20 December 2009

‘The trouble with skeptics’, ‘illiberal liberals’ and skeptic projection

I appreciate jdc325’s piece on inappropriate skeptic attitudes and behaviours, having been subject to them on this blog.  I’m pleased to say however that generally the skeptic tone is much better than two years ago: Skeptic insults to homeopaths daily count: December 4th 2007.  I’d like to add a skeptic fail of my own: making up facts based on logic, or ‘flact’ for short.

Also of interest this week is Brendan O’Neill’s piece in Spiked online on the illiberal, anti-free speech treatment of Johnny Ball’s scepticism of man-made climate change at a ‘religious style get together of rationalists’ including freedom-of-speech-for-scientists and anti-homeopathy campaigners. Further evidence that science or scientism is the new orthodox fundamentalist religion.  Update: even Randi is being subject to the same treatment

And finally I agreed with homeopathyblogs that Goldacre et al are projecting onto homeopaths their own unscientific and biased approach as detailed by William Alderson’s review of Ernst and Singh’s Trick or Treatment.  The printed version of  Goldacre’s notorious anti-homeopathy piece in the Guardian contained cartoons projecting pharma’s love of its pills and forcefeeding them to innocent patients.  Given that Goldacre is involved in psychiatric work you would think that he would recognise this, unless of course he was wilfully using it to influence.

29 April 2008

Society of Homeopaths’ press complaint against Goldacre and The Guardian

The Society of Homeopaths has sent an official complaint to the Press Complaints Commission concerning Ben Goldacre’sarticle in The Guardian: “A kind of magic” November 16th 2007 .  They say in the membership newsletter (not online):

“The Society maintains that the article is in breach of the commission’s “code of practise” in that it did not clearly distinguish between comment, conjecture and fact.  The complaint states that it was not clearly defined as an opinion article, with the introduction giving the impression that the piece was a journalistic appraisal of the issues.  It is the Society’s view that there are also statements in the article itself which give the impression it is fact rather than opinion.

The complaint also relates to key factual inaccuracies in the piece, notably that homeopaths are “killing people”, which the Society has pointed out is a potentially damaging statement without any evidence to back it up.”

I have checked the PCC code of conduct and number 1 is:

1 Accuracy
  i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.



The pictures I found particularly offensive (not on the internet piece but behind a paywall somewhere if you want to look [update: a portion of one is on David Colquhoun’s blog]): they depicted sharp suited, dark-glassed male homoepaths ‘loving’ their white pills and standing over their poor kneeling patients while they poured them down their throats.  As many UK homeopaths are female and are known to be quite gentle creatures it didn’t make sense to me.  And as for the ‘facts’ in the piece they were mostly ‘FLACTS’. I know you are a psychiatrist Ben but you can’t just go round making stuff up.

I look forward to hearing the PCC’s views on this in due course and will report back.

27 March 2008

Wholesale scorn on complementary medicine is unscientific.

Madeleine Bunting (at my least favourite newspaper ‘The Guardian’ since ‘I’m a cuddly junior doctor/you’re-making-it-up-psychiatrist’ Ben Goldacre’s devoid of any twisted homeopathic facts propaganda piece) makes some pertinent points about the state of Sceptic-Woo wars in complementary medicine.  I disagree that homeopathy is ‘just placebo’ as the benefits of homeopathic treatment can be much more profound than just ‘feeling better’ or ‘removal of symptoms’ but otherwise I agree with her thinking:

“Suckers: How Alternative Medicine Makes Fools of Us All; Snake Oil Science; and next month sees another, Trick or Treatment: what these new books have in common is varying degrees of frustration at the seemingly inexorable rise of complementary medicine. It seems the aim of some of these authors is to finish off a burgeoning health industry that they believe is based on charlatans and quacks preying on the gullible and desperate.

The books reflect the growing exasperation in some quarters that public opinion is not as amenable to persuasion and scientific evidence as they would hope. The language gets lurid; the mood music to pronouncements on complementary medicine is increasingly alarmist – we are living in dangerous times, an unEnlightenment looms as tides of irrationality threaten to overwhelm the palisades erected by science. “Reason is a precious but fragile thing,” declared Richard Dawkins in his series, The Enemies of Reason, last autumn. “Reason has liberated us from superstition and given us centuries of progress. We abandon it at our peril.”

What so troubles these science warriors is that it is estimated a third of people in the UK now use complementary medicine, at a cost of £1.5bn a year. In the US, the figures are substantially higher; it has been calculated that more visits are made to healing therapists than to doctors. There is an extraordinary paradox here: a half-century of astonishing conventional medical advances has not succeeded in eliminating complementary medicine. Quite the reverse: the breakthroughs in conventional medicine have been accompanied by the proliferation of other forms of healing – many of which have little or no evidence base to prove their efficacy. Indeed, it only takes a short surf on the web to discover that the wilder shores of this burgeoning industry are, well, pretty wild.

To the science warriors, this bizarre state of affairs can only be explained by irrationality. They bemoan the state of science education and lament how, contrary to expectation, literacy and access to information have failed to eradicate superstition. Meanwhile, in this increasingly sharply polarised debate, complementary medicine practitioners are equally exasperated by what they see as blinkered scientific reductionism.

So it takes a brave scientist to launch into this territory and risk getting attacked from both camps by daring to ask a simple question: is there anything science can learn from complementary medicine? That is precisely what Kathy Sykes is doing in her current television series, Alternative Therapies (the second programme is on BBC2 tonight). As Bristol University’s professor of public engagement in science and the director of the Cheltenham Festival of Science, no one can challenge her credentials as a scientist, yet her scrutiny of particular therapies throws up serious challenges to conventional medicine.

Sykes is too good a scientist to give complementary medicine an easy run. Tonight she examines reflexology, and gives it pretty short shrift. There are 30,000 reflexologists working on a million British feet a year. They base their work on a theory that parts of the sole of the foot correlate to organs in the body. The only problem is that Sykes could find no one, reflexologist or scientist, who could explain how these correlations might work. Furthermore, it turned out that this “ancient” healing system seems to have originated with an imaginative American woman in the 1930s. But patients swear by it. One reflexologist points Sykes to her annual garden party full of babies and children as evidence of the success she has had with infertility problems. This is the point where most scientists snort with derision at the use of personal anecdote as evidence, but Sykes presses on and it takes her into two areas of scientific research. First, she digs up new research on the importance of touch, which can have a profound impact on the brain. Even the hand of a stranger reduces anxiety and that of someone with whom one has a close relationship is even more significant. In fact, Sykes finds some scientific underpinning which goes beyond placebo in many of the therapies she looks at. But it is placebo which emerges as a recurrent and crucially important thread in her quest, and it leads her to the work of several American scientists who are trying to identify what placebo is, who it works for, and why it works.

This is one of the most common charges made against complementary medicine – that most of it is no better than placebo. But there is a way of turning that accusation around: perhaps complementary medicine is an effective way to harness placebo as one of the most powerful – and cheapest – of healing processes. Rather than being derogatory about the phenomenon as “just” placebo, perhaps we should see it as one of the most remarkable and little understood aspects of the human body.

That line of inquiry has taken Sykes to the US several times over the course of the two series she has made. There placebo has become a new frontier in medicine. In a range of studies with startling results – even sham knee surgery can be as effective as the real thing – many factors contribute to placebo: the confidence of the doctor; the social, cultural expectations around the procedure; the empathy and warmth of the patient-doctor relationship; the patient’s degree of faith. Get all these right, and the outcome can be remarkable. Harvard professor Ted Kaptchuk is publishing a study this week which shows that placebo is as good as any conventional treatment available for irritable bowel syndrome. Given that the eight most industrialised nations spend $40bn a year on medication for this condition, that’s revolutionary stuff.

This kind of research into placebo gives some insight into why complementary medicine has boomed and why there are so many people who cite their own experience to passionately defend it. The average consultation with a GP is 4.6 minutes, while the complementary therapist can devote an hour to taking detailed personal histories. That time and relationship provide a context and an opportunity for the ritual and recasting of personal experience which Kaptchuk believes are the crucial elements of placebo.

Complementary medicine is most popular where conventional medicine fails, such as with musculoskeletal conditions and mental health – stress, depression, anxiety (the recent revelations about the inefficacy of Prozac were another reminder of how shaky the science is in a large area of conventional medicine). Several complementary therapies are particularly effective at pain relief – you had to see Sykes’s footage of hypnotism helping a woman to have teeth extracted without anaesthetic to believe it. Kaptchuk argues that pain is not a static given but can be experienced dramatically differently.

Conventional medicine prolongs life but is less successful in prolonging good health – we can expect to spend more years of our life in poor health, as a government report showed last week – and in producing wellbeing. So people are voting with their feet, trying to find other ways to fill the gaps left by conventional medicine. We need scientists to help to identify what they are looking for and why, rather than pouring scorn indiscriminately on the whole field and on the relations between belief, mind and body, of which science still has such a fragmentary understanding.”

2 January 2008

Goldacre’s conflicts of interest exposed.

Cultural Dwarfs and Junk Journalism by Martin J Walker: free download available at www.slingshotpublications.com

Dr Ben Goldacre is the author of the Guardian’s Bad Science column and has authored ‘A Kind of Magic?’, in which:

“he produced what might appear to be a thoroughgoing, devastating critique of a bogus therapy, but the article is at best a farrago of truth, half-truth and downright dissembling. Given the lengths that the Guardian and other British newspapers go to be apparently objective on any vaguely radical subject, one can’t help wondering why the Guardian is happy to let Goldacre romp through, and tread down, all previous standards of fair debate.

Broadly speaking, the essay that follows is the latest addition to my ongoing analysis of the British corporate science lobby and its popular campaigning arms, skeptics and quackbusters. Specifically, the essay focuses on attacks on Patrick Holford, the independent nutritionist, while trying to place the quackbusting journalist Ben Goldacre, who began this round of attacks, in a social and political context.

Dr Ben Goldacre rarely draws attention to the fact that he is a medical doctor, nor does he ever discuss, even in the most general terms, patients with whom he has come into contact, in the way that, for example, James Le Fanu does in his intelligent Sunday Telegraph column.  In fact, nothing Goldacre says seems to be grounded in everyday life, the condition of ‘ordinary people’ or the public at large.

Despite claiming to spend most of his life working in the NHS, he is circumspect about which London hospital he works in and what kind of medicine he practises. For someone who spends considerable amounts of time criticising those who practice non-allopathic medicine, for example nutritional practitioners, he might, one would think, make more of his NHS position.

Despite his claim to be a serious academician, and despite the fact that a number of his PR puffs say that he ‘has published academic papers in neuroscience’, there is no record on the significant databases of his having co-authored more than one academic paper, apparently written while he was a visitor at Milan University. The only way in which academic status can be measured is by the number of peer-reviewed papers or other notable publications such as books. It should
be pointed out that the engorgement of un-provable academic credentials is one of the major points of criticisms he addresses when writing his quackbusting articles.


In 1999, two years after New Labour had come to power and Lord Sainsbury had been rewarded for his campaign donations, Goldacre was funded by the British Academy to do his Masters degree in philosophy at King’s College.

Today, the British Academy (BA) is funded by the Office of Science and Innovation (OSI), which sits within the DTI.28 In the past it has always been linked to both the Royal Society and the Royal
Institution. It claims to ‘maximise the contribution made by our science, engineering and technology skills and resources to the UK’s economic development, and to the quality of our lives’. Of course, one is bound to wonder how the quality of public life could be enhanced by Ben Goldacre gaining an MA in philosophy.

King’s College is the bastion and training ground for The Lobby. It is where Simon Wessely, the premier master of scientific spin, resides, working, mad-professor-like on endless projects to prove that organic environmental illness does not exist, and that anyone who suggests it does is deluded.

The most empathetic and forgiving of us were imagining that Ben was a junior doctor in a heavily pressed casualty unit in an inner City area. If Ben was dealing with the dirty life and death of motor accidents, shootings and drug-related deaths in north-east London for example, perhaps he might be forgiven his hard bitten views, and his anti airy-fairy concerns about people affected by electric air waves, chemicals and bad vaccines.

It appears, however, that he has always been a post-grad clinical research worker, now possibly studying for a Phd at King’s College, the home of the psychiatric school of ‘all-in-the-mind aetiology’. In all probability Goldacre has been at this University Hospital since taking his MA, and was probably attached to it when he was taken on by the Guardian.

If this is the case, most probably he doesn’t see patients, except when he passes them in the corridor at the Maudsley as he makes his way to the Liaison Psychiatry Unit within the Institute of Psychiatry,where he is studying under the Prince of Spin Professor Simon Wessely, the head of the Liaison Psychiatry Department. Wessely is an advisor to the Science Media Centre and on the Advisory panel of the US American Council on Science and Health, one of the most heavily funded pro industry lobby groups in the world.

The really good thing about Liaison psychiatry is that you can blend all kinds of social issues with lots of mad-cap psychiatric ideas that work well for industry. Liaison psychiatry is a form of psychiatry in which the psychiatrist informs unsuspecting ordinary citizens who report to hospitals with organic illnesses that they are actually mentally ill. This diagnostic ability is particularly acute when the Liaison psychiatrist meets up with anyone who has suffered an environmental illness, a chemical insult, or any industry-related illness.

For some time now, King’s College has been deeply involved in the programme of spin designed by industry and the New Labour government. However, as is evident from the involvement of Goldacre there, the relationship between The Lobby, the University and the hospital, is not simple. As well as Wessely’s role, ex-Revolutionary Communist Party members have also played a part in bringing vested interests to the college. Together with pseudo-scientific research into mental illness and environmentally caused illness, King’s is deeply involved in risk analysis for various controvertial environmental factors.


Can there be any doubt that the industry directed research at King’s, with which Goldacre is associated, or his association with Professor Wessely, whose research on ME, Gulf War Syndrome and EMF never benefits patients but always government or industry, constitutes a conflict of interest that should from the beginning have been declared by Goldacre, every time he says anything about science in the Guardian
or anywhere else?”

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