In fact, Lib Dem MP for Oxford West, Dr Evan Harris, who was the most vocal member of the S&TC against homeopathy, lost his seat at the 2010 election. 

So what now?  Questions are being drafted to put to prospective MP's during the election, and supporters are continuing to organise and build on this campaign.  I for one would not now be in regular touch, via my facebook page, with so many wonderful people if this process had never happened.  All in all therefore, I would say that the S&TC Evidence Check has been useful to homeopathy:
"I think the attacks could be better seen as a gift; a gift that can help us to look more closely at ourselves, at our weaknesses and divisiveness. It can help us to consider our results and encourage us to upgrade homeopathy with the aim to obtain better results. In order to be consistent with our own theory, we can look at the events as a road to cure, on one hand the homeopathic community, and on the other, science and society as a whole." (Jan Sholten)

What will the next Evidece Check be considering?  My vote would be for the Science and Technology Committee to scrutinise government policy on vaccination.




The following are two blogs on this same topic: the first analyses in more detail the 'evidence check', it's coverage in the media, and the response of 'skeptics', and the second gives a perspective on the UK debate as seen from India:

Voice of (not so young) Homeopathy

"I was finally moved to create this blog after the events of summer 2009 when a group called Voice of Young Science – an offshoot of Sense about Science turned their focus on homeopathy and condemned its use in the developing world.  Uncharacteristically I use a quote from the Christian bible  as the only possible  explanation.  “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.”  Luke 23:34.  Having trained as a scientist, retrained as a homeopath and spent more than 25 years in the homeopathic trenches  as practitioner, teacher and writer across planet earth, I offer this blog as a source of information for the thinking person".
 
Homeopathy - Modern Medicine
Dr. Vijay and Dr. Daxa Vaishnav are MDs in homeopathy and Professors at Mumbai’s leading homeopathic medical college:  "We write this post as academicians and homoeopathic practitioners. We have been in the field of homoeopathic education and practice for 25 years in Mumbai (Bombay), India.  It is disheartening to learn about the chaos and furore over homoeopathy in the UK. Questions have been raised in the British Parliament whether homoeopathy is scientific and whether it should be supported and funded by the government"... more

 
The following report by HMC21 may also be of interest to those following this debate:
Report on Selected Evidence to the Commons Science and Technology Committee

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