Friday, February 25, 2011

BRAINMax - For Maximising your memory health!

Do you feel forgetful sometimes? Worrying about whether you left the iron or if you need to buy milk?

You need BRAINMax. BRAINMax is a natural, organic, traditional supplement which will regularise your brain aptitude and at the same time promote memoriness. It can also help reduce thought-decay, while its natural, soothing essences help the brain reconstruct idea-cells, meaning you can relax and enjoy your life!

Sounds pretty good, eh? Five'll get you ten that I could sell this product successfully to any number of chumps who'd lap this kind of sillyness up. It doesn't matter what's actually in the bottle - probably a few vitamins and exotic sounding plant extracts like Salvia lavandulifolia, which incidentally is used as a 'memory aid'. Just to be clear, the above product is a figment of my beer-happy brain.

It *should* raise the eyebrows of anyone with a basic skim of GSCE level science yet the world is full of it. You'll probably have come across things like 'cellular health', 'brain boosting supplements', and 'wellness' or the liberal sprinkling of real terms used flippantly like "mental fatigue". All are marketing terms, used effectively to avoid using real words with real meanings, because that would make their claims falsifiable - i.e. you could be asked to prove what you're saying and therefore not just make shit up.

It's easy to claim that a product 'supports good heart health'. It is a completely unfalsifiable statement. How could you test it? The phrase 'Good heart health' is so woolly that trying to probe what it means would be as futile as liquidising a ghost.

But it has been forever thus, and really all that happens is marketeers get ballsier and better at mangling science, to provide the intelligent-sounding copy that will hopefully shift whatever units they're selling. There's a huge subject on the psychology of sales and selling, but that's for others to harp on about.

What prompted the outpouring of pseudoscientific dangly-bits above was a ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority, the industry-funded regulator of all things adverty. Whilst it is generally a force for good, it's pretty weak when it comes to sanctions, but does seem to act fairly and efficiently on behalf of the consumer.

This week, the ASA ruled on a company called Healthspan Ltd. Healthspan Ltd are no strangers to ASA rulings, having 5 previous complaints against them upheld for misleading advertising of one sort or another.

It should also be noted that the head office is given as St Peter's Port, Guernsey, which was also, for a while, the address of serial ASA-offender and regular feature of this blog, Intramed.

This time, however, the ASA deemed the complaint unwarranted and it was not upheld. The complainant had felt that words and phrases like "optiflex" and "joint synergex" implied the product being advertised had some efficacy (presumably against arthritis of various forms) and asked whether the claims could be justified.

The ruling from the ASA is intriguing:
We (ASA) ... noted that "Synergex" was not a word in the English language, and not defined in the context of the ad. We therefore did not consider that the word Synergex implied efficacy, and concluded the ad was not misleading on that point.

So, if I can put it this way, as long as you use words that aren't used in the English language (i.e. have a defined meaning) then it's open season. So my ad above talking about "memoriness", "thought-decay" and "idea-cage" would be given the all-clear by the watchdog. It's also worth noting that
Healthspan had ensured that Optiflex advertising was accompanied by a prominent disclaimer stating "Not clinically proven to optimise flexibility"

(It's well known within and without the pill industry that glucosamine is pretty much a placebo, but it is a cheap product with a big markup, so continued belief is important for revenues. Everyone knows the game is up, except those people spending their hard-earned cash on a glimmer of hope of release from the grinding and unrelenting pain of arthritis. Classy ethics.)

In fairness, the ruling is reasonable enough - no-one complained about the Renault Clio's "Va va voom" adverts, even though we all knew what the implication was. (Ironically, the adverts were based around trying to pin down exactly what va-va-voom meant).

The important thing is to beware of new words and phrases used in adverts to describe products or benfits, where you know what they mean/imply but they don't seem quite right. Ask yourself the question.... why didn't they use the right word?

Are they offering some fraudulity with extract of poppycock?


JDC325 has also covered this on Stuff And Nonsense

DC has also covered Healthspan and their antics in previous blogposts here and here.

Edited 4/3/11: In a slightly cheeky way, I offered this blogpost to the Pod Delusion, as I thought maybe the format of the advert could be a bit of fun to do in audio. Mr O'Malley kindly agreed and allowed me to take 'prepublished' blog material for the Pod Delusion as a one-off. The script is changed a bit for clarity and for a different audience - extra thanks to @noodlemaz for cracking (dare I say 'sexy'?) voiceover in the Advert and to Beastie for being the voice of the ASA.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Pod Delusion Live Recording at #QEDcon

Feb 5th & 6th saw the happening of the first QED Conference in Manchester, run jointly by the Merseyside Skeptic's Society and Greater Manchester Skeptics.

Speakers included Simon Singh, Steve Novella, Jon Ronson, Prof Bruce Hood and many more. I had hoped to be there for the whole event, but unfortunately had to leave early on the Saturday.

For the bit I was there for, it was an outstanding success, with an excellent vibe, and big congrats to the organisers for running such a positive event.

While I was there, I took part in the live recording of The Pod Delusion, which you can listen to above or download from your favourite podcast supplier.

In the hustle and bustle of event, I managed to lose my script - luckily I'd emailed James O'Malley an early draft and he was able to send it to fellow contributor, Craig Lucas, who put it on his Kindle. As a result, it's not quite as clear or polished as I'd intended, but luckily still seemed to be well-received. You can even hear people seemingly genuinely laughing at some of the jokes, or smiling loudly at the very least.

In case you are interested, I've posted the proper script below which differs in a few places from the recording, mostly to add clarity and context.

If you don't regularly listen to The Pod Delusion, subscribe to it and give a few listens - you'll not be disappointed!

Learning Facts - A Brief Pod Delusion Rant

One of things that this new Tory-LibDem coalition have put forward is a return to 1950’s style learning – putting a big stress on LEARNING FACTS - Putting a big stress on teachers as well, of course, most of whom have no interest in ANOTHER BIG GOVERNMENT EDUCATION CHANGE.

Learn more facts!

How many wives did Henry 8th have? 6

When was the Battle Of Hastings ? 1066 (Although interestingly, did not take place in Hastings)

Who came King after Queen Anne? George 1st.

In reality the questions are dull, the answers prosaic. In fact, as long as we all agree the same answer, it doesn’t really matter and no one gets hurt.
You don’t learn by learning history this way. More relevant is the WHY? Why did Henry 8th have 6 wives. Arguably, to make sure he had a son to maintain his Royal blood line – cue questions about the divine right of kings in modern society, perceived changes in equal rights for men and women, stranglehold of religion in 16th century society, (Henry ditched the Pope because – as demonstrated by his wish for divorce - he felt the pope had too much jurisdication in secular affairs – how times have changed).

THAT is interesting and that is why history is important. Not so much the facts but more why the facts are what they are.

Being brought up in a strict protestant house, I ended up learning a lot of bible verses off by heart and even now long-forgotten sections pop back into my conscious after years of hanging around, avoiding being killed off by beer and taking up space that could have been used much more profitably, like learning Spanish or memorising that killer recipe for a 3 bean tomato and chilli salsa. (Actually now that I think of it most of the ingredients are in the title)

Anyway, we weren’t taught the WHY.

We just learnt and learnt and learnt.

We were asked to parrot it and sometimes we got sweets for it. Whether we had any emotional attachment to the verses through understanding or belief was irrelevant – we could say them on command and that was that.

Try this for 9 year old:

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.”

I have no idea what that means, even now. A ouija board at the top of the Eiffel Tower?

That’s from Ephesians, if you're asking.

Or this:

“Beloved, let us love one another: for love is of God; and every one that loveth is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love – beloved let us love one another”

(But not in a gay way, obviously).

Impeccable logic of course – anyone who does not love, does not know God because God is love. So it all depends on the assumption that God is Love. I didn’t learn to ask soon enough Why is God Love?

It’s a ridiculous question. I don’t even think it makes sense, which certainly has implications on the logic of the theology I just quoted.

Teaching people to learn without questioning can lead to some pretty grim situations. Obvious examples are cults – the unquestionable figurehead. I’ll cut out the next part by just saying Godwin, which will make the point and we can move on.

What about the more insidious examples, the everyday, pedestrian examples?

The news media is often very good at telling us ‘the facts’ but rubbish at telling us the ‘why?’. Look at the recent coverage of Tunisia and Egypt – immediate photos, footage “THIS IS HAPPENING”. But there was so much fact coverage that even with 24 hours rolling news, there wasn’t the time to explain WHY? Why had Tunisia suddenly exploded? Why are the Egyptians so angry?In the case of Tunisia, the media was keener to tell us how it affected British holidaymakers, rather than tell us why there was revolution.

Of course the British media is full of examples of facts. But facts presented in such a disjointed way so as to either end up being meaningless, or worse being twisted without context into a false narrative. What is the press release if not a section of these “facts” which are to be reprinted without question or adding context?

You may remember the story about the female contraceptive implant, Implanon.
600 pregnancies! It’s supposed to be a contraceptive for goodness sake.
What none of the press thought important to ask, was how many “successful” Implanons , i.e. not the no of failures, but the failure rate.

Tim Harford on Radio4’s More or Less and Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian gave this story a thorough dressing down, showing that the implant was the most reliable form of contraception and that in context these pregnancies, while unfortunate, were small in number relative to the amount of usage. It’s a numbers game - even small probabilities become realities if the no of events is big enough. There WAS an interesting story to be had about the transfer of responsibility between a pregnancy due to a women not complying with the pill regime and a pregnancy due to a doctor not inserting the implant correctly, but it was difficult to find.

In what was almost a repeat of the Implanon story, the Pod Delusion’s favourite newspaper Daily Mail last month printed a story about Xrays. It claimed in 2009 that 500 people a year in England got the wrong dosage some up to 100 times the recommended amount! Any clear-headed intelligent person would ask about context. Not so the Daily Mail!

Who wants to guess – number of Xrays in England per year? (A number that didn’t appear in the report)

Around 40 million.

That number is from the Care Quality Commission, who also reported the 500 over exposures. That’s a hit rate of 1 in 80,000 (or 0.00125%) Of course, the CQC look at this to drive down the number of non-compliances and up the quality of care, so monitoring this number is obviously important but in context, is this really worth the scary headline?

If the Daily Mail really cared about people getting over-exposure to Xrays, it could put a bit of time in exposing our chiropractic friends, who in turn expose people to Xrays to find subluxations, even though nobody knows what one looks like.

I could go on about recent stories involving ‘craters on Jupiter’ and other such nonsense but I’ll finish with this:

Of course the facts have importance but it is asking the WHY and questioning that produces useful learning rather than saying the right thing to get points.
Michael Gove is reducing the importance of giving kids in schools the encouragement to ask why and as a result is damping that natural urge to Question Explore and Discover. That is the real con.

This is Dr*T, ranting for the Pod Delusion live at QEDcon.