Last year, North and South magazine ran a feature on alt-med that came down robustly on the side of science and evidence-based medicine. So far, so good.

Incensed by the phrase "homeopathic remedies have failed every randomised, evidence-based scientific study seeking to verify their claims of healing powers" a Tauranga-based homeopathist took a complaint to the Press Council, New Zealand's media watchdog -- as is his right. So far, again, so good.  The Press Council is an industry body, and its rules allow for at most two rounds of argument and counter-argument. But in this case they decided to allow a third -- unusual, but perhaps not a terrible sin.

The third round of argument took the form of a letter from one Dr David St George.  His submission begins with a recitation of his qualifications, which are not insignificant -- he has a medical degree from the University of Auckland, and further qualifications in medical statistics -- so far, so good. 

However, it is hard to see Dr David St George as an "independent" expert, although he appears to have been treated as such by the Press Council, as he is deeply involved with "complementary medicine".  The list of credentials that open his letter cite his role as "Chief Advisor-Integrative Care" with New Zealand's Ministry of Health, and a previous role with the NHS in the United Kingdom.  But nowhere does it mention he was on the British Acupuncture Accreditation Board, or that he was -- as Siouxsie Wiles discovered -- "Director of Research" at the The Prince's Foundation for Integrated Health, an alt-med group which closed in somewhat unsavory circumstances.  If he had disclosed these interests, it would have presumably been clear to the Press Council that Dr St George was someone who both advocated for, promoted and practiced complementary medicine. 

Dr St George is also involved with the "Rata Foundation" -- which is dedicated to research in "complementary and alternative medicine".  It was formerly listed as a company in New Zealand with Dr St George as a director. Its website survives to this day, and Dr St George is the Whois-listed owner of the domain.   The Rata Foundation's vision, which is presumably largely synonymous with that of Dr St George himself, includes this fairly standard assemblage of pseudo-scientific clichés: 

The very foundations of scientific materialism, which underpins contemporary biomedical reductionism, were shaken during the 20th century. Advances in mathematics and physics have transformed science’s understanding of ultimate reality, away from the West’s classical mechanical view of the Cosmos, towards one that draws parallels with the mystical philosophies of other cultures. Developments in science and spirituality are now converging towards a new holistic scientific paradigm, and the consequences of this will be just as revolutionary as the paradigm shift that ushered in the first scientific revolution. However, unlike the first revolution (which rejected the previous religious view of the Cosmos), the second scientific revolution will not reject the fruits of the materialistic paradigm that it will replace.

Now I am on my home ground.  My scientific background is in particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology.  If the statement above was true, you might expect that mystical belief and practices would be more common among theoretical physicists than the general population, but I assure you they are not. You can certainly find individual physicists who have deep religious and spiritual beliefs, but the overall community tends to the atheistic and materialist (although not particularly materialistic). Likewise, the 20th Century undoubtedly saw massive changes in our understanding of the physical universe and the molecular basis of life: the mechanisms at the basis of countless physical and biological systems have been exposed and understood.  But this only adds weight to the reductionist paradigm, and does nothing to "shake" it.   Dr St George is certainly entitled to his views (and he is not unique in holding them) but the blunt truth is that they are at odds with the opinions of the vast majority of scientists, and put him at odds with the mainstream scientific community.

So where does that leave us? It seems the Press Council relied heavily on the opinion of an acupuncturist to reach a conclusion that North and South had been too hard on homeopathy,  using a process that deviated from their own stated and established procedures. Given that they allowed a third round of argument, it would seem like a good idea for them to allow a fourth round of debate.   As Siouxsie Wiles points out, the statement in the North and South article that there is no evidence for the efficacy alternative medicine could have been phrased more felicitously -- there is indeed some evidence for this, but it is more than outweighed by the much larger body of evidence against it, such that the opinion of the scientific community is that any value it holds is as a placebo -- and the broad thrust of the reporters' comment is indeed correct.  

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, given that the New Zealand government is dedicated to squeezing public spending, can we ask exactly what the Ministry of Health's involvement with "alternative medicine" might be, and whether the public money spent in this area would be better deployed elsewhere? 

5 Comments