Rolfe wrote: “but the SAS spokesman seemed to have lost the plot - that response was more suited to the House of Commons than a scientific debate”
We had already put Channel 4 onto some good scientific participants, whom they used, but this clearly wasn’t going to be a scientific debate. We did weigh up the response at our office. When contacted by Channel 4 with Peter Fisher’s interview content, we replied:
You know, this is a bit weird – it’s like being emailed ‘this guy says you’re paedophiles, can you give us a comment’. He is making an allegation that Sense About Science –a charity - is being paid by the pharmaceutical industry to lobby against homeopathy and that we were paid by some other kind of industry to lobby for insecticides and GM crops (both at the same time?). Moreover, since his concern is the criticisms by scientists, clinicians and people across the NHS of funding unproven treatments, then the implication is that we are passing money on to them for their criticisms. The suggestion that the hundreds of scientists who have contacted our trust to raise concerns about the lack of public information about homeopathy and the need for better public understanding of evidence based medicine are motivated by financial interest is just silly. All of the leading scientific and medical institutions in the UK are in favour of evidence based medicine and have not found any convincing evidence for homeopaths’ claims that water has a memory.
Sense About Science is largely funded by trusts and foundations (over 60%). The remainder of our income is from donations from professional societies, companies, community organisations, individual scientists and members of the public, and our annual lecture. Some of the companies who have donated to us in the past are in the pharmaceutical industry, as you would expect with a science education charity. This has no bearing on our work. Our response to any subject is decided by our trustees and by the requests for information we receive from members of the public and scientists. We have produced a leaflet ‘Sense About Homeopathy’ because people often assume that homeopathy is some kind of herbal remedy. It is on our website. We have coordinated responses from hundreds of scientists and scientific organisations in response to discussions about licensing rules for homeopathy (also on our website). We have exposed the sale of homeopathic anti-malarial tablets to members of the public (at which time Peter Fisher phoned us up and asked us to put him forward for news programmes so that he could criticise the practice too, which we did!). We have made public the criticisms of scientists and clinicians about continued use of unproven treatments on the NHS, including homeopathy (and their letters to the NHS about that) but also including tonsillectomy and other practices.
If the allegations were true, we would be in breach of our funding policy and declaration of trust. While the allegations are silly, you can imagine our trustees take that very seriously. Peter Fisher’s concern is with the future of his hospital, something in which he has a clear and obvious financial interest. I have no idea what the position of any industry is about homeopathy on the NHS but I imagine anyone selling services to the NHS could gain from the lower evidence threshold that homeopaths seem to be arguing for. It might not be what any industry – homeopathic or otherwise – wants, but for the public benefit, high quality evidence and honest information in all areas of therapy are essential.
Sense About Science has never campaigned for the adoption of a particular technology or therapy of any kind. We respond only to requests for information and to correct misinformation.”
We had several phone calls with Channel 4 too. They knew the allegations to be untrue but would not drop them from the piece. This is probably because it was a soft news item, which the news editor bounced several times from busy news days, so the correspondent clearly felt it needed to appear controversial and edgy. We were given a very short response time. Every draft we wrote sounded defensive – because it’s unavoidably on the terms set by someone making wild claims - and a bit pompous. We, and several scientists we consulted, resented being put in a defensive position by Fisher’s untrue claims. We decided that the only way to avoid that was an un-editable one-liner. I’m sure other people could have come up with something better and welcome other ideas. In the meantime, I think Victoria MacDonald thought she made a balanced piece (she said on the phone ‘it’s not pro-homeopathy’) so it is certainly worth a few letters to Channel 4 to point out some of the mistakes, like confusing homeopathy with herbal medicine, and the dangers of what the programme implied about the Iraqi guy with stomach problems. TB