The Independent this week reported on the MMR-autism scare (or, as I like to call it, The Media’s MMR Hoax) and named only one person who was to blame. Andy Wakefield. Now don’t get me wrong – I am certainly not about to defend Wakefield, or the Lancet paper, or the fact that Wakefield had been told his PCR results were false positives yet still failed to retract… Read the rest of this entry »
I’ve recently witnessed some examples of slightly threatening behaviour on the internets and I was reminded of a few of the previous spats I’ve seen covered on the various blogs I read. There have been lawyer’s letters, accusations both of libel and of copyright breach, and comments posted or letters sent by angry nutritionists (in the main – there has been the odd homeopath too). Read the rest of this entry »
Just a very brief post today on ‘brain pills’. I found this in my daily email from the BBC today. The report states that:
Schools and universities may soon need to test students sitting exams for brain improving drugs, experts say.
So, in the near future society will be policing children’s use of substances that are thought to improve brain function. We will administer urine drug tests for cognitive enhancers and regulation may have to be introduced to stop these treatments and future ones from giving people an unfair advantage in examinations and tests. What a contrast with the Durham fish oil ‘trial’. I’m not trying to make the argument that cognitive enhancers should be allowed. Rather, I am trying to comprehend the distinction between (1) schools and their county council actively pushing fish oil pills on kids and (2) the ‘need’ for regulation due to a possibility that children may use a brain-enhancement drug for exam success. Is there some kind of moral difference between fish oil pills and ritalin or aricept - or is it a matter of health and safety? Is it cheating to take ritalin… but not cheating to take fish oil pills? Are fish oil pills assumed to be completely safe and pharmaceutical drugs assumed to be inherently unsafe? Was there even a risk assessment made by Durham County Council before they pushed these pills?
The nutritionistas and health food stores (not to mention the press) would have you believe that there is such a thing as a ‘superfood’. There isn’t. Not pomegranate, not walnut, not even any kind of special berry harvested by Tibetan monks and recommended by Patrick Holford or Gillian McKeith. The Birmingham News ran a piece on Wednesday this week that included the claim that Read the rest of this entry »
The Embryo Research Bill (and a little bit about Murphy-O’Connor’s ‘Evil Atheists’ Comments) [UPDATED]
On Monday, there will be a show of support for the Embryo Research Bill outside Parliament. There are concerns that sense may not prevail and the Bill may be defeated by religious objectors. The likely reason for these concerns is the fuss being made in the press by people such as Cardinal Keith O’Brien and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor*. The Times covered O’Brien’s remarks and the Guardian printed a piece with some clarifications. The Guardian piece and two letters to the Independent were published on the Black Triangle blog. One of my favourite opinion pieces on the Embryo Research Bill was written by George Galloway in the Daily Record:
The Bill contains the literally monstrous idea to allow boffins to insert human DNA into animal eggs creating hybrid human-animal embryos. This Frankenstinian proposal allegedly has some Christian ministers parading their double standard consciences
If you want to read more about the Bill, there is some discussion here, taken from the minutes of the Joint Committee on the Human Tissue and Embryos (Draft) Bill - the report is indexed here: First Report. There was some discussion of the O’Brien comments at the Richard Dawkins Forum here and the Telegraph had a ‘For and Against‘ article. The Times also has some poll results here on PDF.
UPDATE 1: Weirdly, the MRC (Medical Research Council) don’t seem to want researchers to turn up on Monday – they think it would be counter-productive for scientists to come to Parliament and explain their research. Dr Minger has said that he has been encouraged by the MRC’s note – rather than just turn up to the show of support alone, he will be encouraging colleagues to join him. Evan Harris described the MRC note as “rather absurd and paranoid“. Ben Goldacre’s Miniblog had this summary: “Run away, hide, do not engage, do not speak, do not have feelings, do not have opinions, and if you it must let them only be expressed by The Singular Official Voice.”
*Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor (the Archbishop of Westminster) also said some stupid things about atheists recently. In defence of his comments he later claimed on the Today programme that societies ruled only by reason were like those created by Hitler and Stalin - ripe for terror and oppression. As I wrote last week, my view is that repudiation of liberal ideas rather than repudiation of religious ideas leads to despotism (although I used Lenin and Hitler as my examples). I think Murphy-O’Connor has made a mistake invoking Hitler and Stalin as examples of the evils of reason, as I don’t think either man was particularly influenced by reason – in my view they were a pair of murderous, power-hungry bastards (and Hitler had some very strange beliefs indeed – well Google seems to think so anyway). There’s a bit more about Hitler the Atheist here on the Richard Dawkins site [according to the BBC's online report, Dawkins was on Radio 4 earlier discussing Murphy-O'Connor's remarks] and some discussion of Murphy O’Connor’s comments on the Bad Science Forum.
UPDATE 3: See my comment below for links to more religion/science stupidity where Hawk-Handsaw is looking at some comments made by Nadine Dorries.
Possibly the highest-profile nutritionista in the UK is Patrick Holford. Patrick has featured on many sites, including the Quackometer blog. The Bad Science blog has often featured Holford and he also appears on Damian Thompson’s Counterknowledge blog. Holford has written several books on nutrition – most notably the Optimum Nutrition Bible and Optimum Nutrition for the Mind, but also titles such as Natural Highs, Natural Energy Highs and Natural Chill Highs. You can see more information on Patrick Holford’s career [PDF] by clicking on this link to an annotated CV. Holford’s books are packed with scientific language and references to academic papers. Unfortunately, Professor Holford seems to suffer from a condition called referenciness. While looking through the various blogs that mention Patrick Holford, I found that I wasn’t the first first to refer to him as a nutritionista - not by a long shot. There’s more here. One of the links from that Google search is to Dr Aust’s Spleen, who has several posts referring to Professor Holford, including one titled Patrick Holford’s mentors and inspirations – but who are they exactly?. If you want an alphabetical listing of Holford Howlers, then click this link to Holford Watch’s page. If you want a pithy description of The Professor, click here. He’s been covered so comprehensively there seems little point me adding much, but it was worth writing this just to link to all the Bad Science Bloggers who have done so.
Dr John Briffa seems to have received less coverage on skeptical blogs than The Professor, but I noticed a post by Coracle recently that featured Dr Briffa and also linked to a couple of posts by Dr Aust, including this one on Dr Briffa’s views on water. I covered Dr Briffa in one post on this blog, notable mainly for the excellent logo supplied by PV. Dr Briffa used to write a column for The Observer (which is nothing to boast about really – so did Neil Spencer, the astrologer) and was very keen on ideas like these and not so keen on the Food Standards Agency’s Chief Scientist blogging about the dubious detox regimes and supplements available. Neither was Dr Robert Verkerk who seemingly left a comment criticising Wadge’s blog post, without mentioning that he worked as Ultralife’s Scientific Director. You will note that one of the items on the page I just linked to is a Detox Product – £17.95 for 30 servings, only £3 more than their Fruit & Veg powder. Fruit &Veg powder? Er, thanks all the same but I think I’ll buy some actual fruit & veg.
Now how about a bit of Gillian McKeith? As well as Howard’s page on la McKeith there’s a whole category at Bad Science. Gillian also featured in a piece in the BMJ written by Ben Goldacre and republished at http://www.badscience.net/?p=361. The BMJ piece prompted a few rabid responses - including those from Jerome Burne (co-author of at least one book with Patrick Holford) and Dr John Briffa, as well as from Patrick Holford himself. There were also some follow-up comments relating to the rabid responses by dietitian Catherine Collins, Jon Mendel, Ray Girvan and Professor David Colquhoun. For more on McKeith, try some of the links on Howard’s page or Google tapl +mckeith. Whatever you do, don’t click on this page. [Warning - Not Safe For Work. Or home - it's Gillian McKeith in a catsuit.]
This post might be more for the casual reader than skeptics and Bad Science bloggers. I’m sure they will already know far more about epidemiology than I do. Here we go anyway:
From time to time, I see criticism of epidemiology and the use of statistics. Usually on the basis that epidemiology “can’t prove anything” or is “not real evidence”. Sometimes a seemingly opposite tack is used: “oh, but you can use statistics to prove anything”. The criticism usually comes from someone whose own particular worldview is being challenged. Like, for instance, Dave Hitt. Dave Hitt features in this post on the Apathy Sketchpad blog. Or for another example of the statistically-challenged, there’s Gus from the JABS forum. ["Why is it you never listen to the evidence (the autistic children) and are only interested in the science and epidemiology provided by tabloid gutter press as it was hardly hard to see where the research had come from?"]
So what’s epidemiology ever done for us? There’s a couple of chaps I’d like you to meet first: Richard Doll and Austin Bradford Hill. Now quite apart from anything else Bradford-Hill did, he encouraged use of controlled trials (PDF) - something important in its own right. Bradford-Hill also helped to show, along with Doll, the part that tobacco smoking played in lung cancer. The original Doll/Bradford-Hill paper is available via Pubmed here and here as a PDF [which might take a while to download]. The authors concluded that “smoking is an important factor in the cause of carcinoma of the lung.” It’s now accepted (almost universally) that smoking is harmful – but how long might it have taken without the work of Doll and Bradford-Hill? Can you imagine what might have been if Doll and Bradford-Hill’s work had been ignored by a nation of Dave Hitts?
Another example of the usefulness of epidemiology and statistics is in the epidemiological approach to another notable condition. In Lange’s Medical Epidemiology (Third Edition – the Fourth Edition is available*), there is a description of a young man with no obvious underlying causes of immune dysfunction who is suffering from three concurrent infections. Within the preceding six months, three other patients with similar symptoms had been referred to the UCLA Medical Center. Other, similar reports were received by public health authorities and the CDC set up a task force to collect detailed information on those affected. Within months, the disease was named the acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).
Epidemiological methods were used: to monitor the patterns of the occurrence of AIDS; to measure the rapidity of occurrence; and to search for causes by identifying risk factors. They were also used in determining case fatality, survival time and prognostic factors. Which I would have thought were all important things to know. Lange’s Medical Epidemiology tells us that “medical progress often is best advanced when the sciences that focus on subcellular and molecular basic research work in tandem with the population-oriented science of epidemiology. For example, as bench scientists were struggling to characterize the molecular properties of HIV, epidemiologists already determined that AIDS is a contagious disease that is spread through certain interpersonal behaviours. As the painstaking search continues for improved treatment, or even a cure or vaccine, public health professionals have recommended measures to prevent the spread of HIV by reducing the frequency of the fololwing high-risk practices: (1) casual, unprotected sex and (2) sharing needles among drug users.”
Cardiff University has a page with links to lists of Bradford-Hill’s principal publications and literature related to Bradford-Hill.
*McGraw-Hill Medical Publishing Division seems to be here, and the Fourth Edition of Medical Epidemiology is available here.
Just a brief post to highlight a couple of sites that host homeopathic ‘debate’.
I’ve spotted a couple of examples of homeopathic debate recently. Here, Andy Lewis is commenting on the claims of homeopaths and their apologists that homeopathic remedies can work by interfering with homeostasis. The first mention of homeostasis is here – it’s taken the homeopathy supporters from March 21st until the 9th of April to fail to answer Andy’s question.
More examples were available on this thread at Hpathy forums. There is also a live version of the page – but you might find that it changes. You see, homeopaths don’t seem all that keen on debate. Here are some examples of deleted comments: one referring to an admission (or should that be ‘claim’?) that Big Homeo design trials to get the results they want; a request I made for clarification from another poster who appeared not to believe in gravity (same link); a question from another poster asking: “Would one of the administrators care to tell me why anything I post is deleted?” Again, this is from the same link – and the four posts that followed were also deleted.
These appear to be the two main tatics of homeopathy supporters – obfuscation and deletion. They simply won’t give a straight answer to a straight question. I wonder why.