Thursday, 20 December 2007

Racehorse success in genes ... or not

Interesting how different news outlets interpret a story. The Telegraph's High price may not make champion horse reports an interesting result of a study by Alastair Wilson and Andrew Rambaut at the University of Edinburgh finding that stud fees are a poor marker for genetic quality of racehorses. The Guardian concludes And now the racing results ... 1st: Nurture, 2nd: Nature. The Times focuses on the small genetic component as crucial: 10% factor that makes a champion. Go figure.
      None of the coverage mentions a further source of confusion: that the breeders themselves are unlikely to select stock optimally, due to working by outdated folk theories of horse genetics. This Pedigree Dynamics article, Conception and Misconceptions - A light hearted look at breeding theories of the past, look at some of them, mentioning how theories such as telegony and "mental impression" survived in the thoroughbred horse breeding industry well into the 20th century.
      Even now, racehorse breeding is governed by many semi-empirical racehorse breeding theories that don't bear much relation to real-world genetics. For instance, some breeders place store in the "X factor" (possession of a Large Heart gene). Others rate the horse's heritage according to its place in the Bruce Lowe Family Numbers classification. Yet others go by Dosage (closeness of relationship to chefs-de-race, the relatively rare consistently winning stallions) or "nicking patterns" (the belief, debunked here, that particular pairs of bloodlines may be statistically identified as producing winners when mated); or even rules-of-thumb that smack of outright numerology ("a mare’s third foal, if born when the mare is seven years old, is the most likely to be a successful racehorse").
      Given such a muddle of beliefs, it's unsurprising that nurture should turn out to be the dominant factor in racehorse success.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

BBC diet stories: more failure to investigate agendas

From the BBC recently: Medieval diets 'far more healthy', which links to an older item, Americans look to Jesus for diet. Spot the connection. They're both stories about diets attributed to doctors: the first, "Dr Roger Henderson ... a Shropshire GP"; the second, "Don Colbert, a Florida doctor". The problem is that this completely fails to explain to the reader where these sources are coming from.
      Dr Roger Henderson is not just any old GP, but a media newspaper columnist and PR consultant, and as the ''Telegraph'' version of this story reports and you can read in the press release, Romans and Tudors were healthier than modern Britons, the research was commissioned by Lloydspharmacy. The thrust appears to be scare readers about cholesterol in the modern diet and, handily, Andy Murdock, Pharmacy Director for Lloydspharmacy has the remedy: "’s vital that people take whatever steps they can to reduce their chances of suffering modern conditions such as high cholesterol. To help people identify their level of risk we’ve launched a heart and cholesterol check at Lloydspharmacy".
      Don Colbert is likewise not just any Florida doctor but a celebrity TV doctor/evangelist (see whose products include What Would Jesus Eat? The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great and Living Longer, the What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook and various associated supplements.
      This was findable with trivial Googling, and in any case would be in the press releases behind the stories. Why does the BBC not report this? Perhaps it's policy and they think it makes the stories non-commercial. But it doesn't; omitting the commercial back-story makes those interests effectively covert, and hides from readers that they're being sold something.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Cod formula alert: perfect Christmas

From the Western Morning News (and I'm sure we'll see more of it elsewhere): Scientist sums up perfect Christmas: "A university mathematician has calculated a formula for the perfect Christmas - and it includes plenty of food and drink. Professor Rudi Dallos, from the University of Plymouth, has analysed what makes Christmas swing and produced the above equation".
      You can see the formula at the original press release from the Cake Group. It's in aid of promoting a booklet from the Children's Society, Batteries Not Included, giving hints and tips for celebrating Christmas economically. It's in a good cause and can be defended as being lighthearted in intent.
      Even so, this is a standard news story format - Google scientists formula perfect and see Formula for the perfect formula - based on the discovery, usually in some promotional context, of a claimed formula (often, as in this case, mathematically malformed) for some commonplace situation. It trivialises mathematics in the popular eye, and academics really ought to consider its effect on the reputation of their field before they sell out to this kind of fluff.

It's usually enlightening, when you see these formula stories in the press, to check out of the background and see who is trying to sell you what. This story is at least open about its agenda, but this is not always the case. For example, for the much-publicised "perfect bacon butty" story that appeared earlier this year, it's easy to find that this isn't some kind of blue-sky food science research at the University of Liverpool (as you might naively expect from the BBC's Scientists' 'perfect' bacon butty). The bacon research was conducted at the Food Chain Centre of Industrial Collaboration ("delivering the power of science to food and drink companies since 2004") and unsurprisingly commissioned by Danish Bacon.
      Such checks are general good advice with "scientific discovery" stories. They can be genuine academic interest stories, but often they hide situations where even the researchers turn out to be selling the product the story reports. News reportage is lax if it fails to identify such a conflict of interest.

Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Bringing up Baby - Ofcom whitewash

Returning to the topic of Channel 4's Bringing up Baby series (see Bringing Up Baby - theatre or bad science? and Bringing Up Baby - update), the Ofcom judgement on complaints about has just come out. Broadcast Bulletin Issue number 98 - 03|12|07 concludes "Not in Breach".
      I think it's a complete whitewash. Others will no doubt find further specifics, but I noticed two points immediately. Firstly, the issue of mentor Claire Verity's qualifications (since shown to be questionable) is dismissed on a technicality: that since the programme made no reference to professional qualifications, audiences were not misled. Never mind the strong implication and not unreasonable assumption that if someone turns up on TV as a babycare "mentor" and "maternity nurse", they would have qualifications for that role.
      Secondly, Ofcom closes ranks with the still unnamed experts who advised the programme - "a senior psychologist", "a neurologist", "a GP" and a "senior consultant paediatrician" - and appears not to have taken wider advice, or any notice of the many criticisms from professional childcare organisations, on the current consensus about developmental psychology: that Truby King's tenets such as minimal cuddling and making no eye contact are not merely outdated, but wildly wrong.
      The Ofcom ruling furthermore upholds Truby King's methods on grounds of mere established historical authority, because of being "previously published and well-known books and theories ... in the public domain and legal". Ofcom describes its starting point as "that a programme which explores and discusses these approaches cannot in itself be problematic, so long as the broadcaster ensures that the material is put in context and that the audience is fully informed ... The methods were put in an historical perspective". This is not true. We never saw the full background of the Truby King's colonial-era nationalist eugenic control-freakery that viewed maternal affection as "a dangerous indulgence".

Monday, 3 December 2007

Playing the "natural" card

From the BBC yesterday: Ozone protects against superbugs: "A nursing home in Suffolk is using a new natural oxygen-based disinfectant to counter the threat of superbugs ... Foxearth Nursing Home, near Woodbridge, has established new laundry systems using ozone - a natural disinfectant ... James Cantrell, home manager, said the new system gives them a great deal of confidence and it uses natural and freely available materials like oxygen".
      This is hardly cutting-edge: ozone-based laundry systems are increasingly popular, and it's a little hard to see why the BBC picked up on such a non-story. However, my criticism is that the story repeats a common and fallacious implication that being a natural substance imparts some touchy-feely positive quality. It doesn't. Ozone is toxic and irritant, and needs to be well-contained.
      Chemistry and biology don't care about the origins of a substance. A disinfectant could be made from moonbeams and the laughter of fluffy baa-lambs: but if it's toxic, it's toxic. One might consider that carbon and nitrogen are both natural and freely available materials, but no-one would argue for the naturalness of disinfecting laundry with cyanide.
      By the way, the Foxearth Lodge (the nursing home's full name) has some seriously strange equipment in its laundry: I wonder what the steam disaffection machines do?

Thursday, 29 November 2007

L-Arginine: dubious supplement marketing

It's a recurring theme that once some biochemical is shown to have a useful or even vital role in the body, someone will produce a supplement and market it on the woo logic that if something is good for you, lots of it will be even better. This is patently nonsense: vitamins, for instance, are crucial to health but are toxic in high doses (as, famously, the explorer Douglas Mawson found out afer eating husky liver). It's even more nonsense in the case of the body's neurotransmitters and other signalling chemicals, which work on specific concentrations. Get the wrong level of dopamine, say, and you'll get radical neurological problems (again famously, as documented by Olive Sacks in Awakenings) But this doesn't matter to supplement promoters: the more you take, the merrier.
      I noticed this syndrome recently in the marketing of L-Arginine. The 1998 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded to Furchgott, Ignarro and Murad "for their discoveries concerning nitric oxide as a signalling molecule in the cardiovascular system". Nitric oxide, they discovered, turns out to have a crucial role in various functions: blood pressure control, heart action, neurosignalling in relation to the gastronintestinal tract and memory formation,, as a biocide in the immune system, and in penis erection. It's synthesised in the body by an enzyme, nitric oxide synthase, acting on a common amino acid L-arginine, which is actually nonessential, as it's synthesised in the body.
      Given this role, it can easily be imagined that levels are critical. The vascular damage seen in diabetes appears to be down to low levels; conversely, the lethal shock seen in severe infections is down to overproduction of nitric oxide. The precursor to the nitric oxide, L-arginine, may itself be a double-edged sword: one study at Johns Hopkins had to be brought to a halt on safety concerns after L-arginine supplements appeared to worsen the risk of death in patients recovering from heart attack (see L-arginine Supplements Linked to Increased Risk of Death in MI Patients). What's the response of supplement vendors to this complex situation? Take moar L-arginine!

Bearing that in mind, about a week back I saw in the Exeter Express & Echo featured a story, Firm promotes body products: "A company specialising in offering a new dietary supplement range has a promotion in Exeter tomorrow.The founders of Arkworld claim their products can reverse biological age and repair, restore and rejuvenate the body through circulation". Arkworld is fairly ghastly in four respects. One, it's a multi-level marketing scheme. Two, it's designed around some laboured Biblical metaphor: "Everything we do as a company is going to be built around the Ark Story". Three, bad puns on the word Ark ("The Marketing Plan or should we say, Arketing Plan"). Four, the simplistic assumption that guzzling L-arginine is automatically good for you.
      Needless to say, their ADNO – Arginine Derived Nitric Oxide page doesn't tell you we synthesise our own ("Your body uses Arginine an Amino Acid we absorb from food") and simply asserts that more of it makes everything work better in all the systems where nitric oxide is involved. And that, of course, is achieved via two arginine supplements, Ark1 and Ark2, as well as the PINKDrink.
      The PINKDrink website makes a number of grandiose claims. "Nitric Oxide is referred to by scientists as the 'Miracle Molecule'" (nope: only on sites selling L-arginine supplements such as - and it needs to join the queue behind phosphatidylcholine, water, P57, DMT, melatonin, omega-3 and no doubt many more). "Arkworld's products have been created by leading scientists and product formulators, including the legendary Jeff Golini who cracked the Creatine Code". Legendary where? Apparently only on sites selling his body-building product Kre-Alkalyn, and for some reason this groundbreaking work doesn't appear in PubMed. Golini is one of the group behind Arkworld, listed as doctors though rather than medical doctors the group appears to be a mix of technical and marketing people headed by a dentist and a naturopath. As leading scientists, it's remarkable how few Google hits they get.
      The site also mentions the PINKDrink appeared on the BBC's Inside Out, which may be true but if you watch the clip from this episode about CADASIL sufferer Jack Shields, its role is fairly subliminal, as a brief glimpse of some powder said to be L-arginine. There's also an interesting factoid that "Columbia University refers to L-arginine as the 'magic bullet' for the cardiovascular system. Over 10,000 L-arginine citations were compiled by Columbia University researchers in their quest to document the clinical benefits of this simple amino acid". I have been unable to find a citation for this claim.

Addendum: if you want to comment, read the comments policy first. If you have actual evidence that I'm wrong - peer-reviewed research - by all means comment.  But I will bin any comments that just tell me I'm wrong and link to some promotional/sales website.

JML Pest Shield: ASA result!

See the update to Gnawing doubts: JML Pest Shield.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Beer after sport is good for you: it's official, say Spanish beer promoters

The perils of news without context. A glance at Google News finds, not surprisingly, repetition of the science news reported in the Telegraph (Beer after sport 'is good for the body') and Daily Mail (A pint of beer is better for you after a workout than water, say scientists).
      The result may well be true, but this is just so suspect a story on a number of levels. The research: it's based on tests of only 25 subjects, with little sign of tackling the many variables in the situation (for instance, subjects were allowed to drink as much water as they liked). The practical interpretation: get real, even if one pint is beneficial, many people are not going to stop after one pint. The agenda: there's currently a media blitz in the UK on the bad effects of alcohol consumption, and this kind of story with its "something the government tells you is unhealthy turns out to be healthy" subtext is such a godsend to papers with a reactionary agenda that the origin looks potentially promotional.
      Let's take a look at sources (we have to go into Spanish and Google Manuel Castillo Garzón" Cerveza). I have no idea of the general credentials of the University of Granada or its medical faculty, but it's fairly bizarre to see a science press conference with a poster of a ruddy great beer glass behind the speakers.
      I have idea whether the reported research is actually sponsored by beer manufacturers. But there's a strong traditional partnership of alcohol promotion and sport promotion, and a constant drive by various manufacturers to encourage athletes to drink something more proft-making than plain water - such as pseudoscientific water or glossily promoted hydration drinks pushed via PR departments masquerading as sports science academies. Spanish beer looks no different, so when you see a medical symposium called Beer, Sports & Health, with the Director General of Brewers of Spain as one of the lecturers, you have to wonder what interests might be afoot.
      I notice another conference, FEMEDE 07 (PDF) - FEMEDE is the Spanish Federation of Sports Medicine - of which the "Physical activity and ageing" section is sponsored by the Centro de Información Cerveza Y Salud (Information Centre for Beer and Health). This organisation, which promotes Spanish beer as having health benefits, has strong academic links in the medical, sports science and nutrition fields that would be a rather surprising and distinctly problematical alliance in this country.
      With the general downer on alcohol at the moment, I suspect this is a trend we'll see more of. Compare this 2006 news item, Functional beer for women, which describes the marketing of Karla, a low-alc fruit beer sold via pharmacists as a health drink. The trade organisation The Brewers of Europe is likewise getting jittery - see Trouble Brewing for Europe's Consumers - which probably explains why it is also interested in the Beer and Health angle.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

UFO found in Topsham

This is an "unenquiring media" story rather than a bad science story. The Exeter Express & Echo has reported a run of UFO sightings recently (not coincidentally, I'm sure, with the run-up to November 5th). Finally, however, one has come to earth: Charred remains and bright lights add to growing UFO claims.

Anne Lock says she found the remnants of a "bright something" that she had spotted overhead on Sunday evening near her home in Monmouth Avenue, Topsham. It was about 8.15pm when I saw a series of bright lights in the sky somewhere over the rugby ground. There were about four in a line and another four or six behind moving about. I went upstairs and that's when I saw this big bright something over the garden. In the morning, I found what seemed like the remains of a miniature parachute - only it wasn't a parachute. It was gauze or muslin and shaped like a light bulb. It was about three feet high and 12 inches across. All around it was bits of charred residue, like charred paper.

From the description, it's almost certainly a sky lantern, a miniature hot air balloon. They're traditional in East Asia, where they feature in beautiful festival displays (see YouTube for examples) but are becoming increasingly popular in the UK for celebrations and as an alternative to fireworks (the trad burning paraffin-soaked rag that keeps them aloft has been replaced by solid fuel in the high-tech ones). They have been behind a number of British UFO sightings over the past couple of years (see, for instance, Lanterns spark UFO scare and Aliens in town? No, I'm to blame).
      Mrs Lock can hardly be blamed for not recognising one; they're still quite new here. But I would have thought it within the resources of a newspaper to come to the same conclusion I did.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Polish Sokal-style hoax

Via Modne Bzdury via Bad Science, this looks interesting. A psychologist in Poland, Tomasz Witkowski, has announced how he conned Charaktery (a scientific monthly focusing on popularising psychology) with a Sokal-style hoax article about a fake psychotherapeutic method. Here's his original article, Wiedza prosto z pola (Knowledge straight from the field), written under the pseudonym Renata Aulagnier.
      I don't know Polish, so have had to get the drift by machine translation. Knowledge straight from the field leads with a postulated scenario: that a patient could be MRI-scanned to measure their morphogenetic field. If the morphogenetic resonance is out of kilter, the patient can be exposed to appropriate influences to correct it, such as listening to different kinds of music in various proportions, or going into a large crowd of people with the correct vibes (e.g. a theatre or a football stadium) to get into tune with their field. Thus psychotherapy could be achieved without lengthy analysis, issues of resistance, disclosure of embarrassing sexual secrets, etc.
      But this is not science fiction, the article says, and goes on to describe a "Strasbourg experiment" in which such a technology has been developed (the idea inspired by Carl Jung and Henri Bergson, the mathematics from Lacan - who "first discovered the possibility of employing mathematical topology in the analysis of the structures of intellectual diseases", and the mechanism from Sheldrake).
      Witkowski's motivation appears to have been disillusionment at the quality of peer review - despite Charaktery having various professorial-level academics on the editorial board, he argues that it's been playing to the popular market by publishing articles about topics like neuro-linguistic programming and morphogenetic resonance. And as he describes here on his explanatory page, Witkowski's particular indictment of Charaktery is that not merely did the piece get past the editorial system, but the editors actually collaborated in expanding it with uncredited material from writings elsewhere about Rupert Sheldrake.
      This is currently all over the Polish blogosphere. As I said, I don't know Polish, but if anyone who does would care to translate properly, it looks rather an excellent sting.

Sunday, 4 November 2007

Poor reportage fires up Rife supporters

Via a Bad Science thread - Garage Invention Alternative for Chemo? - this ABC News piece, Cancer Victim Invents Possible Chemo Alternative, which tells the story of John Kanzius, a radio entrepreneur, engineer and cancer-sufferer, who has "invented the first generation of what would become a machine that uses radio waves -- not radioactivity -- to fight cancer". It goes on to mention the work of Dr. Steven Curley of the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas. "Curley and his colleagues at the center took Kanzius' made-in-the-garage invention very seriously. They began testing the radio-wave technology on animals, and say they completely destroyed liver cancer tumors in rabbits".
      As the comments page and Google show, this has brought out of the woodwork fans of Royal Rife, who see this as vindication of Rife's pseudoscientific radio-based therapy machines. Wrong. A look at the original news release, Radio Waves Fire Up Nanotubes Embedded in Tumors, Destroying Liver Cancer, shows that the ABC News story has omitted a critical detail: the radio waves alone don't do anything. The method works only when the cancerous cells are primed with a radio-absorbing substance, in this current work carbon nanotubes, which heats up and kills them. Kanzius' patent is readable online - Canadian Patents Database CA 2562625 - and makes perfectly clear that heat generation by an RF-absorbing target material is intrinsic to the method. This does not support claims for Rife machines to destroy cancerous cells by targeting purported frequencies of the cells themselves.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Gnawing doubts: JML Pest Shield

Recently British TV has featured ads for a product called the JML Pest Shield, a plug-in device which purportedly "creates a digital forcefield that helps drive away rats, mice and cockroaches from your home". The advert is here at
      There was another version of the ad - gone now, see below - at JML's own sales page for Pest Shield, which expanded the claim, saying thay it "transforms the wiring in your home into a giant digital pest repellent. This digital pulsing forcefield drives away mice, rats and crawling insects from your home by interfering with their nervous system". Interestingly, its online press release (PDF) has an entirely different explanation for the mode of operation, saying "It irritates them by emitting a sound that fluctuates from high to low frequency. This change in sound irritates insects and ruffles rodents". So which is it? You'd think at least they could agree on a consistent story. Also interestingly, "because the Pest Shield attacks the rodent-based nervous system, it's important you don't use it around hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs, tarantulas or chinchillas".
      Such devices are widespread, but it doesn't take much research to find that there is little or no evidence for their effectiveness. Electronic Rodent Repellent Devices: A Review of Efficacy Test Protocols and Regulatory Actions looks at the history of such claims, particularly a fad in the 1970s for devices "advertized as capable of generating their own magnetic fields or distorting the earth's magnetic fields in such a manner that animal pest species (but not beneficial species) stopped eating, drinking, and reproducing". Thes devices were marketed without efficacy data, because there wasn't any. For instance, Commensal rodents from the Utah State University wildlife management series concludes: "many devices which produce electromagnetic fields have been marketed as an effective rodent repellent. Again, however, scientific evidence clearly shows that these devices are not useful in repelling rats or mice".
      A recent article, People And Rodent Pests in PCT Online, a rodent control trade magazine, likewise concludes "Ultrasonic and electromagnetic rodent repellent devices are available on the consumer market but good data supporting their effectiveness is lacking. Controlled studies with commensal rodents have been generally negative". In the USA, at least one manufacturer has been charged by the Federal Trade Commission - see FTC Swats Lentek's Claims - as making false and unsubstantiated claims for electromagnetic pest repellent devices, And in Australia, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission obtained a punitive undertaking, including customers' right to refund, after judging that a direct marketing firm, Danoz, had made misleading claims of efficacy for devices of this type. See the undertaking register for Danoz Direct Pty Ltd - now that is consumer legislation with the teeth the ASA here ought to have.
      In short, even if you hadn't guessed from the pseudoscientific description that the makers aren't even consistent about (and thinking a tarantula is a rodent isn't a good sign either) in my opinion Pest Shield is almost certainly a total crock. I've shopped it to the ASA, but unfortunately a quick Google on electromagnetic pest repeller shows it's far from alone.

Addendum, Nov 6th: I just had a letter from the ASA saying they're already investigating this issue, and have added my comments to the portfolio.

Addendum, Nov 29th 2007: the ASA has just published its adjudication on the JML TV ad for Pest Shield - see JML Direct Ltd t/a Shop Now TV, 28th Nov - upholding all complaints on grounds of Evidence (efficacy being unproven) and being misleading, as well as falsely denigrating other products. Although this ruling has no jurisdiction over video ads published on their own website, I notice that Pest Shield has been removed from the JML Direct shopping site.

Addendum: I'm sorry; I don't normally redact comments, but I'm nervous about the legality of hosting anecdotes that might be read as allegations of criminal negligence. So no stories of e.g. how a Pest Shield exploded and took out half of a city block. If something like this did happen to you, best move is to take it up with your Local Trading Standards people, who handle product safety issues.

Sunday, 28 October 2007


In Bad Science circles, a regular gripe is the BBC providing what is in effect advertorial for unproven therapies via news items with little or no balance. For instance, A canna' change the laws of physics just posted See The Light, a critique of unquestioning TV coverage of a dubious light therapy for Seasonal; Affective Depression.
Along those lines, BBC's online health section just featured 'Horse therapy helped my daughter', an account of a child with cerebral palsy being treated with "hippotherapy", a physio technique in which "Treatment involves putting patients on horseback in a variety of positions and adapting to the horse's movements and working on co-ordination and posture". This is not the well-established Riding for the disabled, an activity of clear benefits in terms of enjoyment, fitness and independence. In hippotherapy, the rider doesn't control the horse (and indeed might sit facing backwards). A therapist leads the horse around, and the claim is that keeping balance in relation to the specific 3D movement of the horse provides neurological benefits.
While I suppose the intention is to provide a harmless human interest story, the BBC coverage is largely uncritical. In the token criticism section at the end, a spokesperson for Scope (the cerebral palsy charity) comments that while horse-riding is relaxing, hippotherapy shouldn't be viewed as a cure for cerebral palsy. Nevertheless, the piece completely fails to analyse the problems of proving claims made for hippotherapy.
Compare and contrast, then, Horse Power: When Riding Turns Into Treatment, hosted at the American Hippotherapy Association's own website, and Hippotherapy explained at the American Equestrian Alliance website. Both of these are reasonably-balanced articles that describe the claims for hippotherapy, but also are very clear about the lack of evidence-based research and the problems of measuring any benefits objectively.
The Research and Training Center (RTC) on Early Childhood Development, which focuses on evidence-based practice in the childhood development field, has a review paper, Influences of Hippotherapy on the Motor and Social-Emotional Behavior of Young Children with Disabilities (PDF) by Pamela S. Rolandelli and Carl J. Dunst, analysing the general faultiness of studies into hippotherapy. Its findings, summarised in a terser article, Saddle up, but... (PDF), are that "Most studies reported some positive physical, language, or social-emotional effects for hippotherapy study participants. As a whole, however, the RTC researchers found that the studies were not conducted with the kind of scientific rigor needed to conclude that hippotherapy was responsible for the observed improvements".
You won't find any link to such counterevidence at the BBC story.

Sunday, 21 October 2007

A liquid novi

Via MetaFilter: Children high on sewage. This relates to a rather old news item that asserts the existence of jenkem (aka jekem) - a form of hallucinogenic drug used by street children in Zambia created by fermenting sewage in a plastic bottle.
      Despite its repetition by major sources such as UNICEF and Associated Press (a common factor is an NGO called Fountain of Hope as quoted source) I can't decide if this is urban myth or not. On the one hand, fermenting sewage is well-known to produce mainly carbon dioxide and methane. The creation of an alleged strong hallucinogen requires some novel chemistry, and it seems strange that there aren't accounts of this effect from sewer, sewage farm and biogas plant workers. On the other, the smell of faeces is due to the presence of skatole and indole, whose bicyclic structure is highly amenable to substitution and is the basis of a number of classic hallucinogens such as psilocybin and 5-MeO-DMT - so some organic reaction is not entirely implausible. Nevetheless, the story does fall into the class of those not critically analysed because it arises in circumstances where few would want to investigate.

Indoles are interesting compounds: in high concentrations they smell of dung; at low concentrations they smell of violets. One notable occurrence is in boar meat, where they contribute along with androstenone to an unpleasant smell and taste on cooking, "boar taint". Measures (apart from the traditional castration) to reduce/remove this are an ongoing topic of research in agricultural science. See, for instance, Genetics of Boar Taint: Implications for the Future Use of Intact Males. Other pork products such as offal contain indoles that contribute to a gamey flavour: one of the early food pairings predicted by molecular gastronomy was that of pork liver and jasmine, which both contain indole.

Scam medicines: no new thing

Via a Bad Science topic: George Fulford and Victorian Patent Medicine Men: Quack Mercenaries or Smilesian Entrepreneurs? (PDF), an interesting article at the Canadian Bulletin of Medical History. Looking to the late 19th century, there are strong parallels with the present-day animosity between between mainstream medicine and quackery.
      The article focuses on what it argues was the more benign side of the business: patent medicines such as antacids and laxatives that maybe even did a little good. Nevertheless they came with extravagant claims that went well beyond their actual effect. Clarke's Blood Mixture, an iron supplement, claimed to treat "scrofula, scurvy, sores of all kinds, skin and blood diseases". Then as now, it was big business: the maker of Clarke's Blood Mixture, advertised in The Times, could afford to spend £20,000 a year on advertising. Also as now, they leaned heavily on testimonials rather than proven evidence. Encouragingly, the consumer sometimes won: in the classic Carbolic Smoke Ball Case and Medical Battery Case, vendors were successfully taken to court when their remedies failed to deliver.
      On the downside, sometimes court appearances made no difference. In 1905, in the Bile Beans Case, the maker of the laxative Bile Beans unwisely tried to sue an imitator, and was forced to disclose in court that the product's backstory ... Charles Forde, an eminent scientist, thoroughly investigated the healing extracts and essences of Australian roots and herbs and after long research he found himself the discoverer of a natural vegetable substance which was beyond all doubt the finest remedy yet discovered ... was totally fictitious. This didn't stop the product continuing to sell, successfully, well into the 1980s. Interactions between the British and American Patent Medicine Industries 1708-1914 (PDF) gives further insight into the large market for such products in the past.

Tangerine dreams

From the BBC, Tangerine peel 'kills cancer': the latest in a standard news formula of some substance that has been shown to kill cancer cells in the test tube, but without clinical trials to show whether or not it will do the same in patients. I picked up on this one because it's an interesting example of news reports that don't tell the full story. The article says:

A team from Leicester School of Pharmacy found Salvestrol Q40 was turned into a toxic compound in cancer cells, destroying them ... Lead researcher Dr Hoon Tan said his work was still at an early stage, but together with his colleagues he has formed a company to investigate further the potential to develop natural anti-cancer therapies".

This sounds very early days. You'd not guess from this rather cautious and academic description that the company concerned, Nature's Defence, is well under way promoting and selling Salvestrol to consumers through the sites Fruit Force, and Campaign Against Perfection (all registered to Nature's Defence) as well as training resellers and naturopathic practitioners in Canada ( Nor is it a very new story: a year ago, in Trademarked Science Trade-Offs, Le Canard Noir covered the same topic, questioning the ethics of what appears to be overpromotion: marketing a substance as having specific effects before clinical trials have demonstrated any such thing in vivo.
      As mentioned in the 2006 BBC story about the same group, Fruit 'could provide cancer hope', Cancer Research UK "does not endorse any supplement or drugs which have not been rigorously tested in clinical trials". And rightly so: the Cancer Act 1939 still stops anyone advertising anything that can be construed as offering a cure for cancer. Unsurprisingly, then, none of the UK Nature's Defence sites mention the c-word or are specific on what Salvestrol does - only that it's some kind of beneficial phytonutrient that needs topping up in the modern diet. (I wonder if they had to backtrack from their original 2004 website that skated far closer to explicit claims of anti-cancer action for their supplements - see Introducing Salvestrol Therapy). But now they don't need to say it: that part is neatly filled in by the BBC story, which is free to report the anti-cancer action because it's divorced from the commercial context and framed purely as a blue-sky academic possibility.
      One area where the BBC could improve its health coverage would be to take more care over stories that give, however inadvertently, publicity or endorsement to unproven neutraceuticals. A classic example, as Language Log noted in 2005 - Enhance breast size by 80% - was the free gift the BBC gave - Chewing gum can 'enhance breasts' to vendors of a breast-enhancement chewing gum. Google "Bust-Up Gum" BBC and see how many vendors are citing the story.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

Anti-Gore case - anti-environmentalist backing confirmed

Following from the previous post, see Revealed: the man behind court attack on Gore film: today's Observer caught up with a connection that various bloggers made days ago, in one case - the Guerilla News Network's Dimmock and Dimmer - since October 3, when the story first hit the papers.
      "Stewart Dimmock's high-profile fight to ban the film being shown in schools was depicted as a David and Goliath battle ... The Observer has established that Dimmock's case was supported by a powerful network of business interests with close links to the fuel and mining lobbies".

Addendum, Oct 17:The current alert from medialens summarises the story so far, particularly focusing on the BBC's failure to explore in any depth the credentials and affiliations of interviewees; the archive will be here.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Overstated science - but political agenda

The British media are currently full of the news of a court case in which a Kent school governor, Stewart Dimmock, has obtained a high court judgement relating to Al Gore's climate change film, An Inconvenient Truth. See, for instance, the BBC's Gore climate film's 'nine errors', the Daily Mail's Labour 'is brainwashing pupils with Al Gore climate change film' says father in court, or the Telegraph's Al Gore's climate change film 'is propaganda'.
      The thrust of the story is that the film contained nine points that didn't reflect scientific consensus, so it has to be shown with this proviso made clear. However, this in itself may not be what it seems, given the repeated tendency of news reportage to polarise equivocal or balance-of-probability statements into clear-cut ones; William M. Connolley at Stoat - The boring truth - has examined some of the judgement and concluded that it has been "badly, consistently and lazily reported".
      The important thing to note is that the conclusion is not, as you'd imagine from the coverage, that the film is horribly error-ridden. The judgement stated: "It is substantially founded upon scientific research and fact, albeit that the science is used, in the hands of a talented politician and communicator, to make a political statement and to support a political programme", that its propositions "are supported by a vast quantity of research published in peer-reviewed journals worldwide and by the great majority of the world's climate scientists" and that "Al Gore's presentation of the causes and likely effects of climate change in the film was broadly accurate". Here is the judgement - Dimmock v Secretary of State for Education & Skills [2007] EWHC 2288 (Admin) (10 October 2007). It mentions the Claimant's expert as a "Professor Carter" - could it be Bob Carter?
      One area of laziness, or perhaps lack of will, is failure to fully analyse the political agendas. The BBC piece ignores this aspect entirely; the others explore only those of Gore and the UK government. The newspapers play the "common man" card, making prominent mention that Mr Dimmock is a father of two, a lorry driver, and a school governor, but are extremely coy about exploring his membership of The New Party, a political organisation which gave support to his campaign and whose website newsdesk is closely following this story. Just for a spot of background, The Scotsman delved into the origins of The New Party over three years ago - The rich recluse masterminding Britain's new party - finding it to be originated and its launch funded by a right-wing anti-environmentalist, Robert Wilson Menzies Durward, who was also behind an anti-environmentalist pressure group called the Scientific Alliance - see Hard rockers (Guardian July 11, 2001) and the SourceWatch profile. None of this, unsurprisingly, is mentioned in The New Party's UKPRwire press release on the case
      Of course it's possible that this connection is irrelevant and Mr Dimmock, completely independently and altruistically, just broke open his piggy bank, and a few nice people helped him stump up a couple of hundred thousand pounds on litigation for the utterly neutral purpose of stopping the use of political materials in teaching (and also to set up a website of mysteriously-obfuscated ownership, Straight Teaching, to the same end), and it all just happens to pertain to global warming. Or it's a move in a propaganda war by a fringe political party, with known anti-environmentalist roots, against a prominent and popular documentary expressing, and dramatising to some extent, the scientific consensus on global warming. You decide.

Addendum, October 12: Meanwhile, the news came out today that Gore and UN panel win Nobel prize: Al Gore and the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have been jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The committee said they had been chosen for "their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change". One might wonder if the timing of this case was deliberately chosen to undermine this achievement as, the BBC reports, "this year speculation was high that the recipient would be linked to climate change campaigns".
      The blog Obsolete has followed up in more detail who is involved in The New Party and what its policies are: it was enough for me to see that their website cites essays by Melanie Philips of the Daily Mail.

Further addendum, October 12: I see Spinwatch has come to the same conclusions: see Revealed: The Hidden Agenda Behind Al Gore Attack. Today it continued its coverage with BBC Messes Up Again on Gore Story, reporting that "Radio Four’s flagship lunch-time [The World At One] news programme invited Martin Livermore from the Scientific Alliance to give an interview on Gore winning the Nobel Prize", even asking Livermore about the court case. The BBC failed to make the connection that, as described above, the Scientific Alliance and The New Party supporting Mr Dimmock's court case come from exactly the same stable.

Homeopathic legal chill

This looks worth following. Check out Professor David Colquhoun's weblog Improbable Science for a new posting, Society of Homeopaths: cowards and bullies.
      This concerns a post at the Quackometer, The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing, which strongly condemned the Society of Homeopaths' continung failure - unlike the Faculty of Homeopathy - to cease endorsing the dangerous fiction that homeopathy can protect against malaria (and indeed failure to enforce its own rules against members making claims, expressly or implicitly, to cure named diseases).
      Rather than addressing these issues, the Society of Homeopaths chose to get the post removed by legal chill, and complained to The Quackometer's service provider. Not the best of tactics: this egregious move has actually guaranteed the article's discussion, and dissemination to sites less likely to cave in to pressure. More at Improbable Science.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

There Goes the Science Bit

From the Guardian: Food and health firms taken to task over sales pitches by science's 'warriors against claptrap' reports on the release of There Goes the Science Bit..., Sense About Science's dossier of scientists' experience in demanding scientific evidence for product claims.
      Products include a Nutridirect Parasite Cleanse (which plays to users' parasite fears); Activ8 yogurt (for the claim of "proven to optimise the release of energy from our diet"); Computer Clear (which purports to use "bioresonance patterns" to protect computer users against electromagnetism); Champney's Detox Patches (one of the many incarnations of foot detox patches - see More pseudoscience afoot); Pret a Manger (a sandwich firm playing the "natural" card); the Co-op and Sainsbury's, for removing some additives on the basis of consumer concern rather than scientific evidence of risk; Q-Link (a pseudoscientific device said to protect the wearer against electromagnetic radiation); Aerobic Oxygen, a liquid with alleged purifying properties; Salt Lamps (allegedly healthful rock salt lamps); and Clarins Magnetic Defence Complex (recently slugged by the Advertising Standards Authority).
      The dossier is available as a PDF download here. It's a good model for how to make life difficult for promoters of pseudoscience. Other ways you might consider are the ASA, which regularly upholds complaints on such grounds, though it unfortunately doesn't cover companies' own websites; and local Trading Standards offices. An area where they take an interest, for instance, is companies making statements in breach of the 1939 Cancer Act, which states "No person shall take any part in the publication of any advertisement ... containing an offer to treat any person for cancer, or to prescribe any remedy therefor, or to give any advice in connection with the treatment thereof. This BMJ letter mentions successfully invoking it, as does British company fined for falling foul of Cancer Act.

Sunday, 7 October 2007

Dowsing - benign and malignant

Felix at The Growlery just mentioned travelling to Frome to a Melanie Safka concert: "It's likely that most reading this have never heard of either", Felix says. I have heard of Frome:partly because some of my family were from nearby, but more lately via the story of the Frome Tunnels: check out Frome's Mystery Tunnels. The map of a tunnel network underlying the town looks impressive - until you read in detail and find that much of it has been filled in by dowsing. Nevertheless, there's plenty of evidence of at least some tunnels, and the dowsing angle has kick-started the Frome Tunnel Project. This involves "geologists, cavers, surveyors and historians" who are in a position to bring a spot of reality to the study. Dowsing, in this case, is a harmless eccentricity that has helped highlight an interesting bit of subterranea.

Contrast the situation of Danie Krugel, a retired policeman who has become involved in the Madelaine McCann case, claiming to have a revolutonary location method. Bad Science and many others have blogged about this - see The Observer and their special magic quantum DNA box (with secret energy source). The particular issue is that newspapers have virtually uniformally described Krugel's device uncritically as "forensic" in nature. It isn't; it's just a high-tech variant on map dowsing, despite the pseudoscience about quantum mechanics and a secret power source.
      Let's apply a spot of logic. A technology that could identify the location of anyone in the world from a strand of hair (and, if we're to believe this account, locate diamonds, oil, pathogens, etc) would be of vast utility to any world superpower with an interest in surveillance - and aren't they all? - or even any moderately rich unscrupulous organisation. It would be rapidly appropriated if anyone believed it worked. The fact that Krugel is still at large making such claims is strong evidence that no-one at any high level believes it. It's disappointing, then, that the newspapers don't have the gonads to call bullshit on it, and that the police don't treat this as timewasting intrusion on a sensitive case.

Addendum South African Skeptics - see The Locator Locates! - note an interesting connection, the association of Krugel with Leon Rossouw, a private inestigator who specialises in tracking cellphones. I wonder if, in the purported demos described in the link above (Secret science tested), the testees took their cellphones with them when they went to hide the test objects?

Addendum, Oct 11th: I'm pleased to see that at least one UK newspaper is not buying it. See the Glasgow Herald: A hairy hypothesis that doesn’t seem to wash, by James Morgan. Krugel is now citing Nicolas Gisin, discoverer of quantum entanglement. The Herald gets a couple of physicists to debunk that: quantum entanglement falls apart for large aggregations of matter.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

High-tech scan meets questionable diagnosis model

An example of what slips into the news without critical examination: from the BBC, Scans reveal lost gravestone text. This is an interesting feature about work by the Ambient Intelligence Group at Carnegie Mellon University using a combination of 3D scans and image processing to recover eroded and/or overgrown texts. That's the good science. But there's an incongruous aside, mentioned twice: "The technique could one day also be used by doctors to examine a patient's tongue for signs of illness ... Dr Cai said: 'We may use the technology ... to ... help medical doctors to diagnose patients' well-being through tongue inspection'. Whatever's that about?
      A little Googling finds it concerns A Novel Imaging System for Tongue Inspection (PDF). We're talking traditional Chinese medicine - TCM - which places significance on tongue diagnosis. This patent, Method of extracting region of interest from tongue image and health monitoring method and apparatus using the tongue image, shows a deal of work has been expended toward high-tech embellishment of this technique. Needless to say, TCM's detailed model based on the tongue mirroring various parts of the body and producing diagnoses such as liver qi stagnation or heart yin deficiency is not part of mainstream Western medicine.
      Of course, it's possible that the overall edifice is daft but there still could be specific correlations between the tongue and some conditions; as mentions, a smooth, red, sore tongue can be a sign of anaemia. Yang Cai is investigating, he says sceptically, the possibility that tongue appearance may correlate with cancer, providing a non-invasive diagnostic method. However, much of the preliminary evidence comes from Chinese partisan journals such as the TCM Diagnosis Association and China TCM Society and, unfortunately, China is one of the places where published clinical trials almost invariably report positive results. So it's probably best to wait until it appears in the BMJ or similar.
      More about the story at Carnegie Mellon Magazine: East Meets West / Tongue Tells Health Tales.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

Bringing Up Baby - update

Channel 4's Bringing Up Baby (see my earlier Bringing Up Baby - theatre or bad science?) had its second episode this evening. Meanwhile, on the Channel 4 forum, the commissioning editor Hamish Mykura has responded to criticisms.
      It appears that various experts were consulted, and the couples in the programme were free to modify the methods they chose, and the Ch4 microsite confirms this: As our expert Harvey Marcovitch points out, "it's important to be aware that the three methodologies [used in the programmes] were modified somewhat in light of modern medical opinion".
      Nevertheless, the light of modern medical opinion doesn't come across very prominently. Hamish Mykura writes: "We did not intend to promote any particular theory, but hoped this would be an interesting way to stimulate a debate on the pros and cons of each method". This reeks of manufactured controversy. The bottom line is that while parenting techniques are subject to discussion and revision, there is no need to stimulate a debate about the Truby King method any more than there's need to stimulate a debate about the pros and cons of sending children down the mines. It's not only discredited, but advocates practices that are now generally agreed to be damaging to infant development. It is not responsible to offer it non-judgmentally as a viable option to try out.
      The same goes for the Channel 4 microsite. If you believe the summary at Which is the best method for bringing up baby?, the only critics are "parents who like spontaneity and flexibility" and believers in Attachment Theory (which they don't bother to explain). Nor is there anything in the Pros & Cons section reflecting the body of research over the last few decades into the known effects of infant isolation - one of the Ch4 forum posters linked to a taster here - and this is the most potent argument against Truby King's ideas.

Addendum: the Nursing & Midwifery Council has just published a complaint - NMC response to Channel 4 series, Bringing up Baby - about one of the mentors' use of an unrecognised job description, "maternity nurse".

Addendum #2: from the Times, Maternity expert Claire Verity is asked to stay away from Baby Show as mothers threaten protest. The fallout from the unpopularity of her advice has led to a cancellation of an invitation to appear at the forthcoming Baby Show at Earls Court.

Addendum #3: from the Times, October 27th. TV’s toughest nanny and the string of qualifications that do not exist, one of a number of newspaper reports revealing further difficulties with Claire Verity's fitness to give babycare advice. Channel 4 are launching an enquiry.
      While this is interesting, it's too late and not terribly relevant. There should have been investigation long since, purely on grounds of the criticisms that were being made, and ignored by the programme makers, after the first episode in the series.

Thursday, 27 September 2007

Ear candling - the BBC's dustier corners

I mentioned in the previous post that the BBC's Complementary Medicine health section had been revised. I still think it's inferior to Channel 4's (which for every therapy has a prominent "what's the evidence?" paragraph that isn't afraid to say when there's none). But at least the BBC section shows evidence of editorial standards and some attempt at neutrality within the text; even though there's a disclaimer at the foot, they don't just use it as token balance to unchecked expositions of every weird therapy.
      I'm sorry to say that once you get away from the main sections on the BBC website, it all changes. I was just looking at BBC South East Wales Mind, Body and Spirit, and the standards there are at about the level of local free advertorial leaflets. A particular offender is the Hopi Ear Candling page, in which "Laura Warren, a complementary health practitioner in Cardiff, offers some tips about one of her specialities". This appears to offer a) free advertising for her service; b) free advertising for the merits of a product she uses, Biosun candles ("one of the only EU standard candles on the market"), and c) a factually untrue exposition on the action of ear candles ("The candle creates a mild suction which lets the vapours gently massage the eardrum and auditory canal. Once the candle is placed in the ear it forms a seal which enables wax and other impurities to be drawn out of the ear").
      It's not difficult to find debunkings of ear candling. Check out Why Ear Candling Is Not a Good Idea, How do "ear candles" work?, Waxing sceptical, On Ear Cones and Candles, Listen up: Beware of the 'ear candle', and finally, from the journal Laryngoscope, a paper on ear candling injuries, Ear candles--efficacy and safety. As I said in the previous post, I doubt any complaint about factual accuracy will wash, but maybe the risk of injury will. The BBC Wales page has an extensive disclaimer at its foot, but I think that's a cop-out that doesn't absolve the BBC of hosting material that's blatant advertising and potentially dangerous. For the record (sent to BBC Complaints today):

Editorial standards / safety of material hosted
Hopi Ear Candling. Despite the disclaimer on what is obviously a personal view, I don't think it's acceptable for the BBC website to host such a one-sided view of the topic. It is:
a) A blatant advert for both Laura Warren and Biosun candles, a product she uses.
b) Factually inaccurate: the claim that ear candling sucks impurities from the ear has been widely debunked.
c) Potentially dangerous: see "Ear candles--efficacy and safety" in the journal Laryngoscope ("A survey of 122 otolaryngologists identified 21 ear injuries resulting from ear candle use. Ear candles have no benefit in the management of cerumen and may result in serious injury").
I hope you will reconsider the hosting of this material.
Sincerely, Ray Girvan

Media and bad science #1 - correction

As a major news medium, the BBC has a vast influence on the dissemination and perceived validation of information. Like most media outlets, it makes mistakes. How good is it at correcting them?
      I've had mixed experiences. Generally the front-line 'techie' editors are excellent; I've had prompt corrections over things like the name of a mineral or an inaccurate explanation of the Space Shuttle reentry manoeuvre. I had a very prompt reply and cordial discussion with Nick Higham over my comments on his When science and journalism collide, which I recommend as an even-handed analysis of many of the issues that drive the divide between what scientists do and how the press reports it.
      However, my predominant impression is that over matters of science, the BBC has a deep resistance to correction. My particular idée fixe is its reportage of an alleged Three headed frog, a stupid story that persists on the BBC website after three years, despite my repeated attempts to draw their attention to my debunking of it as a simple case of multiple amplexus (i.e. frog mating grip). If any herpetologists are reading this and you agree with me, the complaints page is thisaway.

Another example was the saga of its coverage of the alternative medical technique of craniosacral therapy. In its original form in 2004 the text, by Jacqueline Young, stated "US osteopath William Garner Sutherland ... found that the cranial bones (the skull bones encasing the brain) weren't fused in adulthood, as was widely believed, but had a cycle of slight involuntary movement". This is nonsense: there is no evidence that cranial bones move, and practitioners don't even agree on what they feel when given the same patient (see Quackwatch and Bad Science). All I asked of them was that they report this is a belief rather than a fact.
      I complained in October 2004. After several months I was told the article's writer "was aware of the situation" and that the issue is being "debated by osteopaths in their professional journal. She is currently investigating and depending on her findings the article will be re-worded". After a year the article was changed to say "Sutherland believed that the cranial bones ... weren't fused in adulthood" but it was still biased by omission of counterevidence, unlike the Channel 4 counterpart.
      Finally, after a site overhaul in February 2007, they did something. Craniosacral therapy is now included under the Osteopathy section, which says "Practitioners claim to be able to feel the ebb and flow of this fluid, but sceptics reject this and say there's no good evidence for movement of the cranial bones after infancy". Credit where it's due: that's all I asked. But it shouldn't take three years to get it done.

At the time, as a wider issue, I commented on the BBC website's whole coverage of complementary medicine (again, in contrast to Channel 4). You can read the full details here, but the gist is that I argued that the whole section - for failing to offer the context of mainstream opinion - was in breach of its then Producer's Guidelines on impartiality, which stated "Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC. It is a core value and no area of programming is exempt from it".
      The thrust of the Complaints Unit's reply was that it was outside their remit, unless there was a case to be argued for irresponsibility or potential harm. This, they said, is because the BBC's duty of due impartiality only applies to "matters of public policy or of political and industrial controversy". This seemed bizarre, and I queried it. Didn't their guideline say "no area of programming is exempt"? But no, they replied, the duty of due impartiality "applies to all areas only in the sense that no area of programming is exempt from it when dealing with matters where due impartiality is required"! This duty derives, they said, from section 5 of the Agreement associated with the BBC Charter.
      In short, despite apparent stated commitment to overall impartiality, the small print is that it applies selectively and that there is nothing you can actually hold them to to enforce it outside that selective area.

As I described in 2005 - OK to promote vegetables via nonsense? - I had similar problems with Ofcom, the UK independent regulator for telecommunications. Having noticed in their archives a failed Accuracy complaint ("not in breach/out of remit") about Gillian McKeith's You are What You Eat, I asked if any part of their Code covered scientific inaccuracies in such programmes. No, they said. Viewers being 'misled' is in their brief where it relates to advertising or news bulletins, but "In matters of science it is invariably the case that there are a range of views on any number of issues ... Ofcom's primary concern as a regulator is not for scientific accuracy in the face of alternate views, but rather that care has been taken by the broadcaster to avoid harm". Here are the Harm and Offence and Due Impartiality and Due Accuracy and Undue Prominence of Views and Opinions sections of their Broadcasting Code, you find there is nothing enforcing accuracy, and impartiality only applies to "matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy".
      To sum up, if you see bad science aired on UK television, you will run into serious difficulties in getting complaints to stick if you're arguing faults of accuracy or balance. You need to argue harm.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Smells of breathalyser myth

The Sun on September 22 carried a sensational story, Prince Harry snorts vodka: "BOOZE-loving Prince Harry was blasted last night for snorting VODKA in a potentially lethal drinking game". Some of the medical backup to the sensationalism, however, looked iffy: "Professor Ian Gilmore, president of the Royal College of Physicians, explained that snorting alcohol meant it was absorbed directly through the lungs — bypassing the liver. He warned bluntly: 'This could kill'. Alcohol Concern’s Frank Soodeen said: 'There is nothing cool or glamorous about snorting alcohol. The medical view is clear. Taking alcohol up the nose increases the risk of direct alcohol damage to the brain'".
      Not exactly: it first bypasses the stomach, where initial detoxification takes place through the alcohol dehydrogenase in the stomach lining. Even after this, when blood from the stomach goes to the liver via the portal vein, only part of the alcohol is dealt with on the first pass (otherwise it'd be impossible to get drunk) and it's progressively swept up each time it goes round.
      It's fair to say that this is a way of getting alcohol into your system fast, and there's a risk of overdose if you choose to ingest alcohol very rapidly (whether by sniffing it or knocking back shots in quick succession). However, this story taps into a strange myth that sniffed or inhaled alcohol mysteriously goes direct to the brain without getting into the body at large. For instance, Experts blast 'snorting alcohol' craze quotes Professor Oliver James, head of clinical medical sciences at Newcastle University: "He added that people may also be able to inhale alcohol for 20 minutes, get drunk, drive and still be able to pass a police breathalyser test as alcohol levels in the blood remained very low". The BBC story Inhaling alcohol may 'harm brain' repeated the same quote. I wonder if he's being quoted out of context, because the physiology of this is plain wrong. However you take alcohol, it goes into the bloodstream and the brain gets it by that route; there's no way to target the brain exclusively and be drunk without corresponding blood alcohol levels. The story has been repeated, for instance, at the site of Susan Westrom, 79th District Kentucky State Representive.
      As to the dangers, there are other views. The Guardian Science section referred to this practice in 2004 - Is sniffing alcohol bad for you? - consulting Professor Alastair Hay of Leeds University, one of Britain's foremost toxicologists, with the conclusion "Probably not, well no worse than drinking it anyway". He did warn, however, that the irritant and defatting action of alcohol might long term produce "some pathology" to the nasal passages. This is why, as The Sun says, "He throws back his head to take the full 'hit' of vodka — and then reels in shock. The Prince is seen shuddering as his friends cheer". It's not the alcoholic hit, but simply that it's seriously painful, which seems plenty reason not to do it.
      There's no doubt that excessive alcohol consumption isn't good for you, but alcohol safety initiatives aren't helped by spreading scary falsehoods. Alcohol: Problems and Solutions makes interesting reading. Its creator, Professor David J. Hanson, is an eminent researcher and expert on alcohol-related topics, and he cites a number of alcohol myths and various scare stories, such as "alcohol is a solvent" (as are "water, olive oil, vinegar, milk and almost all other liquids"), that are similar if not identical to those of 19th century Temperance campaigners.

Bringing Up Baby - theatre or bad science?

Yesterday, Channel 4 screened the first episode of Bringing Up Baby, a series which purports to compare three childcare theories - Truby King, Dr Spock, and the Continuum Concept - by testing them in practice. I say "purports" because these days it's anyone's guess whether shows are real or to some extent theatrical contrivance. Check out, for instance, the revelations that Bear Grylls in Born Survivor, for reasons of health and safety, had a deal of help in surviving; and that in Dumped, for the same reasons, the participants were living on a simulated rubbish dump.
      Bringing Up Baby is already attracting a deal of comment because one of its mentors, the nurse and celebrity consultant Claire Verity, aka The Baby Guru, is an exponent of the methods advocated by Sir Frederic Truby King. While his career was highly worthy in respect of raising consciousness about child welfare and lowering infant mortality, his agenda was essentially nationalistic, imperialist and driven by eugenics, and he was at the core of a celebrity following largely based on ideas of racial improvement. The fetishistic detail of this 'Plunket system' (named after Victoria Plunket, an early patron) raised eyebrows even in its time; Dr Helen Mayo, head of Adelaide's voluntary infant welfare movement, wrote "The chief drawback of the Plunket system is the fanaticism of the nurses; it becomes practically a religious cult with them". (See A History of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific). Indeed, the biography at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography describes Truby King himself as rather disorganised, and says the obsessive organisation came from the system's interpreters.

The controversial aspect in relation to Bringing Up Baby is Truby King's childcare method. Living at Scarba (PDF), an account of an Australian childcare home, describes it: Early 20th century childcare theory and practice was marked by a desire to 'grow superior children'. In the early 1920s the theories of Frederic Truby King (New Zealand) and John B. Watson (USA), who were both initially involved in the study of animals, dominated infant care theory. In general their theories encouraged parents or carers to train children to become independent, self-reliant, self-controlled and unemotional. It was thought that the removal of love and affection would enable children to become industrious, enterprising and resourceful ... Truby King advocated for children to have strict routines and regimented lives – habit training – which included regular, if not obsessive, times for feeding, exercise and sleeping. Furthermore, Truby King, along with other child experts, believed babies both preferred and benefited from solitude.
      The regime, then, involves no touching, minimal eye contact, leaving the infant alone for long periods, and so on. This goes radically against the modern view, informed by knowledge of infant neurobiological development, that early mother-infant bonding is crucial. See Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood, which stresses the importance of activities such as "holding, rocking, singing, feeding, gazing, kissing, and other nurturing behaviors ... the most important factor in creating attachment is positive physical contact". Against this, Truby King's system has been long discredited.

As explored in this article reprinted at The Children's Project - Promoting Resilience: Changing Concepts of Parenting and Child Care - the history of changing theories on childcare is an interesting and worthwhile topic that deserves television airtime. Nevertheless, the ethics of testing on babies a system that is based on an archaic and harmful premise is questionable to say the least. The Channel 4 Family forum topic is currently quite busy on the topic, and the view of Claire Verity / Truby King methods is uniformly hostile.
      OK, so maybe I'm being naive about TV production, and maybe we're all being sucked into a non-controversy about a programme that's obviously a construct to dramatise these theories (Truby King vs Spock vs Continuum played out as caricatures: Control Freak vs Dated-but-Laidback vs Drippy New Age). I hope so, but we should be told if this is the case (the issue of faked TV scenarios is currently a hot topic in itself). Claire Verity, however, appears to be serious, and whether the scenario is real or concocted, I think it's irresponsible for Channel 4 to publicise a theory that's so out of tune not merely with childcare fashion, but with established developmental science.
      I'm pleased to see that Social Baby, the weblog of Helen and Clive Dorman (authors and co-founders of The Children's Project), is already well on the case, arguing that the use of the Truby King method may even be a breach of the Unicef Convention on the Rights of the Child. They in fact were contacted, when the programme makers were looking for proponents of the method, and provided plenty of evidence that it was discredited and plain damaging - but the programme went ahead anyway. The whole thing was filmed months back, of course - in May 2007, according to a Birmingham Sunday Mercury piece - so complaints are little belated.


At the excellent Bad Science, Ben Goldacre has instigated a collective project, BadScienceBlogs, encouraging the many prolific contributors to the Bad Science forums to set up their own blogs, which BadScienceBlogs will aggregate. I don't exclusively cover Bad Science topics at my other more eclectic weblog, The Apothecary's Drawer, so I've decided to split off content; this one is where the "poor pothecary" (as in Romeo and Juliet) dispenses poison.