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Passing through my third-life crisis peacefully in South London, finding out new stuff, and then getting cross and excited about it.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The anti-10:23 protest

There are two main benefits of working in Westminster

One is the newly founded and quite brilliant Westminster Skeptics in the Pub, of which more another time.

The other is that I’m very close to the Houses of Parliament, which is a lovely place to go and eat lunch.

Occasionally, there are protests in Parliament Square to entertain you while you eat.

Brian Haw is always there, and recently there were the huge Tamil rallies, although my personal favourite was when a few hundred beekeepers popped up in full regalia.

Today, though, was the turn of the homeopaths, who had arranged to protest in advance of Monday's Select Committee report

I was alerted to the planned protest by Gimpy, and as an ardent 10:23 supporter, I thought I’d pop down and see what happened.*

It’s fair to say that the protest wasn’t well attended (there were far more beekeepers last November). I’m no good at estimating the size of crowds, but there were probably only around 50 people. There were certainly less than at the London 10:23 event, and definitely less than 10^23 homeopaths to the one of me.

It’s also fair to point out that the messages on banners were not about evidence. It’s obviously unfair to expect homemade signs to outline detailed criticism of RCTs, but the points made on them were familiar, tired arguments – you can see ‘My healthcare, My choice’ and ‘Homeopathy worked for me!’ in my photos.

I took a couple of photographs and then engaged a couple of protesters in discussion, hoping to speak to a press spokesman or one of the leaders for the Pod Delusion.

It quickly became clear that there was no organisation to speak of. The parliamentary authorities had agreed to allow up to 100 people into the building, but there were nowhere near that number of people.

I introduced myself as someone involved in 10:23 demonstration and who was interested in seeing what the protestors were saying.

We had quite a jolly chat about what my beef was, why I didn’t support choice in healthcare and their assertion that there was good evidence for homeopathy and other complementary treatments.

There was then a lovely moment when another woman came over and said she that as I was obviously a very articulate young man, would I like to speak on their behalf when they met some MPs? 

Her two co-protestors quickly explained I was from the ‘other side’ and we continued talking.

The exchange became a bit more detailed, although no less good-natured, when we were joined by Tim Lloyd from the College of Practical Homeopathy (as opposed to the Theoretical kind?). He was able to quote studies and more sophisticated arguments, and so our discussion quickly ranged wider.

I’ll try to summarise the discussion here. 

Bear in mind that while most points were made by Tim Lloyd, not all were. And although I did think their points were quite weak and easy to rebut, I’m also documenting the whole thing from memory, so there may be some confirmation bias involved…

They said that money was wasted on all sorts of things in the NHS, and £4m in the scale of the total budget was tiny, so why was this a big concern? Why did I want homeopathy banned?

I explained that I didn’t want homeopathy banned, but simply not funded on the NHS because there was no evidence it worked.

They made a number of points in response to this.

Apparently, 80% of people who used homeopathy paid for it privately anyway, but wasn’t discriminating against people who could not afford to pay for it? Here I reiterated the evidence point.

They also claimed there is good evidence for homeopathy. I questioned whether that was in the form of double blind trials, to which they said variously:
  • Yes it is
  • You can only establish whether healthcare measures work over a long period of time, once you can see the full side effects. Homeopathy has been tested over a period of time and the data is there, while modern medicine hasn’t been
  • They said that all good high quality, double blinded, randomly controlled trials on Arnica show that it works on bruises. I’m not an expert on the literature, but I disputed that there were any such trials.
  • The 1918 wartime trial on Spanish flu showed homeopathy worked. (I know Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst had dismissed in Alternative Medicine on Trial, but couldn’t remember why.)
  • There are massive trials going on at the moment in Swaziland (not double blinded) and Cuba (double blinded) which showed homeopathy worked. I agreed that, if they trials were as described, the Cuban one would be very interesting.
They suggested that meta-analyses showing homeopathy doesn’t work are not a reasonable measure of efficacy because they exclude the trials where homeopathy has fared well, and include the trials where it has fared badly.

I suggested that those conducting the analyses would characterise things differently, as they included high and excluded low quality trials, and that this is what led to poor results for homeopathy. Their response was ‘They would say that!’

They agreed that it would be wrong to just include trials where homeopathy was successful, but that one should look at all of the trials, and that showed positive results.

We discussed the argument that homeopathy is hard to test because of the vast number of remedies and because people don’t react in the same way to remedies. This was, they explained, why the individualised consultation is important. 50% of homeopathy is apparently the consultation.

I asked whether that meant Boots remedies didn’t work, since they weren’t individualised but purchased from a shop. They said no, in general, mass produced remedies didn’t work as well as individualised ones, but that for ‘simpler’ remedies they worked just as well.

I asked whether they would support Big Pharma selling drugs that had not been shown to work via double-blind trials, or shown not to work via double blind trials.

They responded that Big Pharma drugs didn’t work but they hid the results. I said I agreed this was a problem, and that all research should be funded, but that it was irrelevant to the question of whether they would support the sale of those drugs.

They agreed that there should not be one rule for all and that they would not be happy for Big Pharma to sell drugs under those conditions.

I also asked whether all homeopaths succuss remedies the same number of times. They assured me they did, and that they knew it was the right amount because there have hundreds of years of experience to go on, although no tests they could tell me about.

And there I had to leave it because my lunch break was over, and the protestors were being called into the Commons.

I’m not sure what happened inside, but if I can find any details or anyone knows, I’ll update the post.

Overall, it wasn’t a very impressive show of force. If this is the ‘not inconsiderable influence within the homeopathic community’ Lionel Milgrom has been boasting of, Evan Harris will be fine.

Tim Lloyd said he was happy to continue the debate if I wanted. 

I have no great desire to, although I enjoyed the back and forth and he and his colleagues were very pleasant.

It’s just a shame they are so horribly, horribly wrong.

NB Thanks to those who suggested helpful questions for me to ask, which included:

-         There's not many people here today, do you think that you're stronger in more diluted numbers?
-         Isn't this a placebo protest? You're probably not going to have any actual effect, but it'll make you feel a lot better?
-         If a spoon-full of sugar helps the medicine go down, what does a sugar pill on its own help go down?
-         As like cures like, shouldn't you be advocating a ban on homeopathy?

A shorter version of this report will appear on the Pod Delusion on Friday. I may use some of this superb material there.

*At one stage I thought about doing a one-man overdose, but was undone by my inherent dislike of confrontation and my inability to sort out the forms required to stage a protest in Parliament Square.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jon,

    Thanks for taking the time to go and check this out -I think it's probably just as well you did. The "other side" are claiming that 250 people attended.


    4th (ish) comment down.

    I take it from what you wrote above (and from your pictures) that you would consider this to be a rather inflated estimate of how many people attended?


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