(Opinion on one of stupider things I’ve seen endorsed by a politician in a while and it’s relation to other science-based policy, including genetic engineering.)
Green Party MP Steffan Browning has been widely reported as endorsing a petition to apply homeopathy to Ebola. To be frank this is an idea of rank stupidity.
Homeopathic ‘remedies’ are placebos: they have no active ingredients in them. Ebola is a very serious condition. Offering a placebo for a condition like Ebola is a terrible idea.
I have a rule of thumb: anyone who claims to know science or medicine, or offer advice on it, and who endorses homeopathy has lost the ability to critically think.
The reason I narrow this to those related to science/medicine is simply that I can empathise with those not familiar with science who have come to trust others’ opinion on things like homeopathy. It’s a very human failing, but not a failing you want see in someone with a position of responsibility for strong scientific or medical matters.
Browning is the Green Party spokesperson for a number of things with strong science components: genetic engineering, organics, forestry, agriculture, fisheries, biosecurity. My judgement is that this gaffe of his isn’t a simple blunder but offers a simpler, and vivid, illustration for those not familiar with science that his approach is not sound for scientific matters like genetic engineering. It tidily reveals how poor his ability to deal with science is, how inappropriate that he offer advice on science matters. More on this below.
I would not be alone in encouraging political parties to use evidence-based approaches where they fit.
The Greens have pledged their health policy to be properly evidence-based (see key principle 8). For them to do that, however, sense would dictate that they will want to move Browning away from a spokesperson role in science-related topics however much they might appeal to him. (The parallel argument applies for other political parties, too. While this will focus on the Green Party of necessity, this aspect itself isn’t about any one party and should be read as illustrative of an issue common to all parties, politics in general.)
Browning has tried to have it both ways in the media, back-pedalling his support for homeopathy as a treatment for Ebola, but retaining it as a ‘possibilty’. His Party has offered an apology – limited to applying homeopathy to Ebola. If they want to honour their claim to be based on evidence, they are obliged really come out against homeopathy as a treatment for any condition.
I’ve previously written on homeopathy and have offered links to those at the end of this article. In a nutshell homeopathy relies on the notion that long series of dilutions of ingredients thought to induce similar symptoms to the disease would treat the disease. Leaving aside the erroneous selection of the starting ingredients, a key element is that none of the ingredients are left in the resulting mixture offered to patients! – they’re removed in the dilutions.
Mad as that sounds, that’s how homeopathy goes. It is as bunk as any remedy you can imagine. The purest of snake oil of them all, as it were.
How anyone claiming to be a science (or medical) spokesperson offer that for any treatment?
When Browning signed the petition, an endorsement appeared on his Facebook page (since removed; my copy of screenshot taken from this article):
Similar activism is being put forward by the Homeopaths without Borders group, whose name is a cheap riff off the excellent Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders). Well-known skeptical blogger and medic ‘Orac’ has written on this. An important point he makes is that having medically naïve people on the ground (as they are, apparently) ‘treating’ patients is—to be exceptionally polite—not going to help. A related story on the English Guardian newspaper, featuring Browning’s efforts near the end, indicates that this is part of an international effort by homeopaths to target these African nations. (Am I the only thinking that this is itself a small disaster, perhaps not that a small one either.)
Browning was reported as having repeatedly said that “he was not opposed to homeopathy, which he had used himself, and said it had seemingly been effective in treating one of his children in the past.”
This has him advocating for homeopathy. It also has him illustrating, in my opinion, that he is not able to offer sound critical judgement on scientific or medical matters.
Steffan Browning goes on try to have it both ways:
But as the WHO did not “appear to have an instant cure” for the deadly disease, Browning hoped it would keep an open mind on potential treatment options.
“They will be considering, I hope, absolutely every possible option to this very concerning disease.’’
When asked if that included homeopathy as an option, Browning said: “why not?”
“Some people will see it as wacky for sure, they will.
“I think it’s really good for people to not be narrow-minded and to be open to that, and allow those people that choose to use it, to use it.”
A knowledgeable (and responsible) minister covering science (or medicine) would know, or check and find, that homeopathy has been investigated by other governments and ruled out. The British House of Commons Science and Advisory Committee offered a very firm ‘No’. Similarly the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (PDF file) concluded: “The available evidence is not compelling and fails to demonstrate that homeopathy is an effective treatment for any of the reported clinical conditions in humans.” Other reports of similar nature from other nations can also be found.
This would tend to suggest Browning does not know the score, or is ignoring it, and is acting with disregard for the evidence – preferring ‘his experience’ to rule over formal studies. Not what you would want to see from a spokesperson for science-related topics. What is wanted is evidence, not anecdotes.
At the NZ Herald, Browning is reported as doing that thing where a politician says I’m not a scientist (medic, whatever), but offers their ‘advice’ anyway:
“Internationally homeopathy is considered in some places.. I am not an expert but I assume they will look at that as much as a number of other options.”
Actually internationally medical groups ignore homeopathy as it’s widely known to be rank nonsense. The New NZ Herald closed it’s piece with the petition’s aims.
His political party has attempted to distance themselves from his actions.
Likewise, Green Party co-leader Russell Norman is reported as offering:
He said he accepted that many New Zealanders did chose to use homeopathy.
“But I think even they would say it’s not the right thing to use for Ebola.”
I can empathise with Norman’s problem, but to my reading he’s avoiding an issue. Using homeopathy for treatment of anything that might cause harm, however slight, is a bad idea as homeopathy essentially by definition cannot offer any treatment beyond a placebo effect (as it is a placebo). Norman says that “The Green Party approach of course is to take an evidence based approach”. A proper evidence-based approach would have him condemn all use of homeopathy aside from where it doesn’t matter either way if the person took a treatment or not.
To be clear: the Green Party does not believe that homeopathy has any part to play in combatting the very serious Ebola outbreak currently under way. We support only evidence-based measures. (Actually fluid replacement does turn out to be a very important component of an effective strategy). Countries like Nigeria and Senegal have showed us that routine public health measures like quarantine, contact tracing and infection control in healthcare settings are more than adequate to control the disease. The problem is that grinding poverty and war have severely damaged the capability of countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia to mount these basic responses. That is why countries like New Zealand and the wider international community need to help. In the meantime standard scientific method needs to be used to develop both effective antiviral treatments and potential vaccines.
This gaffe, as bad as it is, can be written off. On the other hand poor advice on genetic engineering, forestry, fishery, agriculture and so on cannot as easily be written off and can badly affect New Zealand in a more direct way. Genetic engineering, for example, is potentially very valuable to New Zealand. Browning is their spokesperson for it. My opinion as a biologist is that what he offers on genetic engineering is (very) poorly advised and his wording on it is often muddled. To me Browing’s inappropriate support for use of homeopathic remedies for Ebola offers an accessible illustration of his poor thinking on these other matters.
All this has left some wondering who New Zealand’s least scientific MP is. Whoever you think it might be, Steffan Browning must surely be in the running.
I’d like to see an honest review of GE and GMOs, something others have called for. It would seem timely now that a new term of government is just underway and that a ruling earlier this year (part one of three parts) has illustrated that the current GE-related clauses in the HSNO Act are not up to their task and in any event the underpinnings of these clauses have dated.
To do this we need politicians to allow evidence to be considered soundly.
There is also a brief piece on the TV One News website and fellow sciblogger Siouxsie Wiles has presented the issue to breakfast TV this morning. (If you’re like me and find breakfast TV to early to watch, you can catch it on the link I’ve provided!) As I write there is no statement on Steffan Brownings’ twitter stream. Michael Edmonds has a post up with a nice concise description of homeopathy in the penultimate paragraph. The Guardian newspaper has a related article as does medical blogger ‘Orac’.
I’ve taken material from many sources, but I’d like to thank Mark Hanna in particular for sharing some of the things I’ve linked to.
1. I’m simplifying. If you repeatedly dilute something you repeated reduce the amount of the ingredients (solute) you added to the mixture (solvent). At some point you remove the ingredient entirely.
Homeopathic ingredients are listed as have dilutions in series of ten times or one hundred times, with ‘X’ denoting tenths and ‘C’ denoting hundredths (e.g. 12X = 12 dilutions, each time one tenth of the last and 12C = 12 dilutions, each time one hundredth of the last). If you think about for just a little you’ll realise that’s a lot of diluting.
Cribbing from an earlier article, wikipedia has an entertaining description of a 30C dilution,
on average, this would require giving two billion doses per second to six billion people for 4 billion years to deliver a single molecule of the original material to any patient.
As a rule of thumb an ingredient with a dilution number of 12C or larger will be exceptionally unlikely to have any molecules of the ingredient left in the ‘remedy’ offered to patients. Dilution numbers smaller than 12 have some small amounts of the ingredient; that only raises dosage issues and that ingredients are selected in an inappropriate way – being based on raising similar symptoms rather ability to treat the disease. (Furthermore, strictly speaking, lower dilution numbers than about 13C are generally not thought of as homeopathic.)
One catch for customers is that the ingredients listed on the bottles or packages of homeopathic ‘remedies’ are not the ingredients in the product a person buys, but the ingredients the homeopathic remedy manufacturers started with before removing them. It’s a reason I’ve previously said I’d like to see sellers of remedies (of any kind) give the amounts in the actual remedy offered, using standard units.
There’s also that weaker dilutions are considered stronger remedies and that knocking on the mixture between each dilution is touted as giving the mixture healing powers. (My reading is that this is thought to be derived from a faith healing angle to Samuel Hahnemann’s sales pitch, where the mixture was knocked on a Bible with the book giving healing powers to the remedy.)
Some homeopaths accept that they dilute out the ingredients entirely and instead argue that the mixture has a ‘memory’ of what was in it. This doesn’t help them, as it’s just as ill-founded as the infinite dilution concept they’re replacing it with.
2. I’m stuck by a parallel here. Governments block their own people making a nuisance of themselves joining Islamic militant groups overseas. Given the strong reaction from politicians on this issue, would they also block homeopaths from intending to make a nuisance of what is a serious situation, with similarly embarrassing consequences if they cause trouble? This initiative by homeopaths is an astonishing bad idea.
3. I thought Norman’s Facebook responses to Browning gaining a late position as an MP interesting, in particular for what was not said. In the first post he doesn’t name his new MP at all, but immediately veered off on a missive about the Internet Mana Party. In his second post that night, Norman does congratulate Browning (perhaps realising his error?), but he doesn’t offer statements supporting roles he make take, what he would offer the party.
4. I’d offer a critique of the petition’s aims, but in the interest of time I’d like to leave the focus on Browning’s suitability as a spokesperson for science-related issues and not distract the reader.
5. See also Peter Deardon’s take on what genetic modification is.
Other articles on homeopathy on Code for Life: