And the award for most ham-fisted attempt at astroturfing goes to…

August 31, 2010

It could only be Nancy…


I was googling the other day, and I happened across this page on wikianswers.com:

Q. Why is homeopathy getting more and more popular?

A. 1. Homoeopathy is highly scientific, logical, and extremely effective method of treatment with no side effects.

2. Homeopathy is an evidence-based medicine. It is supported by worldwide clinical research.

3. Homeopathy’s popularity is growing by leaps and bounds. Homeopathy is the fastest growing medicine in the world. According to WHO, homeopathy is now the second largest system of medicine in the world.

4. Famous people who have used homeopathy successfully include Queen Elizabeth II, Mother Theresa, Tina Turner, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Pamela Anderson, Jane Fonda, Martina Navratilova, Charles Dickens, W.B. Yeats, Boris Becker, David Beckham, Tony Blair, Prince Charles to name a few.

and so on and so on.

(To refute the points 1. No it isn’t, 2. No it isn’t, 3. So what, 4. so what)

Having read such a glowing and obviously erroneous write-up of homeopathy I was eager to see who had penned such piffle – the answer came as no surprise…

First answer by Dr. Nancy Malik. Last edit by Dr. Nancy Malik.

Homeopathy’s most prolific and asinine blog commenter strikes again. Having determined who wrote it, I wondered who had posed such a strange question. Most questions on Wikianswers tend to be students trying to get the internet to answer their homework questions for them. This was not worded like a homework question. The answer is not immediately obvious but is discoverable with a couple of clicks:

Dr. Nancy Malik (supervisor) [112] asked Why Homeopathy is getting more and more popular 11 Aug 2008 09:54

Faily fail fail fail.


Q. Gee, Dave, why are you so fantastic?

A. Well, thanks for asking Dave. My fantastic-ness is due to the immense amounts of awesome I posses.

Q. Thanks, Dave, that really clears that one up.


Readers may also be interested to see the entirely humble and modest write-up that Nancy has given herself on Wikianswers.

The use of the internet to spread alt-med humbug is likely to have lead to any uptake in alt-med modalities and indeed the spread of anti-vaccine ideas and sentiment (one hesitates to use the word propaganda, but that is essentially what it is). If left unchallenged, those that seek answers may well be mislead by those with a vested financial interest in promoting their own particular brand of woo.


Does this count as a reply?

August 30, 2010

A reply by proxy… I think.


Dr Rachie has pointed me at this page on Interhomeopathy.org where an editorial mentions (amongst other fallacies) an apparent reply regarding criticism of the “Cytotoxic effects of ultra-diluted remedies on breast cancer cells” paper, aka Frenkel et al. Aficionados of woo will know that this paper was mentioned by the UK’s most credulous member of Parliament, David Tredinnick MP, in this EDM.  One of the major criticisms of Frenkel et al is the disturbing lack of statistical analysis in the paper.

This point is apparently refuted -

Skeptical Owl is skeptical.

The statistical analysis was done on each set of experiments; due to lack of space in the journal we could not have elaborated on all the details, but the results were significant and easily noticeable…

Right. Ok. So the critical statistical analysis that would have strengthened the argument that the paper was making immensly, and would be included in any reputable paper wasn’t included… because there wasn’t enough space.

I am deeply skeptical of this claim. Least of all because according to the publishing house Spandidos publications notes for authors – there is no word limit – least not one I can find.

If we take the .pdf of Frenkel et al and copy & paste it wholesale into word and do a word count, we get 5653. The first paper I looked at in the International Journal of Oncology had more words – (5900 words for this).

It goes without saying that this response fails to address many of the concerns raise, notably, no mention is made of the inadequate controls, missing HPLC data, un-quantified FACS, etc etc etc.

If Dr Frenkel has indeed read the criticisms of his paper, and this is best response he can give, it really does reinforce my view that this paper should be withdrawn or retracted.


Trying to break out of the echo-chamber…

August 17, 2010

A brief exercise in navel-gazing regarding engagement and whatnot.


There is obviously a serious side to my protest/spoof application for the job of homeopath to NHS Tayside.

I did not expect the post to get the attention it has got, and I still do not expect it make the bigwigs at NHS Tayside to change their ways and drop the idea of hiring a homeopath at the same time as they sack 500 other employees. That being said, I think that my estimation of the chances of that happening has risen from 0.01% to maybe 0.1% over the last 72 hours.

There has been some criticism of showering the HR department at NHS Tayside with spoof applications, and I can sympathise with this. However, at the last count there have only been 11 (the full list of known participants is available here, at Zeno’s blog) and so whilst I do feel a pang of guilt towards whomever has to plough though them, it’s not as if they have hundreds of extra applications arriving.

In any case, if, by some miracle you are reading this blog, NHS Tayside HR-person, I apologise – although I do hope you had a giggle reading though them. Perhaps if you did, you’d be kind enough to add a comment letting us know?

Inversions.

There has been much introspection within the UK skeptical community recently, following Frank Swain’s talk at Westminster Skeptics. There are numerous blogs covering/discussing this, and Frank has listed them at the bottom of his blogpost. I’d like to touch on a few things mentioned in that talk in respect to the NHS tayside/spoof application situation.

Frank said (and I’m paraphrasing here) that one of the most powerful things that we can do is change someone’s mind, through the power of a rational, well constructed argument. Absolutely true and wonderfully put – but this isn’t what is intended here. I would argue that those who believe that homeopathy works are going to stick to their guns, and I very much doubt that a handful of spoof job applications are going to change that, especially when a well written and argued S&TC evidence check [PDF] failed to do so.

This was never intended to be an engagement exercise either – engagement requires two-way traffic – an exchange of views. I wholly expect that my job application will be very quickly binned when they read my supporting statement.

This was about informing. Spreading the word. Letting people know that, hey, this is going on, and I think it’s pretty shitty.

The use of weapons.

If we’ve learnt anything from Lolcatz and other internet memes, it is that nothing spreads around the internet faster than something that makes you laugh. Sure, small groups with similar interests will share pages that provoke discussion or make you think, but something that raises a smile will be seen by more people, and more quickly. Go and look at your facebook home page now (assuming you have one). If your friends are anything like mine, the majority of the shared links will be to things that are intended to make you laugh.

So, let’s take a quick look at the traffic a few cheap laughs have generated – as a rough guide for how many people we might have made aware of the NHS Tayside situation. David Colquhoun’s and Dean Burnett‘s applications were published on Sunday afternoon – my post at about 11pm the previous evening. I’m taking these three blogs as my yard sticks, and the authors have been kind enough to share their internet traffic figures with me. Apologies to authors who have joined the fray since then.

Since publishing the posts I’ve had roughly 4000 hits, DC has had about 5000, and Dean Burnett about 12000.

Even if we are pessimistic and we assume that everybody who has seen mine and DC’s blog has also seen Dean Burnett’s blog, that’s 12000 people. I have some data on how many people have come to my site via DC’s and Dean’s sites, and the figure is <20%, not 100%. But hey – let’s err on the side of caution and take 12000 as our baseline figure. I am going to guess that the majority of these 12000 people did not know about this story before hand. Even if it’s news to only 10% of them, 1200 more people are aware of the ridiculous situation at NHS Tayside.

As far as I am concerned, for 30 minutes of my time, that’ll do nicely.

I know from my own traffic data that I am getting lots of referrals from places that I don’t usually get referrals, B3ta.com, reddit, BMJblogs, as well as the more skeptically orientated websites like badscience forums and randi.org. One thing that Frank Swain touched on was the fact that skeptics and SiTP is in danger of becoming an echo-chamber – and I share his concerns about this. Referrals and pingbacks from websites not usually associated with skepticism is one measure of how we well we are doing at “breaking out of the echo chamber” – reaching people who we might not normally reach.

Only a well constructed argument is going to change someone’s mind. However, in cases such as this, when perhaps minds do not necessarily need changing, rather they only need pointing at a particular fact or piece of news, I would argue that a quick laugh or a wry smile with a tiny bit of message built in is going to be passed around the internet faster. Sometimes, all that is needed is to shine a light onto those who make questionable decisions, to allow everyone else to see for themselves what is going on, and make up their own minds as to whether it is wrong or right.

I shall finish with a vaguely relevant quote from Nobel Prize winner A.V.Hill that Dr Aust introduced me to:

“Laughter is the best detergent of nonsense”


PS – I realise that everything I have written is entirely internet based and I make no apology for that – the only way I can break out from that would be to get something published in the main stream media. In a case such as this is highly unlikely.


In which I apply for a job as a homeopath…

August 14, 2010

A story in the Daily Express has been doing the rounds on twitter, regarding NHS Tayside’s decision to sack 500 staff, but still advertise a £68,000 per year post for a homeopath.

Whilst I discussed this over dinner with my wife, Natalie, she suggested that I should apply for the position — she then suggested that maybe every skeptic with 30mins spare could also apply for the position. :-D

Given the post pays nearly twice what I earn now, and is only to cover 2 sessions per week, I thought “why the hell not”. Tayside is quite a nice neck of the woods.

The application details are found here, and I have e-mailed my completed form to recruitment.tayside@nhs.net.

As a guide, I thought I’d share my “statement in support of application” with you:

” Whilst I have no formal medical qualification, I believe that I am ideally suited for the job of handing out sugar pills to unsuspecting patients on behalf of NHS Scotland. My PhD level scientific training and 6½ years postdoctoral experience means that I know lots of scientific and biomedical buzz words with which I can bamboozle prospective patients like “medical biomimicry”, “postconditioning hormesis” “quantum entanglement” and “the placebo effect.”

My biochemistry degree means that I am familiar with such vagaries as Avogadro’s constant, but given the extremely attractive salary (at least compared to scientific research), I’m sure I could be convinced to overlook the fact that homeopathic remedies with a potency over 12C contain zero molecules of active ingredient whatsoever.

The original research that I have published means that I am familiar with the body of published work on homeopathy, and the many meta-analyses and systematic reviews conducted on it. The fact that these conclude that homeopathy is no more effective than a similarly administered placebo will not bother me whilst I am taking advantage of some of the excellent salmon fishing to be found in the Tayside region. Indeed, given the fact the position only calls for the successful applicant to attend two sessions per week, I should imagine I would have plenty of time to indulge in a bit of fishing.

In conclusion, whilst I may be an atypical applicant for this post, I will do my level best to help any patients referred to me to get the best healthcare the NHS can offer – by referring them straight back to a doctor who won’t prescribe them worthless sugar pills at the taxpayers expense.”

Fingers crossed, eh?


EDIT – Today myself, David Colqhoun and Dean Burnett have all received requests from NHS Tayside for CVs, Immigration Status Forms, Declaration Statement and equal opportunities forms.


BREAKING NEWS! Dana Ullman rejects Law of Potentisation

August 12, 2010

Press Release:

In news likely to send shockwaves (or at least the memory of shockwaves) through both the homeopathic and skeptical communities, Dana “Mr Homeopathic” Ullman has sensationally rejected Samuel Hahnemann’s “Law of Potentisation,” perhaps the most controversial “law” of homeopathy.

Speaking on twitter earlier today, in his trademark highbrow intellectual manner, Ullman, 58, said:

The shocking announcement.

This was in response to an earlier query from the author:

A question too far?

Ullman posits that Hormesis might support Homeopathy in an entirely respectful and professional manner.

This amazing repositioning of Ullman’s position clearly allows him and homeopathy to take advantage of the biological phenomena hormesis (“a biphasic dose response to an environmental agent characterized by a low dose stimulation or beneficial effect and a high dose inhibitory or toxic effect.”) to validate homeopathy, something which homeopaths have been seeking to do for quite sometime now.

However – in adopting hormesis and thus relying on the presence of molecules, Ullman has clearly rejected the “Law” of potentisation, and associated arm waving hypotheses about the “memory of water” and “quantum entanglement”. Thus all homeopathic research and homeopathic remedies at potencies beyond Avogadros limit are no longer relevant. Whilst this may cure the “plausibility problem” from which homeopathy suffers, it does not remove the need for well conducted RCTs.

IF all homeopaths were to reposition themselves in such a way, and drop the whole “more-dilute-equals-more-potent” thing, homeopathy and science may yet find a way to reconcile what have been thus far irreconcilable differences.

However, it remains to be seen how the wider homeopathic community would view such an epic fail U-turn.

Only “Dr” Nancy Malik has responded to date saying “Real (Homeopathic) medicine cures even when Conventional Allopathic Medicine (CAM) fails” although this is clearly irrelevant.

Dave Briggs, XDNN, Moscow.

EDIT – extra Ullman post added for more context.

EDIT – A bit more context and explanation.


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