Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Applying a bit of critical thinking...

I've been considering a new idea involving calling out those pseudo-scientific institutions and companies using the quite miraculous-in-itself placebo effect to their own, irrational (though highly profitable) ends.

Firstly, as seems always necessary when dealing with the irrational: a disclaimer of sorts. 

1) I happen to think that 'alternative medicine' does actually have something to teach science-based medicine, or rather the political decisions behind science based medicine.  Any doctor or nurse I am sure would agree that not having the time to get to know patients properly, having to whisk them in and out and under pressure to get the numbers through as quickly as possible.  The relegation of humans in need to mere bureaucracy is clearly not in the best interests of the patient.  If pseudo-science can do what it can do through placebo, is science based medicine taking that into account?  I don't see how stripping the doctor-patient relationship of possible placebo effects is a mistake.

2) I do not think that everyone into pseudo-science are outright fraudsters.  There are many ways in which our minds are simply shit. Period.  I'm convinced that I keep putting my USB in upside-down every single time but I know deep down that's bullshit.  It's around 50%.  Obviously.  It's just that I only notice when it jams and I shout "Aaargh! Not again!".  I fully accept that people really believe these things 100%.  But what's new about people really believing make-believe stuff?  There are however people who are actually laughing all the way to the bank.

So, now that's out of the way, here's the plan. I'm going to find websites and groups proffering these magical ointments and such like and I'm going to play the innocent enquiry.  Then I will become not so innocent.  It should be pretty fun to see what weird and wonderful things they promise to cure with the hocus-pocus pocus as well as providing a fascinating insight into 'alternative rationalisations'.


As a starting point, I thought I would go look at the British Homeopathic Association website to see what sort of craziness I would be up against.  It's a very flashy affair full of calming, fashionable buzz words just oozing both credibility and serenity.  The ever-growing shame that is inclusion in the NHS is the first thing you see: let's face it, what is more likely to give apparent validation than that!  It's almost (well, it's no where near) enough to be glad the U.S don't have an NHS... imagine what kooky shit they would get on it, opening all sorts of doors...

Second thing I see on the site is "The evidence for Homeopathy. There are 60 randomised controlled trials demonstrating homeopathy has a positive effect." I happen to already know that current (independent) consensus is that there have been no high-quality (double-blind, placebo controlled, large groups etc.) studies showing a positive for homeopathy, so I click the link expecting to see some pretty lame examples.  One that caught my eye in particular claimed homeopathy could have beneficial effect for 'mild traumatic brain injury'.  Aside from sounding like an oxymoron in itself, the idea that water with memory could help with this condition made me chuckle.

The Internet is a wonderful thing.  Within 10 seconds I had the journal edition in which the study of published and a few more saw the abstract for the study itself.  I wasn't going to pay for the whole thing but it gave what I wanted to know.. double blind, check.  Placebo-control, check.  Group of 60.. not bad, and the call for studies to replicate the data at the end seemed genuine.  Conclusions... unequivocally positive in the apparent effects of magic water.  Knowing what I know, this would make it unique, so perhaps there is some other possible bias, in the 'scientists' themselves.

Notice the inverted commas.  I took the first name off the list of collaborators, one Edward H. Chapman, and stuck it in google.  God the Internet is a wonderful thing.  Here is the first hit:

1996;97;779 Pediatrics Edward H. Chapman Homeopathic Medicine by EH Chapman - 1996 - Cited by 1 - Related articles - All 2 versions EDWARD. H. CHAPMAN,. MD, DHT,. PRESIDENT. American. Institute of Homeopathy. Denver,. CO 80220. REFERENCES. 1. Sampson. W, London. W. Analysis ...pediatrics.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/97/5/779.pdf

President of the American Institute of Homeopathy.  I wasn't holding out hope (for all of the few seconds this took) for something that clean cut.  Let me spell it out to you, if you haven't already twigged, why this is so important in discrediting this study.


Just in what kind of situation could you envisage him coming out of that with a negative? If Homeopathy studies came out negative all the time, HE WOULD BE OUT OF A JOB.  That is why the only positive studies that come come out are either of such bad quality as to be ignored or by homeopaths themselves.  In fact, a true scientist would recognise the conflict of interest and already know in advance that any study undertaken by them will knot be taken seriously!  So why does he do it... who else will?! If you are asking yourself, "well, couldn't this apply to all scientists?" then the answer is no.  Sensible critiques of funding cycles aside (and the funds would dry up when nothing came off it anyway...), there is an important difference: If a physicist comes out with a negative result, physics does not stop existing!  He can go back and work out why it didn't work.  That is how science works: falsifiability.

This guys entire lifes-work is at stake, his entire livlihood (and I would guess it's a pretty nice one too) hanging on these results. Besides that, he already 'knows' that homeopathy works!  It's like trying to conduct experiments to find out if witches exist and allowing the Inquisition to do it, insisting we listen as they proclaim that, surprisingly, witches really do exist!

It is so very, very easy to utilise the web, grant yourself God-like powers and start thinking for yourself.  The entire premise of homeopathy and the rest is that no other scientists are confirming their 'results' because they are all part of a grand conspiracy involving big-pharma and corporations.  Don't give them any more consideration than you would a scientologist.

I will keep the blog posted about any interesting responses.  Full responses will be available at my website.

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