Month: July 2011
I have just listened to an excellent talk about critical thinking, given by Jeremy Beahan over at the Reasonable Doubts podcast. The talk isn’t directly ‘on’ critical thinking; rather it’s about effective ways to teach it to young minds, and is based on his experience trying to teach this in summer school courses.
He explains that his initial attempt was dead boring, and so switched the approach so that the students were on the ‘inside’ of scams and deception, thereby illustrating his points (and hence the title of this blog entry).
I found it fascinating, not only in content, but also in the psychology of teaching and learning. You can find it at the Reasonable Doubts blog, here.
I recently saw an episode of the ABC’s book show which invited its guests to discuss the genre of fantasy. Having watched this show quite regularly, it is indeed an unusual occurrence for them do discuss anything outside the ‘mainstream’ genres of mysteries, biographies and classics. I have still yet to hear any discussion of science fiction, other than oblique references, and often in disparaging tones. So it was refreshing to hear something a bit different discussed.
Even though I studied it at university (long, long ago, in a universe far, far away), I have recently become re-acquainted with Bayesian probability (BP) as a result of some of the reading I’ve been doing on the subjects explored in this blog. It turns out that what seemed like an abstract mathematical concept at uni is actually a tremendously useful tool – both in a quantitative sense and in a conceptual/philosophical sense. Hopefully as a result of the brief discussion below it will become obvious how it relates to all the various things I’ve been ranting about over the past few months. And, don’t worry, there’s no maths involved unless you want to pursue it yourself.
In my recent exchange with Elaine regarding homeopathy, the subject of placebo effects predictably arose.
I say ‘predictably’ because it seems to be that once proponents of ‘alternative therapies’ are backed into a corner, and finally realise that their treatments are no better than placebo, the next line of defense (or is it attack?) is: “well, the placebo achieved by our modality is very valuable and shouldn’t be under-estimated”. Elaine made that very claim.
I recently started writing about management pseudoscience, based on my observations in the organisations in which I have been employed, and those (many) in which I have done consulting.
Under the heading of quirky office behaviour, the issue of water has been an interesting one in the last several years. In particular, the water-bottle-as-fashion-accessory.
Although the fad has now largely been replaced by iPads/iphones in meetings, the water bottle can still be seen lurking in the occasional meeting, though no where near as much as it used to. Surprisingly, no one has died of dehydration as a result of this decrease.
This article just goes to reinforce the farce that is the water bottle in meetings.
Really, are you chatting for a half an hour, or are you running across the Simpson desert? Even if we agree that such a meeting can be quite draining, then perhaps a drink before and a drink after will do the trick and keep you out of the morgue.
As luck would have it, nature has devised a cunning way for us to avoid death by dehydration, known technically as thirst.
OK, I admit, there may be some individuals out there with a malfunction in that part of their circuitry – and to those people, I apologise, and invite you to bring water to that next meeting. I raise this because I want to avoid the trap I fell into some years ago – while playing football, a team-mate used to eat Mars bars at each quarter break, and I was eventually moved to call him a pig, only to later learn he had some ailment involving sugar levels and would have passed out without the hit.
Admittedly, the water bottle as constant companion is not always about thirst. It’s as much about fitness – or at least an image of fitness – you know, the super athlete on the move, athletically pouncing from meeting to meeting, and waiting with breathless anticipation for the end of the workday in order to squeeze in a half-marathon and pump class before bed-time.
As annoying as the water bottles and periodic swigging thereof were, it could have been worse – at least we were spared the lycra accessories.
It seems at least one person is taking me to task over recent articles on homeopathy, and I welcome it.
Once again, I find the discussion too interesting to leave it in the comments section, so I’m responding in a new post. I’ve quoted large chunks (intact) from the correspondent’s comment.
Firstly please consider this:
I am not sure how Mercola’s list of references for homeopathy, nor the successful cases and interviews he has posted on his web site can be dismissed in one paragraph on the basis of your interpretation of his vaccine data (which is not entirely relevant to this discussion but I will post a link below to this as you incorrectly noted that he was discredited for this reason and inferred that he was against all vaccinations*)? Did you bother to read and review them?
I have been reading about Mercola and his work for years, but I will leave it to others to review Mercola’s work (see here for example). Many have done so, so I’m convinced the case is closed on him as far as real science goes. But I understand how proponents of homeopathy would see him as the ‘light on the hill’.
Please try to be fair and use your “rational brain” which must have a degree in quantum physics and a nobel prize supporting it to place your reasoning above others. Clearly you are claiming to be more intelligent than Luc Montagnier, listed above who supports homeopathy based on Quantum science.
Actually, my degree included quantum physics, but I’m still hanging out for a Nobel prize.
With respect to the former, I have studied quantum mechanics being an electronics engineer by profession. Electronics actually relies on quantum effects. So I can do the maths and explain the concepts and understand its applications. I would be interested to know what your understanding of the subject is. (If you’re interested, I suggest ‘Elementary Quantum Mechanics’ by Morten Scharff as a starting point). This is why, when I hear Montagnier talk about quantum effects at the DNA level, or, Chopra talk about quantum effects in the brain, my bullshit antennae go beserk. To be honest, it sounds like someone faking a foreign language, by making grunting noises or guttural sounds only. It’s sheer nonsense.
Secondly, with respect to the Nobel prize, you are relying on the ‘argument from authority’. True enough, Montagnier won a Nobel prize for his work on HIV. However, that doesn’t automatically mean every utterance he makes is correct. History is littered with nobel prize winners who go on to pontificate on subjects outside their specialisation, for example Linus Pauling (who gave us ‘orthomolecular medicine’ and megadoses of Vitamin C to cure all manner of things), Brian Josephson (who did brilliant work in electronics, but then drifted off into concepts of the ‘universal mind’). I could go on, or you could read a summary by Steve Novella here.
Contrary to your pre-judgement I am not a homeopath. I do freely discuss this though, as I have many clients who are homoeopaths. I simply do not support this shallow reporting or biased, faulty journalism. The arithmetic of dilutions was incorrect. There was no serious explanation of methodology, or mention of succussion or molecular imprinting as the basis for potentisation– we are talking about quantum physics, not chemistry.
Again, you bandy about this term quantum physics without the slightest clue about it. For a start, chemistry would not work without quantum mechanical effects, so they are not mutually exclusive phenomena.
Secondly, just parroting back the jargon of ‘succussion’, ‘molecular imprinting’, ‘potentisation’, is not an argument. See my comment mimicking foreign languages. They are just meaningless unless they are defined and bound in a THEORY OF MECHANISM and backed up by DATA WHICH SUPPORT THAT THEORY. Saying ‘quantum effects’ is NOT A THEORY. Sorry to shout – just want to make sure you can hear!
Also, I apologise for branding you a homeopath.
The “in house” jocularity was based on an incorrect assumption that homoeopathy is chemistry.
I’m sorry, but here we go again with the ‘woo’. Homeopathic ‘remedies’ are made of chemicals, therefore it is chemistry. Pretending that thumping or diluting the mixtures somehow imbues the stuff with other magical properties is just fanciful or wishful thinking. At the very least, it is not demonstrable.
There was very little time spent interviewing successful treatments of chronic disease (be it that ” 30% placebo cure”– which, btw is little understood and at times is as effective as any modern medicine!)
‘Interviewing successful treatments’ is a pointless exercise. Firstly I doubt you could find an example of such a thing which can be proven in a scientifically valid way. Secondly, you are advocating anecdotes as evidence, which they are clearly not. I want decent trials by people who are not ideologically predisposed to the notion in the first place. And by the way – you should read more – the placebo effect is well understood. And yes it can be effective, as I’ve said before, for some low level, unspecific, general aches and pains – but that’s it. Please let me know if the placebo has cured any specific illnesses or diseases. I understand your desire for placebo to be effective – it’s how homeopaths get away with conning the public. But really, giving people a fake remedy to induce a placebo effect is dishonest and unethical.
If the production team was polite enough to obtain an interview with Brauer homoeopaths perhaps you might have not made these mistakes in production of the final sent to air edited version. The incorrect procedure for homeopathic caffeine indulgence was not representative of homeopathy. In short that show, and this forum, fails on many levels.
It seems that whenever a homeopathic remedy fails to live up to expectations, it must be due to an incorrect procedure. Or, modern science just doesn’t understand. Or there was too much negativity in the room. No wait, that’s a séance. Ok, that was a bit sarcastic, but it’s the same argument.
Interviews and production mistakes wouldn’t be an issue if homeopathy could simply do some high quality trials and publish the results, and then get others to replicate those results. Just do that one little thing, and all this back and forth completely disappears. Right?
The vortex of ignorance towards holistic medicine is great. Many people confuse even the basic terminology of holistic medicine with homoeopathy, this lack of understanding is not corrected with poor journalism.
Fortunately the tide is turning and people are reclaiming their lives and questioning medical intervention when it is detrimental or not required, for example refusing to use antibiotics for viral infections and seeking zinc supplements, and non harmful homeopathy.
Tell that to Penelope Dingle’s family.
Cochrane data clearly does not support a lot of “accepted” science, eg. many surgical procedures for instance. It is also surprising how little data other than level 4 EBM (evidence based medicine) is available for most of what we believe to be well thought out medical procedures. Level 4 EBM is little more than someone’s opinion! Many of the studies in biologically variable living beings do not fit in the Cochrane pool.
Level 1: Consistent Randomised Controlled Clinical Trial, cohort study, all or none, clinical decision rule validated in different populations.
Level 2: Consistent Retrospective Cohort, Exploratory Cohort, Ecological Study, Outcomes Research, case-control study; or extrapolations from level A studies.
Level 3: Case-series study or extrapolations from level B studies.
Level 4: Expert opinion without explicit critical appraisal, or based on physiology, bench research or first principles.
By setting Homeopathy up as the “straw man” argument, journalists are missing the boat. I am interested in the results of all levels of EBM of any treatment; alternative or traditional, as evidence of proof that a treatment is effective for specific pathology. In the absence of level 1-3 EBM, which of course is often the case in traditional medicine, a rational explanation based on sound biochemical, physiological, quantum physics or anatomic principles will be helpful. In this case there are many instances where quantum physics provides an explanation (see Luc Montagnier above) for that otherwise beneficial “placebo” positive effect. Let us not rule out what we just don’t quite understand yet.
!!! Again, quantum physics DOES NOT provide an explanation. No matter how many times you wave your magic wand, the rabbit won’t appear out of the hat.
Evidence Based Practice
According to The Cochrane Collaboration web site, EBP as we know it today has its roots in the work of the British epidemiologist Archie Cochrane (1909-1988). The international EBP research center, the Cochrane Collaboration was named in his honor in 1993. The web site states that:
Cochrane argued that as resources for health care are limited, they should be used effectively to provide care that has been shown, in valid evaluations, to result in desirable outcomes. He emphasized the importance of randomized controlled trials in providing reliable information on the effectiveness of medical interventions.
RCT (Randomised Controlled studies) are often flawed for biological beings. Kaptchuk (2001, p108), an experienced Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner and scholar who now works at Harvard Medical School observes “Ultimately, medicine, at its best, can never enumerate or know everything about a person. At best medicine is an art that resonates with an elusive truth.”
Cochrane data, therefore is a tool for MBA’s and the health care industry.
I’m not an expert on Cochrane, but it seems to me you are just cherry picking here. Yes, EBP can be of value. But not on it’s own – it doesn’t mean that we stop looking for higher levels of evidence, or that we don’t bother trying to explain how something works. That seems to be what you’re advocating. Yes, trials are often flawed because we can never control for all variables. But it doesn’t mean we stop trying. And quoting an ‘experienced traditional chinese medicine practitioner’? – is that supposed to impress?
One thing that really annoys me actually is this notion of ‘we can’t know everything’, and therefore that we should somehow accept whatever any charlatan tells us. You can make any pithy quotes you like, but in the end, science likes to explore how and why things work, and resorting to notions of ‘elusive truths’ is just plain lazy and defeatist.
Please read this and then reply
Oh boy. Mike Adams. I’ve read plenty of him too. I have no hesitation in saying he is the lowest of the low as a human being, and anyone with a shred of decency would agree. I won’t say any more, but I see your article, and raise you this one, in which he is taken to task for gloating over the death of Patrick Swayze.
If you don’t recognise Mike Adams for what he is, then I’m afraid I have no hope of persuading you of anything.
It is hoped that your source and intent of producing such journalism is not to be a “science blogger-internet whore”. If you do have financial incentives for producing such poor journalism, please disclose them now.
I am not a journalist. I am just an ordinary person with a brain and an opinion on some subjects. And what sort of financial incentives do you expect that I would have? Big Pharma is it? The same Big Pharma that sells homeopathic remedies?
Yes, it’s time to trot out the ad hominen attacks, and the conspiracy theories, because someone dares to question quackery. It is to be expected when there is nothing real to back up arguments being made.
And while we’re on financial incentives, I don’t’ suppose your homeopath friends have an axe to grind do they? No, I thought not.
and lastly- dogs do not recognise the placebo effect, for yet another positive review of published RCT study on homeopathy see:
At first I decided I wouldn’t get into veterinary issues, just due to a lack of interest. But then, I thought, what the hell, I like a challenge. Here is my reaction:
- How do you know dogs don’t recognise the placebo effect? Could not the soothing, calming effects of an owner applying topical remedies invoke a response in dogs? You clearly just assert that they don’t because it supports the conclusion you seek.
- Again, it’s a pilot study. It’s never a replicated trial in which someone does the study and concludes that the findings of another study are confirmed.
- Assessment is by owners – by assessing how much scratching the dog is doing. The question is – how reliable is this? I only saw the abstract, as I’m not a subscriber to the journal, but unless there was a strict regime of scratches per minute or hour or whatever, then this is going to be very unreliable, and subject to a whole heap of wishful thinking. I would have just asked the dog to complete a short survey.
- Let’s look at the numbers. 20 dogs in the trial. 15 owners report no improvement, and the remaining 5 went through to a second phase. In the second phase only two participated, because one was unavailable due to death, while two no longer exhibited the condition. Of the final two, owners reported improvement.
- In the initial 20, there appeared to be no controls. Hence owners knew it was homeopathy, so the trial is compromised already.
- With respect to the final two, were the applications of control and homeopathic substances in the same or different regions? Was the severity the same in both regions? Who selected these?
- Overall, the study is clearly preliminary, and certainly not convincing. Now let’s have someone replicate it, with proper controls. I’m no researcher, but as a minimum:
a). Randomly select dogs into two groups, control and homeopathy
b). Monitor animals for 24 hours on video, and then count the number and intensity of scratching, as a baseline. Even better, find some immunological marker we can measure to allow us objectively assess the extent of the disease.
c). Keep the owners out of it to preclude any placebo effect from the bond they may have with the dog.
d). Have researchers apply the remedies – or even do it with mechanical apparatus to further reduce any placebo.
e). Monitor animals for 24 hours on video, and then count the number an intensity of scratching for each remedy.
f). Analyse and Report.
g). I was kidding about having the dogs fill in a survey.
Elaine, in writing this long comment, you’re obviously very passionate about the subject, and I don’t for one minute believe anything I say will change your mind. However, I think you’ve fallen into the trap of putting ideology before evidence. A key symptom of this is to start with the conclusion you wish to confirm, and ‘mining’ information that supports it. The trick here is to quote it authoritatively, and hope that no-one follows up by actually looking at it. Don’t know how something works? Let’s steal a term and use it as the answer. Quantum physics. Don’t have any evidence? Let’s quote wave upon wave of pilot studies and preliminary studies (that way we don’t need to bother about controls), and never bother to follow up with properly controlled studies.
Anyway, thanks for the stimulating conversation, which is, by the way, my primary motivation for this blog. I’m a stimulation whore.