Thursday, October 25, 2007

I want to sell you FEAR......mwah ha ha ha ha (etc)

Your humble bloggist has a dirty secret which must be shared with the world. Outwith the realms of e-wittering, I'm a salesman.
I've said it.
Hundreds of books and seminars have covered the topics of selling - how to grab your audience's attention, how to push them to buy, how to press their buttons that will make them part with their cash.

In the world of TV advertising, one of the easiest ways to do this is as follows:

1. Place Mrs Mugwump in a situation she understands. (Chopping veggies in the kitchen - make sure Tarkwin gets his five-a-day!).
2. Slap her repeatedly in the face with mangled science and occultic statistics.
3. Frighten the bejesus/be-allah/be-vishnu out of her.
4. Introduce your product as the saviour (non-denominational) of this oh-so-rational fear.

Fear selling uses dirty tricks to play with words chosen to purvey a different impression from what's actually written. For example, a few months ago I saw an article for padded bicycle shorts which informed me that not using them can lead to some of the symptoms similar to prostate cancer. Let me write that again:

can lead to some of the symptoms similar to prostate cancer

Two modifiers (can & some - a far cry from 'will' and 'all') and two "surrogate end points" of sorts (symptoms - may not have anything to do with having the cancer, and in any case the symptoms are only similar - pain in the hips/pelvis and lower back pain to name two. I reckon these are the least of my pains after 25km of muck, stones, hills etc).

I use the above as an example, and not as proper investigation as to whether heavy-duty multi-terrain mountain biking gives you 'issues'. The real thrust of this blog comes from our great Sentinels of Selling, the Advertising Standards Authority.

Every week, they publish on the web every complaint that has been made about an advert, and whether or not the complaint is upheld - generally makes for interesting reading, not least to see the crazy things people complain about.

Let's go back to fear selling, and a complaint made by 3 different people regarding Dettol Multisurface Cleaner. The advert told us:

"Fact, your chopping board harbours 50 times more bacteria than your toilet seat. But Dettol Surface Cleanser kills 99.9% of bacteria, including MRSA, E.Coli, salmonella and even the flu virus ..."

Now, apart from anything else, I don't count the flu virus as being alive therefore I don't have any truck with products that claim to kill it, but that's a personal thing. Also, they didn't even have the decency to class the bacteria as 'good' or 'bad' - a distinction they were keen to keep to themselves.

Anyway, the ASA asked parent company Reckitt Benckiser to prove this 'fact'. As it happens, it turns out the 'fact' was derived from taking samples at 5 houses in Hertfordshire (all with kids under 3 years old) and the ASA in their good wisdom reckoned this wasn't representative of the nation. Complaint upheld.

In addition, the 5 chopping boards DID have bacteria on them but they

"did not show that the bacteria found posed a risk to health ... and it was unclear whether they had been cleaned normally after use

Next we get the 'playing with words' - US or UK, harbours/harbors indicates a long term holding - harbouring anger against Sarah Beeny for talking rubbish about chemicals, for example. The ASA also felt that by using the word 'harbour' RB were inferring that these chopping boards were crawling with all this bacteria after being washed by a normal person in a normal way. The evidence produced by RB indicated (as most people know) that rubbing a couple of chicken breasts on a chopping board before using it to wipe your arse produces a surface which may be "unsafe for food preparation". What they didn't provide evidence for was that if you wash it in the normal way, you'd be surprised how clean it becomes, that is without using an antimicrobial.

And therein lies the rub. The Dettol product didn't claim to clean better than other products, it just claimed to clean, but pressed the fear buttons of MRSA, E.Coli and salmonella.

I would like the advert to be run again, with a bit more accuracy:
"Fact - your chopping board harbours some bacteria. But don't worry, they won't do you any harm if you've washed it in the normal way after it was last used.

If you do have an irrational fear of things you can't see/understand and want to live in an artificial, sterile, (in)sanitary bubble, then using **branded** Multisurface Cleaner will kill things like MRSA, E.Coli and salmonella, even when they're not there.

Do remember, that the moment you touch your nose, a lot of your work will have been in vain.


There are further fun and games from the ASA website regarding all the upheld complaints about the highly dubious York Allergy Tests by YorkTest Laboratories. Not surprisingly, everyone's favourite pill peddler Patrick Holford is a fan - read the outcome on HolfordWatch.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Holy Moses! The pope's on fire......

Everyone knows that God/Allah/Arthur Brown spoke to Moses via a burning bush - fact (Exodus 3). He also helped those Israelites with their lack of direction through the desert guided by a pillar of fire - fact (Exodus 13:21) around the same time he was feeding them bread which fell out of the sky for 40 years (Exodus 16:35 - Shame he doesn't send some to Darfur, but I digress...)

No real scientist would doubt any of the facts, they stand to reason and are everyday occurances.

However, when El Papa JP2 (think less John Prescott, more John Paul) appears in a fire in Poland for some reason people are sceptical.

The Daily Mail ran the story here giving further proof (if any were needed) for Dr* T's First Theory. Here is the photo from this truly momentous event. It's clearly obvious that it is the Pope and indeed, his followers seem to agree.

The Daily Mail, known for its responsible journalism and level-headedness, reported the head of the Vatican TV station Father Cielecki saying he was convinced the picture showed the former pontiff.

The Telegraph quoted the photographer as saying;

"I was so happy with the picture that I showed it to our local bishop who said that Pope John Paul had made many pilgrimages during his life and he was still making them in death."

Really. Now of course, we learn a lot from the afterlife here - the pope still has his back problems. A bit rubbish for a place of eternal happiness if you ask me. But before I drift off on a diatribe of what is actually light-hearted journalism poking fun at people's religious fervour, it should be said that there are people who think it's him. Actually him. Here for a brief second at the right angle to say ... well, nothing, but it was him.

When you realise there are people who believe anything as fervently as this, despite 99.9999% of the population having a giggle, it really brings it home that some people will believe absolutely anything, regardless of how ridiculous it is. I promised myself I wouldn't mention homeopathy in this post, but I've just failed.

To me the headline should have been thus:

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Be shamed, Society of Homeopaths.

I know I'm a bit behind the game on this one but it's an important topic and cuts right to the core of what adventures in science are all about.

The most wonderfully sensible, intelligent, and possibly attractive blogging duck that I am aware of (le Canard Noir) has been threatened with legal action by the Society of Homeopaths for an article he blogged last August on the follow up to the Sense About Science sting on dodgy homeopathy/sugar-pill salespeople, selling sugar pills to people on the pretence/misguided belief they would be prophylactic to malaria.

So rather than speaking to Mr Duck themselves, they decided to threaten the web-page host with legal action, who in turn shat their lilly-livered y-fronts and had the page removed from their servers.

One of the most revered bloggers in scientific academe David Colquhoun, is keeping the story alive and updated on his blog, DC's Improbable Science, as he has also been bullied and threatened for a similar thing.

Here is the post in its entirety - you can decide for yourself:
(I should say, that I copied this from A Night on the Tiles)

The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing

By The Quackometer

The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) are a shambles and a bad joke. It is now over a year since Sense about Science, Simon Singh and the BBC Newsnight programme exposed how it is common practice for high street homeopaths to tell customers that their magic pills can prevent malaria. The Society of Homeopaths have done diddly-squat to stamp out this dangerous practice apart from issue a few ambiguously weasel-worded press statements.

The SoH has a code of practice, but my feeling is that this is just a smokescreen and is widely flouted and that the Society do not care about this. If this is true, then the code of practice is nothing more than a thin veneer used to give authority and credibility to its deluded members. It does nothing more than fool the public into thinking they are dealing with a regulated professional.

As a quick test, I picked a random homeopath with a web site from the SoH register to see if they flouted a couple of important rules:

48: • Advertising shall not contain claims of superiority. • No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases.

72: To avoid making claims (whether explicit or implied; orally or in writing) implying cure of any named disease.

The homeopath I picked on is called Julia Wilson and runs a practice from the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough. What I found rather shocked and angered me.

Straight away, we find that Julia M Wilson LCHE, RSHom specialises in asthma and works at a clinic that says,

Many illnesses and disease can be successfully treated using homeopathy, including arthritis, asthma, digestive disorders, emotional and behavioural difficulties, headaches, infertility, skin and sleep problems.

Well, there are a number of named diseases there to start off. She also gives a leaflet that advertises her asthma clinic. The advertising leaflet says,

Conventional medicine is at a loss when it comes to understanding the origin of allergies. ... The best that medical research can do is try to keep the symptoms under control. Homeopathy is different, it seeks to address the triggers for asthma and eczema. It is a safe, drug free approach that helps alleviate the flaring of skin and tightening of lungs...

Now, despite the usual homeopathic contradiction of claiming to treat causes not symptoms and then in the next breath saying it can alleviate symptoms, the advert is clearly in breach of the above rule 47 on advertising as it implicitly claims superiority over real medicine and names a disease.

Asthma is estimated to be responsible for 1,500 deaths and 74,000 emergency hospital admissions in the UK each year. It is not a trivial illness that sugar pills ought to be anywhere near. The Cochrane Review says the following about the evidence for asthma and homeopathy,

The review of trials found that the type of homeopathy varied between the studies, that the study designs used in the trials were varied and that no strong evidence existed that usual forms of homeopathy for asthma are effective.

This is not a surprise given that homeopathy is just a ritualised placebo. Hopefully, most parents attending this clinic will have the good sense to go to a real accident and emergency unit in the event of a severe attack and consult their GP about real management of the illness. I would hope that Julia does little harm here.

However, a little more research on her site reveals much more serious concerns. She says on her site that 'she worked in Kenya teaching homeopathy at a college in Nairobi and supporting graduates to set up their own clinics'. Now, we have seen what homeopaths do in Kenya before. It is not treating a little stress and the odd headache. Free from strong UK legislation, these missionary homeopaths make the boldest claims about the deadliest diseases.

A bit of web research shows where Julia was working (picture above). The Abha Light Foundation is a registered NGO in Kenya. It takes mobile homeopathy clinics through the slums of Nairobi and surrounding villages. Its stated aim is to,

introduce Homeopathy and natural medicines as a method of managing HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in Kenya.

I must admit, I had to pause for breath after reading that. The clinic sells its own homeopathic remedies for 'treating' various lethal diseases. Its MalariaX potion,

is a homeopathic preparation for prevention of malaria and treatment of malaria. Suitable for children. For prevention. Only 1 pill each week before entering, during and after leaving malaria risk areas. For treatment. Take 1 pill every 1-3 hours during a malaria attack.

This is nothing short of being totally outrageous. It is a murderous delusion. David Colquhoun has been writing about this wicked scam recently and it is well worth following his blog on the issue.

Let's remind ourselves what one of the most senior and respected homeopaths in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher of the London Homeopathic Hospital, has to say on this matter.

there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won't find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.

Malaria is a huge killer in Kenya. It is the biggest killer of children under five. The problem is so huge that the reintroduction of DDT is considered as a proven way of reducing deaths. Magic sugar pills and water drops will do nothing. Many of the poorest in Kenya cannot afford real anti-malaria medicine, but offering them insane nonsense as a substitute will not help anyone.

Ironically, the WHO has issued a press release today on cheap ways of reducing child and adult mortality due to malaria. Their trials, conducted in Kenya, of using cheap mosquito nets soaked in insecticide have reduced child deaths by 44% over two years. It says that issuing these nets be the 'immediate priority' to governments with a malaria problem. No mention of homeopathy. These results were arrived at by careful trials and observation. Science. We now know that nets work. A lifesaving net costs $5. A bottle of useless homeopathic crap costs $4.50. Both are large amounts for a poor Kenyan, but is their life really worth the 50c saving?

I am sure we are going to hear the usual homeopath bleat that this is just a campaign by Big Pharma to discredit unpatentable homeopathic remedies. Are we to add to the conspiracy Big Net manufacturers too?

It amazes me that to add to all the list of ills and injustices that our rich nations impose on the poor of the world, we have to add the widespread export of our bourgeois and lethal healing fantasies. To make a strong point: if we can introduce laws that allow the arrest of sex tourists on their return to the UK, can we not charge people who travel to Africa to indulge their dangerous healing delusions?

At the very least, we could expect the Society of Homeopaths to try to stamp out this wicked practice? Could we?

Friday, October 5, 2007

OH MY GAWD ! Chemicals? Are you sure?

I don't like to brag on my blog, it just sometimes happens to be inevitable.

Now, I would like to provide more evidence to substantiate Dr* T's First Theory (vide infra):

Is your Make-up killing you?

EDIT (14/10/07): The Daily Mail have now removed this link from their website. All down to this blog, of course ;) I'll try and find a cached version, otherwise it becomes a little bit pointless...

EDIT (14/10/07): ValueAddedWater has kindly put a .doc version of the Daily Mail's article here. Now you can read at your leisure - is your make-up killing you?

The answer is indeed no. Let's not forget, that this is nothing more than a press release for a TV show.

At the risk of treating the Daily Mail with any sort of seriousness, I couldn't let the article slip away unnoticed without drawing out a few salient points.

First of all, the Daily Mail's attitude to science is pretty well demonstrated here. For instance take the line:

Last year, Britons spent £6.4billion on cosmetics and grooming products, with the average woman applying 12 toiletries every day.

But here's the rub - these toiletries can bring with them at least 175 chemical compounds.

CHEMICALS? Can you fricking believe it? I mean, for God/Allah/Zeus/flying spaghetti monster (with his noodly appendage) sake, those blasted chemicals get everywhere! Is there anything safe in this world that hasn't been besmirched by CHEMICALS? Quick, Take ecover...... (there's a pithy middle class joke in there, but don't waste too much time looking for it)

Of course, the manufacturers would say these chemicals and resulting products are safe, but a growing school of thought begs to differ.

Of course they do. These manufacturers can do what they like. We don't have rules or regulations or overseeing bodies or government departments that can make sure that only suitable ingredients go into these type of products. Oh wait...

I think this gets to the nub of why this sort of program/article has me screaming like someone possessed (with what, I don't know) - where is the balance? Where is the person saying "Actually, what you're talking about is invented, manipulative, fear-inducing rubbish."

They were then challenged to live without their beauty products for eight days, swopping everything for natural chemical-free varieties.

Hmmmmm..... what would they be, then? No chemicals.
Water? Nope, it's got a Safety Data Sheet, so must be a chemical.
Air? Surely even the Daily Mail wouldn't allow us to say that oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide et al aren't chemicals.

One thing is for sure: few of us would want to rub any of these chemicals into our eyes, far less ingest them in liquids by drinking them.

Ditto vinegar. And it's a chemical. Yet we put it on our chips! Please someone think of the children (etc.)

"Man-made chemicals first emerged 100years ago, and every decade since, the overall production of these synthetic chemicals has doubled.

100 years ago? 1907? How about may to choose from.....Alfred Nobel's dynamite company (set up in 1860)? (allow to me kindly ignore thousands of years of "making chemicals").

Both girls use a natural deodorant, which contains no chemicals.

For the love of sweet baby Jesus/Aphrodite/Thor/Ra, what the hell does this mean?

The caption at the bottom of this photo is

Natural beauty: TV presenter Sarah Beeny has been without make-up for two years

Look around the eyes. Don't look at the eyes, look around the eyes. No make up? At all? Let me ask you, is this the face of someone who hasn't used make-up for two years?

Allow me to reinvoke Dr* T's first theory.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Three Strikes and you're out (Part 2)

So where were we? Oh yes, I was wittering about people's anti-scientific attitude and how, due to all the hard-to-understandness that comes with sciencey things people are choosing in their droves (sheep analogy might be better) to believe something much more understandable and appealing to their uncritical personalities, but which are fundamentally, incorrect.

Acupunture is a bit of a classic. It's got needles, history (the chinese were apparently using it 14 billion years ago), drama, excitement, mysticism, religiousity and theatre all rolled up into one non-offensive therapy. The question, as always, is does it show any benefit over placebo?.

Well, that depends not on the results but on the newspaper you read. A well-documented story in the paper last week (covered by Ben Goldacre in his excellent Bad Science column in the Saturday Guardian) gave details of research that suggested that acupuncture was better than no acupuncture, but no better than random pin insertion. I'm not going to cover it here - the full dialogue on the Bad Science website is well worth the read.

So that's "Strike 2".

Strike 3 is very similar to strike 2, and actually means a lot more to me personally. (Can you believe it has taken this long for me to get to the point of why I'm writing this? Must learn to be more succinct.)

Despite being 30 years old, both my hips are crumbling as we speak due to osteoarthritis. Bummer. Nothing outside very invasive surgery will do anything for it - science fact. That doesn't stop everyone telling you that chondroitin will re-hipify you or that without glucosamine you will die before dawn.

The experience has given me insight into why people are taken victim to these therapies despite any proof of cure (outwith placebo) - when there is little hope, any hope (regardless of what it involves) shines brightly.

And so to the study; it was a randomised multi-centre controlled trial to investigate the benefit of adding acupuncture to a course of advice and exercise delivered by physiotherapists for pain reduction in patients with osteoarthritis of the knee.(Published in BMJ 2007;335(7617):436 (1 September) - abstract here) They took three groups; Advice and exercise (n=116), advice and exercise plus true acupuncture (n=117), and advice and exercise plus non-penetrating acupuncture (n=119). Have a look at the abstract for the details, the whole article is behind a paywall. The conclusions are as follows:

The addition of acupuncture to a course of advice and exercise for osteoarthritis of the knee delivered by physiotherapists provided no additional improvement in pain scores. Small benefits in pain intensity and unpleasantness were observed in both acupuncture groups, making it unlikely that this was due to acupuncture needling effects.

Strike 3 - out?

Three Strikes and you're out (Part 1)

It has been referred to as 'The Endarkenment'. Hundreds of years of people engaging their brain are being turned head-over-heels because of a desire to believe in any self-indulgant made-up Science-Lite™ drivel, which is much more appealing and self-centred than the difficult, complicated, non-personal universe in which we find ourselves.

Ben Goldacre in his excellent Bad Science columns has on a number of occasions written about this desire to believe e.g. that fish oil supplements can solve complex social problems such as bad attitude in kids or that vitamin C, so cheap, so good for you, so easily available can cure Aids.

The last few days seems to have dressed the media with some really interesting stories regarding complementary and alternative medicine (CAM)- namely homeopathy and acupuncture.

Firstly (Strike 1, with 2 more to come later) Tunbridge Wells Homeopathy hospital is to have its NHS funding removed.See BBC link here. Surely good news for all other areas of NHS funding (dare I say it, the more efficacious areas).

How could anyone not want homeopathy to be a success? Cheap, safe readily available ingredients (i.e. water and possibly sugar), no side effects, no problems with overdose, no controlled substances. All we need is the evidence that it works, which after many years of wasting resources trying, is why we need put the therapy to bed as a failure.

Having written to my own MP, James Gray, regarding his signing of an Early Day Motion which promotes CAM and calls on the Government to "actively ... support these national assets [Homeopathic hospitals]", I was pleased with the result. However, just as the EDM motion did, Mr Gray's letter used homeopathy synonymously with CAM, which really grates, as any person with an gram (or ounce, if you're old school) of sense can see - try this for logic:

"My understanding is that, according to Dept of Health, about half of GPs refer patients to alternative therapists - indicating that they view homeopathy as worthwhile for their patient's needs" - James Gray MP, CON, Wiltshire North (my bold)

Doesn't follow, James, I'm afraid. (Also being a pedant, I would reckon he meant to put that apostrophe after the s, assuming of course, the said Doctors have more than one patient, but I'm getting sidetracked.)

There may well be useful alternative therapies out there, but there isn't a scratch of evidence to show that homeopathy (as opposed to placebo effect) is one of them. Nonetheless, he finished off by saying that "alternative therapies ought to be available where they are wanted and prove cost- and clinically- effective" (my bold), which I guess means he's happy enough for the funding to be withdrawn from Tunbridge Wells as well.

Whew. Take a break. Pour more coffee. More to come :)