A general record of my ongoing battle with all forms of nonsense.
Tuesday, 12 January 2010
The ability to use reason, weigh evidence and make rational decisions is an essential skill. Strongly held beliefs unsupported by evidence can cause significant damage to the deluded individual and those who surround them.
An individual approaching a homeopath for a cold remedy will probably do no more self harm than to waste their money and feed their own delusion, but the homeopath who convinces their client that they're safe to go to West Africa with nothing more than a sugar pill for malaria protection may well kill them.
But mumbo-jumbo becomes most dangerous when it is believed by those with power.
In the late 1980s, the Government launched an Aids awareness campaign warning people not to "die of ignorance". But 13 years later in South Africa, the Mbeki government was infected with the very ignorance we Brits were warned against.
Mbeki started to doubt HIV was the cause of Aids and the regime started promoting the eating of potatoes and garlic as Aids treatment while warning of the dangers of anti-retro viral drugs.
The South African government's stance is estimated by scientists to have caused the premature deaths of between 300,000 and 350,000 people, the equivalent of a 9/11-sized catastrophe once a week for two years.
Under Chairman Mao, the People's Republic of China embarked on its Great Leap Forward, combining a set of absurd pseudo-scientific farming practices with a socialist economic doctrine so daft that its flaws could have been spotted by a teenager half way through their economics GCSE.
The farming practices were devised by Trofim Lysenko, who denied many basic tenets of biology, even genetic theory.
His farming advice included ploughing to a depth of two metres, storing wet seed in snow and planting rows of seeds extremely close together under the belief they would not compete with each other.
With the expected productivity gains, they reasoned there was little need to farm much of the land. But then these expectations were not based on any kind of rational thought or evidence.
This lethal combination of nonsense-biology, nonsense-agronomy and nonsense-economics caused the greatest famine in history, with estimates of the number of deaths ranging from 15-30 million.
But you think you're probably safe, right? Our MPs place their trust in independent scientific advisers who are at the top of their profession, right? Well, no.
Should you wish to find the MP who I believe promotes some of the most scientifically illiterate and dangerous ideas in Parliament, then look no further than the Leicestershire constituency of Bosworth.
On October 14 last year, David Tredinnick, MP for Bosworth, voiced controversial ideas during a Parliamentary question. His speech included: "There are now people who teach, such as Jane Ridder-Patrick, who published A Handbook of Medical Astrology. They look at aspects of the subject and how it affects people's health. Whatever one believes personally, the issue is one that we should look into and consider."
I find it unbelievable that a democratically-elected MP seems to be suggesting we should be looking into using astrology within our system of health care.
His question also included the lines: "A number of disciplines were mentioned and I could have referred to radionics, for example, for which a double-blind trial is almost impossible, yet it is very popular because people believe that it gives them the ability to get remote healing.
"We need to think out of the box here. As with healers who can do remote healing, it is no good people saying that just because we cannot prove something, it does not work. The anecdotal evidence that it does is enormous."
Radionics is a system of healing where you take a sample of hair or blood, or even a signature and use it in what I can only describe as a kind of remote psychic healing machine.
It's the friendly but equally wacky equivalent of sticking pins into a voodoo doll. Yet it seems Mr Tredinnick is suggesting we should consider it within the NHS.
But, in my view, the most dangerous of Mr Tredinnick's suggestions concerns his promotion of homeopathy: "Attacks have also been made on the efficacy of homeopathy. A letter was sent to the World Health Organisation warning against the use of homeopathy, but it ignored the very clear randomised, double-blind trials that proved it is effective in the particular area of childhood diarrhoea on which it was criticised.
"Will the Government therefore be robust in their support for homeopathy and consider what can be done so that it is used more effectively in the health service?"
Let's put this into context. Homeopathy is best described as a magical belief system that uses chemicals at such ludicrously huge dilution levels the majority of remedies contain little but water. The implausibility of homeopathy has been already covered in my column on December 10 and I will not bore you by repeating it.
Mr Tredinnick is technically right when he says there have been double-blind trials that have come out positive. However, that is not the whole story.
The trials he refers to were all conducted by the same person. In science, repeatability is key: if other people repeat your trial and get the same results then your results are likely to be trusted. If all the trials are performed by the same person they should be treated with more skepticism. The first name on all the papers Tredinnick refers to is Jacobs J. I'm not confident in the open-minded nature of this person's experiments.
For a start, writing an article entitled "Homeopathy, not evidence-based, but now?!" seems to me to be implying a motivation to create evidence in favour, rather than simply conducting research and be led by the outcome.
What's more interesting is in 2003, Jacobs did a meta-analysis of his previous three trials. In a meta-analysis, a researcher will combine the results of several trials into one to produce more statistical power.
Of course, if you combine the results of three positive trials all done by the same person the outcome will be positive. But in total, the three trials only involved 242 children.
In the conclusion, Jacobs noted the results "suggest larger sample sizes be used in future homeopathic research to ensure adequate statistical power".
In 2006, Jacobs did just that. This time, six other researchers were involved in the trial and the number of subjects in the test was larger even than the total of the previous trials – 292 children.
The latest trial, which had the largest number of subjects, concluded: "There was no significant difference in the likelihood of resolution of diarrhoeal symptoms between the treatment and placebo groups".
Or, in other words: homeopathy does not seem to work for childhood diarrhoea.
But all Mr Tredinnick is suggesting is that we use this form of quackery to treat a bit of Delhi Belly.
Diarrhoea, according to the World Health Organisation, kills about 2.2 million people each year – most of them children.
Internationally, it is responsible for 4% of all deaths.
And by specifically mentioning the advice given out by the Worldwide Health Organisation his agenda appears to take a global perspective.
Yes, one in every 25 people worldwide will die of diarrhoea. They need the best that medical science has to offer them – which is usually simple and pretty cheap really: just a basic mix of water, salt and sugar.
But if you live in the Bosworth constituency, it seems your MP may prefer to treat these poor children with something even simpler: quackery.