Sunday, December 4, 2011

What would you do if you were a celebrity Burzynski supporter?

Firstly, a quick redux.

Stanislaw Burzynski runs a clinic in the US which claims to be able to cure people of cancer. The treatment costs tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars although any evidence that the treatment has even the slightest effect is extremely hard to find .

I first heard about this story via a very moving and brave blogpost on The 21st Floor about the Hope For Laura campaign. This story follows a similar heartbreaking narrative to others, where someone has been diagnosed with some form of cancer at a horrifically young age, and a groundswell of goodwill and love erupts from those close to them desperate to help in whatever way they can. Places like the Burzynski Clinic can offer the miniscular glimmer of hope that they need to concentrate their efforts towards a goal. Other stories such as Billie Bainbridge have also been in the media in recent weeks.

Depending on the situation, a celebrity may end up promoting the cause - the campaign can be given a huge boost by celebrity endorsement and in my view, this is one of the most important roles that celebrities can play in return for their exulted status. Peter Kay put on extra gigs recently for Billie and also an EBay auction in aid of Billie included a guitar donated by Radiohead.

[For the full ongoing story of libel threats & the complete lack of evidence for what looks and sounds like quackery, Josephine Jones has a comprehensive list of blogs covering the story from many angles. A few key ones that I'd recommend are from Andy Lewis: The False Hope, and The Burzynski Clinic Threathens my Family, and also TiD buddy Rhys Morgan's Guardian Comment is Free piece.]

If you haven't come across this story yet, you can probably very quickly see the pitfalls - huge, disastrous and painful pitfalls that belie anyone not carefully appreciating the different situations that each person is in.

It's pretty clear to me from the complete lack of evidence, the aggresive libel threats, the fact it's not available on the NHS, the fact that Cancer Research UK say there is little solid evidence, the fact Burzynski also sells his own range of vitamin pills etc etc etc that this is not a treatment worth pursuing, and some of the blogposts above have discussed the thorny issue of whether false hope is better than no hope.

My own thoughts on this story come from a conversation with Mrs Dr*T about celebrity endorsement. (There are many other angles of morality and pyschology which are dealt with elsewhere). As I said above, this is a really positive thing that celebs can do (they get repaid in terms of goodwill, which will translate into sales of tickets or merch, but that's an acceptable agreement, I feel. It's an interesting point whether raising lots of money for an individual rather than a group or disease is the most efficient way to progress). Most of them are not trained scientists, and it takes a fairly disciplined sort of person to not immediately do what they can to help a dying child, but first putting in some research time to reach a rational decision.

To try and avoid the personalisation, let's imagine that a well-known celebrity with plenty of media purchase is asked to do a benefit gig/stunt/interview/whatever in aid of a person with cancer who wants to try and get enough money to go to the Burzynski Clinic.

After agreeing to do it, a fairly high profile story gets aired about how the clinic does not have robust evidence for its practices, and there are concerns that it is nothing more than expensive snake oil. (Stephen Fry, Ben Goldacre, Graham Linehan and many many others have been tweeting about this over the last few days).

The celebrity is made aware of this directly by tweets and conversations, which leads her to think about the benefit gig/stunt/interview/whatever that she did in aid of the patient.

If the tweetstorm is right, this is a pretty grim situation. She has an immediate choice - blank out the criticism, stick to the story. Bury her head in the sand. This is the one I think will be most common with the celebs. I should add that there's room in there for a lack of understanding on behalf of the celeb.

Let's say she doesn't blank out the criticism and does understand, but either does some research and takes some advice and feels she's done something that will do no good except fill someone's pockets with cash at the expense of painful goodwill. The ethics get altogether more fudgy. Our conversation led to the following options:

1. Don't give the money to the patient, give it to Cancer Research UK (e.g.) instead. Explain to family why. Risk massive backlash from media by not keeping promise to dying cancer patient.
2. Do give money to patient. Explain to family about the clinic and that if she'd known then what she knows now she wouldn't have done the event. Suggests spending the Cancer Research UK or improved quality of remaining life. Family still have choice and I reckon would probably still spend the money at the clinic.
3. Do give money to patient but on the proviso that it doesn't go to the Burzynski Clinic. Explain to family about the clinic and that if she'd known then what she knows now she wouldn't have done the event. Suggests spending the Cancer Research UK or improved quality of remaining life. Risk mediastorm about broken promises and attaching strings, not to mention legality.
4. Give the money to the patient and say nothing but make sure not to get caught again in the future. Everyone is happy apart from the celeb who knows that they have actively helped in funding something they feel is extremely dubious.

Mrs Dr*T and I settled on (2) after flirting around a bit with (4). Neither are satisfactory in entirety, because in both cases the money will most likely go to the clinic.

I'm interested in other options we haven't thought of - feel free to add them below.

T



Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bureau of Investigative Journalism - New ideas, old habits?

This post is a venture away from the usual (and more recently intermittent) blogposts about dodgy quacks, silly products and efforts by deluded people who like to think the laws of physics, chemistry and biology are merely 'guidelines'.

On this blogpost, I'll mainly be behaving badly and stamping my feet with childish impetulence.

It appears (note: appears) that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) have done some excellent investigative journalism (for that is their name) and released this story about the Ideal Spine Centre in Canterbury. From another angle it appears (note again: appears) that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism have gone onto Google, found my blogpost written in 2008 about the very same Ideal Spine Centre and used one of my blogposts as fill out for a story about a Thinking Is Dangerous quack favourite.

It is my thought that the first opinion is possible, but (as I'll try and show later) very doubtful, whereas the second is very reasonable. Very reasonable indeed.

Some backstory - firstly, the TBIJ's history and raison d'etre can be found here. [That's a link to information on their website - you can almost smell the irony]. Secondly, the story itself is a bit of a corker and the overarching good out of the whole thing is that the suspicious goings on at The Ideal Spine Centre in Canterbury are being exposed to a wider audience.

For instance, Dr Farthing, or to give him his full medical title, Mr Farthing, has a disclaimer on his website
"Dr. Farthing is not a Chiropractor, Osteopath or Medical Doctor"
. No, no. He is a 'wellness' Doctor. Welcome to Quack Comedy central. Throw in an Advertising Standards Authority adjudication and the blogpost wrote itself.

Interestingly, the blogpost also has the record for the most comments of (I think) any blog on this site. TiD was (if I recall rightly) the only blog at the time that ran the story. [Less common now, I reckon, due to number of bloggers around and also the immediate 140 char blogs that can disseminate news and nonsense so efficiently via Twitter, but in the heady days of 2008 - surely the golden age of blogging - terrific blogpost fodder was as abundant as Passenger Pigeons]. This point is important, as it meant that anyone searching for The Ideal Spine Centre or its details found either the Ideal Spine Centre's website, or mine.

It is not my plan (nor have I the time) to put in a factual blow by blow account of the similarities in the two posts, because although I would like to do all the worthy things that a wounded e-martyr could do, I'm not sure it would change or help anything.

As such, here is my succinct treatisette.

A google search of "Ideal Spine Centre" (without quotes), "Christian Farthing" (again without quotes) and a number of other searches brought my blogpost up consistently as the 3rd result on Google, underneath the Ideal Spine Centre's own webpage. (This has changed slightly due to TBIJ coverage, but it is still 3rd/4th/5th etc).

I want you to imagine you have a snippet of information leaked to you by a local who wants you to run a story on The Ideal Spine Centre. Being part of TBIJ you begin to journalistically investigate and so, run a google search. You find the first post outwith of the Centre's own website to be a blogpost providing the whole backstory to your leaked tidbit.

Do you:
a) ignore it and go and find the exact same information from primary sources?
b) Read it and use it to find all the primary sources are beautifully linked and excellently expounded with dynamic wit, contact the blogger and ask permission to use it or at the very least link to it?
c) Read it and use it to find all the primary sources are beautifully linked and excellently expounded with dynamic wit and use the information without any reference or hat-tip.

It is up to you to answer the question to your own satisfaction.

(I would have thought if they had done some digging they would have found a myriad of dubious things not on my blogpost, like the disgraceful website NHS Health Resource (Yes - NHS! which apparently stands for the Nationwide Health Service), but a quick look at who.is shows the Ideal Spine Centre is the registrant. But maybe they didn't look hard enough or think that it was worth mentioning. And it wasn't on my blogpost. I'm just saying.)

But there are two issues here:

1. The concern about whether or not material was lifted from a blog and used without a hat-tip.

2. The response by TBIJ when I enquired about it.

They are very separate and although the first may be a misunderstanding, the second shows TBIJ in my mind to be no better than their tabloid dead-tree main stream media counterpricks.

When I first noted the similarities, I satisfied myself that I wasn't being too silly and precious about a 3.5 year old blogpost and wrote a very measured and polite comment on TBIJ website. Other comments that were after mine have since appeared, but mine have been censored. This is the sort of thing people like Nadine Dorries does to ensure no critical comment appears on her blog [if you want to satisfy yourself of my non-hypocrisy, please check the myriad of anti-Dr*T comments on this site].

I then contacted them on Twitter (@TBIJ) - once again, I twut a few times with no response.

I then emailed the author of the article, Melanie Newman, outlining my concerns.

I was told my blog was a third party collation of information she already had. I immediately emailed her back thanking her, and asking if she had read my blog before writing her article. I finished the email saying that I felt cooperation was a much stronger force than individualism, and we had the joint end goal of getting the story exposed.

No response.

A day later I sent a reminder but like The Sundays' song, here is where the story ends. No engagement. No response. Ignoreland.

Conversation dead. So it goes.

This (in my limited understanding of intertubery) is how people who don't 'get' the transition between main stream media and online bloggery operate. I don't know if Melanie will have a change of heart and engage (I'd dearly like that to happen) or whether they'll publish my comment in a few days or whether next month I'll get a tweet from them. In any case, to me at least, they've demonstrated they haven't adapted yet to online life, and (more embarrassingly I'm sure) they can't handle a wimpy part-time blogger politely whinging, without freezing up and closing rank.

I'm writing this all just to document the event and to suggest in passing that bloggers (what blog for free out of pastime, pleasure, provocation or petulance) will always be different from people who write stuff on the intertubes and get paid for it.

I'd also be interested to know if I am a lone moaner, or if this is a recurring behavioural pattern.

Post Script - The Bureau of Investigative Journalism's Policy on stealing stories is here. They're happy enough for you to do that, providing you link to them and all the links to the story. That's a really good policy.

Hat-tip to the Whitstable Skeptic.

EDITED TO ADD (Tues 22nd Nov): The BIJ page now has a link to the my blogpost. After a lot of helpful retweets of this blog on Twitter, I got an email from the Editor saying they wouldn't link to the blog as there was no need to, as the journalist "couldn't recall" reading my blog.

After a few exchanges I gave him a phone. It wasn't a very pleasant conversation, (due seemingly to me being sad, pathetic, aggressive and not understanding nuance) but we got a compromise in the end - a tiny link on the BIJ webpage, which was all that was requested right at the very start. They could have avoided the whole blown-up event by taking this extremely small step in the first place.

I asked why my comments had been censored on the BIJ article - it seems the Editor does not like anyone making any negative reference to their journalists on comments (I didn't) despite there being a pretty negative one there right now from an angry chiropractor. Ho hum.

Maybe it was a good thing, maybe it wasn't, but perhaps there's at least one more journalist that will keep a more accurate history of their sources from now on. ENDS

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pod Delusion's LIVE Second Birthday



Tuesday 13th September saw the 2nd Birthday live recording of The Pod Delusion, at The Monarch Pub in Camden, London.

I wasn't sure if I could make it on time, but James kindly put me late in the bill (1h 4m 32s to be precise) and so all was fine. It was the first time I've done any Skeptics in the Pub style talks, and given it would be late in the evening, tried to keep it short and lively. With very little live stage experience (and being shit scared), I wasn't sure how it would go down - having listened back to it, people seemed to laugh in the right places and there were no overly loud yawns so perhaps it went OK. Not sure I'll become a stand-up anytime soon, though...

Just to competeness, the early heckle that wasn't picked up by the mike was "Are you doing this by First Past The Post or Proportional Representation?" - very Pod Delusion :)

Anyway, here's the script, titled "Perception":

---------------------------

Hello everyone.
Just before we get started, I like to find out the demographic of the audience, so if there was a general election tomorrow, which party would you vote for?

Labour?
LibDems?
Conservatives?
Other?
No vote?

OK, - I should point out for the listeners on the podcast that the audience here is roughly 95% conservative voting. So that’s a big thumbs up to Cameron and his bunch of massive cuts.

Anyway, perhaps also for the listeners at home, I should paint an accurate picture of the setup here. – there are about 6 or 700 people here in this arena,.... almost entirely women....... aged 20 – 25.

I am standing on a stage a few meters away from the front....6 ft 10 inches tall ..... and naked from the waist up. The small beads of perspiration on my hairless chest are catching the soft sensual glow of the stage lights to form halos which dance across my perfectly chiselled 6-pack.

It’s fair to say at this point that the perception of listeners of this podcast may be slightly different to the perception of those watching here and now.And it’s perception that I want to talk a bit about tonight.

Just to clarify - people listening at home, the bit about everyone voting Tory and being women is completely true.

Let’s look closer at this idea of perception – I’m guessing for the bunch of Tory-loving women as you are, you see something of an idol and a hero in the Member of Parliament for Mid Bedfordshire, Mzzz Nadine Dorries, in the news this week for her amendment to the NHS Bill..

I would argue that her perception via the media to the PASSIVE public is of a women; an ex-nurse, fighting for better access for women to independent abortion counselling. How could anyone not support that?

I haven’t time to go into the details here, but with help from friend of the podcast Dr Evan Harris, it became clear this was a Trojan Horse amendment and would have a very different outcome to that which was being touted.

Listeners to the Pod Delusion will know that my infrequent assaults on your sensitive ears are usually regarding alternative medicines and quackery. Perhaps on one level, testing the claims of the product profiteers and perhaps on another level discussing the difference between a seller who is a True Believer and seller who knows he is touting bogus nonsense.

Perception in this field is paramount – think of all the sciency-sounding sillyness that surrounds some wellness products to give it an air of authenticity - ;
weasel words that imply efficacy but in reality may help to reduce some of the symptoms associated with a mild instance of whatever the fashionable malady of the moment is.

In UK we have pretty good laws governing the rights of the consumer:
The Sale of Goods Act 1979 – things must be as described and fit for purpose,
The Cancer Act 1939 – which states that advertisements are prohibited to offer to treat any person or prescribe any remedy for cancer.

We’ve got the robust but admittedly toothless Advertising Standards Authority ensuring adverts are legal, decent, honest and truthful.

We have the bodies like the Office of Fair Trading and local Trading Standards and services like Consumer Direct – above that we’ve got EU law further increasing our protection.

All well and good until you go online. I know that on the high street I can go any shop make a transaction and as a consumer, assume these rights mentioned earlier.
If I go online and use a company with a .co.uk website, potentially nothing no rights apply. Using a site that LOOKS like it’s in UK doesn’t necessarily give you any of the protection, even from EU level.

Perfect for the quack merchant wanting to look like it adheres to UK rules but without actually having to..

The perception of a co.uk website to me is one of trust – in reality all you can safely assume is that it is written in English and will charge you in UK pounds. I reckon I’m savvy enough on this and undoubtedly you, the Conservative Ladies’ Guild are too, but I guess there many UK residents who don’t realise this.

To circumvent any rules laid down by Nominet,the UK Domain Name registrar, non-UK companies (or potential foreign snakeoil salespeople) only need to nominate a UK agent to register the website, and can pretty much sidestep a lot of consumer legislation. To make a ridiculous comparison, it would be like a non-UK company renting a premises on the high street and selling dubious goods to the public with impunity.

What? Starbucks? Tsk.

You get the point. A company outside the UK could ignore all the consumer legislation and chuck their dodgy product on a UK registered website, complete with disease-busting claims.

Special Rosehips for arthritis (hips for hips, you see), mistletoe for cancer, herbs for high blood pressure. Why not? Everybody can buy, and nobody can close you down.

I’ve raised this issue with my MP, the Dept of Health, and the Advertising Standards Authority, all of whom point refer me to the UK regulator, Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). Each time the response comes back from them – outside our power. In the most recent case, I got the following:
“The .co.uk website is registered in the USA and therefore falls outside the remit of the MHRA. We have referred the information about this website to our counterparts in the USA, the Food Drug Administration (FDA)."

What in the name of Ernst does the FDA have to do with anything? As a potential purchaser of products in the UK, I don’t give a rat’s arse what the FDA think about a website, and I’m pretty sure the reverse is also true.

The recent move by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to cover websites is obviously a positive thing, but this still only applies to UK-registered company – non-UK pill-peddlers are still free to advertise on UK registered websites without much hassle.

Free to offer people like me and millions others of vulnerable people with diseases likewith arthritis, for the tiny sum of £99.95, the false glimmer of hope that perhaps for one day, one hour, even one minute the debilitating chronic pain which affects the person physically and mentally might just be alleviated, but never is. Promoted by the perception that it’s a UK website and so... they couldn’t sell it if it didn’t work, right?

In fact, this goes way past perception. Like my imaginary sixpack, this is an obvious deception. Unlike my imaginary sixpack, it could negatively affect the lives of many UK residents.

This is Dr*T reporting for the Pod Delusion Live.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Nexus Nonsense & Photonizer phoolishness

Breaking the laws of science is becoming quite an artform. From time to time, goodly nerds send me websites and adverts demonstrating how you too can somehow create energy, beat an uncurable disease, become immortal etc. As the quack market gets ever crowded, newer and more exciting bullshit comes along, clambering to show the world how elegantly it can dispose of scientific rigour and dust its feet of evidence.

There is a problem though for the slick, lithe marketeers whose tempting fruit so many are captivated by, (only to be found later, heavy of heart and light of wallet) - the number of tricks they can pull are limited, obvious and well-documented.

The picture above is of a Photonizer Bottle Cover, sold by Accapi UK LLP in their Accapi Nexus range of products.

For a mere £20, you more efficiently hydrate your body during work-outs helping you beat your personal best in the pseudoscientific weightlifting. The Advertising Standards Authority has today ruled that the website advertising this product breaches its code on misleading advertising, substantiation and making unfounded medicinal claims. A quick look at the website shows why:

The top of the page has a quote from Simone Moro, so we can tick Argument from Anecdote and Argument from Authority straight away.

Next we have the name of the product itself - Nexus Photonizer. To me this sounds like one of Professor Frink's products, but ASA precedent has shown that if you use an invented word in your marketing, even though it sounds like another word with a defined meaning, you aren't implying that meaning. It's a very sensible marketing ploy.

Now we get to the product description, bit-by-bit:
Photonizer 4-14 is a revolutionary bottle cover, made using the exclusive Nexus fabric. Thanks to its constant natural emission of infrared rays, it has a beneficial effect on the properties of water and water-based liquids.

And there goes the science mangle, mangling its way to sillyness - Is there any evidence for this wonder material that can impart magic through plastic to water?

Accapi LLP provided ASA with a summary of a study that assessed the effect on the characteristics of water when exposed to NEXUS material. (The Nexus material, by the way, turns up in ZERO references in PubMed, the massive scientific literature searcher). Note the evidence - a summary (i.e. no methods, results etc) of a study which exposed water to the material. But water never touches the material if it's a bottle cover, so this evidence, even though minimal and flaky, is not even relevant. The ASA are too clever to miss that sort of wool-pulling and concluded the study was not robust enough to make any claims about "beneficial effects of water". Hence it was deemed misleading and unsubstantiated.
The effect of the Photonizer 4-14 bottle and flask cover on water and water-based liquids is very fast.

Unhelpful and meaningless, and Accapi LLP couldn't provide evidence to ASA - again considered misleading and unsubstantiated.
Scientific studies demonstrate that the natural infrared emissions of Nexus fabric have an important effect on a litre of water just ten minutes from the moment the Photonizer is applied to the bottle. Liquids reach optimum and stable hydration levels at 30 minutes and these properties and maintained. When the Photonize is removed, it takes a further 30 minutes for liquids to return to their original state.

Without any evidence, and with what has be shown above, there's no reason to give that any credence.
Benefits of Photonizer 4-14:
Improves the hydration of the body during training, competition and recovery
Speeds up and optimises the absorption and digestibility of nutrients contained in supplements (for example, salts)
Stimulates diuresis, resulting in a more rapid elimination of waste products

It appears from ASA evidence, that this is based on anecdotes from users, so the level of evidence is that of astrologers and faith-healers. Not surprisingly, the ASA concluded they were misleading and were medicinal claims which are not allowed in authorised products.

So, it's a new form sexy product full of exciting science, but it has the same old tricks of bullshittery concealed within:
1. Arguments from authority
2. Arguments from anecdotes
3. Not providing any robust scientific evidence
4. Provide unrelated scientific evidence perhaps in the hope that it will not be noticed
5. Use scientific words liberally and confidently - meaning is irrelevant
6. Get it seen on TV by making sure you get celebrity endorsement

In reality, it's a similar set-up to Dr Kenzo Kase's Kinesio Tape which was recently in the Observer as an advertorial, and an embarassment to the science journalists at the sister paper, the Guardian.

There are plenty of products in all different guises out there, but I'll warrant those tricks above (whether unintentionally or otherwise) will be used time and time again to sell you, the person they treat as an idiot, a worthless product.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Pod Delusion: A Business Proposal Based on Levodyn


I've got a little slot on this week's Pod Delusion, the Podcast About Interesting Things - about 30 mins in.

I thought it might be funny to pitch for the darkside and create a quack product, basing it on recently-ASA-slapped Levodyn.

Give it a listen and let me know if you're in.

T
-------------------

Good people of the Pod Delusion, with your righteous anger and desire for truth, equality and defence of the little guy, how would like to toss those pesky morals away and make some dirty money?

I’ll let you in on my plan – just you, mind, don’t go blabbing to everyone, or we’ll be back right back where we started bleating about evidence and morals.
You see, there’s millions of people out there with certain health problems who will buy any old shit that looks convincing. All you have to do is get a few natural herbs – anything’ll do – mash it up, put it in a pill. Get some posh media grad to do some fancy marketing, you know, make it look all contemporary and sophisticated, get a website and bit of advertising and ker-ching, watch the readies roll.

Here let me show you what I mean.

There’s a product called Levodyn, for blood pressure. The US website says it cures high blood pressure naturally. Properly cures. But then has a disclaimer at the bottom in small faint type saying “These products are NOT intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” – can you believe the feds allow that crap? The UK website is a bit cagier – the advertising standards authority has already pulled them up for it. The makers just refused to respond and guess what happened – pretty much nothing! The UK website says it ‘helps’ lower blood pressure, which apparently is fine. There’s a few other bits of bullshit about promoting cardiovascular health, whatever that means.

There’s a few testimonials on there – who knows whether they’re true or not, but punters love that kind of crap, you know “I found this product on the internet and it literally saved my life”. The adverts people asked if the testemonials were true – the levodyn sellers just ignored them!

There’s a load of woolly stuff about science which is enough waffle to go over people’s head but feel science-good – anyone who checks the evidence is not their kind of customer.

The UK medicines watchdog, the MHRA, only give a monkeys if it’s actually got something in there that is going to have a medicinal effect – Levodyn does, but the MHRA decided it wasn’t present in a meaningful amount to bother about, so they don’t care.

The website is a .co.uk website and the product claims to be made and dispatched from UK, so people will have loads of confidence in it – the beauty is that the .co.uk website is registered to a USA address, so MHRA can’t do anything about it anyway!

So, we make up a product, put some natural crap in it, do some marketing, put it on nice, modern, co.uk website registered outside UK, make up a few a sciencey claims that are either meaningless or untestable and watch that pill-poppin public pelt you with pounds. High blood pressure, arthritis, excema, back bad – anything that loads of people suffer from, so we can convert the big numbers into sales. We’re only giving them choice right?

So. Are you in? Come on.... what’s the worst that could happen? Probably some guy does a podcast piece about you, but that’s about it. It’s easy. Ah, suit yourself, you Big Pharma, choice Nazi.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Dr Kenzo Kase and Kinesio tape - The Observer advertorial enters an evidence-free zone

Once more unto the podcast, dear Friends, once more - Righteous Indignation Episode 95 to be precise, pretending to know something about philosophers and assassinating pathetic evidence presented by the Observer as proof that Dr Kenzo Kase's Kinesio tape does anything apart from make you look like you've been in a fight with some acid-tripping sellotape.

The dialogue is greatly enhanced with Marsh and Hayley's inputs, so, um, I would listen to the podcast rather than read the notes, but if you insist here is my crib sheet. For some reason (I'm looking directly at you Hayley), the first line is missing in the edit, but some brightly coloured tape should sort that out.

T
----------------------

Last Sunday, The Observer published an article by Tim Lewis titled:
Dr Kenzo Kase: My magic tape can aid injured muscles

with the byline,
Whether in garish pink or tasteful beige, Kinesio tape provides pain relief for sports stars. And it works on dogs, says Japanese chiropractor Dr Kenzo Kase.

Whenever I read an article that talks about a “magic cure” I tend to think about “magic beans” – when the strapline contains the word "chiropractor", you know you’re going to in for a bumpy ride on well trodden path of dodgy claims, weak evidence and celebrity endorsement.

It’s fair to say that at this point I was expecting to see PowerBalance mentioned, as Kinesio tape could favourably be described as being from the same marketing stable - relying heavily on high profile sportstars to promote their products - David Beckham, Lance Armstrong and Serena Williams are amongst the many that have been spotted with the brightly coloured tape in trademark designs on various parts of the body, supposedly to help the muscles.

The original idea behind the tape (now removed from the UK website) was that the adhesive used was in a particular waveform which “microscopically lifts the skin”. Or as Krazy Kenzo states in the article
“Your pain sensors are located between the epidermis and the dermis, the first and second layers of your skin, so I thought that if I applied tape to the pain it would lift the epidermis slightly up and make a space between the two layers.”

Basic mechanics makes it clear this is nonsense – imagine you have a ham sandwich. Actually, sorry Hayley, just for you imagine it is a cheese sandwich, and you’ve just placed the second piece on top. Now if I give you some sellotape, can you put a strip on the bread so that it lifts it slightly from the rest of the sandwich? No. This, as the kidz on twitter say.

Also in the article he goes on to talk about jetlag and how it’s due to the fact that
“we are at very high altitude and that causes our body temperatures to go up”.

Now that is clear, unequivocal nonsense.

The reason why we have jetlag is because when we fly to a place in a different timezone, our circadian rhythms are all on the wonk, and our bodies want to go to sleep even though it’s only midday. Someone on a flight from UK to South Africa will not experience jetlag, because although it’s an 11 hour flight it only crosses one time zone, and so your body won’t think everything has gone to cock. The fact that Krazy Kenzo is a chiropractor demonstrates that his understanding of evidence-bases is weak at best. This show has covered the fun and games with chiropractors in the UK over the last number of years with the British Chiropractic Association failing to make a case for libel over Simon Singh saying in a Guardian article that “Chiropractors happily promoted bogus treatments”.

But let’s take a second to be kind to Krazy Kenzo – maybe his theories are trash, his biomechanics knowledge laughable and understanding of air-travel in relation to timezones childish... but, maybe the products do work. Maybe he just has the wrong reasoning.

In the article he discusses some of the evidence base for his kinesio tape. I’ve put a link in the show notes to an amazing review of the evidence in the literature about Kinesio tape by @APGaylard. It might surprise you to know that there have a number of small trial studies for kinesio tape, none of which providing anything remotely close to robust evidence for efficacy. This was yet another product with maximum marketing and minimum use.

The reference in the article is to a 2008 paper which it describes as “a study of 42 people with shoulder problems which indicated that Kinesio taping offered immediate pain relief.” Wow – immediate pain relief. I think this is an excellent learning paper for people who perhaps haven’t got a strong science background and would find reading a scientific paper a bit daunting.

So at this stage, I’d like you to pause the podcast, go to the show notes, and follow the link to the PDF of the 2008 paper printed in the Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine.

Without reading the whole paper, we can pick out a few bits from the paper which are relevant and show why the paper is of little value.

Have you got it?

Good. Now I don’t want to repeat what’s been said in other places about how to run trials of things – perhaps Trick or Treatment by Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst or maybe Bad Science by Ben Goldacre can provide some enlightenment on that – but here’s a few basics:

The title:
The Clinical Efficacy of Kinesio Tape for Shoulder Pain: A randomized, Double-blinded, Clinical Trial.

You’ll see the conclusion the front page stating that Kinesio Taping may be of some assistance to clinicians....

The gold standard of trials is that it is multi-centre, randomised, placebo-controlled and double blinded – so it sounds like the trial is fairly robust, but as we’ll see, the title is writing cheques the trial can’t cash.

The first part of a paper is always the intro and background – in this case a page or so of how bloody amazing the kinesio tape is, along with suggested ways that it works and how nothing compares to it.

First thing to look at is the number of people taking part – referred to as the n number. For a small pilot trial, n is usually less than 50, and generally, an effect at this level may help confirm a hunch and suggest something interesting, but unless n>100 the results are always going to be shaky. We can see they enrolled 42 people. Not terrible for a small pilot. However we have a little quirk here – so they enrolled 42 for the trial, but they originally had 64 as eligible. That’s around 1/3 discounted for some reason – the paper explains that
“the exclusion criteria were chosen in an attempt to eliminate subjects with pathology that would be less likely to respond to the selected taping intervention”.
They were forcing a positive result, right from the start.

Let’s look at the blinding – the title states it is double blind and randomised. Both extremely important as this is a massive source of bias.
“The primary author is a certified Kinesio Taping practitioner and applied all the taping procedures.”

So it wasn’t double blind at all, in fact it turns out that the person with the vested interest in a positive result was taping both the study treatment and the sham treatment. The paper also shows photos of the sham treatment.
Can either of you spot the trial carcrash? Well it’s two things – one, it is immediately obvious to anyone which is the sham. Secondly, the sham treatment is using the Kinesio tape.

Let’s take the first point - if the administrator of the therapy or treatment knows who is getting which treatment AND the patients know, then there is no blinding, and any results obtained should be treated very sceptically.

Secondly, they are testing their own tape used one way against their own tape used a different way, which means they aren’t even testing the efficacy of the tape – not one part of title is accurate. At best they are testing different ways of using the tape, but the trial is so shoddy, that any results are effectively meaningless.

Skip down to the discussion section (the results in a nutshell were that some people who had been taped up got better and some got worse, which was similar to the sham arm. Initially the treatment arm fared better but this difference disappeared by the third day.) How to explain this?

They mention two things:
1. Improvement in control arm could have due to the tape despite intending to be a sham application
2. A strong placebo effect of taping has been noted in previous trials.

So despite choosing people who would give positive results, pretending to double-blind but not doing any blinding, not testing what they said they were testing, the results still didn’t go their way. And they reason it away by saying the tape still had some effect, but that the treatment arm worked more at the start. Depending on your level of cynicism, this is at best being confused and at worst, outright bullshit.

A crap trial, badly run, useless results, bizarre interpretation, dubious conclusion, but printed in the Observer and given by Kinesio as proof the product works. What % of people will hunt down this paper? – I’m guessing 0.001. Kinesio are so sure that the vast majority of people won’t get past the title that they have the article for free on their website.

What astounding investigative journalism – or indeed what a great way to get cheap advertising.

(Thanks to @APGaylard, @_JosephineJones, Danny Strickland (@dts1970) and @Andrew_Taylor for their twitter help.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Righteous Indignation - Sponsored by SouthofFranceDelusions.fr

Those merry munchkins at Righteous Indignation Podcast kindly asked me to help out on this week's episode, which can be found here. Righteous Indignation is the fortnightly UK-based podcast that aims to critically examine extraordinary claims and the people who surround them.

The transcript of my news story is below, and as mentioned in the podcast ended up sounding more like a poor cousin of the Guardian Weekend Travel section.

Nonetheless, the story centres around this story of the French governmental organisation announcing that it is keeping an eye on potential of problems caused my misguided Apolcalptic sects in the south of France. Without knowing, I was on holiday at the exact spot a few months ago, so it seemed relevant to me at least. What I didn't find out when I was there was how to pronounce the name Bugarach, so I've had a stab. I know people on the intertubes can be quite shy about this sort of thing, but please do come forward and let me know if it's wrong.

Here is the transcript, and lucky for you, you miss out on the singing.

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“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine” –

Why is it the end of the world? Because some people have interpreted that the current cycle of the Mayan (Mesoamerican long count calendar) comes to a conclusion on 21st Dec 2012, signalling “the end of the world as we know it”.

And why do I feel fine? Because I know the only place on earth that will survive the apocalypse, and what’s more I’ve been there. Twice.

I guess I should tell you where it is, but maybe I should keep it a secret, after all if the 6 billion people of the world find out where it is and go there, then I might not feel fine AT ALL but very claustrophic and it would make the apocalypse a bit of a waste of time.

The place is a rocky outcrop by small village called Bugarach in the far south of France, in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

It is actually this scenario which has caused the Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires some headache. The Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires translates as “Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances” and goes by the acronym of MIVILUDES which is probably good for everyone.

Mivilude is a government agency which analyzes movements perceived to constitute a threat to public order or violate French law, specifically where cultish character is observed. Incidentally it was Miviludes which classified Scientology as a DANGEROUS CULT in a parliamentary report, as mentioned on previous episodes of RI.

You could imagine 6 billion people turning up in village of about 200 people the sort of thing that would get them going a bit and last week they published a report saying the area should be monitored in the run up to Dec 21 2012.

Georges Fenech from Mivilude said (presumably in French) “We know from history and experience that apocalyptic discourse can lead to tragedy. This is why we have taken measures to notify police and other public authorities in order to monitor the situation."http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

Bugarach village and its neighbouring peak make for dramatic scenery. It’s a beautiful, unspoilhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gift, rugged and life-affirming place.The rocky outcrop is set within a few miles of the fantastic remains of the Cathar castles, set high up on knife edge crags with the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrenees in the background.

The Cathars were a catholic sect that existed around 1200 AD and were considered heretics by Rome so during their few hundred years of existence they were continually subjected to the full force of papal might, including crusades, persecution and even massacre to the charge of “Kill them all – the Lord will recognise his own”. Jesus only wanted some of them for a sunbeam.
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Rumour has it that some of the Cathar prefects managed to escape with the Cathar treasure, which has not be located to this very day.

With the heady cocktail of bloodthirsty catholics, secrets, and treasure it should come as no surprise that the Cathars (and the region around Bugarach) were discussed in The Holy Blood Holy Cross and that the treasure is rumoured to be the Holy Grail, which is supposedly hidden in the mountains.

Rumours of Mossad appearances, Nazi appearances and alien appearances abound on the internet with even Nostradamus noting its positive vibrations.

Somehow (and I’m afraid that’s a huge jump in logic I’m not prepared to take) that means that this is where the civilisation safety net will be, come the end. However, according to locals, that enormous jump in logic is a mere bagatelle for some people – tourism is up considerably and the price of property has rocketed.

In a way it’s quite a middle class rapture con:

“Listen, apparently the world is going to end next year, but I’ve got this amaaaaazing little gites in the south of France where you’ll be TOTALLY safe. I’m sure Ocado delivers and everything. DO let me know if you want to parlez.”

French organisation Suicide Ecoute said that although they hadn’t received any direct contact about Bugarach, “People of a weak mental disposition are much more likely to be influenced by cults, and messages spread by social networking sites can be equally dangerous."

I think this an odd, but bold step taken by Miviludes. To go public that they are watching what happens, even from a position of responsibility, is to publicise the Bugarach Story much, much wider than it would ever had got before. As a negative, this can feed the conspiracy theorists who feel that if the authorities are getting involved (despite their reasoning) then they must be on to something and you’re only two sentences away from someone mentioning Lizard people.

As a positive, it’s obviously a good thing that there is an organisation prepared to look at these events and make sure that if too many misguided people decide to be deluded together, it will be handled appropriately. Handling which may include having a raft of psychologists and suicide experts ready to deal with the many mental meltdowns as a result of believing in an apocalypse which subsequently didn’t apocalise.

I might go back to the area again next year on holiday – the whole area is beautifully and naturally bewitching, with hot springs, history and wines. For me, it is diminished with the all the talk of aliens and perhaps unlike some of the believers, I’ll enjoy it again in 2013 when it reverts back to its sleepy majestic self.
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Friday, June 17, 2011

Pod Delusion: Tim Harford Interview



Last Friday I went along to see Undercover Economist and Radio 4's More or Less frontman Tim Harford in Oxford at the International Growth Centre. This was part of a series of lectures he was giving to promote his new book, "ADAPT- Why Success Always Starts With Failure".

This was my first face-to-face interview for the Pod Delusion (actually, for anything!) and to interview someone who is a bit of hero of mine and a sort of nerd celeb was a honour. (Maybe that's bit OTT, but you get the idea). I was only able to attend at the last minute, also the book is only being out on hardback so I hadn't read it, and the interview was before the lecture so my preparation was scant and manic. Unfortunately, that comes across in the interview, but in reality, Tim is such a gent and a tremendous communicator that the end result is a success of interviewee over interviewer!

The full unedited interview can be found here:



T

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

RI Podcast - Episode 89. Horses for Courses.

Those lovely Righteous Indignates kindly asked me to help out with the podcast this week, and you can download the full episode from the RI website.

Topics of discussion included the French banning the burqua and an interview with Steven Upton, who is a minister for the Spiritualist's National Union. I did a news piece on some odd goings-on in the world of equine arthritis, and shoe-horned as many horse-based colloquialisms, metaphors and adages as I could. Childish, but fun.

Transcript of the news piece is below.

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I’ve got a horsey story this week, seeing as it was the Grand National on Saturday – and much to Hayley and Trystan’s moral disgust, I took a punt on Ballabriggan and my goodly lady popped a few quid each way on Oscar Time. Happily for us they came in first and second which resulted in the rest of Saturday being somewhat blurry.

Like many mammals, arthritis affects horses, but especially performance horses who have been worked intensely – high levels of stress on joints and bones in gallops and jumps can increase the onset of the disease, and given the crazy value that some of the top racehorses can hold, keeping arthritis as bay or at least delaying the onset is a key part of horsey management.

It’s fair to say that in general poor people don’t have horses; stabling costs, access, feed, and vet bills are pretty hefty, and despite being a long-standing stereotypical desire of teenage girls inspired by Mills & Boon, for most people a pet pony is out of the question. It’s really only for the well-shod.

So we have an extremely valuable asset, owned almost exclusively by people with money to burn – could there be a more desirable market for the snakeoil salesman?

Needless to say, homeopathy in horses is a huge market – the placebo effect by proxy is well-documented in horses like any other pet, but somehow the strong bond felt by the owner ,between them and the horse seems to make it even more acute.

Like in humans, dogs and cats, the favoured dodgy supplement for arthritis in horses is Glucosamine. Due to being a food-supplement rather than medication, the barrier to entry is low and it’s easy to get your product on the market. There a hundreds of sellers and due to heavy marketing in all areas of human and animal arthritis , glucosamine is well-known for being a safe treatment for arthritis. Note my wording – a safe treatment for arthritis. Like homeopathy, glucosamine is safe – even in high doses, which produces lots of products with MAX in the name. (See episode 74 of the Pod Delusion for my take on glucosamine-pill name fun).

Unlike homeopathy glucosamine actually has got plausibility, but like homeopathy the evidence is fairly clearcut – there is no effect compared with a similar administered placebo – I’ll put a link to a recent article by SkeptVet which goes through the evidence base behind glucosamine’s safety, plausibility and efficacy.

Straight from the horse’s mouth, if you will.

Anyway, why the interest in glucosamine? Well, two suppliers of glucosamine for horses have in the last few weeks been bitching about each others adverts via the Advertising Standards Authority.

The runners in this two-horse race are Equine America and VetVits Ltd. Equine America are based in Horsham (...) and VetVits are based in StPeter’s Port Guernsey, a place with a lot of history of quack product sellers and an address very familiar to the ASA.

Each have had complaints against each other upheld by the ASA in a bizarre insight into how these type of companies operate and the logical sumersaults they perform to keep their placebos selling in preference to their competitor’s.

First out of the stalls was Equine America. On 2nd March, they complained about VetVits who claimed in an ad that their glucosamine product Equiflex was clinically proven to work. After the ASA had finished pissing themselves at the rubbish 18 horse trial, the complaint was upheld and VetVits were told to change the ad.

Good Old Equine America, standing up for evidence-based medicine. But hold your horses, what’s this? Just last week, the ASA published the result of a subsequent complaint, this time by VetVits on an ad from Equine America.

Equine America, despite complaining about lack of clinical evidence for their competitor’s product, claimed their own product had clinical evidence. Not only that, but they claimed all the other competitor’s products didn’t have any clinical evidence.

The ad stated “The following Chondroitin / Glucosamine equine joint supplements have no objective clinical evidence of improving joint mobility - NAF Five Star Superflex, EquiFlex, PREMIERflex HA, ExtraFlex HA, STRIDE HA, My Joints, Arthri Aid and NEW MARKET JOINT SUPPLEMENT”.

They claimed their product Cortaflex did have.

Once again, the ASA spat their tea all over the laptop in surprise at the howlingly naff level of evidence presented by Equine America – basically a conference proceedings rather than anything in a published scientific journal.

ASA upheld the complaint, and told Equine America not to discredit other marketers or products in future.

So both these companies know that they have don’t have any robust clinical evidence for their products. Both these companies know that their competitors don’t have any robust clinical evidence for their products, yet both are prepared to ride roughshod over the evidence in order to enhance their pill sales to credulous horsey people, who presumably have the best interests of the horse at heart.

The analysis of this sort of joust always leads to the same place – hooray for the ASA (although as it relies on complaints to current ads, it is closing the stable door after the horse has bolted) and boo to the pillpushers, who can play irrationality in customers to whatever level they want.

In this instance though, it’s hard to see that their pill-pushing comes from a position of delusion, like for instance the homeopath’s. They may spout nonsense, but at least they believe it – given how these companies have acted, I don’t get the feeling of a well-meaning, but misguided supplement provider, but I can only guess.

The other side is the horsey people themselves – stuck in a difficult position; having been told so often that it works, no amount of evidence can convince a user that they’ve been duped.

As the man said, You can lead a horse to water....

Friday, February 25, 2011

BRAINMax - For Maximising your memory health!

Do you feel forgetful sometimes? Worrying about whether you left the iron or if you need to buy milk?

You need BRAINMax. BRAINMax is a natural, organic, traditional supplement which will regularise your brain aptitude and at the same time promote memoriness. It can also help reduce thought-decay, while its natural, soothing essences help the brain reconstruct idea-cells, meaning you can relax and enjoy your life!

Sounds pretty good, eh? Five'll get you ten that I could sell this product successfully to any number of chumps who'd lap this kind of sillyness up. It doesn't matter what's actually in the bottle - probably a few vitamins and exotic sounding plant extracts like Salvia lavandulifolia, which incidentally is used as a 'memory aid'. Just to be clear, the above product is a figment of my beer-happy brain.

It *should* raise the eyebrows of anyone with a basic skim of GSCE level science yet the world is full of it. You'll probably have come across things like 'cellular health', 'brain boosting supplements', and 'wellness' or the liberal sprinkling of real terms used flippantly like "mental fatigue". All are marketing terms, used effectively to avoid using real words with real meanings, because that would make their claims falsifiable - i.e. you could be asked to prove what you're saying and therefore not just make shit up.

It's easy to claim that a product 'supports good heart health'. It is a completely unfalsifiable statement. How could you test it? The phrase 'Good heart health' is so woolly that trying to probe what it means would be as futile as liquidising a ghost.

But it has been forever thus, and really all that happens is marketeers get ballsier and better at mangling science, to provide the intelligent-sounding copy that will hopefully shift whatever units they're selling. There's a huge subject on the psychology of sales and selling, but that's for others to harp on about.

What prompted the outpouring of pseudoscientific dangly-bits above was a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority, the industry-funded regulator of all things adverty. Whilst it is generally a force for good, it's pretty weak when it comes to sanctions, but does seem to act fairly and efficiently on behalf of the consumer.

This week, the ASA ruled on a company called Healthspan Ltd. Healthspan Ltd are no strangers to ASA rulings, having 5 previous complaints against them upheld for misleading advertising of one sort or another.

It should also be noted that the head office is given as St Peter's Port, Guernsey, which was also, for a while, the address of serial ASA-offender and regular feature of this blog, Intramed.

This time, however, the ASA deemed the complaint unwarranted and it was not upheld. The complainant had felt that words and phrases like "optiflex" and "joint synergex" implied the product being advertised had some efficacy (presumably against arthritis of various forms) and asked whether the claims could be justified.

The ruling from the ASA is intriguing:
We (ASA) ... noted that "Synergex" was not a word in the English language, and not defined in the context of the ad. We therefore did not consider that the word Synergex implied efficacy, and concluded the ad was not misleading on that point.

So, if I can put it this way, as long as you use words that aren't used in the English language (i.e. have a defined meaning) then it's open season. So my ad above talking about "memoriness", "thought-decay" and "idea-cage" would be given the all-clear by the watchdog. It's also worth noting that
Healthspan had ensured that Optiflex advertising was accompanied by a prominent disclaimer stating "Not clinically proven to optimise flexibility"

(It's well known within and without the pill industry that glucosamine is pretty much a placebo, but it is a cheap product with a big markup, so continued belief is important for revenues. Everyone knows the game is up, except those people spending their hard-earned cash on a glimmer of hope of release from the grinding and unrelenting pain of arthritis. Classy ethics.)

In fairness, the ruling is reasonable enough - no-one complained about the Renault Clio's "Va va voom" adverts, even though we all knew what the implication was. (Ironically, the adverts were based around trying to pin down exactly what va-va-voom meant).

The important thing is to beware of new words and phrases used in adverts to describe products or benfits, where you know what they mean/imply but they don't seem quite right. Ask yourself the question.... why didn't they use the right word?

Are they offering some fraudulity with extract of poppycock?


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JDC325 has also covered this on Stuff And Nonsense

DC has also covered Healthspan and their antics in previous blogposts here and here.

Edited 4/3/11: In a slightly cheeky way, I offered this blogpost to the Pod Delusion, as I thought maybe the format of the advert could be a bit of fun to do in audio. Mr O'Malley kindly agreed and allowed me to take 'prepublished' blog material for the Pod Delusion as a one-off. The script is changed a bit for clarity and for a different audience - extra thanks to @noodlemaz for cracking (dare I say 'sexy'?) voiceover in the Advert and to Beastie for being the voice of the ASA.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Pod Delusion Live Recording at #QEDcon



Feb 5th & 6th saw the happening of the first QED Conference in Manchester, run jointly by the Merseyside Skeptic's Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics.

Speakers included Simon Singh, Steve Novella, Jon Ronson, Prof Bruce Hood and many more. I had hoped to be there for the whole event, but unfortunately had to leave early on the Saturday.

For the bit I was there for, it was an outstanding success, with an excellent vibe, and big congrats to the organisers for running such a positive event.

While I was there, I took part in the live recording of The Pod Delusion, which you can listen to above or download from your favourite podcast supplier.

In the hustle and bustle of event, I managed to lose my script - luckily I'd emailed James O'Malley an early draft and he was able to send it to fellow contributor, Craig Lucas, who put it on his Kindle. As a result, it's not quite as clear or polished as I'd intended, but luckily still seemed to be well-received. You can even hear people seemingly genuinely laughing at some of the jokes, or smiling loudly at the very least.

In case you are interested, I've posted the proper script below which differs in a few places from the recording, mostly to add clarity and context.

If you don't regularly listen to The Pod Delusion, subscribe to it and give a few listens - you'll not be disappointed!

Learning Facts - A Brief Pod Delusion Rant


One of things that this new Tory-LibDem coalition have put forward is a return to 1950’s style learning – putting a big stress on LEARNING FACTS - Putting a big stress on teachers as well, of course, most of whom have no interest in ANOTHER BIG GOVERNMENT EDUCATION CHANGE.

Learn more facts!

How many wives did Henry 8th have? 6

When was the Battle Of Hastings ? 1066 (Although interestingly, did not take place in Hastings)

Who came King after Queen Anne? George 1st.

In reality the questions are dull, the answers prosaic. In fact, as long as we all agree the same answer, it doesn’t really matter and no one gets hurt.
You don’t learn by learning history this way. More relevant is the WHY? Why did Henry 8th have 6 wives. Arguably, to make sure he had a son to maintain his Royal blood line – cue questions about the divine right of kings in modern society, perceived changes in equal rights for men and women, stranglehold of religion in 16th century society, (Henry ditched the Pope because – as demonstrated by his wish for divorce - he felt the pope had too much jurisdication in secular affairs – how times have changed).

THAT is interesting and that is why history is important. Not so much the facts but more why the facts are what they are.

Being brought up in a strict protestant house, I ended up learning a lot of bible verses off by heart and even now long-forgotten sections pop back into my conscious after years of hanging around, avoiding being killed off by beer and taking up space that could have been used much more profitably, like learning Spanish or memorising that killer recipe for a 3 bean tomato and chilli salsa. (Actually now that I think of it most of the ingredients are in the title)

Anyway, we weren’t taught the WHY.

We just learnt and learnt and learnt.

We were asked to parrot it and sometimes we got sweets for it. Whether we had any emotional attachment to the verses through understanding or belief was irrelevant – we could say them on command and that was that.

Try this for 9 year old:

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

I have no idea what that means, even now. A ouija board at the top of the Eiffel Tower?

That’s from Ephesians, if you're asking.

Or this:

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love – beloved let us love one another”

(But not in a gay way, obviously).

Impeccable logic of course – anyone who does not love, does not know God because God is love. So it all depends on the assumption that God is Love. I didn’t learn to ask soon enough Why is God Love?

It’s a ridiculous question. I don’t even think it makes sense, which certainly has implications on the logic of the theology I just quoted.

Teaching people to learn without questioning can lead to some pretty grim situations. Obvious examples are cults – the unquestionable figurehead. I’ll cut out the next part by just saying Godwin, which will make the point and we can move on.

What about the more insidious examples, the everyday, pedestrian examples?

The news media is often very good at telling us ‘the facts’ but rubbish at telling us the ‘why?’. Look at the recent coverage of Tunisia and Egypt – immediate photos, footage “THIS IS HAPPENING”. But there was so much fact coverage that even with 24 hours rolling news, there wasn’t the time to explain WHY? Why had Tunisia suddenly exploded? Why are the Egyptians so angry?In the case of Tunisia, the media was keener to tell us how it affected British holidaymakers, rather than tell us why there was revolution.

Of course the British media is full of examples of facts. But facts presented in such a disjointed way so as to either end up being meaningless, or worse being twisted without context into a false narrative. What is the press release if not a section of these “facts” which are to be reprinted without question or adding context?

You may remember the story about the female contraceptive implant, Implanon.
600 pregnancies! It’s supposed to be a contraceptive for goodness sake.
What none of the press thought important to ask, was how many “successful” Implanons , i.e. not the no of failures, but the failure rate.

Tim Harford on Radio4’s More or Less and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian gave this story a thorough dressing down, showing that the implant was the most reliable form of contraception and that in context these pregnancies, while unfortunate, were small in number relative to the amount of usage. It’s a numbers game - even small probabilities become realities if the no of events is big enough. There WAS an interesting story to be had about the transfer of responsibility between a pregnancy due to a women not complying with the pill regime and a pregnancy due to a doctor not inserting the implant correctly, but it was difficult to find.

In what was almost a repeat of the Implanon story, the Pod Delusion’s favourite newspaper Daily Mail last month printed a story about Xrays. It claimed in 2009 that 500 people a year in England got the wrong dosage some up to 100 times the recommended amount! Any clear-headed intelligent person would ask about context. Not so the Daily Mail!

Who wants to guess – number of Xrays in England per year? (A number that didn’t appear in the report)

Around 40 million.

That number is from the Care Quality Commission, who also reported the 500 over exposures. That’s a hit rate of 1 in 80,000 (or 0.00125%) Of course, the CQC look at this to drive down the number of non-compliances and up the quality of care, so monitoring this number is obviously important but in context, is this really worth the scary headline?

If the Daily Mail really cared about people getting over-exposure to Xrays, it could put a bit of time in exposing our chiropractic friends, who in turn expose people to Xrays to find subluxations, even though nobody knows what one looks like.

I could go on about recent stories involving ‘craters on Jupiter’ and other such nonsense but I’ll finish with this:

Of course the facts have importance but it is asking the WHY and questioning that produces useful learning rather than saying the right thing to get points.
Michael Gove is reducing the importance of giving kids in schools the encouragement to ask why and as a result is damping that natural urge to Question Explore and Discover. That is the real con.

This is Dr*T, ranting for the Pod Delusion live at QEDcon.



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