21 September 2007
Channel 4 News reported on the pressure to save money by stopping NHS funding for “unproven and disproved treatments”.
Watch the video.
The report started badly when the journalist, Victoria Macdonald, said that the bottles of homeopathic pills contained “only natural ingredients”.
They contain NO ingredients. That is just as well perhaps, when you recall that natural ingredients in homeopathic pills include things like polonium. In the Nature newsblog that followed my piece about BSc degrees in anti-science, I responded
“Well CAM is a bit like university management. Don’t try to satirise it, because the next thing you know the satire has come true.
There is even a whole book about homeopathic polonium, and you can by not only polonium, but also holmium, dysprosium, europium, gadolinium, Terbium, Thulium (this is beginning to sound like Tom Lehrer), And don’t forget Excrementum caninum (yes, you got it, dog shit). With the 3C “potency” of the latter you might even get a few molecules of it. All this at http://www.archibel.com/homeopathy/synthesis/newremedies/
And don’t forget your homeopathic bioterrorism protection kit.”
The thrust of the report was to suggest that our attempts to improve NHS treatment were some sort of Big Pharma funded conspiracy to suppress those nice homeopaths and so kill old ladies whose lives depended on taking medicines that contain no medicine.
Peter Fisher sounded a bit desperate in his attempts to associate me and my colleagues with the defence of GM foods, a topic on which, as far as I know, none of us uttered a word in public.
Sorry, Dr Fisher, but there is no conspiracy, and no involvement of Big Pharma. Just a disparate bunch of doctors and scientists who decided it was time to do something about the spending of scarce NHS money being spent on new age nonsense. It really is that simple.
I’m always a bit amused when people who make a lot of money from alternative medicine accuse me of representing some vested interest. The media ‘nutritional therapist’, Patrick Holford, said, in the British Medical Journal
“I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry “
To which my reply was
” Oh dear, Patrick Holford really should check before saying things like “I notice that Professor David Colquhoun has so far not felt it relevant to mention his own competing interests and financial involvements with the pharmaceutical industry”. Unlike Holford, when I said “no competing interests”, I meant it. My research has never been funded by the drug industry, but always by the Medical Research Council or by the Wellcome Trust. Neither have I accepted hospitality or travel to conferences from them. That is because I would never want to run the risk of judgements being clouded by money. The only time I have ever taken money from industry is in the form of modest fees that I got for giving a series of lectures on the basic mathematical principles of drug-receptor interaction, a few years ago.”
I spend a lot of my spare time, and a bit of my own money, in an attempt to bring some sense into the arguments. The alternative medicine gurus make their livings (in some cases large fortunes) out of their wares.
So who has the vested interest?
Sorry Dr Fisher, but there is no conspiracy. Tim Crayford (Association of Directors of Public Health), put the matter very simply in the interview.
It is more to do with a point of principle. There are very many really effective treatments that the NHS can’t currently afford to provide. And we should we not be ensuring that the limited resources we’ve got in the NHS go to the things that really work well, and are going to save lives”
That is all there is to it.
Fisher’s comments are plainly actionable. While I sympathise with the exasperated tone of Sense About Science’s reply, it pains me to see him describe it as `an industry funded lobby group’. He has ideas above his station, if he thinks the drug industry is running a campaign against him. He should be asked for the evidence for that – but then he has a hard time with evidence of any sort. I would have preferred to see a more direct riposte from Sense About Science, briefly stating the facts about its funding, the vast majority of which is from non-commercial sources.
Slartibartfast in all honesty Sense About Science could legitimately be seen as representing the needs of industry despite their proclaimed independence. While they are open and honest about their funding some senior members of their office staff are ex-industry PR.
Of course this has no bearing on homeopathy as any rapacious multinational pharmaceutical company would love to be able to sell magic water at inflated prices.
I am sorely disappointed that SAS handled the rebuttal of Peter Fisher’s allegations in such a childish manner though. It makes them look like they have something to hide despite being correct on this issue.
Gimpy, thatâ€™s not really quite right. After 4 years on setting up an EC funded project to develop research and teaching centres in Kazan (involving universities of Kent, Leuven and Milan) I went to a crisis management company (mainly because the university had begun levying 100% overheads on projects, very demoralising). At that time their main business was training companies in setting up major incident response rooms, phone lines for relatives etc when planes went down or things blew up. They also did some general training on media and issue management, much of it for coalition groups. They brought me in to set up a research unit, looking at trends in law, society and media. An interesting idea but one that, ultimately, they could not afford since it didnâ€™t bring in money. After a year or so it ended. I didnâ€™t do much on the things people paid for, except for work with the stem cells coalition, Plan International (the childrens charity) and community pharmacy action group (interestingly, George Monbiot worked with them on this).
I brought Ellen, who now manages our programmes, there too â€“ while a Masters student sheâ€™d done some part time work on the EC project (and on other bits of research and editing work Iâ€™d been able to find her). She was brilliant and very hardworking, and could work with me (Iâ€™m probably not the most easygoing person). So it was painful that part of the terms of my departure from the crisis management thing was that I couldnâ€™t recruit her for a year and she had to stay on. I applied to Dick Taverne and Bridget Ogilvie for my current post and as soon as I was able to, I took Ellen on again.
Iâ€™ve seen some references to our Chairman coming from PR too, which is untrue. I think it may be confusion from him setting up a think tank on Europe, which was his next project after starting the Institute for Fiscal Studies in the 1970s, and which was subsequently bought by a public affairs agency. Heâ€™s never been in PR. As he says, people who know him tend to realise he isnâ€™t cut out for PR!
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