Bad Science

New Evidence for Life After Death?


About four years ago I wrote a post about the AWARE (AWAreness during REsuscitation) project being lead by Dr. Sam Parnia. The AWARE project is summarised on its official website as being about “using the latest technologies to study the brain and consciousness during cardiac arrest… [and] testing the validity of out of body experiences and claims of being able to see and hear during cardiac arrest through the use of randomly generated hidden images that are not visible unless viewed from specific vantage points above”. I previously expressed a number of concerns about the research, with the chief complaints being: 1) the methodology for placing ‘hidden’ images was poorly controlled (i.e. some images were visible to staff, giving patients a rather less esoteric means of learning about their content) and 2) the lead researcher, Dr. Parnia, was already promoting and offering dubious (quantum) interpretations about the meaning of the positive results, before the data was collected!

The study has finally been published, and despite breathless headlines such as the Telegraph’s “First hint of ‘life after death’ in biggest ever scientific study” or the Independent’s “Largest-ever study provides evidence that ‘out of body’ and ‘near-death’ experiences may actually be real”, the findings are actually remarkably unimpressive. For a start, the main finding, which is not mentioned in the abstract and quickly dismissed in one sentence in the discussion section, is that none of the 140 patients interviewed were able to identify a single hidden image. The paper tries to downplay this by pointing out that 78% of cardiac events occurred in areas without the special ‘shelves’ that held the images, this percentage however appears to be based on the full sample of 2,060 cardiac events rather than the 140 cases included in the study. It may be that the percentage is similar for these specific cases but the paper doesn’t tell us that and regardless, since the researchers seem to feel this makes the measure all but useless, you have to wonder why such a serious methodological issue was not identified as a problem in the piloting stage. Indeed, if we go back to this report from the BBC in 2009, we find a rather different take from Dr. Parnia on the importance of this null finding:

“If you can demonstrate that consciousness continues after the brain switches off, it allows for the possibility that the consciousness is a separate entity. It is unlikely that we will find many cases where this happens, but we have to be open-minded. And if no one sees the pictures, it shows these experiences are illusions or false memories.


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…


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:


Insane Reporting on Acupuncture Trials

Acupuncture ManImagine the following:

A drug company promoting a drug for back pain conducts a blinded clinical trial in which patients receive either 1) the drug, 2) a placebo sugar pill that looks the same as the drug or 3) nothing. The results from the trial show that patients who receive both 1 + 2 show more relief from back pain than those receiving no treatment but there is no significant difference between the effect of the placebo pill and the real drug. 

Now imagine a newspaper article reporting on the research chose the headline ‘Scientists find new drug can help to relieve chronic back pain’ followed by a glowing report of how the drug has proven to be effective in treating back pain complete with pleased quotes from the trial authors.

See the problem here? The drug was proven in a clinical trial to be no more effective than an inert sugar pill and yet it is being promoted in the newspaper and by the trial authors as if the trial showed that it is an effective treatment.

This is exactly what happened yesterday when The Times, The Daily Telegraph and The Daily Mirror published extremely complementary articles about a recent trial of acupuncture for chronic back pain.


Watch This Programme!!!

Professor Regan's Medical CabinetOk, this is just a quick note to recommend that anyone in the UK, or anyone who knows how to use proxys, should really be watching this programme.

It’s on BBC  iplayer and it’s called ‘Professor Regan’s Medicine Cabinet’ but don’t let the diet-show packaging fool you, this is actually a quite ruthlessly skeptical show promoting the value of good scientific research and critical thinking on health issues and providing excellent illustrations of just how important blinded clinical trials are.


Headlines are Important!


The Cochrane collaboration is a highly regarded international association that seeks to provide the most up to date summary of the available evidence surrounding medical treatments. It does this by publishing systematic reviews of clinical studies authored by independent reviewers. 

Earlier this week the Cochrane colloaboration published a review examining Homeopathic medicines for adverse effects of cancer treatments. The review looked at eight studies, considered relevant and of suitable quality, although in actual fact the studies could be subdivided further as they are addressing three different things. All were looking at the effectiveness of homeopathic treatments but three were concerned with alleviating the effects of radiotherapy, three alleviating the symptoms of chemotherapy and two allievating menopausal symptoms in women with breast cancer.

All of these studies were thus not looking at whether homeopathic treatments have any effect on cancer directly although unfortunately this connection will likely be drawn by many who see the headlines reporting this review. Instead, they were looking at whether homeopathic treatments could alleviate the side effects of two cancer treatments and menopausal symptoms in cancer sufferers better than a placebo treatment.


The Harm of Alternative Medicine

A frequent point that comes up in most discussions of alternative medicine is- what’s the harm? So what if they don’t have any real evidence that they work? If people want to get a nice foot massage at a refloxology session or take homeopathic pills when they get a cold is that really so bad?

My general response to such points is that I agree that, generally speaking, most people in the West who make use of alternative medicine treatments aren’t really doing any harm. In fact I would go so far as to say that in a fair amount of cases the treatments are probably beneficial to the individual due to a combination of the placebo effect and relaxation. The problems come however when we look further afield than those using alternative medicine as a complementary system of medicine for minor health problems.