Friday, November 06, 2009 

Junk science kills.

Of all the corruption scandals to come out of Iraq, almost certainly the most despicable is the news that the Iraqi security forces have paid up to $60,000 a piece for "explosive detectors" which are in fact nothing more than dowsing rods. Supplied by ATSC Exports Ltd and also sold to the police in Thailand, the results have been predictable:

Unity has the story in full.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009 

Dyslexia is a myth, says PM Rtringes.

For the most part, members of parliament, regardless of their political views, are not complete idiots or dyed-in-the-wool ideologues convinced of the righteousness of their minority opinions. When they are, such as in the case of Nadine Dorries, they tend to expose themselves, if you'll pardon the expression, and even if not pilloried publicly, tend to become known for the eccentricities.

Few though deign to expose their ignorance quite so forcefully or as weakly as Graham Stringer, who in an article for Manchester Confidential doesn't just suggest that dyslexia is occasionally misdiagnosed or that poor teaching sometimes results in children failing to learn to read or write adequately, but that the entire disorder has in fact been invented by the teaching establishment to cover up for their inability to comprehensively offer Stringer's magic bullet, synthetic phonics, having earlier in the article declared they are no panaceas.

Quite apart from the fact that Stringer should perhaps take up his idea that dyslexia has been created by the "education establishment" with the numerous scientists and doctors that first established its existence and have since, as Unity points out on Lib Con, published somewhere in the region of 6,000 peer reviewed papers and articles on it, it would be nice if he could even begin to compare like with like. Spot the problem with Stringer's argument:

There are two simple reasons for being confident about the false nature of dyslexia. International comparisons and the fact that so called dyslexic children have no more trouble learning to read than other children, if the appropriate teaching methods are used.

If dyslexia really existed then countries as diverse as Nicaragua and South Korea would not have been able to achieve literacy rates of nearly 100%.

There can be no rational reason why this ‘brain disorder’ is of epidemic proportions in Britain but does not appear in South Korea or Nicaragua (it is also pretty damning that according to Professor Julian Elliot there are 28 different definitions of dyslexia).

What languages are primarily spoken and taught in South Korea and Nicaragua? Ah yes, that would be Korean and Spanish. Especially considering that Korean is a completely different system of writing altogether, and consists almost entirely of a phonetic orthography this is about as absurd a comparison as you could possibly make.

Stringer further doesn't help his cause by conflating dyslexia with illiteracy in general. He opens the article with comments about illiteracy and its connection with crime, claiming that 25% of the population in Manchester is "functionally illiterate". Quite where he gets this statistic from in the beginning is a mystery, the closest probably being a Telegraph article from 2006 which claimed that 1 in 6 adults lack the literacy skills of the average 11-year-old. This is substantially different both from complete illiteracy and from dyslexia itself; dyslexia is not simply not being very good at reading or writing, but can also additionally affect speaking and other functions. Dyslexia prevalence is estimated at between 2% and 15% of the population, wildly off his 25% scale, although not far of the Telegraph's 1 in 6. He then further confuses the issue, after his rant about dyslexia not existing, by introducing his "magic bullet" of phonics, by suggesting that that 25% could all be happily reading and writing effectively if only they had been taught properly in the first place. The trial he quotes in West Dunbartonshire has incidentally not just involved teaching synthetic phonics, but also a 10-strand separate intensive intervention policy.

If, instead of suggesting that "dyslexia is a cruel fiction", Stringer had instead wrote, rather more sympathetically, that the common perception of dyslexia is false, or even described it as a myth, as a Dispatches documentary a few years' back did, he would have been on surer ground, as there is certainly disagreement over its exact diagnosis and how to treat it. Instead he's completely confident that there is no such thing, which puts him in a distinct minority of the usual conspiracy theorists and cranks that also still believe that the MMR vaccine causes autism and that HIV doesn't cause AIDS. If Stringer had wrote his rant in the Daily Mail then perhaps you could take it less seriously, considering the space it gives other every day of the week to the latest pseudo-scientific gimmickry. You could also accept it more if Stringer himself wasn't decently educated, but he in fact has a BSc in Chemistry and worked as a chemist before becoming a politician. Consequently, we can rather confidently conclude that Stringer himself is more than something of a cnut.

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Thursday, May 01, 2008 

The magic of pixie dust churnalism.

One of the first things you ought to learn if you have even the slightest inclination towards becoming a journalist is that if a story seems too good to be true, it usually is. In the current media climate, there are two challenges to this general rule of thumb: churnalism and the pressures of time, and secondly, if the story is even vaguely scientific. Throw a science story towards a load of humanities graduates, and watch as they leave all their credulity at the door.

In this case both come into play. Is it really possible that a man could have regrew over half an inch (some reports say over an inch) of his finger using something non-ironically called "pixie dust"? Did no one twig that this was PR guff when the man's brother was the one who suggested that he not get a skin graft and instead use dried pig's bladder and collagen conveniently manufactured by his own company? Who cares, it's a great story!

This wasn't just the tabloids falling for it. Almost everyone did: the BBC (who seem to have started the ball rolling), the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian, who have now replaced their article with one rather more sceptical. All of the articles also share another trait of churnalism: none bothered to actually check the story with someone who might know rather more about the powers of healing than the hack themselves until the Grauniad spoke to Professor Simon Kay. It also might have had something to do with the Grauniad's own Bad Science columnist, Ben Goldacre, who posted on his own site around 2 hours before the Guardian's rewrite with his own notes on why Lee Spievack's claims were garbage. Dr Aust in the comments adds some even more pertinent information:

Yes, I smell a marketing gambit.

Dr Alan R Spievack MD (who someone further up the thread indicated was the patient’s brother) is a co-author of several papers with Dr Badylak (e.g. here). Spievack’s address is listed on the papers as a company called Acellhere, have anything on the market for humans just yet… but one suspects they are, erm, keen to drum up positive PR and investors to help them move their portfolio forward. Dr Badylak’s name appears frequently in the company’s listing of preclinical proof-if-principle work, so he seems to be their main academic connection. who make extracellular matrix products as scaffolds for tissue re-growth. They don’t, according to their website

As ever, the credulousness and lazy lack of fact-checking of multiple “churnalists” is at the botton of this. Plus the “eeew!” factor - it reminds me of those grisly photo-stories mags like Nuts occasionally run on “the man whose knob had to be sewn back on - full shocking pictures inside”

Seems this story is also rather old - it appeared in Esquire last September, complete with the photos.

I wonder what triggered the world-wide wave of media interest now? There is an interesting study to be written somewhere on how these “copycat” science story-waves get started and propagate across the media-sphere.

As already noted, you'd expect something like this from the cretins at the Daily Mail that give space to snake-oil salesman of all varieties, from those who advocate the use of magnetics to homoeopaths and everything in-between. There's something seriously wrong with both journalism and the journalists themselves that such blatant fantasy is able to fill the pages without anyone in the office calling bullshit.

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Thursday, March 20, 2008 

When is an urban myth not a urban myth? When it's propogated by "pro-abortionists".

Do the people of mid-Bedfordshire really know just what sort of moron is representing them in parliament? Nadine Dorries, who has repeatedly been brought to book for her use of partial and questionable sources, has just suddenly discovered an urban myth that has been kicking around since 2000, and posted the following on her blog yesterday:

This picture show a pregnant uterus laying on the exterior of the mother's abdomen, having been lifted out of her abdominal cavity, via a c-section incision made in the abdominal wall.

Dr Joseph Bruner performed this procedure in order to operate on the baby whilst still in utero before it was born. The baby had spina bifida and would not have survived if removed from his mother's womb.

When the operation was over, baby Samuel, at 21 weeks gestation, put his hand through the incision in the uterus and grabbed hold of the surgeon’s finger, a gesture which was apparently met with a huge amount of emotion in the operating theatre.

Dr Bruner said that it was the most emotional moment of his life and that for a moment he was just frozen, totally immobile.

In the UK we are aborting babies just like this and older every single day.

There are union funded organisations such as ‘Voice for Choice’ that campaign and fight to maintain the right to abort babies like Samuel.

There are organisations such as the BMA who vote and endorse the right to continue to do this.

There are organisations which are paid for by the government, such as BPAS, who argue the right to keep aborting babies Samuel's age and older.

Little Samuel made his case from within the womb in a way which none of the shrill late abortionists will ever manage.

There are two ways to live your life.

One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle. (Albert Einstein)

Enter Ben Goldacre, the Guardian's Bad Science columnist, who Dorries previously accused of a "serious breach of parliamentary procedure," a crime committed when he downloaded the evidence given to the parliamentary committee, from err, its website. Dorries has never apologised for the slur on Goldacre, as you would expect from the finest of the Tories' bloggers. Goldacre quickly ascertained that the story was a myth propagated by anti-abortionists, with the surgeon himself stating in two newspaper articles that it was him lifting the baby's arm out of the uterus, not the baby reaching out to hold him.

Anyone with even the slightest decency about them would then admit that they'd got it horribly wrong and apologise. Not Dorries, who seems to know better than the surgeon himself what had happened:

I’ve had an amazing response to the ‘Hand of Hope’ blog posted yesterday.

Of course, the pro-abortionist lobby have attempted to rubbish it and say it is a hoax, which it most definitely is not. Some of the pro-abortionists, who know that they can’t get away with calling it a hoax, are saying that the surgeon was operating on the hand, which didn’t reach out; and, that in fact the baby was anesthetised so reaching out would not have been possible.

Two points from me: first is that if the experienced paediatrician operating on the 21 week old baby had anesthetised, then that fact endorses the Professor Anand position that a foetus can feel pain; otherwise why would this doctor, who operates on unborn babies all the time, bother?

Dorries is obviously too idiotic to not see past the obvious fact. The surgeon had not anaesthetised the baby; he had anaesthetised the mother, who, believe it or not, is connected to the baby, who therefore also was anaesthetised. Dorries has two children, incidentally.

My second point is look at the tear in the uterus. See how jiggered it is just above the hand; and yet the rest of the surgically incised openings are controlled and neat.

This is, in all likelihood, because the hand unexpectedly thrust out. It would be a poor surgeon who allowed the uterine tear to be so messy, and this is no ‘poor’ surgeon.

Over then again to Ben, who unlike Dorries just happens to be a doctor and also know what he's talking about:

My recollection, from assisting in many Caesarean deliveries in my earlier years, is that instead of making a big clean cut into the uterus (not a good idea for obvious reasons ie there’s a baby in there) you make repeated shallow superficial incisions into the uterus, between which you spread the tissues by hand with your fingers, until it eventually (and satisfyingly, surgery’s great fun) opens up.

She’s also very keen on the photographer’s account. Which I linked to above. As I said, it’s up to you whether you prefer the account of the photographer, or the surgon who does these operations for a living, and may know rather more about the subject.

Dorries' entry is hilariously called the "hand of truth". Dorries, rather than being able to back up her arguments with anything even approaching knowledge or evidence instead refers to everyone who pointed out that it's a well-known and old-hat myth by calling them "pro-abortionists", the typical disparaging remark towards those who defend a woman's right to chose. Dorries also claims to be pro-choice, but uses the language and tactics of the anti-abortion movement as part of her campaign to lower the limit on abortions from 24 weeks to 20 weeks. Even more bizarrely, she states that the surgeon might have said what he did because the "pro-choice and pro-life lobbies in America are far more vociferous, and unfortunately violent, than they are in the UK". As Unity points out, there's only one side in the US which has turned violent, and that's the "pro-life" side, as Wikipedia attests.

Instead of being laughed at or told she's got it wrong by other Tory bloggers, Iain Dale in his round-up gives the impression that actually Ben has got it wrong. There are comments pointing this out, as well as Dorries' update, but no comment from Iain or a correction. Going by the past, it's not likely either will happen. The good burghers of mid-Bedfordshire though can vote out their collective embarrassment at the next election.

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Tuesday, February 26, 2008 

The drugs can work.

Whenever there's a new major scientific study released, especially one that hits the front pages of most of the so-called qualities, it's always a good idea to see what the crew over on the Bad Science forum think, both of the report itself and of the subsequent summaries of that report in the press. Their verdict (Ben Goldacre's own is the last post on page 3), especially on the Guardian's report, isn't especially encouraging.

The Grauniad article opens with this statement:

Prozac, the bestselling antidepressant taken by 40 million people worldwide, does not work and nor do similar drugs in the same class, according to a major review released today.

Except the study, which is itself a meta-analysis of the 47 studies which the researchers obtained from the American Food and Drug Administration doesn't come to that conclusion at all. It instead finds that Prozac (fluoxetine, an SSRI), Seroxat (Paxil in the US, paroxetine, SSRI), Effexor (venlafaxine, an SNRI) and Serzone (Nefazodone, neither an SSRI, an SNRI, an MAOI or an older tricylic anti-depressant, and which is no longer prescribed in the US because of links with liver damage) actually do work, or at least up to a point. Compared to placebo, the study finds that the drugs do in fact have a slightly higher clinical effect, but for mild to moderate depression it's not significant enough under the NICE criteria for them to be considered cost effective (Endofphil has an MS Paint diagram example).

Where the drugs are considered effective and perform far better than placebo is on those with severe depression, and which in any case is what doctors are meant to only be prescribing them for. For mild to moderate depression doctors are pointed towards offering counselling or "talking therapy", up to cognitive behavioural therapy or interpersonal psychotherapy. This though is often unavailable in certain NHS trusts, and even if it is the waiting list tends to be a mile-long, leaving doctors with little option other than recommending the almost cliched exercise, talking to friends or getting out a bit more. Many people who feel they're at their wits' end go and see their GP and beg for anti-depressants, something that most will most give in to, even if they don't appear to be severely depressed. The figure banded about for anti-depressant prescriptions is 16 million written a year, but that of course includes repeats.

Seeing as I have something approaching "experience" in this area, my path towards getting help was roughly as follows. After summoning up the courage to see my GP, he referred me to a psychiatrist. By the time my appointment with him was coming up, my situation had declined considerably and I was taken to see the psychiatrist at the local A&E, whom prescribed me Lustral (sertraline, Zoloft in the US, an SSRI). I then saw the first psychiatrist whom also prescribed me an anti-psychotic (first Zyprexa, olanzapine, now Seroquel, quetiapine) and introduced me to the psychiatric nurse, who I've been seeing for almost roughly 5 years now every month or so. In between then I've been referred to various individuals, among them a psychologist, with whom I underwent interpersonal psychotherapy, a youth worker who I basically just poured my heart out to, a group on overcoming depression, which started off with around 10-12 people attending and at the finish with around 4 of us, and probably some others I've missed out. I certainly can't say the NHS hasn't bent over backwards to help me, that's for certain. Out of all these things, what I do think has helped the most? To get over the initial bad period, I have very little doubt that the drugs helped immensely; after which, I think the interpersonal psychotherapy was the most rewarding, challenging and effective.

The main problem with anti-depressants is that some have the impression that they're a panacea, and this isn't just down to being ill-informed, but rather because the drug companies, big pharma or whatever you want to call them lobby and advertise furiously that this is indeed the case (see above advert). Because of both the NHS, the advertising laws and otherwise, we don't have the drug companies directly advertising their wares to us in this country, or at least the ones that are prescription only. In America however they do, and they don't just recommend the SSRIs in them for depression, but also for a whole assortment of other mental disorders, some for which their efficacy has been uncertain at best. This is partly why this study is important: it contains reports submitted to the FDA but which weren't officially published, for the simple reason that the study didn't find the drug to have the beneficial effects the drugs company claim they do. This is publication bias, and it buries the results which don't chime with what the company funding the development of the drug wanted to hear.

The other problems with the SSRIs are well-documented. Since Prozac, the first SSRI to be mass-marketed arrived, there have been claims suggesting that in some cases the drugs have actually contributed to suicides or in some rare occurrences, homicides. As a result of further research on the use of SSRIs in those under 18, they were highly recommended not to be prescribed to the young as some, and the accusations against Seroxat were the loudest, were found to actually increase the risk of suicide. This could potentially not be down to the drug itself, which take around a month to six weeks to start to work in most people, but rather due to the depression not reaching its apex when the prescription was first written, although the decision is certainly sound. Getting on the drugs is usually fine: I was sick for a couple of days when first going on them and suffered from dry mouth for about a week, then both went away. It's the getting off them that's incredibly hard, as the withdrawal symptoms, which often ironically resemble the symptoms for why you went on the drug to begin with, can be incredibly severe. Effexor, which is also considered one of the most powerful and is apparently most used in mental hospitals, is especially notorious for its withdrawal symptoms, while GlaxoSmithKline, the makers of Seroxat have had class-action lawsuits brought against them in both the US and UK because of the withdrawal those on them have suffered. I can't say I'm looking forward to eventually getting off either of the drugs.

The above are exactly why anti-depressants shouldn't be available on demand. We're an increasingly hypochondriac society, and it doesn't just affect those that read the Daily Mail and one day are told something's good for them and the next day that it's bad, all via press release and competing studies where their funding is obtuse at best. Neither should the drugs be dismissed in the way that some of the reports today have done; it's well and good lauding CBT and the rest of it, but the very need for it has increased because of our increasingly fractured and atomised lives. We don't feel that we can take anyone into our confidence, and the friends that we do have and do think we can talk seriously to we then think don't want to be burdened down with our own personal misery, and in most cases we'd be right. At its core, the idea of the anti-depressant is one bound up in both consumerism and materialism; a magic pill that takes away the blues. Like consumerism and materialism, it's a myth and one perpetuated by the exact same forces. It can help, but that's all. It's only when we open up and are honest with ourselves and everyone else that we might directly help each other, and it well might be that goes most against the very nature of our modern living.

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Tuesday, February 05, 2008 

MMR and autism link dismissed yet again.

When she isn't fulminating against the treason of intellectuals or how we're slouching towards dhimmocracy, Melanie Phillips likes to spend her time ranting against the evils of the MMR vaccine. Study after study has been unable to replicate the results of Andrew Wakefield's discredited 1998 report that linked the triple-jab with autism, so it's always fit in nicely with Phillips' persecuted middle-class conspiracy theory mindset.

The latest study, involving 250 children, has similarly found no link between the immunisation programme and autism. Strangely, Phillips has yet to post on how this is the latest report that can't be trusted. The Daily Mail, the second-in-command in the scaremongering about MMR stakes, does though still continue a thoroughly disingenuous approach, starting with the headline itself, which puts disproves MMR jab link to autism in inverted commas, then quotes the usual suspects who'll never be convinced. Thankfully, Science Blogs also cover it, as does the Bad Science crew.

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