This story is rather breathtaking, and I’m not sure which aspect of it is more astonishing.
Professor John Beddington is the chief science advisor for the government in the UK
England. As it happens, several Ministers of Parliament (roughly equivalent to Congress here) support homeopathy, and fund it through government-sponsored hospitals.
You can imagine how I feel about that.
OK, don’t imagine it. I’ll tell you: It’s a travesty. Homeopathy doesn’t work. It’s water. There’s no medicine in it.
As a scientist, Beddington should know this [Edited to add: Apparently, he does. It’s what he does with this knowledge that concerns me.]. There is no evidence – none – that homeopathy is anything more than a placebo, and tons of studies showing it has no medicinal value. If he were inactive about, simply not stopping it, that would be bad enough. But he actually defends it:
Speaking before his official appointment in 2007, Professor Beddington told MPs his role as chief scientist was “really trying to ensure that, when a new policy is made, it is based on the best possible scientific advice that is available at the time”.
But speaking to the select committee about NHS funding for homeopathy last year, he said that “wider factors other than science may be relevant”.
[cue comical head-shaking and finger-cleaning-ears]
Wha-wha-WHA? “Wider factors other than science may be relevant”? And what would those be, exactly? Magic? Reading entrails? He’s supposed to be a scientist!
And that’s why several MPs have taken him to task. The Department of Universities, Innovations, and Skills has issued a report calling Beddington’s behavior into question. They are understandably concerned that Beddington is not emphasizing the need for scientific evidence in making policy decisions about science.
[Edited to add: in the comments, a link was given to a more complete quotation by Beddington (I looked for but didn’t find it earlier).
We asked Professor Beddington, in November 2008, whether he considered that the National Health Service should spend money on homeopathic treatments. He replied:
It depends on the extent of the placebo effect[…] It is not just in terms of homeopathy, but, I suppose, less conventional medicines. There does seem to be some evidence that they are effective. In terms of homeopathy […] I see no evidence beyond the placebo effect that it works. […] I can make that point to government and say that there is no evidence that homeopathy works. The decision on whether you wish to fund homeopathy as part of the National Health Service has other factors which are beyond science.
I think this is more policy than science[…] I am quite firm with this. I see no scientific evidence that homeopathy has an effect beyond the placebo effect. The question that […] is a reasonable one, but I think it is possibly better posed to the Department of Health rather than me.
If I am reading that correctly, he is saying this is a policy decision and not a scientific one. But shouldn’t the policy be driven by science? He says that himself in the first quotation above! SO I still think he’s wrong. The article goes on:
We found Professor Beddington’s statements equivocal compared to those of this predecessor, Professor Sir David King, who stated in evidence to us in December 2007:
The issue of homeopathic medicine leaves me completely puzzled. How can you have homeopathic medicines labelled by a department which is driven by science? There is not one jot of evidence supporting the notion that homeopathic medicines are of any assistance whatsoever; therefore, I would say they are a risk to the population because people may take them expecting that they are dealing with a serious problem.
Bingo! That’s it precisely. People taking homeopathic sugar pills may think they are taking medicine, and forgo real medicine. That’s the danger of this kind of thinking.]
I’d be more than concerned. I’d be calling for his head. I’ve done the same here in this country when I’ve felt that a politician or advisor has strayed from the path of, y’know, reality. If the chief advisor of the government is advising people to take small doses of highly priced water to cure real ailments, then it’s time to find a new chief advisor.
And that brings up why I’m not sure what amazes me most about this situation. Certainly it’s incredible that the nation’s top science advisor advocates magic. But the thing is, a bunch of people in the government actually spoke out against him! In our own government here, we’ve had – and still have – a large number of Congresscritters advocating against reality, and we’ve seen almost nothing but the others rolling over and letting them get away with it. To see the government actually govern… well, it’s refreshing.
I’m glad they’re speaking out. If they don’t, who knows what’s next. “Wider factors.” The next thing he’ll want is to set up a Department of Astrology at Greenwich Royal Observatory.