UK Homeopathy Evidence Check

26 11 2009

Check out the link below for a fascinating discussion about homeopathy featuring Ben Goldcare and Edzard Ernst plus quite a few others.  This discussion is from the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee relating to government expenditure on homeopathy.

It takes the form of a grilling by a committee of two panels of experts.  The wriggling by the proponents of homeopathy is fascinating.

It is ~2 hours long and available streaming here:

http://www.parliamentlive.tv/Main/Player.aspx?meetingId=5221

There is a transcript here:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2009/nov/24/homeopathy-science-technology-committee





UK Roundup 21/10/09

21 10 2009

UK newspapers, notably The Telegraph, are reporting the latest figures released from Allergy UK that apparently claim that 45% of the UK’s population are suffering from food intolerance of one sort or another. I checked Allergy UK’s website but couldn’t find the press release that backed up these claims so I called them and was met by a wall of vagueness. Perhaps they are just tardy in updating their website… Assuming that the release is genuine it seems an extraordinarily high figure. Unfortunately The Telegraph only features quotes from people with a vested interest in food intolerances; an author with a book on the subject, one doctor from a company that sells intolerance testing kits and another from a company making food suitable for people with intolerance. They come out with the usual claims such as ‘A big part of the problem is that we are assaulting our children with chemicals because the food that we are feeding them isn’t real anymore, it’s just a bunch of food additives, flavourings and colourings’ and ‘if people are eating foods straight out of a chemical laboratory then diabetes and obesity, heart disease and cancer will be a result of these intolerances’.

Not For Me, Thanks

Not For Me, Thanks

Well apart from the fact that in fact everything is “chemicals” I’m pretty sure it’s quite possible to provide for your family without ‘assaulting’ your children. I’m firmly of the opinion that while there are obviously people with serious allergies, a great number (not all) of those who claim ‘intolerances’ are jumping on the bandwagon because it’s very easy to attribute various vague symptoms to food intolerance. I’ll keep an eye out to see if the Allergy UK figures are released on their site.

In other news the Pope has upset the Church of England by announcing that he will issue an apostolic constitution, a form of papal decree, that will lead to the creation of “personal ordinariates” (whatever they are) for Anglicans who convert to Rome. This effectively means that all those in the C of E who are against female priests and homosexuals can escape to Catholicism. Sound like a complete fudge to me but it’s amusing to watch the churches going at it while trying to appear pious at the same time. Meanwhile at the same time as some of the bones of St Therese are being toured around the country, no doubt performing miracles left right and centre, Jesus has appeared on a toilet wall in Glasgow.I’ll say this much for religion – it’s certainly entertaining.

UPDATE: I called Allergy UK and found one extremely woolly article on their site based entirely on anecdotal evidence. You can find it here look under ‘Stolen Lives Five’ report. There’s also a thread I started over on Bad Science here which has some interesting input. I emailed Allergy UK to see where they get their figures from but no response. I am not holding my breath.





UK Roundup 22/09/09

23 09 2009

Two of the usual suspects Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins have been in the UK news recently, Brown for his new TV show, and Dawkins due to his support for libel law reform.

‘Mentalist’, anti-psychic and all-round showman Brown has a new series that apparently has been under development ‘for over a year’ and was promising all sorts of exciting new tricks. Two shows in and the results have been less than impressive.

Brown - You Will Buy My Used Car.

Must Remember To Buy Aspirin


For his first heavily hyped episode Brown promised to predict the national lottery numbers on live TV. Unfortunately his definition of ‘predicting’ and mine seem to differ somewhat. Mine involves revealing the numbers before seeing the draw, whereas his involved picking some unseen numbers, muttering something about the BBC not allowing him to reveal them, and then revealing them after the draw, at which point they were shown to be correct to the surprise of absolutely no-one. Not only was this all a bit of a swizz, but Brown’s follow-up programme in which he promised to reveal how he had done it was a damp squib. Disappointingly, given his previously laudable anti-mumbo jumbo leanings, he chose to present a couple of scenarios to explain himself and let the viewers choose. Option one was the completely ludicrous suggestion that a group of volunteers had somehow used ‘automatic writing’ to average out the numbers using a theory called ‘the wisdom of crowds’. Total hogwash and pretty close to invoking psychic ability in my book. Option two was that he had somehow rigged the lottery draw – more believable but also pretty much out of the question. General consensus seems to point to some sort of split-screen trick in which the initial balls were switched out with the correct numbers after the draw.

The second show was even worse. Brown claimed that he would, gasp, ‘control the nation’ by means of a mysterious subliminal film. Basically it was nothing more than your bog standard stage hypnotist where some people humour the entertainer by eating an onion or whatever, except in this case all they had to do was to pretend not to be able to get out of their chairs. Some viewers played the game by phoning in to report they were stuck, until released by a special ‘relaxing’ blue film segment shown by Brown.

For all his showman bluster I’m afraid this series just hasn’t done it for Brown so far – his stunts are just too easy to rig for a TV audience (the possibility of multiple takes etc) and waffle about mysterious theories and automatic writing are a definite step in the wrong direction. However he still portrays himself as an illusionist rather than a psychic, so perhaps he’ll pull something a bit more interesting out of the bag later.

Dawkins, meanwhile, has been campaigning to change the English libel laws which he says are biased towards the plaintiff. He has the support of England’s third party the Liberal Democrats (unfortunately numerically pretty much the equivalent of having the staunch support of ACT). Dawkins was quoted as saying that due to the current state of the law, it was very hard to publicly criticise homoeopaths and the like for fear of being sued (although Ben Goldacre seems to have done a pretty good job in his great book ‘Bad Science’). Another doctor, Simon Singh is currently fighting a case where he is being sued for suggesting chiropractors might be not quite as sincere as they make out. This is seen as a very important case in determining how far scientists and others can go in their criticism. Although any changes in the law are a long way off, any groundswell of support or general coverage of the issue is most welcome.





UK Roundup 02/09/09

2 09 2009

The British Humanist Association has sparked a bit of controversy by attacking a creationist zoo called Noah’s Ark Farm, near Bristol. The BHA claims that the zoo misleads large numbers of visitors and wants the British and Irish Zoo Association and a number of other tourism agencies to delist them from their promotional material.

 Creationism - No. Tapirs - Yes

Creationism - No. Tapirs - Yes

It’s an interesting case because the zoo seems to be quite open about it’s stance and features a ‘creation research’ link prominently on it’s website, leading many to ask what the problem is. Personally, although I think the zoo’s owners are as mad as a box of frogs, I don’t really see why they can’t run their own private zoo in whatever way they see fit provided it’s quite clear to visitors what they’re in for, and as long as the government isn’t promoting it or paying for it. Hopefully people can see straight through attempts to equate creationism with science and concentrate on the animals instead. Apparently they have some nice tapirs.

Keeping on the theme of animals, a group of USA based atheists have come up with a terrific money making scheme involving post-Rapture pet care. Eternal Earth-Bound Pets offers pet care to those who believe that the worthy (ie those who believe in Jesus) will be swept up to heaven in what is commonly know as ‘The Rapture’. ‘You’ve committed your life to Jesus. You know you’re saved. But when the Rapture comes what’s to become of your loving pets who are left behind?’ the group’s website asks. Having signed up a number of certified blasphemers and sinners to act as animal minders, they are able to guarantee first rate pet care to those animals left behind post-Rapture – for a fee of course.

If you would like to cast your eyes over a truly bad piece of journalism, The Telegraph can help. This week someone called Lucy Pinney wrote a cringe-inducing article on the possibility of ‘remote viewing’ being useful in healthcare. Apart from being possibly the most credulous journalist in print, she was even criticised by her subject Andrew Usher (dean of British Institute Of Homeopathy), who took umbrage at an incorrect statement stating the NHS was investigating remote viewing. So not only does she write a piece free of any journalistic balance, she happily includes references to CIA studies on remote viewing (which found no evidence for it) as evidence, and on top of that misrepresents one of her main subjects. Way to go Lucy.





Lose No Weight and Lots of Money with Acai Berries

15 08 2009

acaiforcemax 2For those you who have a Facebook account, you may have noticed the advertisements that regularly pop up on the right side of the screen. Now I understand that Facebook is a business and that an important way of making money for the company is through advertising. However some of the ads that regularly feature are not just lame, but have the elements of a scam.

Specifically there are those ads that entice you in with the prospect of turning that keg into a six pack with minimal effort and a short timeframe. Such ads I have encountered have included are Dave’s Personal Blog and Getting Your Six Pack. While at a glance they appear to be different from each other, there are a large number of similarities between the two sites including in the layout and language used. In particular the endorsements received from members of the public are identical – right down the usernames and dates that the comments were posted. On the face of it looks like these guys who run these sites have been sucked into a multi-level marketing scam, until you click any one of the links and they lead to one website – acaiforcemax.com. I suspect that these websites are actually sockpuppets for acaiforcemax.com.

The websites provide the typical anecdote of the Joe Bloggs who obtains an incredible physique through the consumption of Acai berry fruit juice – the most recent fad in pseudo-nutritional supplements. There is no evidence for its efficacy as assisting with weight loss – nor for the range of other claims made for it such as cleansing colons (which is a scam in itself) and enhancing ones sexual prowess. Check out the Skeptic Doc’s blog entry on acai berries and what is interesting is that there is a range of other exotic items such as blueberry juice, grape juice, and red wine that have more anti-oxidants than acai juice.

However, if a person wants to part with their hard earned money for another useless supplement then go ahead – knock yourself out. What is more concerning is the deceptive techniques that many of these online companies use to trick people into subscribing for expensive products – and what you will find is that by signing up to one of the free trials of acai berries will mean that you will lose a lot more than a few kilos.

Lets take acaiforcemax.com, a website where whoever has registered the domain has gone to some lengths to protect themselves from identification. The free trial is aggressively pushed in the website and hey – if they are giving it away is there any harm in trying? As they make it clear that there are only limited supplies one better quickly work their way through the process to get their free trial. The first step is to take their test to see if you qualify. I decided to misrepresent myself as a 137cm tall, 72 year old Munchkin whose goal was to move from being 115kg to 160kg and strangely enough I qualified for a free trial!

acaiforcemax 7You then need to provide them with a range of personal information including an e-mail address (bring on the acai berry spam) and the only cost involved is a US$4.95 postage fee for the free acai berries and guess what? You also are entitled to become a member of their Elite Customer Club.

The membership of this club means that you are also billed US$79.95 for the acai berry supply (that you have not asked for) and you also obtain access to their World Club Fitness and Weight Loss Resources for a meagre US$6.95 and US$8.95 per month. So in total this “free trial” will set you back US$100.80 (NZ$148) per month. You only need to Google the terms ‘acai berry scam’ to see the number of people who have fallen for this scam and find themselves jumping through numerous hoops to get the payments stopped.

My advice is that if something is marketed as free on the Internet it will be too good to be true.





UK Roundup 6/08/09

6 08 2009

London homeopathy purveyors Ainsworths have incurred the wrath of the UK Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for selling a remedy known as ‘Swine Flu Formula’. The company claims their pills ‘override the symptoms’ of Swine Flu. This is compounded by the fact that the company has a royal warrant, which means it apparently sells its goods to members of the royal family – no prizes for guessing which ones. The MHRA is investigating the company and I could find no mention of the product on their website, which is well worth looking at. What did disturb me was that you can quite happily order whichever remedy you want on their site without any sort of check, which would seem incredibly dangerous (presuming that they actually contained something other than water of course).

In light of the recent furore over the research by the Food Standards Agency stating that organic food has no better nutritional content than ‘normal’ food (see article below) the head of the Whole Foods chain here has said indeed the shops sell ‘ a bunch of junk’ (he’s American). What effect this has on sales remains to be seen.

A Degree - Why earn one when you can just make your own?

A Degree - Why earn one when you can just make your own?

And in a shock revelation that will surprise pretty much no-one, it has been revealed that L Ron Hubbard’s claim to have been awarded a PhD was a complete fabrication. The British consulate investigated Hubbard in the 1970’s because they were concerned about the possibility of a libel case after they banned Scientologists from entering the country in 1968. Subsequent investigations found Hubbard and his cronies had created a fake entity, Sequoia University, and promptly awarded each other degrees. The ‘university’ had never been accredited by the state and it fact didn’t even have any premises. The story has made the papers now as the Times have managed to obtain classified Health Department documents under the Freedom of Information Act. No response from Tom Cruise as yet.





Some Chemicals With Your Lettuce Sir?

30 07 2009
Organic Pig...or is it?

Organic Pig...or is it?

Here in the UK organic food has become quite a major money spinner, with most large supermarket chains offering organic options. For example if I pop into my local Sainsburys I can buy the standard issue tomato for say £1.78 per kg, or buy the organic range ones for quite a bit more. There are also shops that specialise in organic produce where I could, if was substantially richer or insane, buy a single avocado for £1.80 ($4.50).

Today the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA) released a report , which took the form of a ‘systematic review of literature’, carried out by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). LSHTM’s team of researchers, reviewed all papers published over the past 50 years that related to the nutrient content and health differences between organic and conventional food. This systematic review is the most comprehensive study in this area that has been carried out to date (according to the FSA). The conclusion it reached was that “organic food is no healthier and provides no significant nutritional benefit compared with conventionally produced food “.

This set off something of a firestorm in the newspapers comments section which brought up some very good points.

1)Just exactly what is organic food anyway?
To me the term has always been very woolly, conjuring up visions of hardy smock-wearing individuals toiling in the fields whilst chewing on barley stalks. I assumed it meant that no ‘artificial’ pesticides or fertiliser had been used on crops and no hormones, antibiotics, moisturising cream etc administered to animals. But what is an artificial fertiliser? I can use crop rotation and plant lupins or some other nitrogen fixing plant one year to fertilise the soil, but why not just bung on some nitrogen fertiliser and grow more food crops instead? Does that make me non-organic? Which brings me onto the next point…
2)Who defines what organic food is?
Here in the UK it is in fact the European Union which has set down a Compendium of UK Organic Standards. Farmers who want to label their produce must adhere to the standards and be certified by a Government approved body such as the Soil Association. The UK Soil Association does have an attempt at defining organic on their website saying that ‘artificial chemical fertilisers are prohibited’ (so nitrogen fertiliser is out) in preference of clover crop rotation. However they also say that pesticides are ‘severely restricted’ (ie not banned) although it seems OK to use copper sulphate as a fungicide.

It was interesting to see the polarising effect of this study, which divided people mainly into two camps. One side was more or less along the lines of ‘I don’t want to put chemicals into my body so therefore organic is better’ while the others were put off by the expense and lack of clarity over exactly what the supposed benefits were, assuming nutrition is not one of them. Clearly modern farming practise has greatly increased food production, which presumably is a good thing.

Unfortunately the effects of fertiliser/pesticide or agricultural practises on the environment were outside the remit of this report. I think a most people do take the overall environmental impact into consideration when buying organic and although I haven’t seen any studies it seems to me quite obvious that they can have an impact – look at the problems with the Rotorua Lakes or Mad Cow disease (BSE) for example. Certainly when it comes to animal welfare and to an extent GMO crops I would tend to be on the side of ‘organic’.
However I think the study is useful in order to show those who run a mile at the word ‘chemical’ that in fact their $2 carrot and my 20c one aren’t actually as different as they may think.