Homeopathy: it's total bunkum... so don't fund it
Arnica? Has anybody got some arnica?" Ah, I remember it well, from my children's early days: the urgent cry that went up from the other mummies when one of their little darlings fell over and grazed his knee. (Yes, I know, it was my own fault for hanging out with gullible hippies.)
Arnica – one of the most popular homeopathic remedies – was their go-to treatment of choice for any kind of cut, bump or bruise. I always thought it was nonsense. How could some magic potion, watered down so much that it didn't actually contain any arnica at all, only the "memory" of it, achieve some dramatic healing that a blob of good old Germolene cream couldn't?
Medical science has since proved me right on this one. Repeatedly. Arnica – like all other homeopathic treatments – is useless. Any apparent positive effects are all in the mind. You might as well attempt to cure your sore elbow by dancing naked at midnight round a cauldron of simmering toads while dousing yourself with bog-water. There's just as much evidence that it'll work.
Back in 2010, the Science and Technology Select Committee called for the complete withdrawal of NHS funding and official licensing of homeopathy, on the basis that the principles under which it operates are "scientifically implausible". As one writer observed at the time, "the select committee report has brutally inflicted the 21st, 20th and 19th centuries on this 18th century magic ritual, and under inspection it has fallen apart".
The National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) does not recommend that homeopathy should be used in the treatment of any health condition. Professor Dame Sally Davies, the chief medical officer, agrees. She says it's "rubbish", and shouldn't be available on the NHS. Yet four years later, it still is, even though the government and its scientific advisers acknowledge it to be nothing more than a placebo.
And now this week, we had the absurd scenario of the UK health regulator, the Professional Standards Authority for Health and Social Care (PSA) – this is the body that oversees the General Medical Council – endorsing a register of qualified homeopaths. Why? Because they wanted to offer "consumer protection". "It's not saying anything about homeopathy," said Harry Cayton, chief executive of the authority. "It's accrediting the register, not the therapy ... What we're saying is, if you choose homeopathy, you probably want to have a homeopath who is competent within the rules of homeopathy."
But who cares about the rules of homeopathy if the practice itself has been shown not to work? Why invest this pseudo-science with an implied credibility that it doesn't deserve?
By that logic, if you choose the dancing-round-the-cauldron option, you'll want to make sure that your toads are of the finest provenance, and that the bog-water is at exactly the right temperature when it hits your skin. It still ain't gonna cure you. Quality assurance only means something when what you're being offered actually does what it claims to do.
There is no NHS funding for homeopathy here in Northern Ireland, but there are a number of private practitioners, and plenty of people are willing to shell out for their services and the treatments they provide.
Homeopathy is not necessarily the wackiest therapy on offer: though it still seems pretty wacky, to me, to expect people to believe that they're going to get healed by a remedy that hasn't a single molecule of the original substance remaining in the dose they actually get.
And yet they do believe, in their droves, and pay good money for it too. Another truly weird – and weirdly popular – 'alternative' treatment, available locally, is applied kinesiology, which involves pressing the muscles in your arm to see if you're allergic to certain foods. "All completely bizarre and, I am afraid, utter nonsense," as Professor Chris Corrigan, of Kings College London, stated in his evidence to the Commons select committee.
There was a drive, a few years ago, to make homeopathy available on the NHS here, back when Michael McGimpsey was in charge. Fortunately, it didn't appear to come to anything.
Our current Health Minister, Edwin Poots, may be more amenable to the possibility. After all if, as a creationist, he has no difficulty accepting – in defiance of established scientific evidence to the contrary – that men saddled up dinosaurs and rode around on them 4,000 years ago, I'm sure a little homeopathic tincture of toad won't be a problem.