Thursday, May 22, 2008

The Five 'A's of Empty Argument

I’ve been on enough professional development courses to know that memorable techniques all need to be either a mnemonic or begin with the same letter.

I have gone for the latter, as it seems to work quite well – the idea came to me during the recent Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill which included debates on the use of animal-human hybrid embryos, Saviour Siblings, and lowering the time limit for abortions. DrAUST has written a comprehensive and sensible blog post on this issue, so no need to duplicate it all here.

What I wanted to blog was a brief summary of some of the tactics used to cloud debate, how to spot them and more importantly, how to deal with them.

(Incidentally, I should point out that there are undoubtedly more than 5, and indeed they may or may not begin with A, but the ones below are the main ones and will hopefully prove useful)

1. Argument from Authority

A real favourite for the Complementary and Alternative ‘medicine’ people. You can read the full silly story of lame homeopathic warrior Dana Ullman, insisting that Charles Darwin was an advocate of homeopathy.

Even if he was (he wasn’t) he’d have been wrong - it would add no value at all to the argument. Famous people are not infallible; because they were very clever about one area doesn’t mean they are knowledgeable about all.

2. Argument from Anecdote

“My sister often suffered from…… but since……”

Again, a classic (s)CAM argument – religious ‘miracles’ are also perpetuated this way.

This gives no idea as to confounding factors, people’s selective memories, story telling mistakes, mis-interpreted results etc etc. Humans are terribly prone to bias, which is why the gold standard for clinical trials is a randomised,double-blind, placebo-controlled, multi-centre trial. Also, from a statistical point of view, it may be pure chance, unless you have a handle on the numbers of people in the same position (the ‘n’ number). Derren Brown’s The System shown on Channel 4 in Feb 2008 is an excellent demonstration - a good overview is here.

3. Argument by Appeal to Emotion

I had a different example for this but MP Edward Leigh’s emotive nonsense in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill debate discussing human-animal hybrid embryos, takes some beating
If an embryo could talk, perhaps they would echo what Mary Shelley wrote in “Frankenstein”:
“I, the miserable and the abandoned, am an abortion, to be spurned at, and kicked, and trampled on."

OK. The embryo can’t talk. End of argument. This is pure appeal to emotion, carries no weight of evidence and in my view, demonstrates Mr Leigh’s poor debating technique.

If my coffee cup could talk perhaps it would say “I, the miserable stained cup made to endure boiling water……”. Nonsense.

4. Argument from the Alternative

This is trying to give weight to an argument by attempting to show that the alternative is not preferable. It may be a relevant point, but it doesn’t provide any evidence for what is being argued for. The textbook (and frequently trotted out) example of this is:

“There must be a God, otherwise there would be no point to life” – answer – why must there be a point to life, apart from you feel there should be one?

Regardless of the argument in point, arguing that the alternative is preferable is not evidence for the opposite. (For another example see Anonymous comment on the blog post regarding double-blind, placebo controlled trials – not only argument for the alternative, but argument from …em…. being wrong.

5. Argument by Ad hominem

Ad hominem
is latin for ‘to the man’, but its meaning in debating circles is to use (irrelevant and often untrue) character slight as a means of winning an debate. Again, the homeopaths especially like to use this one - if you take them to task about the lack of evidence that exists for their quackery, you will often be portrayed as a ‘big Pharma shill’ with no independent thought. Again, even if it is true (it isn’t) it doesn’t change the fact that homeopathy (and other CAM techniques) are quackery and have no solid evidence of efficacy. The person making the statement of fact has no bearing on the veracity of the fact.

So there you have it. The Five A’s of Empty Argument – now, where is my book deal and whirlwind world tour?

(Post more below, but please try and make them begin with A or else we won't get anywhere :)

ETA - There is a prize of an internet to anyone who can find all five being used in the same place (sCAM fora, blog posts, etc).
Obviously this blog doesn't count.....

EDIT (18/06/08): Thanks to Nash for giving the 6th 'A' - Argument from Antiquity. Many CAM-type rationales (and religious reasonings) come from the thought that "it has been done for hundreds/thousands of years". It well have a long history, but it may also have been wrong as well.

EDIT (03/07/08): Seven seems a much better number that 6 or even 5, and so, thanks to Deano over at BadScience for adding "Argument by Analogy" to the list. Something along the lines of
"When steam builds up in a steam engine, it needs to be let out.
Emotions build in people just like steam builds up in steam engines.
Therefore, emotions need to be let out."

Keep them coming!

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Neals Yard get gentle slap from MHRA for peddling life-endangering sugar pills

And so the saga continues..... To recap briefly, BBC SouthWest's program Inside Out questioned whether Neals Yard should be selling homepathic remedies for Malaria. The YouTube video is here and the transcript is here.

Neals Yard then put out a press release saying that as it is a "contentious issue" they were withdrawing the product.

Nothing at all to do with the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency investigating them over the issue. Now the MHRA guidelines on homeopathic medicines are as follows (and can be found here):
In 1992 Directive 92/73/EC introduced a Simplified Scheme for homoeopathic products. It is regarded as simplified because although the safety and quality of products has to be demonstrated, products are not permitted to make medical claims. The Scheme is restricted to products for oral and external use and does not allow indications (the descriptions of diseases or conditions for which the medicine is intended to be used). In order to qualify for registration the products must:

* be for oral or external use - this includes all methods of administration with the exception of injections
* be sufficiently dilute to guarantee their safety
* make no therapeutic claims.

My bold. So, as long as they demonstrate they are safe and don't claim to do anything, then they can be registered.

Compare the following two statements. Firstly, from David Carter at the MHRA:
This product was clearly intended to be viewed as a treatment or preventive for malaria, which is a serious and potentially life-threatening disease. We regard the promotion of an unauthorised, self-medicating product for such a serious condition to be potentially harmful to public health and misleading.

Secondly, from Neals Yard press release:
We do not advertise or sell the remedy as a prevention for Malaria. It is supplied on request by practitioners working in Neals Yard Remedies stores, and in fact, the practitioners have been trained to always explain that the remedy should not be considered as a guarantee of prevention of malaria. The name of the remedy is based on its latin name and not on its claim to cure or prevent an ailment.

Clearly the MHRA are not falling from the laughable nonsense from Neals Yard. The MHRA should also be commended on the fact that they were fairly quick in their response to the situation.

Where the MHRA (in my humble opinion) have failed, is that they
... are pleased that Neal’s Yard Remedies have complied with our [MHRA] request and removed this product from the market.

Again, nothing about this request in the Neals Yard press release but it appears that the MHRA asked Neals Yard to remove the product and they did so. This isn't good enough. Had Inside Out not exposed the situation (and subsequent bloggers like myself and The Quackometer) not taken up the story, then MHRA would have done nothing. Despite a UK company selling a sugar pill as a preventative and cure for a life threatening disease, they did nothing.

And when they were alerted? They did the minimum to ensure no real boat rocking. What I would have liked to have seen is the MHRA take some sort of action in proportion with anyone else selling illegal, life-threatening medicines - fines at the very least.

One could argue that the PR fallout from this sort of story is huge, but in reality, the system is favouring the lawbreaker and profits at the expense of regulation, safety and public health.

The full MHRA story is here. The Quackometer has done (as usual!) an excellent fisking here.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Did the Society of Homeopaths meet with the Department of Health or didn't they? Depends who you ask....

The Freedom of Information Act is a wonderful thing. Anything you want to know (with some exceptions) regarding anything that goes in the public sector can be investigated using an FOI request. Bane of politicians and ninja tool of news hacks looking for dirt, it is an extremely valuable resource for finding out what our tax dollars fund.

I was made aware of one such example recently.

The Society of Homeopaths - the ones that tried and failed miserably to sue The Quackometer for demonstrating that homeopaths regularly flout their own code of conduct and in some cases prescribe homeopathic medicines for potentially fatal diseases like malaria - put out a press release on 28th February 2008 regarding a consultation to allow the SoH to become the UK regulatory body for homeopaths.

The press release contained the two following statements:

The Society of Homeopaths, Britain’s largest professional association of homeopaths, today announced that it has begun a wide-ranging consultation as it prepares to launch the UK’s first independent single register and regulatory body for homeopaths. Following a recent meeting with the Department of Health, the Board of the 30 year old Society resolved to divest its self-regulation and governance arm from its membership and continuing professional development functions in order to create a first-class regulatory body, which will govern the professional practice of an expanding number of homeopathy practitioners.

Gripping stuff. But nonetheless, it appears that a meeting was held with Dept. of Health concerning future regulation. Indeed, later on in press release we find out that:

The resolution approved by the Board became viable after our consultation with the Department of Health and we are convinced that this big step forward will benefit patients, their families and the profession as a whole”.

Promoted from a meeting up to a consultation. Seems like the DoH are bedbuddies with the SoH and everyone is happy.

That is, until you ask the Dept of Health for their take on it. I've been made aware of an FOI request asking for minutes of the meetings between SoH and DoH in the last two years. The result? The Freedom of Information Unit at the Dept of Health has stated:

I can confirm that there have been no meetings between the Department and the Society of Homeopaths over the last two years.

(My bold)

Seems like a very one-sided consultation if the DoH weren't even there*. So who do you believe - A Freedom of Information request from the Department of Health, or a press-release from a self-interested group of quacks?

Make your own Freedom of Information requests via this easy to use website,

*EDIT (3rd July 2008): In an interesting turn of events, the FOI officer has responded to the above webpage full of apologies and hand-wringing, for TWICE confirming that the SoH and Dept of Health had not met. What he meant was that there were no formal meetings with the SoH. There was, however, an informal meeting and a DoH official did make some scribbly notes, which have been transcribed (thanks Tristan) as follows:

Meeting with The Department of Health
Wednesday 30th January 2008
Quarry House, Leeds

Draft agenda

11:00 Welcome and Introductions
11:10 The Society of Homeopaths – an introduction
11:30 The Department of Health – regulation update *
11:50 Opportunities for joint working
11:55 AOB
12:00 Close

Increased lay involvement
Changes to regulator’s governance
Separation of investigation and adjudication
Changes to standard of proof
Changes to CHRE’s powers & governance

* White paper – programme of work
- Health Bill
- 5.60 orders
- GANTT chart

Me - Europe – Dir 2005/3G
- Regulation of CAM? – MHRA – Homeopaths
- NHS Employers
- SVG / Whisleblowing

Talk to XXXXXXXXXXX C-S about whether Society of Homeopaths will be involved in the NHC’s profession – specific board. Why would a homeopath want to join the NMC?

With a massive 5 minutes devoted to "Opportunities for Joint Working" it appears that the meeting's importance has been exaggerated well out of proportion by SoH!