Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Homeopaths in Evidence-denial Shock.

It's not a great time for homeopaths. The last few years have had their ups and downs for homeopathy in the UK, with more downs than ups.

The last few weeks have provided more nails in the coffins of the sugar pill salespeople; firstly, GP's weekly medical magazine, Pulse, has published a report on the over 40% drop in homeopathy prescriptions written by GPs in 2 years, from 83,000 in 2005 to 49,300 in 2007. They had obtained the numbers using a Freedom of Information request.

This is a huge decline. Of course, homeopaths are not great at dealing with evidence or statistics, lest they would have given up the sugar pill game a long time ago. As if to demonstrate this fact, a spokesperson from the British Homeopathic Association is quoted in the BBC as saying:
We do know that there is no evidence to show that GPs are shunning homeopathy, nor is there evidence to show patients are not seeking homeopathy due to adverse press coverage

My bold. No evidence except that the numbers have almost halved over two years. None at all. This is an incredibly ballsy and laughable comment to make - I should point out that the BBC contact at BHA didn't give her name, perhaps wisely.

Oz-blogger Daniel over at Good Reason likes to play "That's not evidence" with homeopaths:
Here's how to play. You find a homeopath, and ask if they have any evidence for homeopathy. They invariably pull out an anecdote or some statistic about the popularity of homeopathy, to which you politely respond, "That's not evidence." You explain why, and you ask if they have anything better. Time how long it takes them to either make a personal attack or cry. Someone once made it six minutes.

It has also emerged today that Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital is finally to close.

This isn't a huge shock, as this story was one of the first covered on this blog back in Oct 2007 (BBC report).

It is however important, as it sets a precedent for other Primary Care Trusts looking to ensure that their ever-dwindling budgets are used efficiently, that homeopathic hospitals can no longer be part of an evidence-based health system. Referring to the Primary Care Trust's own review;
[the review] found 66% of patients and 80% of GPs did not support funding homeopathic services at the hospital, justifying the PCT decision to stop referrals for homeopathy

Once again, the BHA ignore the statistics and issue a press release with the following gems from John Cook, Chairman of the BHA:
It is a sad day for patient choice. The PCT decided patients will no longer have the right to treatment that works! Managers with no experience of homeopathy are telling patients, who have been successfully treated by doctors at the Tunbridge Wells Homoeopathic Hospital, that they lose that right to effective treatment for chronic and long-term conditions

Lets look at that again. The reason why the hospital is not receiving funding is because there is unsurprisingly no clinical evidence that it works. In fact, the closing of the hospital ensures that the patients will have the right to treatment that works. See how he skillfully ignores the fact that 80% of GPs were against it. It would have been an insult if the result had been any different.

Apart from the British Homeopathic Association blurting out obvious 'mispeaks', where are the other homeopathic organisations? It appears that these two heftily bad PR news stories aren't worth the time or effort of the Society of Homeopaths. The SoH have fantastic form when it comes to PR - they famously tried to sue its detractors in Oct 2007, resulting in the offending article "The Gentle Art of Homoepathic Killing" getting replicated all over the blogosphere and in June 2008 managed to tell nobody about Homeopathy Awareness Week. For an organisation trying to be the UK regulators of Homeopaths (remember those meetings with Department of Health?) they really are in a amateurish mess.

But the question is, what will they do, if confronted with the evidence?


Friday, July 25, 2008

The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science - Robert L. Park

In May, I wrote a post titled "The 5 A's of Empty Argument", and in time, the superior knowledge of the readers upped that five to a much nicer seven:

1.Argument from Authority
2.Argument from Anecdote
3.Argument by Appeal to Emotion
4.Argument from the Alternative
5.Argument by Ad hominem
6.Argument from Antiquity
7.Argument by Analogy

Excellent. Seven really feels much better than five.

Recently, via the intellectually rewarding timewasting site of StumbleUpon, I was presented with the following article in a similar vein from 2003:

The Seven Warning Signs of Bogus Science

It is a very useful guide for weeding out the Steorns of this world, and other paradigmatic-shifting salesmen.

R.L. Park is swift to point out that :

they are only warning signs -- even a claim with several of the signs could be legitimate.

but it's fair to say that the following seven signs are hallmarks of the conmen.

The full article is here, with a synopsis below:

1. The discoverer pitches the claim directly to the media.
2. The discoverer says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work
3. The scientific effect involved is always at the very limit of detection
4. Evidence for a discovery is anecdotal
5. The discoverer says a belief is credible because it has endured for centuries
6. The discoverer has worked in isolation
7. The discoverer must propose new laws of nature to explain an observation

Spotting voodoo science is a skill that every citizen should develop - Robert L. Park

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Happy Birthday, Homeopathic Malaria Sting!

On Thursday 13th July 2006, BBC's Newsnight broadcast an investigation by Simon Singh (in association with Sense About Science) into how some homeopaths were advising people to use homeopathic products for malaria instead of referring them to a GP or conventional travel clinics where proven effective medicines are available.

In the two years from then til now, what has changed and what has happened in the UK with regards to homeopathy and malaria?

I thought it might be useful to document some of the milestones that have passed in the last two years.

July 2006

BBC's Newsnight broadcasts the Sense about Science sting - the transcript is here and some video clips are here.

The responses from Society of Homeopaths and Faculty of Homeopaths is surprisingly different. Compare SoH(WORD doc):

... there is substantial anecdotal evidence from around the world to suggest that homeopathy may offer a gentle, yet effective, complementary or alternative approach

with the FoH:

The Faculty of Homeopathy [...] does not promote the use of homeopathy for the prevention of malaria...there is no published evidence to support the use of homeopathy in the prevention of malaria

September 2006

The Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency push through regulations in Parliament to permit homeopathic products to make medical claims but exempt them from providing any scientific evidence that they are effective. The Sense about Science report is here and Master Blogger, DC Colquhoun kept track of the story.

March 2007

David Colquhoun writes a piece in Nature, which gets picked up by the popular media, about British Universities offering degrees in complimentary medicine including homeopathy.

Summer 2007

An explosion of nerds and science spods who had previously been congregating on Ben Goldacre's Bad Science forum, took up the challenge to start blogging all manner of pseudoscience and quackery in the media, on teh internet and in RealLife® - this blog was one of many that spawned from that period, the list to the right of this column gives the links to many more.

September 2007

Tunbridge Wells Homeopathic Hospital had its funding removed by the NHS, effectively closing it down.

Elsevier's Journal "Homeopathy" publishes the Memory of Water issue. This is met by a call to join the Bad Science Homeopathy Journal Club where the journal articles were comprehensively discussed and debunked - see here.

October 2007

The Quackometer publishes its seminal treatise on The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing, describing the attitudes and inconsistencies in the Society of Homeopath's regulations and attitudes to its members.

The Society of Homeopaths responded by suing The Quackometer, forcing the removal of the article from the site. Nothing is forgotten on the internet though, and within hours, hundreds of faithful bloggers had reprinted the article all over the world. The SoH did not follow through on its threats. To get an idea of how many copies where made, have a look at the Google result of "Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing".

After The Guardian printed Ben Goldacre's Bad Science column on the affair, Paula Ross from Society of Homeopaths complained to Press Complaints Commission - an offer of response to Ms Ross was enough to resolve the complaint, proving their legal pressure had all been flannel.

January 2008

The Complementary & Natural Healthcare Council is formed to be an 'independent self-regulatory body for complementary therapists. It quickly becomes dubbed as OfQuack. The Department of Health awarded a grant of £900,000 over the three-year period 2005 to 2008 to get an umbrella regulatory body set up, which sparked a turf war with the Society of Homeopaths. Their press release (WORD doc) contained the telling phrase:

The Society of Homeopaths has yet to assess the suitability and standards of the Natural Healthcare Council for the purpose of providing regulation of homeopaths.

It seems they never did.

April 2008

BBC's Inside Out program (Southwest UK only) decided to investigate claims by Neal's Yard that homeopathic remedies it sells in its stores can help prevent and treat serious fatal diseases such as malaria. YouTube video here and transcript here. This included the comedy gold of Susan Curtis (Medicines director at Neal's Yard) walking out of the interview in a strop.
The PR fallout of the program (caused by blogs such as this one) has meant a Google search for 'Susan Curtis Neal's Yard' gives this blog in the top 3 results!

May 2008

The MHRA wrap the knuckles of Neals Yard for selling an unregistered product and force it to remove the products from their shelves.

June 2008

The Society of Homeopaths had their annual "Homeopathy Awareness Week". But no-one noticed.

July 2008

So what has changed since the Newsnight investigation into Homeopathic Malaria treatments?

Well, for starters, Helios Homeopathy, (who were questioned during the Newsnight investigation) are still selling Malaria Officinalis.

On a much more positive note, a Google search for "Homeopathy malaria" gives a barrage of sites pointing out the failures and idiocy of trying to combat a potentially lethal disease like malaria with homeopathy.

That is the big difference between July 2008 and July 2006.

If there are other homeopathy-related milestones which you think are worthy of a mention, please leave a comment. Also, if you liked the post, please StumbleIt. I've no idea what that will do, but I am assured it is a Good Thing. Ta.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Theory #1 (revisited)

Along time ago, when I was much greener at this blogging game, I postulated that

Any tabloid heading that starts 'Is this....', 'Could this be...' etc. can be safely answered 'No'

Usually from the hallowed pages of the Daily Mail, things like this often arise in the red tops with disappointing frequency.

I thought it was perhaps worth a revisit, as the urge to ask these sort of questions is no longer limited to the tabloids - the Guardian is getting in on the act with such wonders as

Is watermelon the new Viagra?

So it's perhaps less fawning the average DM entry, but still utterly pointless.

EDITED 8/7/08: Thanks to Rachel on this post for introducing this Daily Mail Headline Generator. All in the form of questions, all politely following Dr* T's First Theory ;)