Confessions of a Quackbuster

This blog deals with healthcare consumer protection, and is therefore about quackery, healthfraud, chiropractic, and other forms of so-Called "Alternative" Medicine (sCAM).

Saturday, June 04, 2005

The March Of Unreason

The Science Show

The March Of Unreason
Saturday 28 May 2005

British Liberal Democrats Party member Lord Dick Taverne has called homeopathy 'nonsense on stilts'. He believes that the evidence-based approach is essential and defends his position against things alternative, assessing as 'anti-rational' what he calls 'the fashion in organic food and alternative medicines'. Interview by Wendy Barnaby.

Program Transcript

Dick Taverne: I believe that the evidence-based approach is not just important to science but is very important to society and I see an increasing influence, a great fashion for an anti-rational approach which ignores evidence. You find it in the fashion for alternative medicine, you find it in the fashion for organic food, for which I can see no major arguments at all and you find it, above all, in the opposition by some of the green NGOs to one of the exciting technologies, namely agricultural biotechnology. And I don’t understand why they accept this technology for medicine when exactly the same techniques are used for modifying plants – they object to it in plants and say, oh this is unwarranted inference with nature. And I think it’s about time somebody spoke out about it.

Wendy Barnaby: Some of the things you talk about in your book I recognise, others I don’t. For example, you talk about the mood of suspicion and pessimism amongst the British public about science and yet the latest Mori poll says that over 80% of adults feel that science makes a good contribution to society and makes life easier. It doesn’t seem to square.

Dick Taverne: Well it doesn’t on the face of it but does if you look below the headlines, as it were. Yes, people think science does a good thing and science books sell like hot cakes, some of them, but if you probe it, people don’t trust scientists who work for the government or who are paid by industry or get their money from industry - which is where scientists get their money, from those two sources: that takes away a lot of the scientists. And in fact, what it’s also coupled with is a deep distrust of experts. Ever since the BSE crises people say, We don’t trust experts, they told us BSE was safe, and that’s why they go for alternative medicine, that’s why in the UK they’ve launched a great campaign against the MMR vaccine, which is as safe as any vaccine can be. Why? Because they distrust the experts.

Wendy Barnaby: Let me take you up on two points there. It seems to me that there’s a problem in the book because you allow some sorts of evidence and you disallow other sorts. Now surely a rational person would take note of their experience and the population having been told that there was no danger in BSE and having discovered that there is in fact, surely the rational approach is then to take note of that in future encounters with scientists and say, well scientists don’t always know what they’re talking about.

Dick Taverne: Well you see it’s a false charge made against the scientists because it wasn’t the scientists who said it was safe, it was the politicians who said it’s absolutely safe. Scientists did not guarantee safety.

Wendy Barnaby: Yes, but nevertheless, does the public actually distinguish between those two sources? The expert advice they had was, the official advice if you like, was that it’s safe. Now surely, having had that and having discovered that it wasn’t, it’s rational to take that on board in future encounters with experts.

Dick Taverne: No, I don’t think it’s rational at all. I think that if there was a fault it was a politician’s fault and you can’t blame the scientists for that. And therefore to turn against the scientists and say, we can’t trust the experts and therefore we’re not going to take the measles vaccine because OK, the experts tell us it’s safe, but there’s a curious doctor who tells us no, it’s going to cause autism, that’s not a rational response.

Wendy Barnaby: You said that homeopathy was nonsense on stilts.

Dick Taverne: Yes.

Wendy Barnaby: In fact, there are studies that have been done to show that our state of mind does affect the way we recover from illness.

Dick Taverne: Oh, absolutely.

Wendy Barnaby: And therefore, if homeopathy makes people feel better what’s the harm?

Dick Taverne: Ah well, there’s no harm you know, if people are being treated for homeopathy when they don’t have serious illnesses. However, there is a real danger, because if people are so addicted to alternative medicine they don’t go to proper doctors when they are seriously ill they can die.

Wendy Barnaby: But you slate English cancer centres for offering homeopathy as well and I can’t understand that. Surely if aromatherapy makes cancer patients feel better alongside their radiotherapy or chemotherapy then there is actual evidence to show that if people feel better they may recover more quickly.

Dick Taverne: Well I mean, it’s perfectly true that irrational beliefs can give rise to different feelings. If you say, well it’s alright because it makes people feel happy, you encourage the irrational and there is a danger about that because I think that if you go for intuition, how can you ever disprove somebody else who goes for intuition. You know, it was Hitler who declared the end of the Age of Reason. Let’s go for intuition, he was great on holistic remedies, he was great on homeopathy and all that and organic farming; all these quack remedies have, I think, an unfortunate association. How are we going to argue against the racists if we say we don’t give a damn about evidence, it’s just the way you feel. If you want to feel that way, feel that way that’s fine.

Wendy Barnaby: But you haven’t answered my point that the evidence shows that people who feel more positive about life do recover more quickly.

Dick Taverne: Well, I mean, you could have a witch doctor there too who makes certain people feel better. I mean, I have no objection to people spending money on aromatherapy and reflexology and ayurveda and all these other kind of things if it makes them feel good - I wouldn’t put it on the Health Service.

Wendy Barnaby: But you see you’re not admitting that evidence, you’re excluding that evidence.

Dick Taverne: I’m admitting that it is true that placebos work, I admit that. But it can be dangerous to go for the irrational.

Wendy Barnaby: What do you want to see happen?

Dick Taverne: Oh I just want to see that there is proper public discussion of these issues, that those who have got their worries about new technologies should have public examination of them and if they’re justified, very well then, we must proceed very cautiously. If they’re not, then we should go ahead with new developments. I think it should be based on evidence, that’s what sense about science is about and that’s what my book is about.

Wendy Barnaby: Lord Taverne, thank you very much. This is Wendy Barnaby in London for the Science Show.

Guests on this program:
Lord Dick Taverne
House of Lords

The March Of Unreason: Science, Democracy,
And The New Fundamentalism
Author: Dick Taverne
Publisher: Oxford University Press
EAN: 9780192804853
ISBN: 0192804855

Presenter: Robyn Williams
Producer: Polly Rickard and David Fisher