Given his life-long promotion of pseudoscience, what threat will Charles III pose to skepticism? Michael Marshall The Skeptic

While it’s true that skepticism as a toolset and as a mindset is essentially apolitical, we should be careful not to suggest that, by extension, political issues ought to be beyond the scope of skepticism, or that they should be considered untouchable by skeptics. Because while political policies are the subject of opinion, those opinions are often communicated and sold with appeals to evidence –which has to be subject to skeptical scrutiny.

For example, the question of whether to apply high taxes to very wealthy people in order to fund services, or to set low taxes in order to allow people to keep enough money to look after themselves, can’t be answered by skepticism – it is a position, and a matter of opinion. However, as soon as anyone begins to discuss and debate that question, talk quickly turn to evidence, statistics, historical examples – the appropriateness of which have to be evaluated skeptically if we have any desire to determine what’s for the best. We can have differences of opinions, we can even differ in what we think the optimal outcome should be, but we if we’re bringing evidence to the table to back up those political opinions, it has to be good evidence.

It is vital that we do turn our skepticism onto politics, because of the impact politics has on our lives, and because that impact can sometimes feel several steps removed from the cause. A misleading statement can support what becomes a deeply held position, which can turn into an identity position that’s then difficult to shake, even when the facts it was initially based on turn out to be false.

With that in mind, I think it’s fair to look at the big political changes we’ve seen in the UK in the last few months, and to understand what impact they might have for skeptics and those who value evidence. And while the transition from a Boris Johnson Conservative government to a Liz Truss Conservative government brings with it issues that skeptics ought to pay attention to (including its links to anti-abortion groups and climate-denial think tanks, its lack of support for net zero commitments, and its clampdown on human rights and the freedom to protest), our scrutiny should also be directed toward the new occupant of Buckingham Palace.

At this point, it is probably worth pointing out that the question as to whether a monarchy is a reasonable thing to have in 2022 squarely falls into that ‘opinion’ box – something about which reasonable people can have a disagreement. However, once that disagreement starts, testable claims and verifiable facts are quickly brought to the table. There are probably few people who still believe that the royal family were chosen by god, a historic explanation for why one family deserves such power and privilege, and an argument that can withstand no skeptical scrutiny. It’s perhaps less rare, though not out of the question, that people might believe that royals represent a better standard of people due to their lineage and breeding… that, too, is a claim that can be subjected to skeptical scrutiny.

Many people argue that having a royal family is worthwhile because of the amount of money they generate in tourism, a claim which can also be addressed in terms of evidence – evidence of how much the royal family receive from the public purse, the opportunity cost of the land they own, comparison with the tourism industry income from similar monarch-less countries like France… those are ways of getting a handle on that question.

If the argument is that the royal family is worth having because of their soft power influence, that falls back into the realm of opinion, though I think it’s probably the strongest counter-argument to an anti-monarchist like me.

When we move from the crown to the wearer, however, the monarchy becomes somewhat easier to address skeptically, as Charles Windsor has spent much of his public life advocating for all manner of pseudoscientific causes, including a highly-visible fondness for alternative medicine. He founded the Foundation for Integrated Health as a registered charity in 1993, specifically to explore “how safe, proven complementary therapies can work in conjunction with mainstream medicine”. His goal was to manufacture space on the NHS for various alternative medicines, and he used his royal position to write letters advocating (or, as some have argued, pressuring) various health secretaries and ministers into spending NHS budgets on funding pseudomedicine. The charity eventually closed down in 2010 due to financial irregularity and fraud.

Charles also wrote letters to the MHRA, the medicines regulator, at the time they were looking into the rules governing the labelling of herbal medicines – like, for example, the herbal products sold by one of the companies he owns. When accused of inappropriate lobbying, Charles tried hard to keep these letters hidden from the public eye, resulting in the Guardian going to court and obtaining a Supreme Court ruling in order to bring them to light.

In 2005, Charles commissioned a report by economist Christopher Smallwood, which concluded that alternative medicine would be a cost-effective addition to the NHS. It was a report that was criticised by one of its collaborators, Professor Edzard Ernst, who asked for his name to be removed because he felt its conclusions were “written before the authors had searched for evidence that might match them”. In response Charles filed a complaint with Exeter university, complaining that Ernst had acted inappropriately – prompting an investigation which found Ernst had done nothing wrong, but which ultimately led to Ernst taking early retirement.

Did Charles learn from this at all? In 2016 he gave a speech saying that he uses homeopathic medicines on his own farm, and that he sees them as the answer to antibacterial resistance, and in June 2019, he was announced as a patron of the Faculty of Homeopathy, which he described as an “enormous honour”. As I wrote in a statement at the time, if Prince Charles wants to have a genuine positive effect on the health of the nation he intends to one day rule, he should side against those who offer dangerously misleading advice, rather than fighting their corner.

That said, there is another side of the coin, and one that we shouldn’t ignore. Charles has been vocal for decades about the need to protect the environment, and to tackle climate change, long before it was part of popular discourse. He installed solar panels, hydroelectric turbines, and biomass boilers at his various properties, and has talked about the need to reduce his carbon footprint. That is at least in positive contrast to Queen Elizabeth II, who lobbied the Scottish government in order to exempt her lands in Scotland from climate change initiatives. Having a figurehead, however symbolic, who has a history of advocacy on those issues is perhaps no bad thing.

Though how little advocating Charles might now have scope to do may also be a positive thing: the role of a symbolic figurehead is to say and do essentially nothing. Queen Elizabeth excelled at that, for most of her life: while she was said to be a user of homeopathy (and indeed gave London’s homeopathic hospital a Royal seal), she said very little about it in public. In fact, we know very little of what she thought about much of anything at all, given how neutral she was in her public life.

The most positive spin on Charles ascending to the throne is that he may well now appreciate that his role means he is no longer allowed to meddle, lobby, and peddle influence. That may be a rose-tinted view of things, I appreciate, but if we’re going to be fair, we can’t discount it. The downside is, of course, that the additional influence that comes with the crown may give more power to Charles’ attempts to keep his lobbying a secret; Either he stops pressuring on behalf of the interests of alternative medicine, or he continues apace but his attempts to evade transparency become more successful. To the public, those two situations will look identical, and therein lies the problem.

So, where does that leave the UK? With a king who is in favour of tackling climate change, and a government who almost certainly isn’t. With a monarch whose longstanding advocacy for alternative medicine may well mean renewed vigour in the pro-homeopathy lobby, and a cabinet whose enthusiasm for scrapping human rights, on top of their recent favouring of culture war talking points, may well see a resurgence in the anti-abortion movement here.

All in all, now isn’t the time to decry the mixing of skepticism and politics, now is the time to be calling for more evidence-based policy making, and more scrutiny when politicians and powerful public figures make statements that they claim are facts.

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As head of state, will Charles realise his life-long lobbying for alternative medicine is over, or will he use his newfound power to evade transparency?
The post Given his life-long promotion of pseudoscience, what threat will Charles III pose to skepticism? appeared first on The Skeptic.