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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 1st August 2014

There’s an image ‘doing the rounds’ showing a slide presented at some conference or other. It states that the amount of effort needed to counter bullshit is an order of magnitude greater than that required to create it.

That may be an underestimate if a recent interview with MP David Tredinnick is anything to go by. Tredinnick is a member of the House of Commons Health Select Committee and the Science and Technology Select Committee. Those appointments are especially of note since Tredinnick is a believer in a great many unscientific things.

Like many MPs, his expenses came in for scrutiny and it was found that he had claimed £755 for software and training in its use. The software was apparently about how to use astrology for diagnosing medical conditions. It would seem that Tradinnick wanted to assess the suitability of the software for use in the NHS. He has also spoken in parliament about the benefits of homeopathy and his conviction that it should be in widespread use throughout the health service.

To say he has ‘form’ for talking nonsense is redundant but his latest effort is worth looking at in a bit of detail.

He was interviewed on the radio station LBC by the journalist and broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer. You can hear the 11 minute interview via audioBoo. It’s a really good piece with Hartley-Brewer starting out by saying she didn’t expect to agree with anything Tredinnick had to say.

What struck me in particular about the interview, and the reason for writing about it, was that Tredinnick kept insisting that what he believed had been believed for thousands of years. He insisted that astrology was true and that a person’s birthdate determined how their life would go and what diseases they would suffer from. Julia’s counter to this was brilliant. She pointed out that insurance companies spend a fortune on research to assess risk so they know what premiums to charge. If it were as simple as asking someone’s birthdate and studying their astrology chart they would save themselves a lot of money.

Tredinnick’s conviction that astrology can be used medicinally makes him a modern day Culpeper. Culpeper’s 17th century ‘Complete Herbal and English Physician’ is described as ‘A book of natural remedies for ancient ills’. Culpeper gives the ‘government and virtues’ of every plant he describes and these sections begin by placing the plant in its astrological context. ‘It is a tree of Venus’ or ‘It is an herb of the Sun in Leo’ or ‘Venus owns it’ for example.

But the point I want to look at, because it is often relied on by quacks, is Tredinnick’s claim that the fact that things have been done in the past means they are true. Let’s look at a few examples. This is a small selection in alphabetical order.

Aristolochia clematitis, birthwort – given to women to ease childbirth. Causes kidney failure and cancer of the upper urinary tract.

Cannabis sativa, marijuana – believed to have been used medicinally for over 4,000 years. Used to treat over 100 conditions in the 19th century. Referred to by Dioscorides, Pliny & Galen. That last is significant because Tredinnick refers specifically to Galen in the interview. Treddinick always votes for tougher drug policy.

Helleborus, hellebores – a strong laxative so given to children to treat diarrhoea. Also used to treat mental illness.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane – used to treat toothache on the basis that it would kill the worms that burrowed into the teeth to cause toothache.

Lithospermum officinale, gromwell – Pliny states that the appearance of the seeds, looking as they do like stones, explains why it is the perfect treatment for kidney stones.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake – widely used as an aphrodisiac and, in mediaeval Germany mandrake root was kept as a talisman of good health. In an example of homeopathy that predates Hanhemann by hundreds of years, the water used to bathe the roots, weekly, was sold for its curative properties.

Papaver somniferum, opium poppy – in Egypt, 3,500 years ago, opium was given to babies & children to get them to sleep.

Rheum x hybridum, rhubarb – like hellebores, though a laxative it was widely used to treat diarrhoea because it was believed that a ‘good clear out’ would bring an end to the problem.

Strychnos nux-vomica, poison nut tree – as recently as the early 20th century, strychnine was given as a stimulant.

Veratrum album, white hellebore – also used to treat diarrhoea because of its laxative properties. There is some evidence that it caused Alexander the Great’s death when he took repeated doses.

These are only a small selection of some medicinal uses of plants that I doubt that even Tredinnick would endorse today. So, his argument that historical use is proof cannot be applied universally it seems.

Now I fully understand that British politics relies on a table d'hôte model not à la carte and that voters have to decide the balance between what they support and what they can live with. But it really is very disheartening to find that such a dangerous* and ignorant man can get elected to the House of Commons.

*Dangerous because, in addition to the usual problem of people using nonsense to treat their ailments rather than medicine, Tredinnick would have the NHS spend limited resources on quackery meaning that people with the sense to see through the buffoonery might not be able to get the scientifically based treatment they require.  

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