OK, Just a Little Bit More Briffa

May 30, 2008 at 8:46 pm (Alternative Medicine, Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, Big Pharma, Briffa, Nutritionism) (, , , , , , , )



Someone named Lex commented on Dr Briffa’s statistical significance post and made this remark: “when it comes to homeopathy and food supplements they always do include the placebo effect- they would run a mile from a double-blind trial” and Briffa responded with this:

I entirely understand the need of some people to perform randomised, placebo controlled trials (chiefly, in an effort to discern whether what is being tested has a ‘real’ effect or not). However, in the real world (that’s real people, with real problems) the fact that the placebo response may account for a lot of even the whole of a clinical response is not generally important for those the treatment is intended to help (those real people with real problems, again).

And this:

You tell us that ‘they’ (whoever ‘they’ are) in homeopathy and food supplements would ‘run a mile from a double-blind trial’. I can’t speak for homeopathy (as I don’t know much about it), but you are simply incorrect with regard to double-blind studies on nutritional agents.

I tried to point out that while Briffa had posted a link (to just one double-blind study on fish oil), the general point that Lex made was valid – most food supplement and homeopathy firms do not do double-blind trials on their products. After all, they aren’t required by regulation to do so and if they took the chance and conducted a study, then the results might well be, shall we say, ‘not to their liking’ and the money they have spent on this scientific study would be considered to have been wasted. I also pointed out that there were other issues surrounding CAM research such as poorly designed [non-] trials and companies wanting control over data. Briffa responded by claiming that Lex’s point was absolute and that Lex had claimed all supplement/homeopathy firms would run a mile from double-blind tests. Briffa seems to have a habit of making everything absolute rather than relative in order to make a point. He complains that I use qualifying terms when making my claims (‘Lex wrote ‘they would run a mile from a double-blind trial’. This is stated in absolute terms, no? Lex did not use words such as ‘generally’, or ‘usually’ or ‘tend to’. No, they – all of them – would not engage in double-blind research is the assertion’) and then tries to claim that his single example proves Lex’s point to be false – believing that he does so in the manner of Karl Popper pointing out that “if the hypothesis is that there are only white swans, I only need to show the existence of one black swan (not two, or 10 or 100) to disprove the hypothesis” – and that I have fallen into some cleverly constructed trap. The trap is that by citing one study, Briffa could lure some unsuspecting ‘scientist’ or ‘academic’ [sorry – the pejorative ‘scare quote’ thing seems to be contagious] into complaining that he had only cited one study. Unfortunately for John, I used appropriate qualifiers in my remarks about supplement/homeopathy firms so I don’t think I did fall into his ‘cleverly-constructed trap’. I simply pointed out that Lex’s argument had some validity – I never claimed that all supplement/homeopathy firms ran from double-blind tests. Also unfortunate for John is that in his crowing about getting the scalp of a ‘scientist’ or ‘academic’, he forgot to ask if I actually was either of these things. Assumption may be good enough for Dr John, but in actual fact I am neither an academic nor a scientist – he’s caught a layman [it must be a bit like going big-game hunting and shooting a ferret]. I’ll let John show just how clever he is – he can have the final say in this blog post:

Lex wrote ‘they would run a mile from a double-blind trial’. This is stated in absolute terms, no? Lex did not use words such as ‘generally’, or ‘usually’ or ‘tend to’. No, they – all of them – would not engage in double-blind research is the assertion.

Now, as I said, there is a significant body of double-blind research in the area (some of which is industry-funded, of course). I actually started out with a list of studies to rebut Lex’s claim. But then I remembered something I think Karl Popper said about swans: If the hypothesis is that there are only white swans, I only need to show the existence of one black swan (not two, or 10 or 100) to disprove the hypothesis.

And then I wondered if someone with a very pro-science stance would ‘take the bait’, focus on the fact that I only presented one study, and in so doing would betray ‘good science’ (and even logic) and demonstrate the subjectivity and prejudice that is so often found in science and academia.

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More Briffa

May 30, 2008 at 7:56 pm (Alternative Medicine, Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, Briffa) (, , , , , , , , )


Dr John Briffa is involved in an interesting discussion on his blog. In a response to a comment I made that included a link to MMR – The Facts he wrote “In the link you supplied under ‘How do we know that MMR is safe?’, we are informed that…” and went on to paste several bullet points. Which weren’t on the page I’d linked to. This is the page: http://www.mmrthefacts.nhs.uk/library/sideeffects.php and it contains data on the number of children suffering from the effects of contracting measles compared with the number of children suffering from the side-effects of the MMR vaccine. Having quoted from a different page than the one I had linked to, Briffa then used this quote to back up this statement:

The first three bullet points tell us how widely and for how long it has been used (this is no different from saying ‘billions of people have crossed roads over the past 50 years’ – it tells us NOTHING AT ALL about safety – NOTHING).

True – the first three bullet points he copied and pasted told us nothing about safety. The page I actually linked to, however, did tell us something about safety and it used scientific evidence to do so. To paste information from a different link to the one I was using to demonstrate my point is fundamentally dishonest and I think it tells us something about the way Briffa argues. I’m not the only person who has picked up on Briffa constructing ‘straw men’ – here is another example. Here’s more of Briffa’s responses to my comments:

Read the rest of this entry »

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Briffa – as bad as Holford

May 30, 2008 at 12:22 pm (Alternative Medicine, Anti-Vaccination, Bad Science, Big Pharma, Bloggers, Briffa, Nutritionism, Patrick Holford, Supplements) (, , , , , , )

I always thought that Dr John Briffa was like a more grown-up version of Patrick Holford. He was just a doctor writing diet books and a magazine column – as far as I knew, he was not employed by supplement companies, recommended no inappropriate allergy tests and generally sounded fairly sensible. He’s blown it now though.

Now, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that those of the pro-vaccine lobby will want to claim that this blog is scaremongering by making out that MMR vaccination causes autism. So, just to be clear, I’m not saying that at all. What I am saying though is that there’s a huge pile of anecdotal evidence and some experimental evidence too which supports the idea that MMR vaccination might cause autism

Uh, John – that is scaremongering. You have claimed there is experimental evidence which supports the idea that MMR vaccination might cause autism. Are you talking about the discredited paper, published in the Lancet and written by discredited scientist Andrew Wakefield? So, a discredited paper (retracted by most of its authors) and some anecdotes from parents justify a claim that MMR vaccination might cause autism. You know how that will be taken by readers of your blog – and please don’t pretend that you don’t. Suggesting that MMR vaccination might cause autism is reckless and stupid. I expected better from you Dr Briffa.

I might blog this properly later on today. I didn’t want to waste time on another daft, hypocritical and scaremongering nutritionist who casts doubt on the significance of scientific findings (except when they suit his purpose), pontificates on MMR-autism and uses different standards for evaluating scientific evidence depending on whether it is a product he already approves of or not. But I think he needs to be challenged. In case you are interested in reading a bit more about Briffa, I have included some handy links below:

Holford Watch

Dr Crippen

Away From The Bench

Away From The Bench #2

Apathy Sketchpad

Apathy Sketchpad 2

Apathy Sketchpad 3

Dr Aust

Dr Aust 2

Left Brain/Right brain


Black Triangle

HolfordWatch guest on Black Triangle

Me on aspartame! (Heh – nearly forgot to include this one. It’s an early, primitive example of my work – please don’t laugh).

AP Gaylard on living with uncertainty.

Coracle on Briffa and Arnica.

Me on Dr John Briffa’s Alternative Mindset.

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