Friday 28 August 2015

Magic Sugar Pills

Jeremy Corbyn, frontrunner to become the next leader of the Labour party, claims to believe in the efficacy of magic sugar pills. This not only makes him a bad leader, it makes him a bad socialist.

It has emerged that Corbyn signed a House of Commons motion in 2010 approving the provision of homeopathy on the NHS, and later confirmed his support for it on Twitter.

Other MPs on the list include Tim Farron, now leader of the Liberal Democrats. (I have already expressed serious doubts about Farron's moral fibre.) The Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, has also stated his support for homeopathy. In their disregard for science they join the SNP, with its recent ban on all genetically modified crops in Scotland. With the possible exception of Plaid Cymru, not a single party in Parliament is unequivocally in favour of science. This is alarming and depressing in equal measure.

Medicine: More effective when it contains something other than sugar.

The scientific evidence is very clear: Homeopathy achieves nothing more than the placebo effect. It consists of "medicines" diluted so far that no trace of the supposed active ingredient can remain. It is an industry which sells these products to sick and vulnerable people, some of whom have died after substituting homeopathy for conventional medical care. It consumes resources which could instead be spent on real medicine.

A Prime Minister must decide on matters of life and death. With his support for homeopathy, Corbyn demonstrates a shameful lack of critical thinking, unfit for one who aspires to high office. He might as well believe the UK's energy grid can be replaced by a perpetual motion machine which runs on happy thoughts.

I'm not the first person to express anger and disappointment at Corbyn's support of homeopathy. This has in turn prompted hand-wringing articles, frightened that by speaking so bluntly, we might encourage believers in homeopathy to hold on to their irrational views.

That's just too bad. I am not disposed to be gentle with nonsense like this. Corbyn, Farron and the others are not only adults, they are elected members of Parliament. They are old enough to know better. They are in a position of power and public trust. They have a responsibility to base their choices on reason.

Science and socialism

I am particularly disgusted that anyone who calls himself a socialist, liberal or progressive can support such quackery.

Make no mistake, I understand the motivation. Technology is largely controlled by industry, and industry is controlled by capitalists. Doctors and scientists can come across as stuffy, arrogant, and condescending. Besides, sometimes they get it wrong. It's no surprise that some believe opposing science is a way of sticking it to the Man. This point of view may be understandable, but it is dead wrong.

Science is a force for liberation. It does not matter if you are a tycoon, prince or Pope; the natural world does not bow to your whims. Science does not respect any authority other than that of nature itself. Technology can be misused by the few, but it can also raise up the many.

Consider the NHS. Whatever faults he may have, I am sure Corbyn would defend the idea of public health care to his last breath. Now for a naive question: Why is the NHS valuable?

It's not simply because of good intentions. Medieval cathedrals were collective endeavours meant to appease a deity, in the hopes of bountiful harvests and protection from plagues. Their value is cultural and artistic; they are not important to our lives in the same way as the NHS.

The NHS is valuable because it works. It gives people longer and healthier lives than they would otherwise have. It can do this work because of effective modern medicine, based on science. It is difficult, costly, and does not always succeed, but medicine gives us good health and long life our ancestors could have scarcely dreamed of.

In Britain in the middle of the twentieth century, a group of people stood up and demanded this power be shared. The boon of life and health was not something to be hoarded by the rich. It was to be made available to everyone, because rich or poor, each life is unique and valuable.

These benefits only existed in the first place because of science. Twentieth-century socialism had a deep respect for science from which Corbyn would do well to learn. I can easily imagine Attlee, Bevan, and other giants of the Labour party shaking their heads in despair at his embrace of homeopathy.

The past and future

Let us look a little further back in time. In the medieval era, kings didn't care about science. New inventions are disruptive, and they liked the system just fine the way it was. Meanwhile, most of our ancestors struggled simply to find enough to eat. It was the grubby artisans who learned about nature, built machines, shared knowledge, and devised technology which has made our lives better.

It is because of technology that we have printed books and newspapers, leisure time, even sufficient food and clean water. It enables us to take part in political activism, or just play games and watch cat videos. None of this was handed to us by magic sparkly pixies. It exists because of careful reasoning and hard work.

Now look to the future. Our species faces mortal danger from climate change, disease, and depletion of resources. If our civilisation survives, it will become saturated by and dependent on computers in ways we can hardly imagine. Our only hope of navigating these changes, and securing some sort of decent life for the people of this planet, is the intelligent and humane application of science.

The rich and powerful have the least to fear. They can hoard the necessities of life for themselves, and hire mercenaries to keep the crowds at bay. If ecological catastrophe strikes, they will continue to live in luxury, or at the very least their safe havens will be the last to fall. Science is needed more than ever to protect those of us who cannot retreat to a private fortress.

In the face of these profound challenges, Corbyn and his ilk decide to embrace the concept of magic sugar pills. It is self-indulgent, frivolous and irresponsible, and I believe that we deserve better from our leaders.

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