Science

The BCA: Dodging the Issues

Just when you think the British Chiropractic Association might have learnt that every time it offers a public response it tends to blow up in it’s face and that it might be wiser to stay silent a new article by Richard Brown, the BCA vice president, pops up. This time round his response appears in the British Medical Journal and purports to be about ‘clarifying the issues’ surrounding the BCA’s case and the evidence for it’s claims.

And the result?

In the same issue as Brown’s article there is also a response written by Edzard Ernst. Ernst’s response is a short but thorough assessment of the quality and relevance of all of the “substantial evidence” which Brown cites in his article. He shows that every single reference cited by Brown is either irrelevant or of very poor quality. Ernst’s conclusion is that “the association’s evidence is neither complete nor… substantial”. This conclusion is echoed by Fiona Godlee, the editor of the BMJ, who writes that “[Ernst’s] demolition of the 18 references is, to my mind, complete”, proceeds to recommend that all readers of the BMJ should be “signed up to organised skepticism” and finishes by criticising the intrusion of legal cases into what should be scientific debates.

So once again it’s another PR disaster for the BCA as now, thanks to Richard Brown’s article and its terrible citations, one of the UK’s premier medical journals joins the chorus of critical voices directed at the BCA and its libel case. And not only that but it is urging its readers to follow suit! But before anyone starts to feel sorry for poor old Richard let’s take a more detailed look at what he actually said…

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Science & Skepticism Fest

I apologise for the long delay in posting. I have not been blogging lately due to the ridiculous sunny weather which London and myself are currently enjoying. However, now that the initial shock of seeing the sun for such extended periods has begun to wear off a little I’m going to try and get back to my regular blogging schedule (which in case anyone is wondering is supposed to be a post every 3-5 days).

Now although I have been enjoying the sun, I have not been completely slacking off as I have also been attending a couple of sciencey/skeptical events in particular ‘The Night of 400 Billion stars (and maybe some string theory)‘ at Bloomsbury Theatre and the Skeptics in the Pub/Ben Goldacre ‘Troublemakers Fringe‘ alternative to the ‘World Conference of Science Journalists’ at the Penderel Oak.

So I thought it might be a good way to get back into the blogging swing to give a ‘short’ roundup/review of both events. Here goes…

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How to spot a REALLY BAD Science Story

The Infamous Cliff Arnall

The Infamous Cliff Arnall

Two days ago on the 19th June 2009 the Telegraph published an article with the heading “Happiest day of the year is June 19th, according to formula”.

Psychologist Dr. Cliff Arnall is credited as the creator of “the complicated mathematical formula” that underlay this discovery and the article also included some of his sage advice on the best ways to be happy this summer.

Here is the formula in full:

O + (N x S) + Cpm/T + He.

Put simply, he gave values to each symbol and added being outdoors (O) to nature (N) multiplied by social interaction (S), added memories of childhood summers (Cpm) divided by the temperature (T), and added excitement about holidays (He).

And here are some of Dr. Cliff’s comments on finding happiness:

People may be less able to afford other leisure activities but it’s free to walk in the park or paddle in a stream.

The most important thing in our lives are our relationships – and no amount of money can buy that.

Now, there are several issues that could be taken with all of this, namely:

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Revenge of the Singh

The Quacklash Backlash

Following in the footsteps of Jack-of-Kent and all good science geeks across the world, I’m afraid I cannot resist the opportunity for a Star Wars reference and, in the case of the recent events surrounding the BCA/Singh case, it even seems rather fitting.

We have an evil empire (the BCA) who with the help of a Dark Lord (Eady) dealt a significant blow to the forces of good (i.e. reason and free speech) and looked set to claim ultimate victory. However, as a result of the BCA’s actions we have now witnessed the growth of a loosely organised alliance of bloggers, science advocates, journalists and supporters of free speech who along with the tenacious rebel leader Singh are all beginning to take the fight back to the BCA.

Well maybe it’s not quite like Star Wars, maybe more like a Star Wars convention but still… it is true that the supporters of science, reason and free speech are now fighting back and are having quite remarkable success.

First, we have the ‘Keep Libel Laws out of Science’ campaign which drew significant support from many high profile figures, has been widely reported on and now has in excess of 10,000 signatures on it’s petition.

Second, we have the reporting in the mainstream media which in this case seems to have been of a rather high standard and also seems to have taken heed of the detailed information available from the blogs. The fact that it’s a journalist being sued for writing an article also likely has something to do with the sympathetic articles… that and Simon is in the right of course!

Third, we have the so called ‘Quacklash’ in which the skeptical and science blogging world has taken the BCA’s members to task for the ‘plethora’ of misleading and prohibited claims that are found throughout their websites and marketing material. The mass of complaints sent to various regulatory bodies has resulted in panicked e-mails from both the BCA and the McTimoney Association (the largest and second largest chiropractic associations in the UK) advising chiropractors to re-examine their claims, stop calling themselves doctors and take down their sites.

Fourth, we have the absolute demolition of the long awaited plethora of studies provided by the BCA in less than a day after it is released. The science bloggers again deserve all the credit here and for anyone who has yet to read the excellent reviews I strongly suggest doing so now (take a look through at the links at the bottom of the roundup).

And so it goes on…

I have not had time to do much blogging lately but my own small contribution to the good fight against the BCA’s quirky campaign of intimadition and silliness follows below:

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Oprah, Deepak Chopra & Toothprick Acupuncture

The American magazine Newsweek set the internet abuzz last week ago when it published a detailed six page article discussing ‘Why Health Advice on Oprah could make you sick’, which it also ran as its front page story. The article in question was extremely critical of Oprah focusing on how she uses her remarkable amount of influence to promote various dubious health ‘experts’ who were guilty of promoting ineffective, and occasionally dangerous, pseudoscientific treatments.

A good example of this is her continuing promotion of Jenny McCarthy, the ex-playboy model turned staunch anti-vaccine advocate. Jenny McCarthy claims that her ‘mommy instinct’ trumps the scientific evidence in relation to whether vaccines cause autism (oh and by the way they don’t!) and Oprah not only gives her a platform to promote her views but also allows her arguments to be presented without any real challenges being made to her claims. Eugh…

Anyway, the article was in general excellent and I recommend everyone read it now if they haven’t done so but inevitably it did include one or two hiccups. Namely contrary to the articles claims 1) Oprah’s resident doctor ‘Dr. Oz’ does not always promote evidence based medicine in actual fact he quite frequently promotes dubious alternative treatments and 2) we do have a very good idea why autism rates have risen (wider diagnosis and increased reporting).

That is probably being too nitpicky though as the important facts about this article are 1) it was a critical and skeptical mainstream article about a popular show that reached a wide audience, 2) it illustrated all of its criticism of Oprah and her show with numerous forehead slapping examples and 3) all of the major issues with Oprah’s show that the article raised were entirely valid and explained very clearly.

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Simon says… Appeal!

Keep Libel Laws out of Science

A good idea...

I’m definitely flogging a dead horse at this stage but I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention that Simon Singh has announced that he will be appealing the horrendous decision from the preliminary hearing of his court case against the British Chiropractic Association.

This great news in itself but that’s not all… 

Yesterday, also saw the launching of an extensive and deeply impressive support campaign lead by the UK charity Sense About Science. The campaign is going under the straightforward title of ‘Keep Libel Laws out of Science’ and included the unveiling of a petition asking for exactly what the title suggests. The petition when unveiled already included an incredible list of signatories including university professors, renowned journalists, world famous comedians and yes even skeptical bloggers.

To drop a few names for anyone who hasn’t had a look: Richard Dawkins, Alan Sokal, David King, Stephen Fry, Dara O Brian, Derren Brown, Ben Goldacre, Alok Jha, Michael Shermer, Steven Novella, James Randi, Phil Plait, Nick Cohen, Ricky Gervais, Tim Minchin, David Starkey, Jonathan Ross and David Allen Green have all signed their support (and also all happen to be folks whose work I admire!). There are also many more impressive signatories and I encourage everyone to have a look and then provide their own signature which can all be done from here.

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Twitter goes into Orbit

Earth from Space
Almost everyone using the internet these days will have heard about twitter. Many might not know what it is all about but it has become so ubiquitous that it’s existence is hard to ignore.

As for what it is: Basically another social networking site but this time you are limited to a fairly sparse profile and more significantly making bitesize comments of a maximum length of 140 characters which are sent to all their ‘followers’ (anyone who adds them). These comments are mainly used by people to provide updates on what they are doing or to point people towards something they found interesting.

That’s it. A fairly straightforward concept and it’s taken off in a big way. Movie stars, bands, politicians, journalists and even certain academics can all be followed on twitter as can any number of random punters (including myself though so far I’ve updated twice!). There is also a rather unexpected twitter-er, which is the point of this post and I’ll get to in a bit.

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