Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Another attempt to make the Soil Association see sense.

So I received a wholly unsatisfactory response from the Soil Association to my enquiry about their recommendation of the use of homeopathy to treat farm animals. It's worth another go isn't it?
Hi Georgia,
Thank you very much for your response. Unfortunately it largely fails to address the points of concern in my email. While I applaud your commitment to animal welfare and all the measures you require regarding conditions the animals are kept and transported in and the prevention of habitual, unnecessary use of growth-hormones and antibiotics, homeopathy cannot be seen to be a valid part of such a practice. You speak of using alternative medicines "where these can be shown to be effective", but the standards of evidence you use to determine this must be set very low indeed in order for homeopathy to be included in any treatment regime. The opinion of any number of organic farmers or even veterinarians, based on their personal experience is not the same as data from genuine trials, it is just a collection of anecdotes, which proves nothing. The only way to genuinely prove the effectiveness of an intervention is through a properly controlled trial including subject and experimenter blinding, and a control group, the allocation to which is randomised. Such tests repeatedly demonstrate that Homeopathy is not effective for anything. If you (or Yeo Valley and their vets) have references to papers describing such studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy for, using two examples from Yeo Valley blog, the control of flies or reducing stress in livestock, I would be very interested to read them.
You say that the "philosophy" of homeopathy would encourage empathy or observance in stockmen; I have read fairly widely on this practice and have not come across anything that would indicate this to be the case. Perhaps you could direct me to some reference?
The bottom line is that, as has been demonstrated by the available scientific literature, homeopathy is not an effective intervention for anything it has so far been tested for, and that enough work has been done to indicate that further testing would be a waste of time and money. If an intervention is required then an effective one should be given or this is neglect. If no intervention is required then one should not be given otherwise the price - a significant barrier to adoption by many consumers - of organic produce is needlessly driven up. The worst possible situation is where an intervention is required and an ineffective one is given, thus both neglecting the animal and driving up the price of produce. Vets who practice or encourage homeopathy may be well-meaning but have been fooled by the unscientific  nonsense that surrounds the practice of so-called "complementary" and "alternative" medicines. 
I feel that adherence to the recommendation of this practice tarnishes the reputation of your organisation and would again recommend that you strongly reconsider it and raise the bar of evidence for medical interventions you recommend significantly. 
Please do not think I am against your organisation in principle, I just think that adherence to complementary medicines, and particularly obvious bunk like homeopathy, does you a disservice that hampers the adoption of organic produce by consumers; it will cause some who support your cause to abandon it as it both gives a poor impression of your ability to correctly judge scientific evidence, and constitutes unintentional neglect of the animals.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

The Soil Association Replies

Here's what I've been sent in response to my email (and Ben's Tweets presumably)

Dear Tim,
Thank you for your letter regarding the use of homeopathy in organic standards.
The trust and support you have given the Soil Association is much appreciated and I am sorry you feel this issue may make you re-consider buying organic produce given our ongoing commitment to, and highest level of engagement with, animal health and welfare.
The welfare of animals is central to Soil Association organic principles - No system of farming has higher levels of animal welfare standards than organic farms working to Soil Association standards and Compassion in World Farming believes the “Soil Association's welfare standards are leaders in the field.” (Joyce d'Silva).
Under organic rules, all aspects of animal health and welfare are tightly controlled, including rearing, shelter, feeding, transportation and slaughter. We do however believe that ensuring good health is better than relying on drugs to treat disease, which is why we put so much emphasis on practices that encourage healthy farm animals. Organic farmers do this in many practical ways, such as keeping numbers down to reduce stress, providing appropriate nutritious feed and ensuring easy access to the outdoors. Organic animals cannot be given growth promoting hormones, regular doses of antibiotics or genetically modified (GM) feed.
Encouraging healthy farm animals also means using complementary therapies where appropriate. Under our standards, sick animals are treated using complementary remedies- of which homeopathy is one part of- where these can be shown to be effective, unless a vet says an animal needs antibiotics or other medicines; in which case they must be given. When this happens organic standards require a set period of time has to pass before the animal can produce products for sale as organic. These are generally three times as long as those required by law for non-organic food. 
For all complementary therapies our standards specify that they are used 'with professional veterinary guidance and provided that their healing effect works for the species and condition you are treating'. This affords farmers and their professional advisors the freedom to make choices for the animals under their responsibility, in full knowledge that they will lose organic status if we find that they have not met their overriding duty to ensure good animal welfare. 
The underlying philosophy of homeopathy will support the farmer to be more observant and empathetic stockman, which has to be a good thing. For more serious problems, conventional treatments, such as antibiotics, may also be needed to help return an animal to good health. The important thing is that we actively encourage each and every organic farm to create a model for optimum health and vitality, that sees disease as a reflection of something deeper in the system that needs correcting, and that uses conventional drugs when genuinely needed, rather than as substitute for poor husbandry. 
We have much collective experience that for many routine problems homoeopathic and herbal treatments will be do the job very well, without any compromise to animal welfare, and put simply, many farmers and vets find that the homoeopathic approach works - which is why they continue to use it. The choice of treatment is ultimately down to the livestock keeper. This blog from Yeo Valley talks about use of homeopathy on their farms if you're interested in reading more -
We do not shy away from the debate that surrounds this therapy with both sides of the argument receiving regular airings in our own membership publications. I would encourage you look at some more sources of information on this large and in-depth field – I have included these below.
I hope this explains our position sufficiently and that you feel able to continue to support our work. 
Best wishes,Georgia Catt
To see our standard on complementary veterinary medicines, including homeopathic treatments see section 10.9 of our organic standards online
A wide range of treatments and debate about their use can be found in the proceedings of the SAFO workshops These present a balanced perspective from across Europe and show that veterinary professionals are on both side of the debate.

Georgia CattPress & e-Communications Officer
Hats off to them for bothering to respond. Needless to say I still disagree and will be responding in the not too distant future.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Atheist school visits?

So an interesting question was posed on Facebook by a theistic neo-pagan pal; interesting enough, I thought, to be worthy of a relatively comprehensive response, so here it is.

The feint went thus:
To all my good atheist/Dawkins following/SitP friends out there, please indulge me, I am curious, if you were invited to go to a local school and do a talk on the subject would you accept?
and then after a number of responses from atheist/skeptics in the affirmative, the actual thrust of the argument:
"very interesting. I didn't really set a context but the question came up in a conversation the other day. Most people who share Dawkins view would be up in arms going bonkers if a priest came to give a talk at there local school, explaining and encouraging his religion.. yet most dedicated Athiests etc don't see any reason why they should not do so themselves. Is this not a touch... hypocritical?"
With the follow up, which I'm assuming was at least half in jest :
P.s. What do Athiests call a Devil's advocate?
In the interests of any easy win, I'll hit the postscript first; most of us call it a "Devil's advocate". By and large we're not so prissy as to reject accepted metaphorical language constructs, even when they originate from a now defunct role within the Catholic church. I don't hate the term, but I do hate how it's often used these days. I may elaborate on why in a later post, but for now let's get back to the meat.

I think in order to adequately talk about this topic it's important to get a bit of groundwork done; there are a number of points that need making clear up front.
  1. There is a bias toward faith, and particularly the Christian faith, both implicit and explicit in the state schooling of the UK.
  2. Atheism is not a faith-based position, nor is it a type of religion, nor is it a belief system. Flippantly "Atheism is a religion only in the same sense that baldness can be said to be a hair-colour"1
  3. It's by no means clear that all, or even most, atheists would be "up in arms" if a religious leader were to talk to a class, depending on the religious leader, in the right context. This appears to be a straw man.

a. The Faith Bias.
I shan't dwell too long on the tolerance of Faith schools, which have been shown to be divisive within society by perpetuating mistrust and intolerance, which would otherwise dissipate (and don't actually improve results by and large but achieve better results by the tighter selection criteria). I also shan't talk for too long about the idiotic new idea of academies, which allow religious organisations free reign with most of the syllabus. But it is worth talking about the mandatory requirement in state-funded schools (apart from the new academies), for a daily act of "collective worship...wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character". Now you may argue that parents may withdraw their children from such a practice, which is clearly an anachronism in a country where the majority now say they are not religious. However this would single out such children as different and expose them to ridicule, and additionally there is no mechanism for a child that is so inclined to opt out for themselves.
There is no mandated syllabus for religious education, so faith schools are free to teach only their brand of supernatural nonsense with no requirement even to tell pupils of any age that there are other religious viewpoints, let alone that it is perfectly normal to believe in no gods.
Religion gets a shoe-in at all state funded schools, faith schools and academies, an atheist speaker would go some tiny way to providing a little much needed balance. Is it hypocrisy to ask for a small redress of a significant imbalance? or to take the chance if it's offered?

b. Atheism is not a religion or faith-based position.
Atheist simply means "not a theist". A "theist" is a person who believes in the existence of god or gods, an "atheist" is simply someone who is not one of those people; a person who has no belief in a god or gods. This encompasses a pretty broad spectrum of positions including
  • most people who self-profess as agnostics: those who believe it is not possible to know for certain whether god exists, and IMHO those who either haven't yet thought about it hard enough, and those who are pretty sure there's no god, but are too chicken to state their opinion clearly.
  • people who don't actively believe in god but aren't really sure (see above)
  • those who think there's probably no god, but are open to further credible evidence (no, you can't reasonably call these people agnostics)
  • those who are certain there is no god, of whom there are very few; N.B. not even Dawkins puts himself in this category.
and all points in between. Being an atheist does not require the belief of anything that cannot be proven.
The hypocrisy charge won't stand, because it is not comparing like for like to consider a school visit from an atheist to that of a religious leader.

c. Are atheists really against religious people talking to schools?
Now I couldn't possibly accuse such an honest and genuine chap as our questioner of such tactics, but this statement seems akin to a theme/strategy often used by the religious where they say "atheists think this, and that's just stupid/hypocritical" when actually atheists don't really think that at all, and the accuser has either just assumed something without asking any atheists, have only asked one or two possibly unrepresentative or stupid ones, or is deliberately and deceitfully constructing a straw-man to poke sticks at. Let's be clear that it's very hard to say what all atheists believe, since they explicitly share nothing in common except the absence of belief in a deity; I can only tell you what I, and many eminent atheists such as Dawkins and particularly atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett believe. In his work "Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" Dennett proposes that the key to eliminating, not all religion, but those forms of religion that are most toxic, is to ensure that a proper religious education is given to all children. By "toxic" he means those forms of fundamentalism that cause people to perform horrific acts like beating up homosexuals, practising genital mutilation, shooting abortion doctors, blowing themselves up or flying planes into buildings; and by "proper" he means religious education that teaches about all religions, the history of that religion, and what people of that religion believe. Of course, despite atheism not being a religion, the syllabus must also make it clear to the students that there are people who follow no faith. Crucially, no child should be allowed to be excluded from such learning; surely any religion worth its salt can stand up to its practitioners learning about others? He even goes as far as to say that it doesn't matter how it is taught: the teacher could say "this is what those idiot Muslims/Hindus/Jains/Neo-Pagans/atheists think, and we know they're wrong" as long as they also make it clear that they will be tested on their knowledge of the beliefs and practices, not on their opinions of them. I won't go into the reasons why Dr Dan thinks this will work, but suffice to say that this idea is endorsed by many athiests including Dawkins and representatives of the National Secular Society and British Humanist Association.
It is of course true that many atheists would get angry at the thought of certain religious dogmas being taught to children: that homosexuality or the use of condoms is a sin, that women are inferior to men, that women should be stoned to death for showing their hair among examples of religious twattery; but you would hope that atheists wouldn't be the only people to become annoyed at such idiocy. And, of course we reserve the right to ridicule even the most harmless religious nonsense, but object to them telling children that's what they believe? Probably not.

To summarise, I don't think it is true that atheists (at least not all atheists, or even the so called "new" atheist celebrities) would object to a religious person explaining to a school what it is they believe, as long they weren't preaching hate, and even if it were true, it's not comparing like for like to compare atheists with the faithful, and even if that were true, it would still not be hypocrisy for an atheist to agree to present their beliefs to a school, in fact it would be a much needed step toward redressing the balance.

1 Anyone know the original source of this quote? I'd love to know.