This is a guest post written by Andy Wasley. Andy is a freelance writer based in London.
“There is no logic in attacking something that has a proven track record,” said David Tredinnick this week. Tredinnick (below) is a fairly low-ranking Conservative member of the British Parliament, and a member of Parliament’s Health and Science & Technology Committees. You’d be forgiven for assuming he might have been talking about stem cell research, nanotechnology, or micro-satellite constellations. He was talking about constellations, yes, but in a very different way.
Speaking in Parliament, Tredinnick said:
“I am absolutely convinced that those who look at the map of the sky for the day that they were born and receive some professional guidance will find out a lot about themselves and it will make their lives easier.”
This is only the most recent example of the man’s attachment to outright nonsense. Back in 2009 he was telling members of Parliament that the moon influences blood clotting in a speech supporting homeopaths in their efforts to seek statutory recognition.
It’s true enough that odder and darker things are said in the House of Commons from time to time, but it’s a little too easy to dismiss Tredinnick’s comments as simple, harmless eccentricity. This man is supposed to play a serious role in helping improve Britain’s health and science policies. Given his deep personal attachment to quackery and astrology, it’s surely fair to describe his views as harmful — certainly where credulous patients are concerned.
Unfortunately Tredinnick is in comfortable territory: Parliament provides room for politicians of all ranks to indulge their tastes for magic. We don’t even need to leave science and health to find examples. In May the Guardian reported that the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, had asked Britain’s Chief Medical Officer, Dame Sally Davies, to review “evidence” from a discredited homeopathic “remedies” manufacturer. Hunt’s press team said he didn’t actually support homeopathy (despite his 2007 endorsement — along with the current Science Minister Greg Clark — of a Parliamentary motion celebrating the practice). But the fact remains that the man responsible for the publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) is perfectly willing to waste money on a doomed quest to find therapeutic value where every scientist says it doesn’t exist.
Hunt needn’t even have invented a new reason to throw pounds at piffle, because homeopathy already receives direct public funding from the NHS — between £4 million and £12 million ($7 million and $20 million) per year, a fact which amazes the Chief Medical Officer and which should amaze taxpayers as well. This appalling waste is justified on the grounds of providing patients with the choice of an “alternative” form of treatment. Would Parliament be so indulgent if the head of the Royal Air Force had spent money researching levitation as an alternative to jet propulsion? Or if the Home Secretary suggested police should consult necromancers as an alternative to DNA profiling?
You don’t need to dig too deep to find even higher profile support for the numinous over the practical. Prince Charles has achieved notoriety for, among other things, lobbying successive governments to throw money at “holistic” medicine. Charles will be king one day, a position in which he will be free to advise, warn, and encourage the Prime Minister directly (and without public scrutiny) to consider flower remedies and reiki healing as serious solutions to public health policy issues. Even ardent monarchists cringe when they hear Charles’ drivel about such alternative medicines.
In terms of real political power, even Prime Minister David Cameron has some distinctly colorful opinions on faith and reason. Respect for faith in the absence of — or contrary to — evidence isn’t seen as a virtue until it involves a god. So what hope do we have of encouraging people to consider evidence and reason when Cameron insists (against evidence of widespread disdain for religion) that Britain is a “Christian” country?
We needn’t look further than the U.S. Congress to see why evangelical Christianity is not a sensible solution to society’s ills. Religion is running wild and free in U.S. politics, making it close to impossible to have serious debates about issues ranging from gay rights to medical research. In Britain we like to think we’re above that, but the Prime Minister himself thinks Christians have a special claim to moral rightness. Naturally, he glossed over the church’s baffling stance on talking snakes and magic corpses. If you can stomach that, after all, then why not indulge ministers and princes when they propound their equally baffling views on star charts and sugar pills? It’s all a matter of faith.
I don’t wish to be too parochial. Britain is a middling world power, but we share much with the U.S. culturally and politically. (Religiously too: British readers will surely recall rumors that Tony Blair prayed with George W. Bush before the Iraq War, a suggestion dismissed by Blair with quivering indignation.) It would be wonderful to think that our shared concerns could inspire our politicians to look to each other for good ideas and sound policies. But political superstition makes that harder.
No-one likes listening to weirdos, and even deeply religious politicians are usually sensible enough to react to superstitions in disdain. They recognise that when gods are taken out of the question, belief in magic taints policy with the stink of stupidity. If you don’t think it’s something to be too worried about, look to the future: consider for a moment the fact that Hillary Clinton thinks the ghost of Eleanor Roosevelt talks to her, and ask if this kind of arrant nonsense is what you want to hear from a prospective leader of the free world. We should all be deeply concerned when politicians suggest answers can be sought from stars or spirits.