What Doctors Don’t Tell You

There’s a new magazine in the shops this week. It’s called What Doctors Don’t Tell You and I’m reasonably sure that no-one who reads this blog would be at all interested in reading it. If you think that you might be then try looking at the sample pages on their subscription site.

It’s all complete nonsense, of course. And many of the usual suspects are already hard at work debunking it. Which has led to a predictable reaction from the magazine’s editor. I hope she remembers what happened to the last people who tried to sue Simon Singh for libel.

As always with woo-mongers there’s a fatal flaw in their argument. Their argument, paraphrased, goes something like this:

People get bad service from medical professionals, therefore patients should turn to alternative treatments instead.

There are, of course, two elements to that statement. No-one would deny that the first half is accurate. Of course there are problems with the National Health Service. Some doctors don’t keep as up to date as they should with current research, big pharmaceutical companies have too much power, the government is trying to destroy it. No-one is going to deny these problems exist. I haven’t read it yet, but I believe that at least one of these issues is the subject of Ben Goldacre’s new book.

But those problems don’t lead inevitably to the conclusion that the woo-mongers draw. Just because there are problems with the NHS, that doesn’t mean that you should abandon it and put your health in the hands of people peddling unscientific nonsense. I don’t understand how anyone can reach that conclusion from our initial premise.

No, surely the only sane reaction to our initial promise is not to run to the arms of the woo-mongers, but to see what we can do to fix those problems. I have no easy answers. It’s not the kind of issue that can be solved overnight. But it’s never going to solved if we all stop using the NHS and replace it with magic water and prayer meetings.

I’m torn on the best action to take. Generally I think that we should all do what we can to stop people reading this magazine. I’ve emailed the relevant people at WH Smith, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose and a couple of times, when I’ve seen the magazine on sale, I’ve hidden it behind copies of Practical Parenting. But at other times I think that we should just let the gullible idiots read this stuff and use whatever treatments they like. Let Darwin take care of the problem.

The downside of that approach, of course, is that they’ll continue to use their magic potions most of the time, but will switch to using real medicine when it really matters. Or use both together and claim that it’s the eye of newt homeopathic remedy that cured them. So perhaps we should make them choose. Use whatever nonsense treatments you want, but don’t come crying to the NHS when you want real treatment.

Wow. That turned out quite a lot angrier that I thought it would be. Sorry about that.


BBC on Curiosity

A few days ago I complained to the BBC about the lack of live coverage of the Curiosity landing. The automatic response promised a reply within ten working days. Impressively, it arrived just now.

Less impressively, it didn’t really say anything useful.

Thanks for contacting us regarding the BBC’s Olympic Breakfast on 6 August.

I understand you were disappointed news of Nasa’s Curiosity Rover landing on Mars wasn’t broadcast live on the programme.

Choosing the stories to cover in our programmes is a subjective matter and one which we know not every viewer will feel we get right every time. Factors such as whether it’s news that has just come in and needs immediate coverage, how unusual the story is and how much national interest there is in the subject matter will all play a part in deciding the level of coverage and where it falls within our output.

Essentially this is a judgement call rather than an exact science but BBC News does appreciate the feedback when viewers feel we may have overlooked or neglected a story.

It’s worth mentioning that there was coverage on our BBC News website at the time and that we’ve had a number of follow up stories and photo articles on the early days of Curiosity Rover’s mission on Mars, as the following articles illustrate:

Nevertheless, I’d like to assure you that we’ve registered your comments on our audience log for the benefit of news teams and senior management within the BBC. The audience logs are important documents that can help shape future decisions and they ensure that your points, and all other comments we receive, are made available to BBC staff across the Corporation.

I guess I’m just going to accept that the people who decide what is important enough to warrant live coverage on BBC Breakfast don’t have anywhere near the same priorities as me and most of my friends.

Which is all very disappointing.


Teach Evolution, Not Creationism

The British Humanist Association is behind a new campaign called “Teach Evolution, Not Creationism“.

Of course any reasonable person is going to support the campaign. No-one wants creationism taught to children as fact in science lessons. But there are a couple of subtleties that should probably be explained in detail.

Firstly, I’ve seen this as described as an attack on faith schools. Whilst I’m sure that the BHA is no fan of faith schools, it’s important to note that this current campaign has nothing to say at all on this subject. The evolution vs creationism debate is a completely separate one. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of faith schools in the UK are run by religions that don’t subscribe to creationism and won’t be teaching this nonsense to schools. Creationists are good at making their movement seem more important than it is, but most British christians are Catholics or Anglicans and neither of these churches subscribe to these ideas.

This campaign says nothing about the status as faith schools. It just says that creationism should not be presented as scientific fact in state-funded schools.

Secondly, people say that creationism should be taught at school as long as it isn’t presented as fact. And I agree with that completely. I’m very happy for creationism to be discussed in religious studies classes or even as part of a course in the history of ideas. There’s even an argument for covering it in science courses where it could serve as a case study of applying the scientific method to a problem and examining the evidence to come up with the best theory. I don’t want schools to produce children who have never who heard of creationism. I want them to produce children who know about creationism and who know enough about evolution to be able to counter the obvious nonsense that the creationists come up with (“There are no transitional fossils.” “What about this almost complete sequence demonstrating the evolution of the whale?”)

Finally, a friend pointed out that he doesn’t want facts taught in science lessons. He wants science lessons to teach “how science works”. By which he means critical thinking and the scientific method. And I can’t argue with that. That’s exactly what I’d like to see too. My experience of the school science curriculum is over thirty years out of date, but I’d hope that it isn’t just “here’s a fact learn it”. It wasn’t like that when I was at school.

Please read the campaign’s position statement and the progress that has been made so far.

And if you’re in a petition-signing mood, please sign their petition.



If you’ve been hanging around the skeptic community over the last couple of years, then you’ll already know Tim Minchin‘s beat poem Storm. But unless you were at last year’s TAM London you probably won’t have seen the official animation of it which was premièred there.

For nearly six months I’ve desperately wanted to be able to show this to people. And finally the wait is over as it was launched on YouTube last night.

Sit back and enjoy it for the next ten minutes. And think of all those dinner parties where you’ve kept politely quiet as someone like Storm expounds the benefits of homeopathy, acupuncture or other such nonsense.


Homeopathy Petition Response

A year ago, the House of Commons science and technology committee published the results of its evidence check on homeopathy. The committee’s findings were unequivocal and the report strongly recommended against the NHS continuing to waste money on treatments that did nothing. Soon after that I set up a petition asking the government to implement the recommendations of the report.

The petition received over 1600 signatures before the petition site was suspended for last year’s general election. And when the election was over and we finally got our new government they announced that the petition site would be closed down. They also said that any petition that had been signed by 500 people would receive a response from the government.

Whilst I waited for my response, it became obvious what it would be as the new government published their response to the report. The response pretty much ignored any of the committee’s findings and made it clear that the NHS would be free to continue wasting money on magic water. A clear indication of this government’s commitment to evidence-based policy making.

Yesterday the government finally emailed the petition’s signatories with its response. There’s nothing surprising there. They just reaffirm that the NHS will continue to waste this money. It’s all very disappointing but not very surprising.

The response includes a link to this page which it claims explains the government’s decision in more detail. Unfortunately that’s a link to a completely unrelated page. I think they probably meant to link to this page instead.

So, no change. This government is still happy to waste NHS money on ridiculous treatments and the new government has just as much trouble understanding scientific evidence as the previous one did.


Snow vs Global Warming

Every winter as the snow starts to fall we get some some climate change denier claiming that the existence of snow categorically disproves the existence of climate change. This weekend the race was won by Richard Littlejohn who added the following to the end of his column in the Mail on Sunday.

It’s late November and parts of Britain are under eight inches of snow. That’ll be the global warming, then.

Why do these people have so much trouble understanding what “global” means?

Update: Tory MP Douglas Carswell made the “joke” this morning. But Carswell has previous in this area.


Berlin Time

You might have heard of a campaign to move the UK onto the same timezone as Central Europe. There are a number of groups campaigning for this (see, for example, Lighter Later) and the proposals are going to be discussed in parliament on December 3rd.

Now, I don’t have any particularly strong feelings either way about this, but the arguments about saving a lot of energy by changing the time seem pretty persuasive to me. Of course, not everyone is as ambivalent as I am and today the Mail on Sunday publishes an article by Peter Hitchens called “Don’t let them force you to live your life on Berlin Time”. The title makes it quite clear the direction that the article is going to take, but it’s astonishing just how ridiculous the article is. The blatant xenophobia is amazing.

But it is easy to see that since 1893, when Kaiser Wilhelm II’s arrogant and expansionist new German Empire adopted Mitteleuropaische Zeit (Central European Time to you), German power has been forcing its ideas of time on the rest of the Continent. First in 1914, and with redoubled force after 1940, the conquered nations of the Continent were instructed rather sharply to shift their clocks forward to suit the needs of German soldiers and German railways and German business.

A map of the present Central European Time Zone looks disturbingly like a map of a certain best-forgotten empire of 70 years ago. Would it really be silly to suspect that the neatness and standardisation fanatics of Brussels and Frankfurt, who have abolished almost every border in Europe, devised the European arrest warrant and the Euro passport and the European number plate and the European flag – and imposed a single currency on almost every state – would not also like a single time zone?

In a particularly nice touch, there’s a black and white picture of someone adjusting a public clock with the caption “Forced change: The Nazis made occupied nations adopt German time”.

Now, there may be good reasons to object to this change but if there are, Hitchens seems to have missed them completely. Bringing the argument down to this disgusting “who won the war, anyway?” level is surely a tacit admission that Hitchens has no reasonable arguments against the proposals.

Hitchens does, at least, mention the benefits that supporters of the change expect to see, but he decides that “many of these claims are pretty much guesswork”. To back this up he points out that:

Shifting the clocks about changes less than you might think. The amount of actual daylight remains the same. It is just available at different times of day.

This is, of course, indisputable. But what Hitchens forgets to mention is that supporters of the changes know this. It’s the redistribution of the daylight hours which brings the benefits, not some (scientifically improbable) lengthening of the day. It’s a straw man of the most obvious kind.

The most offensive part of the article is the way that Hitchens seamlessly merges the EU with the Third Reich. He ends with this chilling warning:

If we are foolish enough to hurry down this path, it is by no means certain that we shall ever be allowed back if we decide we do not like it. Once we have fallen in, who would be surprised by a quiet Brussels Directive making the change permanent, whatever Parliament does? Now is the time to save our own time.

I’m all in favour of a debate about these changes. No-one would suggest making a change of this size without a full discussion taking place first. But surely those opposing the changes can find better arguments than this poisonous nonsense.


Government Ignores Science

Section 47 of the Government Response to the Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check on homeopathy:

We note the Committee’s view that allowing for the provision of homeopathy may risk seeming to endorse it, and we will keep the position under review. However, we do not believe that this risk amounts to a risk to patient trust, choice or safety, nor do we believe that the risk is significant enough for the Department to take the unusual step of removing PCTs’ flexibility to make their own decisions. We believe that providing appropriate information for commissioners, clinicians and the public, and ensuring a strong ethical code for clinicians, remain the most effective ways to ensure quality outcomes, patient satisfaction and the appropriate use of NHS funding.

So basically no change. Our new government is just as capable of ignoring scientific evidence as the old one. And the NHS will continue to squander millions on sugar pills.

I expect I’ll come back and fill this in with some more detail when I’ve calmed down a little.


Petition Closed Prematurely

Earlier this year, I created a petition on the (then) government’s petition web site. The petition called for the government to fully implement the recommendations of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check on Homeopathy – basically calling on the government to stop wasting money on homeopathy.

The petition was due to be open for signatures for a year. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake as no matter who was in government, they would have made up their mind about the issue long before the petition closed.

But since the general election everything has changed. All of the petitions were closed to new signatures during the election campaign and they didn’t re-open once the new government was in place. Instead the web site explained that the new government was considering the best way to proceed with the site. The front page of the site now says:

With a new Government in place a review is taking place of online services, including e-petitions. We are committed to improving the e-petitions process and are looking at ways of ensuring that it functions as part of a cohesive approach to public debate and transparent government. A full announcement on how we plan to use these and other services across Government will be made as soon as this important work is completed.

It goes on to say:

Existing e-petitions, submitted to the previous administration, will not be carried forward to the new administration as part of this process. E-petitions that were live at the time of the election announcement on 6 April, when the e-petitions system was suspended, will therefore not be reopened for signatures. We are issuing responses to petitions that had exceeded the 500 signatures threshold as of 6 April 2010 and these can be viewed on the HMG e-petitions responses page.

So my petition has been closed. In the three or four months that it was open, over 1,600 people signed it. That means that we can expect some kind of response from the government, although it’s not there yet and there’s no indication of when we will receive it.

Thanks to everyone who signed the petition. Perhaps in this new cuts-driven regime removing finding for magic water on the NHS is an obvious way to save a few million quid.


On the Intelligence of MPs

It’s easy to make cheap cracks about how stupid MPs are. The problem is that many of them seem determined to do nothing at all to counter this impression. Indeed, they often seem keen to reinforce it.

David Tredinnick (Con, Bosworth) is a particularly good example. He is a proponent of “complementary and alternative” medicine. This, of course, marks him out immediately as someone whose pronouncements on pretty much anything should be viewed with deep suspicion, but he likes to emphasise his idiocy by proposing Early Day Motions in support of homeopathy.

And it hasn’t taken him long to stamp his brand of stupidity over the new parliamentary session. On Monday of this week he proposed four EDMs about homeopathy.

Each of these proposals is, of course, complete nonsense. They could only be written by someone with no understanding of science. If your MP is one of the (currently quite small) number of MPs who have signed these motions then I feel really sorry for you as your MP is obviously not quite as bright as you would no doubt want them to be.

There is, however, a brighter side to this. The new Lib Dem MP for Cambridge is Julian Huppert and he is obviously determined to continue the excellent work done in parliament by Evan Harris and he has proposed amendments to these motions which basically rip out the guts from the original motions and replace them with common sense (completely reversing the meaning of the motions in the process).They are 284A1, 285A1, 286A1 and 287A1.

I’ve written to my MP asking her to sign the amendments. I recommend that you do the same. Tell them that signing Tredinnick’s original motions will lead to people they don’t have the intelligence to do the job they were elected to do.