Supporting homeopathy for Ebola loses natural health brief but more needed

By Grant Jacobs 04/11/2014

In a step in the right direction for evidence-based policy, Green Party member of parliament Steffan Browning has been stripped of his natural health portfolio by his party’s caucus but more is needed.

As I related in my previous piece, his is not a idle blunder but an example of his thinking. This line of thinking does not suit any portfolio with substantial science content (some would say, any portfolio). Browning’s gaffe serves as a clearer example of his sloppy agenda-driven thinking also present in his other briefs for those not familiar with the science of those briefs. I’ve yet to see an article pointing to this wider issue.

Today a Green Party press release reported that,

The Green Party caucus has today removed the Natural Health Products portfolio from Steffan Browning and merged it into the Health portfolio held by Kevin Hague.

“The Green Party supports evidence based health policy. Caucus has decided that our health policy is best represented in full by Kevin Hague,” said Green Party Co-leader Metiria Turei.

“We wish to be very clear that we support the use of science and evidence when it comes to public health policy.

“Individuals can make choices about their own health treatments, but it is critical public health decisions are evidence based and that consumers have appropriate evidence based information about alternative health products.”

The first sentence might also be read as disestablishing a separate natural health brief, leaving only a health brief. (Reminiscent of a line from Tom Minchin’s excellent beat poem Storm, “You know what they call alternative medicine. That’s been proved to work? Medicine.”)

On the Stuff website, Metiria Turei is reported by Blake Crayton-Brown as saying,

She insisted the move wasn’t a slight against party supporters who may use homeopathy.

“Some people do believe in homeopathy and will choose to use it.

“But we do not believe that it is an evidence-based public health measure.”

The last sentence quoted wants to loose the word ‘public’, really. Homeopathy is not an individual evidence-based public health measure either. It’s not an evidence-based health measure period. So closer to the mark, but still not quite there. (As Steven Novella wrote at Neurologica, “Homeopathy is not controversial. It is clearly unscientific and worthless. No politician should be afraid to say so plainly.”)

My previous article focused on that Browning’s blunder served as a simple, clear illustration of his lack of critical thinking. This same lack of critical thinking applies to his other briefs, which apparently he still retains. As I wrote in comments after my previous article,

In my opinion the Greens should think very carefully about Browning having a spokesperson role any science-based material if they want to he honest to an evident-based approach.

I’m aware of a number of people who have said they didn’t vote for the Greens because of Steffan Browning’s stance on genetic engineering and others who have said that while they voted for the Greens they don’t approve of Browning’s approach to GMOs and GE.

This is hardly surprising, as he presents some pretty awful thinking there, too.

Admittedly it helps to know the science to see this more clearly – his homeopathy-for-Ebola gaffe is just an example that most people can see readily as there the error was so obvious, but he makes equally invalid statements on the topic of genetic engineering for example.

In a thread on his Facebook page Browning wrote this, part of it referring to the recent deaths of cows eating swedes in Southland –

Browning on swedes Oct 30

Putting aside the patronising, dismissive tone, It’s a mess with collection of elements that feature in, to be polite, very poor thinking –

  • There’s a ‘Monsanto shill’ call,
  • a conspiracy theory angle going (FSANZ is out to deceive righteous people like himself),
  • wild strawman representations of those he disagrees with (‘cowboys’),
  • drawing false connections (trying to link GE to the death of the cows)
  • speaking before evidence (the evidence as to just what is the issue there isn’t in yet!)

This certainly isn’t the evidence-based thinking that should reflect good policy.

Furthermore, someone with a genetic engineering brief should be familiar with the GE-related clauses of the HSNO Act (1996).*

The HSNO Act accepts chemical mutagenesis essentially by fait. The Act includes a short list of older techniques excludes from consideration. (My reading is that it’s evoking a ‘test of time’ concept that considers anything already established as by fait ‘OK’. Others would argue it’s better to look at each product, such as Assoc. Prof. Peter Deardon has in his article what genetic modification is.)

Here Browning has played the Act both ways. In third sentence he’s referring to ZFN-1 court case that I covered on this blog earlier in the year (first part of three). ZFN-1 is a mutagenesis technique. However, owing to that the Act does not explicitly refer to the EPA the judge was led to consider anything new as forbidden, despite mutagenesis techniques being on the list of techniques that are considered to be excluded from, for want of a better word, ‘banning’.

Later in his paragraph Browning plays this the other way wanting to exclude a mutagenesis technique – but the HSNO Act explicitly accepts these.

I think it’s fair to suggest that he’s pushing a (personal) barrow with little regard to either the reality of the Act or the science.

These other briefs Browning holds are important to New Zealand and contain substantial science components, including: genetic engineering, organics, forestry, agriculture, fisheries, biosecurity.

Parties that wish to develop policy in an evidence-based manner want to not have briefs such as these held by people unwilling, or poorly able to, deal with evidence.


While I’ve written about the Green Party out of necessity, this general issue applies to any politic party on any topic underpinned by evidence. Readers will no doubt be able to point to other topics and other parties with equivalent examples.

* I note it’s been reprinted since I last wrote on it.

Other articles in Code for life:

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part two – is the law out of date?

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part three

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

Haemophilia — towards a cure using genetic engineering

The public and new research: peer review, initial reports and responses to extraordinary claims

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Message to Otago Daily Times: homeopath is not a sound career option*

Homeopathy and farming; let’s do better, media

Popularity does not mean effectiveness or sensibility

0 Responses to “Supporting homeopathy for Ebola loses natural health brief but more needed”

  • Here’s the real challenge then Grant: how does “science” (or “scientists”) persuade the likes of Stefan Browning to give up homeopathy and eat GE food? That’s the essence of science communication. In my opinion you will never do it by denigrating those who hold views and attitudes different to your own. But hey – it’s probably an impossible challenge in this day and age…

  • Sorry about the time taken to approve your comment. You should be able to write without having to wait now.

    Just to be clear, what I was writing about isn’t about convincing someone of particular views, but what his support for homeopathy-for-Ebola says about how he comes to his views and how that doesn’t fit his portfolios and the party’s wish to use an evidence-based approach to policy development.

    I’d suggest the appropriate challenge for what I was addressing is how do you persuade political parties (at least the ones that say they wish to use evidence-based policy) have those that carry policies use evidence in a sound way?

    (One solution for them is to have them give them to people who already do; how you determine who does is another issue! There are broader issues that relate to party politics, but don’t get me started on that!)

    Putting aside what I was writing about…

    As for trying to shift people’s views, a separate topic from what I wrote about, I prefer to look at the people involved. (One example is the fourth paragraph in my previous post. I have a feeling I’ve written about this in the past – have to admit I’m too lazy right now to try dig it up.)

    In the case of Browning, I don’t think this challenge applies. The issue with him (to me) is that he carries portfolios and the party ought to be aware that he doesn’t work them in a way that’s consistent with their
    aim to take a evidence-based approach to policy. (Or at least for the genetic engineering brief – I’m not familiar with the others.) It seems to me that much between the party and him. I might try draw the party’s attention to that, rather than try ‘change his views’.

    As for it being impossible to shift others’ views, to me it comes down to who you tackle and how. I don’t think there is a one-size-all-fits thing to these things. (Sci comm seems to have too many attempts try offer ‘the’ solution for my tastes!; better I think to look at the situations involved, what factors are involved, etc.)

    There are people I don’t think are worth the effort, though, esp. the small number of ‘core’ people behind some of these things – they’re too sold on their ideology. The immediate ‘cheer leaders’ aren’t much worth tackling, either; most people I know try aim for the larger silent of group of follower-ons and the general public.

    (I take it ‘you’ and ‘your’ is third person impersonal, i.e. to be read in the sense of ‘one’ and ‘one’s’, not referring to me specifically – what you refer to isn’t my style!)

  • Successful Advertising Standards Authority complaints have some other benefits as well. Of course the obvious one is that they can remove misleading information from advertisements, but aside from raising public awareness via media attention they can also make advertisers think twice about making misleading claims, and they can also help strengthen regulation.

    The ASA often considers past precedent for complaints, so if there have been a number of successful complaints about similar ads in the past it becomes easier each time to make a successful complaint. Also, in at least one example, a series of successful complaints has resulted in a new advertising guideline. Have a read of the “Amber Teething Necklaces” section on the Society for Science Based Healthcare’s website for an example of this: