Homeopathy and the ASA

Following my online complaint I’ve received a letter from the Advertising Standards Authority which states “We checked the website address you highlighted today and I am pleased to let you know that it appears to have been withdrawn. I agree that it’s likely for the claims such as those you pointed out in your comments and attachment to be problematic, but as it seems that the website has been amended to remove them, we don’t propose to act further at this time.”

The offending website had been claiming a homeopathic ‘cure’ for cancer.

– Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wayne’s World of Homeopathy

A few years ago I had some dealings with a young man called Wayne. My job was to teach him Biology, his job was to pass GCSE Science. Based on his SAT score I knew that Wayne wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer but first impressions were promising. He seemed interested and keen to learn so I anticipated a productive teacher-student relationship. After only a few lessons I realised this was not going to be the case. Wayne was always keen to answer questions. The trouble was, his answers were nonsense. But not ordinary nonsense, sciencey nonsense.

Me: “What acid is produced in the stomach?”
Wayne: “Chlorophyll”.

This wasn’t a one off. This was what Wayne did. Every time a question was asked, Wayne had an answer. And every time Wayne had an answer it was sciencey nonsense. I began to think of Wayne as a sort of random science word generator. At first I found this mildly amusing but this faded and irritation and frustration took over. It was frustrating because Wayne always believed he was correct and it was difficult to persuade him otherwise. After all, isn’t “chlorophyll” just a slightly different way of saying “hydrochloric acid”? In Wayne’s World it was.

I was reminded of Wayne a few days ago when following the #homeopathy and #ten23 hashtags on Twitter. Homeopathy Awareness Week was launched on June 14th 2011 and produced a flood of postings from the supporters of homeopathy. Wayne came to mind because so many of those supporters had the same approach to science as he did.

Me: “How does homeopathy work?”
Wayne: “Electromagnet forces.”

(This conversation did not take place, but it might have done.) Rather like Wayne, homeopaths crave scientific credibility. For many years they seemed happy to bump along as an ‘alternative’ to medicine and relied on anecdotes and personal testimonies to justify their existence. This has changed. Perhaps it was the attention of the skeptic community, as exemplified by the Ten23 campaign, which brought about a shift in emphasis. Now we see attempts by homeopaths to use science to shore up their beliefs.

They found a potential ally in Nobel Laureate Luc Montagnier. (Montagnier’s Nobel Prize was awarded for his work on the discovery of HIV). Montagnier joined a small but exclusive group of Nobel Laureates who moved out of their area of expertise to produce a piece of work which diminished their status as respected scientists. Andy Lewis describes his work, and its considerable shortcomings, in the Quackometer. Nonetheless, homeopaths seized upon his work as the justification they needed.

The work of a Nobel prize winner, despite having been demolished by the scientific commumity, spawned a new wave of websites devoted to the ‘scientific’ explanation of homeopathy. In this situation, quantum physics is the last refuge of the homeopathic scoundrel.

One of the possible explanation how homeopathy works is the ability of water to form stable water clusters, that carry information. But I personally see in water clusters only the “materialization” of the invisible forces and fields that derives from succussion, the serial dilution with shaking by forceful striking. (This water clusters may form from succussion and remain stable till to an certain dilution. Homeopathy works also without the water clusters.) Effects that derives from succussion can also be found in the studies of Victor Schauberger on implosion vortexes observed in nature.”  Homeopathy and the Quantum World.

Links to this website have been tweeted over and over again by supporters of homeopathy. I haven’t been able to find out who the author is. I think it must be Wayne. He would be proud of it.

If anyone really wants to know how homeopathy works, the answer is here.

Homeopathy Awareness Week

World Homeopathy Awareness Week took place between April 10-16 2011 with the aim of “celebrating the healing art of homeopathy“. To promote their cause, the faithful were encouraged to share information on Twitter using the #WHAW hashtag. This their duly did but they can’t have anticipated the response from the skeptic community. Attempts to peddle their familiar line in psuedo-science were met with requests for evidence which in turn produced even more nonsense. Predictably, homeopathy tweeters resorted to the BigPharma shill gambit and sundry other insults. An exchange I had with a tweeter began when they claimed that homeopaths cared more for their patients than did Doctors. It ended when the homeopath tweeted, “… don’t replace your regular drugs, in fact kill yourself with them, I don’t care.” So much for caring homeopaths. From my perspective, homeopaths failed miserably to advance their case via Twitter and ended up scoring a notable own goal. Unabashed however, this week sees the launch in the UK of Homeopathy Awareness Week. Once more, we can expect our twitter feeds to be filled with the usual woo and quackery.

On one level this is mildly amusing and provides good sport for skeptics. Homeopaths are easy targets for debunking and ridicule. On another level, it’s a that the promotion of homeopathy is still a threat to the health and well being of millions of people. In case anyone is any doubt, the “efficacy” of homeopathy has been comprehensively evaluated by Edzard Ernst – Homeopathy: what does the “best” evidence tell us?
Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, homeopathy and its supporters continue to try and make the case for the value of this non-treatment.

  1. MP David Tredinnick repeatedly tries to convince the UK Parliament that the NHS is obliged to offer homeopathy.  Andy Lewis refutes the case in the Quackometer. My correspondence with my MP, a signatory of the Early Day Motion, is here.
  2. Homeopathy is touted as an alternative to vaccinations – A canna’ change the laws of physics examines the science behind the claim.
  3. Homeopathy seems to be targetting parts of the world where health care is limited, by making ludicrous and dangerous claims that it can treat HIV-AIDS.

Twitter users can join the debate by using the hashtags #HAW, #homeopathy, #ten23.

Education Quackery

Ben Goldacre has once again highlighted the nonsense which is Brain Gym having previously written about it in his Bad Science Blog. Further comment from me is superfluous but it brought to mind the frightening amount of nonsense I had been exposed to in a teaching career spanning thirty nine years. A quick dredge through my (not always reliable) memory produced the following list.

1. Programmed Learning.
2. Teaching Machines.
3. TVEI.
4. Assessment for Learning.
5. ICT.
6. Accelerated Learning.
7. VAK (learning styles).
8. NLP (neurolinguistic programming).
9. Thinking Skills.
10.Multiple Intelligence
11. Emotional Intelligence.
12. Student Mentoring.

David Colquhoun has compiled a similar list
I have chosen those initiatives which were intended to have their greatest impact on classroom practice rather than those which affected the structure and organisation of the education system.
What they have in common is the lack of an evidence-base and a requirement for substantial financial outlay, both of which are characteristic of quackery. Why do teachers, generally intelligent, well-educated individuals fall for such nonsense? My thoughts are these.

Teaching is a tough job. Pressures from parents, senior management, Local Authorities, OFSTED and Government can produce a distorted mindset obsessed with achieving unrealistic targets by whatever means available. Some teachers search for the educational equivalent of the Philosopher’s Stone, guaranteed to turn base materials into educational gold. All they need is the right text-book, resource, technique, or software and the transmutation would be guaranteed. Usually this doesn’t happen. There might be a short-lived placebo effect but the sought-after result remains as elusive as ever. Only slightly daunted, the would be educational alchemist moves on to the next dose of expensive woo.

There are better, cheaper and more reliable alternatives. The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring has a history of working with teachers and schools to make practice evidence based. They have worked with The Sutton Trust to encourage teachers to evaluate initiatives and make informed choices about the allocation of resources.

Feeling Tired ………….?

……………. having trouble getting up? Feeling run down and stressed? You could be suffering from adrenal fatigue! Never heard of it? The term was coined in 1998 by Dr James L Wilson to describe the symptoms produced by “sub-optimal adrenal function”. Dr Wilson is described as “an expert on endocrine imbalances and their impact on health ….” and is “a scientist as well as a physician”. Another of his claims to fame is that  he is one of the founding fathers of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. Go to his website http://www.adrenalfatigue.org/ and you will be able to buy lots of “cures” for this condition. For example, Adrenal Power Powder is available for the bargain price of $58.95. A quick look at the list of contents suggests it is no more than a mixture of vitamins and minerals, most of which would be readily available in a normal balanced diet. The very small print tells the more observant reader that “This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.” That’s just as well because according to the Endocrine Society, an organisation which represents 14 000 USA endocrinologists, the disease does not exist. “Adrenal fatigue” is not a real medical condition. There are no scientific facts to support the theory that long-term mental, emotional, or physical stress drains the adrenal glands and causes many common symptoms.

So, invent a disease, sell a cure (which isn’t a cure), and make lots of money.

Climate and IQ

Knowledge and understanding of the causes and effects of climate change depend upon education and political views, an American study suggests.

http://solveclimatenews.com/news/20101025/climate-iq-reflection-age-education-and-party-affiliation

Professor Lawrence Hamilton, a sociologist at New Hampshire University, analysed data from a poll of New Hampshire residents about attitudes to climate change. and found that “Not very many people could even give a three-sentence explanation of climate change.”  Perhaps that’s depressing but not surprising but the data revealed divisions amongst the respondents.

“For example, those in the 18-to-29 age bracket overwhelmingly stated that climate change is happening now and is caused mainly by human activities. That belief lessens with age, the survey shows. As well, 62 per cent of the respondents with an education beyond a bachelor’s degree said that human-caused climate change is happening now. That figure decreased to 42 per cent among those with a high school degree or less.”

When political affiliation was taken into account, stark differences emerged.

“Among Democrats, 79 per cent said that human-caused climate change is occurring now. That dropped to 52 per cent among independents and 27 per cent among Republicans.”

The solutions?

“Americans could boost their climate IQ, Hamilton suggests, if politicians would hire and value science advisers, scientists would speak out and more readily and share their data, and people would become more discriminating about their online intake.” (My emphasis).

Sometimes it’s tempting to think that climate change deniers have taken over the web.

“I think they’ve been using lasers and chemicals to melt the Arctic for their NW Passage and to propagandaize their Global Warming trend.” – a comment on an internet forum! There’s the problem, where do we start?

Vaccines

The web is full of nonsense and most of it is of no consequence whatsoever. Websites, Blogs and Forums are full of the rants of birthers, truthers, tenthers and every other variety of conspiracy theorist imaginable. They’re not important. They are incoherent, often incomprehensible, and irrelevant because they lack any sort of purpose or strategy. They have no impact on the lives of individuals or on society as a whole. There is one group however, who pose a real threat to society. The celebs, quacks and cranks who make up the anti-vaxxers are undermining the health of individuals, especially children. The last year or so has seen an alarming increase in the number of children suffering from Whooping Cough.

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/24/us/24cough.html

California has seen a dramatic increase in the number of cases of whooping cough as have parts of Australia.

http://www.abc.net.au/health/thepulse/stories/2009/01/20/2469770.htm

The deaths of children can be attributed to the activities of the anti-vaxxers.

The Vaccine Song