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.