Freedom of Information Act (FOIA)
Last month, the following exchange took place in the House of Commons during Health Questions, supposedly about the Government’s revised adult Autism strategy:
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is clear evidence that homeopathy is effective in treating autism, especially when doctors have not found a solution? Now that the Society of Homeopaths is regulated by the Professional Standards Authority, will he make more use of homeopathy in the health service generally, and in this particular instance?
Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman’s question is quite a long way from the statutory guidance, but it can be given a brief reply.
Norman Lamb: I have to say that I was not aware of the information provided by the hon. Gentleman. I should be happy for him to send me more information, but I make the general point that it is always important for us to base our decisions and expenditure on evidence.
We know Tredinnick is a True Believer in homeopathy and all thing quackish, but here is a definitive claim that “there is clear evidence that homeopathy is effective in treating autism”.
There is, of course, no good evidence homeopathy can effectively treat any condition whatsoever other than HWS (Heavy Wallet Syndrome), but it would certainly be interesting to see what evidence Tredinnick thought substantiated such a bold claim.
Since Normal Lamb (Minister of State for Care and Support at the Department of Health) asked Tredinnick to send him that information, I submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the DoH to get hold of that ‘clear evidence’.
The information provided consisted of a letter from Tredinnick, an article from the magazine Homeopathy in practice from 2010 titled Saving a lost generation: Autism and homeopathy and a screenshot of the home page of the website CEASE Therapy, originally created by the late homeopath and MD Tinus Smits:
See also Lee Turnpenny’s take on this FOIA response: ‘MINISTER FOR QUACKERY': TREDINNICK’S CONTINUING FOLLY
Tredinnick told Lamb:
As you will be aware, in the past 20 years there has been a dramatic rise in neurological and developmental disorders in children, particularly Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Conventional medicine considers ASD incurable, and offers powerful pharmaceutical medication to deal with the most difficult behaviour, often with serious side effects.
However, there is ongoing work in this area by homeopaths in various places around the world including the Netherlands, United States and Australia, which suggests that homeopathy could be effective in tackling the possible underlying causes behind autism. I attach an article and information on this for your information.
Whilst the evidence on autism could be described as anecdotal, there were, up to the end of 2013, a total of 188 RCT papers in homeopathy (on 100 different medical conditions) which have been published in good quality scientific journals. 44% of the RCTs have a balance of positive evidence and only 5% are negative. The remainder were inconclusive which does not mean they are negative.
In light of the large number of conditions that conventional medicine finds difficult to treat, including autism, this is an area which does warrant further research.
Where to start with this…
Tredinnick regurgitates the same old zombie arguments and fallacious nonsense homeopaths and their supporters are wont to do.
But remember Tredinnick proclaimed in the House that “there is clear evidence that homeopathy is effective in treating autism”, so it’s surprising that he didn’t bother to provide any…
But at least he now says:
Whilst the evidence on autism could be described as anecdotal…
Is this his ‘clear evidence’? Is he now saying that anecdotal evidence is ‘clear evidence’ or has he realised that anecdotes are not ‘clear evidence’ and shifted his position? I doubt he has any clue.
The BHA’s current page has slightly different numbers, but let’s take Tredinnick’s outdated numbers to show how he misrepresents the balance of evidence.
He states that only 5% are negative and that 44% are positive. But what of the remaining 51%? Tredinnick tells us these are ‘inconclusive’ and implies that these should just be ignored.
But that’s not how it works.
Prof Edzard Ernst deals with this very problem in his blog post: The alchemists of alternative medicine – part 3: the ‘NON-CONCLUSIVE’ method:
A clinical trial is a research tool for testing hypotheses; strictly speaking, it tests the ‘null-hypothesis': “the experimental treatment generates the same outcomes as the treatment of the control group”. If the trial shows no difference between the outcomes of the two groups, the null-hypothesis is confirmed. In this case, we commonly speak of a negative result. If the experimental treatment was better than the control treatment, the null-hypothesis is rejected, and we commonly speak of a positive result. In other words, clinical trials can only generate positive or negative results, because the null-hypothesis must either be confirmed or rejected – there are no grey tones between the black of a negative and the white of a positive study.
Homeopaths don’t like the way this turns out: it would mean that there were more negative trials than positive and that wouldn’t look too good in their advertising. It’s bad for business.
So, how could they spin this to make it look good for homeopathy?
Prof Ernst nails it:
One fairly obvious way of achieving this aim is to simply re-categorise the results. What, if we invented a new category? What, if we called some of the negative studies by a different name? What about NON-CONCLUSIVE?
How exactly do we do this? We continue to call positive studies POSITIVE; we then call studies where the experimental treatment generated worst results than the control treatment (usually a placebo) NEGATIVE; and finally we call those studies where the experimental treatment created outcomes which were not different from placebo NON-CONCLUSIVE.
Genius! (And it’s not often that can be said about homeopaths!)
The trick that Tredinnick uses makes it look as if the balance of evidence for homeopathy is overwhelmingly in its favour (44% to 5%), but the correct way to state his numbers is: 44% are positive and 56% are negative. Remember Tredinnick said “The remainder were inconclusive which does not mean they are negative”, but oh yes, it does mean they are negative — they do not refute the null hypotheses: they are therefore negative.
But even then it’s still not that simple.
All trials are equal, but some are more equal than others
There is no doubt that some of these 44% trials will be of a higher quality than others and what’s important is which of them are the better ones and what do the results of those show. Creating a trial that gives positive results for homeopathy is easy, but we should not be swayed by any trial without looking closely at how robust it is. If it is a trial that was not robust methodologically, we should view it with suspicion and treat its results with extreme caution. What we need to do — assuming what we’re trying to achieve is not to confirm preconceived beliefs but to genuinely look to see what the best, most robust, most independent, least biased evidence tell us — is to tentatively acknowledge those better results until such time as even better evidence comes along.
This isn’t the place to go through all the trials making up the 44%, but it’s useful to remind ourselves of the time when the Society of Homeopaths were investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority over claims they made. Their evidence was demolished by the ASA as not being up to the standard required to substantiate the claims they made. Although the ASA don’t identify the evidence the SoH provided, Cool Hard Logic on YouTube has had a very good go at identifying most of the papers. His demolition of them is a joy to watch.
But as Linde et al. noted after examining 89 placebo-controlled trials of homeopathy:
We conclude that in the study set investigated, there was clear evidence that studies with better methodological quality tended to yield less positive results.
Of course, looking at all the best evidence leads to just one conclusion:
It is concluded that the best clinical evidence for homeopathy available to date does not warrant positive recommendations for its use in clinical practice.
That’ll be a negative, then.
Why does Tredinnick believe otherwise?
The magazine article
Next up is the magazine article Tredinnick sent to Lamb. Perhaps it has that elusive evidence?
It’s not really worth demolishing all the tropes spewed out in it by homeopath Carol Boyce MCH CCH RSHom(NA), but the flavour of it can be got from just a couple of quotes:
Under the guise of ‘protecting’ children from the ‘scourge’ of childhood diseases, known to kill or maim just a handful of (already sick) children every year in the West, the push for enforced mass vaccination may be trading our children’s entire futures and with them the very future of society itself. (For more information on this see: http://www.ageofautism.com.)
The link to the notorious anti-vax site Age of Autism is very telling.
But, of course, homeopathy comes to the rescue:
Treating a case of ASD [Autism Spectrum Disorder] should be no different for the homeopath than any other case, although the options for success seem to be increased when the homeopath is familiar with the specific symptomatology of ASD, in order to identify the strange, rare, peculiar and characteristic symptoms of the case and not confuse them with those that belong to the diagnosis.
We can initially take the pressure off the system by removing the maintaining causes — gluten and casein — from the diet and supplementation to address the nutritional deficiencies that impact the ability to synthesise, catabolise and excrete.
Ultimately, though, the body must be able to complete these processes independently in order to sustain health in the absence of supplementation. Once these metabolic processes are reset and working efficiently, it stands to reason that external supplementation is no longer required and has the potential to overload the system, especially a system that has already had problems with excretion and subsequent toxicity.
There you have it in all it’s sciencey-sounding jargon finery, the simple solution to treating ASD.
If only someone would tell the doctors.
At least the article doesn’t fall into the usual referenciness trope and lists just:
Baron-Cohen S et al (2009) ‘Prevalence of autism-spectrum conditions: UK school-based population study.’ The British Journal of Psychiatry 194, 500-509 http://www.cdc.gov/vaccinesafety/Activities/vsd/priority_studies.html#3
Knapp M, Romeo R, Beecham J (2007) Economic Consequences of Autism in the UK. Foundation for People with Learning Disabilities
Boyce C (2007) ‘Magnus Pharma and the Golden Goose — The case of allopathy and the implications for homeopathy.’ Similia Vol 19 No 1 June 2007
Klein L (2010) http://www.narayana-verlag.com/spectrum-homeopathy/louis-klein-the-orchid-project?fromOverview=spectrum-homeopathy-012010
Scholren J (2009) http://www.interhomeopathy.org/lanthanides_in_pdd_nos
Shang A (2005) http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(05)67177-2/abstract
None of those, however, provide Tredinnick’s ‘clear evidence that homeopathy is effective in treating autism’.
Just stop it
And finally, CEASE Therapy.
Standing for Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression, this has also been well covered elsewhere: here by Orac:
Apparently Tinus Smits was no different. I’ll give him credit, though. If you’re a homeopath and believe that autism is caused by vaccines, toxic medicine, other toxic substances and “some diseases,” what would you treat autistic children with? If you know the Law of Similars, you know the answer. The Law of Similars states that the way to treat a symptom is to use a diluted substance that causes the symptoms. So, if you’re a homeopath, it’s rather obvious. If you believe, against all science, against all reason, against all medicine that vaccines, “toxic medicine” and other “toxic substances” cause autism, then there’s only one thing to do, isn’t there. Yes, that’s right:
The treatment of autistic children and even adults has matured through 300 cases over the last three years and is called CEASE Therapy, which stands for Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression. Step by step all causative factors (vaccines, regular medication, environmental toxic exposures, effects of illness, etc.) are detoxified with the homeopathically prepared, that is diluted and potentized substances that caused the autism. Currently we use the 30C, 200C, 1M and 10M potencies to clear out the energetic field of the patient from the imprint of toxic substances or diseases.
Yep. Unadulterated pseudo scientific nonsense.
CEASE Therapy is frequently advertised on the websites of homeopaths and the notion that vaccines are the cause of just about everything is well ingrained in the homeopathic psyche.
But still no ‘clear evidence’. Perhaps there isn’t any after all.
Coincidentally, Tredinnick is hosting an event at Westminster this evening that promises to be, erm, interesting. As announced on the website of the Confederation of Healing Organisations:
An email sent out by a PR company (whose website doesn’t even appear to work) gave more details:
The evening, co-hosted by David Tredinnick and the Parliamentary Group for Integrated Healthcare, will begin with Professor Chris A. Roe (University of Northampton) presenting the positive results arising from the most comprehensive meta-analysis to date into the scientific evidence for the efficacy of healing as a complementary therapy. Immediately following this there will be a unique opportunity to question several of the lead researchers about the research and also the results. There will then be a wider discussion with the researches [sic] and a variety of representatives within the healing community about the implications of these results and what this means for healing as a complementary therapy within and alongside the NHS.
Forget homeopathy. Move aside chiropractic. Ignore acupuncture. We appear to have good positive evidence for Healing!
The history of Healing stretches back for thousands of years. Nowadays most Healers view their work as a natural and purposeful energy based process which, from mostly anecdotal evidence, is believed to help relieve everyday stress, provide a sense of physical and emotional revitalisation and on some occasions bring about a deep sense of peace.
If you’re none the wiser, you’re not alone.
To conduct an analytical review of the published empirical studies on healing to date to determine whether it is tenable to claim that directed intention can have a measurable effect on another living system and to identify best practice to maximise effect sizes in future research (Confederation of Healing Organisations)
…so it looks like he’s presenting the results of this research.
It’ll be interesting to see what this meta-analysis is and how it stands up to scrutiny. Will it be ‘clear evidence’ as Tredinnick might think, or just ‘homeopathic’ levels of evidence?
If I get any information on it, I’ll let you know.
Oh my God — it’s full of stars!
Tredinnick certainly seems to believe in it. In the House of Commons in 2009, he declared:
In 2001 I raised in the House the influence of the moon, on the basis of the evidence then that at certain phases of the moon there are more accidents. Surgeons will not operate because blood clotting is not effective and the police have to put more people on the street.
It would be easy, you would have thought, to provide evidence for clear claims such as those.
Evidence, for David Tredinnick, is nebulous, variable and malleable to suit whatever hobby-horse he is currently promoting.
Do homeopaths’ claims that trials are too expensive and that they can’t afford them hold water?
Science is simply a systematic way for carefully and thoroughly observing nature and using consistent logic to evaluate results. Which part of that exactly do you disagree with?
— Dr Steven Novella
But homeopaths have a problem: all advertising in the UK has to comply with the Advertising Standards Authority’s CAP Code and this rightly demands a high standard of evidence for any claim, regardless of whether it’s about how clean a soap powder makes your whites, how efficient double-glazed windows are or how much a skin cream reduces the appearance of wrinkles. So it is with homeopathy: high quality evidence is required. Continue reading
The exposé by Prof David Colquhoun of the interference by the Department of Health — at the behest of homeopathy promoters — in the publication of impartial, scientifically-based information about homeopathy on the NHS Choices website has been covered by the Guardian and the Daily Mail this past week.
Damned by their own words, the DoH said in response to the draft submitted by the editors of NHS Choices that mentioned the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s comprehensive Evidence Check report on homeopathy:
Can we remove this statement? This report is really quite contentious and we may well be subject to quite a lot of challenge from the Homeopathic community if published.
The statement was removed. What NHS Choices were eventually told to publish was a biased sop to homeopathy, including a list of the main homeopathy trade bodies and a list of medical conditions homeopathy could, apparently, treat.
Andy Lewis, on his excellent website, The Quackometer, asked that we contact our MP over this to demand NHS Choices be allowed to replace this biased page with one that properly reflects the scientific consensus on homeopathy so that the public can make properly informed choices in their health care.
Below is our email to our MP. We urge all those concerned about the public being given unbiased information to write to your own MP — please feel free to use whatever you feel useful.
We are concerned to read that the Department of Health has been interfering with the content of the NHS Choices website to the detriment of the public’s ability to make informed choices about health care.
It was reported in the Guardian on 13 February (Prince’s charity lobbied government to water down homeopathy criticism) and in the Daily Mail on 15 February (Homeopathy charity run by Charles ‘cowed civil servants’ into supporting the therapy) that the NHS Choices website editor had been prevented from stating the lack of scientific evidence for homeopathy for fear of lobbying from the ‘homeopathy community’. This debacle came to light after a Freedom of Information request by Professor David Colquhoun.
As a result of this interference, the page on homeopathy as it stands now is in danger of misleading the public into thinking that homeopathy may be able to treat potentially serious medical conditions such as asthma, ear infections, high blood pressure and depression when there is no scientific evidence to suggest this is the case.
In his response to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check report on homeopathy (which recommended removal of all NHS funding for homeopathy because of the complete lack of scientific evidence), the Secretary of State for Health stated:
10. In order for the public to make informed choices, it is therefore vitally important that the scientific evidence base for homeopathy is clearly explained and available. He will therefore engage further with the Department of Health to ensure communication to the public is addressed. His position remains that the evidence of efficacy and the scientific basis of homeopathy is highly questionable.
He also stated:
14. The Government agrees that, when looking at the evidence base for efficacy, it is important to focus on the most scientifically robust studies and evidence.
It is therefore incomprehensible and deplorable that the Department of Health believes it now acceptable to tell the public that homeopathy can be used to treat the following:
- ear infections
- hay fever
- other mental health conditions, such as stress and anxiety
- allergies, such as food allergies
- dermatitis (an allergic skin condition)
- high blood pressure
For such a highly respected, informative and authoritative source of sound medical information such as NHS Choices to have been forced by the DoH into publishing such erroneous information on homeopathy is disgraceful and unacceptable.
This can only lead to the public being mislead and potentially making ill-advised and dangerous health care decisions.
As we are sure you are aware, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, has recently made clear that homeopathy is ‘rubbish’. The DoH needs to heed this advice and allow NHS Choices to completely re-write the page on sound scientific and evidence-based principles.
We also note that Anna Soubry recently stated to the House:
The Department [of Health] does not maintain a position on any particular complementary or alternative medicine treatments including homeopathy.
We therefore ask you to request that the Secretary of State for Health explain these actions and that he allow NHS Choices the freedom to ensure that the public can make the informed choice that are entitled to make based on sound scientific evidence and principles and not to have that distorted by vested interests.
We look forward to receiving your reply.
Thanks and best regards.
I’ll let you know what response we get.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOIA) is an important tool for everyone, not just skeptics. It gives the right to anyone to ask for any information held by public authorities who are obliged to supply that information unless it is covered by a limited number of exemptions.
The House of Commons Justice Committee said earlier this year:
The Freedom of Information Act has been a significant enhancement of our democracy.
Indeed it is, but it is under threat and a campaign was started earlier this year to protect it. The threats to it are concisely summarised in an e-petition to the Government (unfortunately now closed):
Leave FOI Alone (#saveFOI)
Responsible department: Ministry of Justice
The Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI) has exposed the scandal of MPs’ expenses, and many examples of waste and improper behaviour by public authorities, politicians and public officials. We call on the government not to allow it to be watered down, nor for there to be a charge for making requests for information.
The public authorities covered by the FOIA are listed in Schedule 1 to the Act and include the bodies you would expect and maybe a few you’ve never heard of.
But Trading Standards (TS) is one such public authority covered by the FOIA.
Each Local Authority in the country has a Trading Standards service and they are the guardians of an impressive list [Link disabled because of possible malware on that website] of regulations, orders and rules including the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008 and, of course, the Cancer Act 1939.
I have never requested any information under the FOIA about Trading Standards, but it’s easy to see that some information could be very useful in finding out, say, information on complaints and understanding how they work and deal with complaints.
A very useful tool for all Local Authority residents and others.
But maybe not in North Tyneside.