While the cat’s away

Ben Goldacre seems to be on holiday. (His most recent post on badscience.net was dated 18 July.) The temporary absence of the scourge of pseudo-science may have given the green light to new levels of absurdity.

The Times Science Editor, no less, wrote that

Women are getting more beautiful
FOR the female half of the population, it may bring a satisfied smile. Scientists have found that evolution is driving women to become ever more beautiful, while men remain as aesthetically unappealing as their caveman ancestors.
The researchers have found beautiful women have more children than their plainer counterparts and that a higher proportion of those children are female. Those daughters, once adult, also tend to be attractive and so repeat the pattern

Now, being in the female half of the population, I’m not showing a satisfied smile. In fact, he only physical expression that you could detect me making would be the Sign language sign for “bullshit”, which a QI repeat showed last week.

(Arms crossed on your chest, with the fingers of one hand making horns and the fingers of the other hand opening and closing as if to drop a load. How beautifully expressive is that?)

If I knew the Sign Language for “ideological and sexist bullshit”, I’d be putting that here instead. But I bet even Steven Fry doesn’t know that one.

“Beautiful” women have more children? Can anyone pretend for one second that there is an objective standard for beauty? Ideals of beauty vary enormously over time and between cultures. Indeed,you wouldn’t find agreement on a common standard between people living a few miles apart. (Certainly not in the city where I live.)

And “having more children”, nay even, having more female children? WTF. That might have been a sign of evolutionary success in the paleolithic, but would surely have depended much more on the capacity to raise children to adulthood than to breed them even then. In modern societies, having a smaller number of offspring is pretty well directly associated with higher levels of education, health and wealth, at the household level, and with economic development, at the social level.

To follow the “logic” of this argument, uglier women would be more reproductively successful in modern society, then, surely?

Quite apart from anything else – because I’m bored with pointing out blatant absurdities in this report – just look around. Opening your eyes on any public street will soon put paid to any idea that good-looking people reproduce more than homely people.

This is the nub of the science bit:

In a study released last week, Markus Jokela, a researcher at the University of Helsinki, found beautiful women had up to 16% more children than their plainer counterparts. He used data gathered in America, in which 1,244 women and 997 men were followed through four decades of life. Their attractiveness was assessed from photographs taken during the study, which also collected data on the number of children they had.

Hmm, that sounds sciencey but, just having numbers in doesn’t make it science. (Pause to remember that “up to 16%” more children can include anything from fewer children right up to 16% more. )

I can’t find this study online, although there are plenty of newmedia refernces to it. The only works I can find with the name of Markus Jokela are apparently legit: a study of childhood risk in the the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and a study of IQ, Socioeconomic Status and Early Death: The US National Longitudinal Survey of Youth in Psychosomatic Medicine.

I’m pretty tempted to let Dr Jokela off the hook here and suggest that the whole beautiful women reproduce more “study” is an obscure internet jokela. One can but hope.

In any case, Ben Goldacre, please stop sunning yourself, and sort this nonsense out.

More Measles Rubbish

Ben Goldacre has had another week of run-ins with the residual anti-MMR lobby. Kudos to the Times’ David Aaronovitch for telling the story that didn’t appear in Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science column in the Guardian today, probably because of legal threats from LBC radio.

This story involved Ben Goldacre’s response to a broadcast about the MMR vaccine on a London radio station. You can get the broadcast from wikileaks. I had read all the blog posts on badscience.net but I half assumed that that Goldacre was exaggerating a bit until I listened to the show….

Among all the other nonsense, the thing that really irritated me was that the broadcaster and a “qualified homeopath” anti-vaccine mum argued that measles is an insignificant illness that any healthy child would easily overcome. (Just ignore, for a moment, the impact of a new measles epidemic on kids who aren’t healthy. And the fact that, by definition, a kid who is suffering from measles is certainly NOT healthy at that point. ) A bit like having a minor rash with a cold, almost. This point of view is expressed in one of the comments on the Times piece:

Could someone on this thread please explain why measles is now considered such a threat. This is a genuine enquiry because when I was a child catching measles was considered simply as part of growing up, no big deal and, indeed, something which would actually harden immunity.

How impressive that one respondent, who can actually remember a time when measles was widespread, isn’t wearing the Daily Mail-issue rose-tinted rear-vision goggles:

Measles are just a few spots and the children get a rash, that was statement I heard a young mum say . Having nursed most types of fevers in the forties please get through to young mums Measles is dangerous, often fatal.

If you aren’t convinced by an old nurse, what about the Measles Initiative (made up of the World Health Organisation, UNICEF, American Red Cross and others)? According to their website:

Measles is one of the leading killers of children worldwide. An estimated 540 children die each day from the disease…
Since 2001, the Measles Initiative has saved lives by supporting the vaccination of more than 600 million children in more than 60 countries.
Between 2000 and 2007, measles deaths fell by 74% globally and by 89% in Africa alone.

The broadcaster and her chosen non-cattle (basically, that’s how she described parents who opposed the vaccination) seemed to think that they could get expert knowledge on vaccines by searching the internet. Seriously. (Well, the internet isn’t allowed to lie, after all.) So, I’d suggest that they might try googling the deaths and cases of brain damage caused by measles and maybe evaluating some of the “evidence”

In case the anti-vaccine parents think that their relatively-privileged lives mean their children are somehow charmed, Aaronovitch pointed out:

…over the past decade we have managed the interesting – and almost unprecedented – trick of reintroducing into this country a disease that had more or less disappeared. A few children will have died as a result and some others will suffer serious long-term health problems. These figures correlate to the drop in parents giving their children the MMR vaccination.

Fishoil Scam hits news eventually

Well, you almost heard it here first. In an unusual turn of events, the always educational Ben Goldacre has managed to scoop the BBC with the ridicule of the fish oil “trial” in Durham.

On the BBC news website, there is an article titled “Fish oil brain study laughable” (yeah, great headline…) that sort of breaks the story. Interestingly, in typical BBC fashion, they are very reluctant to actually say anything really negative. As a result we get things like:

Durham County Council said children who took the Omega-3 supplements during the school year performed better in exams.
It claimed out of 3,000 students who took part, almost a third showed significant improvements in GCSEs.
Dr Ben Goldacre said it was bad science because there was no separate study of pupils not taking fish oil. The council admits the trial was not definitive.

Now that is so wet as to be almost pointless. It barely qualifies for news when you see the real idiocy that has taken place in the Durham County Council offices.

Keen to show both sides of an argument, the BBC further waters down its news with:

However Dr Goldacre added that just because the study was poorly conducted, that did not mean there was no benefit to taking fish oil supplements.
“I do think it’s possible that fish oils might be helpful to improve school performance in children.”

What? Seriously? I would love to find the citation for that but in my short search now, I have failed. If you find it please let me know.

As the BBC seems so reluctant, I will give you some of Ben Goldacre’s quotes:

Dave Ford [promoter] said he knew the results would be positive before it even began. I’m not surprised: this “trial” was flawed by design from the outset.

Obviously the BBC dont want to know about this bit of bad PR for Durham. How about this even more relevant one:

This is appalling. 2,168 of their subjects dropped out [leaving 832] of the trial. They must count these people in the results. It is incompetent not to do so. This makes the rest of their claimed results even more meaningless.

Of the remaining 832, 80% are claimed to have done better than some unknown benchmark and this is heralded as a success…  Why on earth did the BBC decide to ignore that blinder?

Worse still, the BBC tries to explain the study off as if it was legitimate after all with this: [emphasis mine]

Dave Ford, from the council’s children and young people’s services department, carried out the initiative with the help of an educational psychologist.
They matched students who showed improved results to those, of similar abilities and backgrounds, who did not take the tablets.
However, the council explained that there was no controlled study of those children who were not given supplements as part of the study, which took place in the school year ending in summer 2007.
Mr Ford said: “This study has produced some interesting and possibly exciting issues that could be the basis for future scientific trials.
“There seem to be some very clear indications that pupils taking the supplement do significantly better.”

Mr Ford added that the council made no claim the results of its GCSE study could be attributed to Omega-3 supplements alone.

By Odin that is infuriating. It is complete nonsense. The BBC are not doing a service by showing both sides of an argument (sound familiar?). They are not providing the UK public with news by minimising Ben Goldacre’s quotes and emphasisng the woo.

This is a hideous combination of poor journalism and very bad science.

BBC – Shame on you.

Fish-oil on trial

Ben Goldacre’s excellent badscience site has an update on the absurd “trial” (now rechristened an “initiative”) of the effects of fish-oil supplements in Durham schools. His piece starts:

I think it’s clear now that Madeleine Portwood and Dave Ford, the leading figures behind the Durham fish oil “trial”, will be providing us with comedy and teaching opportunities for many years to come.

There was no astonishing increase in the GCSE results of those kids who took the fish-oil capsules then? Blimey, what a shock.

Where can we get these placebos?

Ben Goldacre (BadScience columnist from the Guardian) presented a programme about nutrition fads, on BBC Radio 4 today. It’s the first of a two-part series, The Rise of the Lifestyle Nutritionists. You can hear a podcast on the Radio 4 site. (Pick Monday’s choice.) It’s quite entertaining. In this part, Goldacre talks about the history of some classic quackery.

In contrast, today’s Guardian prints a piece by Madeleine Bunting in favour of unscientific medicine. Referring to several anti-alternative medicine books, as well as Dawkins’ 2007 TV series The Enemies of Reason. Bunting says:

It seems the aim of some of these authors is to finish off a burgeoning health industry that they believe is based on charlatans and quacks preying on the gullible and desperate.

This is one of the most common charges made against complementary medicine – that most of it is no better than placebo. But there is a way of turning that accusation around: perhaps complementary medicine is an effective way to harness placebo as one of the most powerful – and cheapest – of healing processes.

Mind and body can’t be conceptually separated. We know relatively little about how they interact. There’s plenty of room for research into how we can use the mind to fight illness. But I still can’t see how this can justifies encouraging the sick to believe in lies.

Why bother with scientific medicine at all, if you can just carry out a ritual or hand out a sugar pill?

Reason number 1 comes down to a similar point to that expressed in the question “Why won’t god heal amputees?” Can you cure cholera by reflexology? That is, alternative medicine “works” where symptoms are ill-defined and at least partly emotional in nature. Or as Bunting says, putting a positive spin on it:

Complementary medicine is most popular where conventional medicine fails, such as with musculoskeletal conditions and mental health – stress, depression, anxiety

Well, if some people’s mental conditions can be cured by ritual, surely these are revealed to be states of mind rather than organic disease. I bet the rituals don’t work so well with brain damage, dementia or full blown psychosis. So isn’t that like saying, lies aren’t powerful enough to cure real diseases.

Reason number 2. There are plenty of things that can make you feel happier/more relaxed/more cared for. These can be your own ritual practices or substances. (In the Asterisk books, the Brits’ magic potion is a cup of tea.)

You don’t necessarily have to pay for them. You do have to pay for alternative medicine.

In its raw form, a placebo may indeed be one of the cheapest healing process (as Bunting says). However, once you pay for the time of the “understanding” practitioner who prescribes you a 30 ml bottle of water, you enter into a commercial transaction that compares very badly with the cost of visiting a doctor, if you live anywhere with a public health service.

Reason 3: Alternative therapies are “alternative” because they haven’t been proved to work. End of story. Yes, medical research is pretty flawed in many ways. But, the very fact that new drugs are immensely profitable for drug companies and expensive for healthcare funders indicates why promising new treatments are unlikely to be ignored. If an alternative medicine or treatment worked, there would be an unseemly scramble to patent it or to use it to replace expensive drugs.

There must be hundreds of traditional medicines and bizarre treatments that would be effective against various illnesses. The only way to find this out is to test them. Why would the discoverer or inventor of an unusual cure not want to test it? Fear it doesn’t work. Fear of loss of profit.

Reason 4: Alternative medicine is generally the exact reverse of “empowering” despite the claims of its supporters. When you give up your power to evaluate solutions to your physical and mental illnesses, you must take the practitioner’s rituals as authoritative, with no basis for doing so except their claims.

Most of us would feel ripped off if we went to buy a toaster, paid for a toaster and were told – in a caring way – that we had got a toaster, when all we took home was an empty box. So, why is it OK to sell people treatments that don’t work? Indeed, not just morally acceptable but apparently desirable, according to Bunting?

To boldly go

This brain is going to get called on to do some heavy duty work over the Bank Holiday weekend, so I thought I’d see if I could boost its capacity through science.

You can get brainwave generators online. A “brainwave generator” doesn’t claim to give you inspired ideas. Not that sort of brainwave, fool. It’s supposed to let you set your brainwaves to specific frequencies.

I downloaded a file from Noramaa Solutions and installed it. I’ve listened to some presets and so far I’d have to say it just seems to be a collection of mildly irritating sounds.

Then again, I can’t claim to have entered into the spirit of the thing yet. (I sort of fell at the first hurdle – finding where I’ve put my proper headphones. I don’t believe that frayed-cable mp3 headphones will do the trick -given that they make even music sound so bad that I’ve had to go back to reading to make the journey to work bearable.) So far, I’ve only listened through speakers.

So the jury’s still out on its effectiveness, but that is due to sloppy experimental technique, rather than to an inherent flaw in the (free) product. Will try again later, more systematically. With headphones.

The BBC h2g2 site waxes moderately lyrical about Brain States and How to Induce Them but it comes with a health warning, after listing a range of conditions that brain wave alteration is supposed to help with

.. it is this Researcher’s suggestion that you try to avoid those that try to tie in new-age things like ‘magic crystals’ and channelling because unlike those things, brainwave alteration does work, even if it is a bit ‘out there’.
Another, although a more untested3, function of brainwave patterns is mental programming, or brainwashing: this is thought to be possible since inducing states of hypnosis and accelerated learning have been proven possible.

In an old Bad Science post titled, Bring me a God helmet and bring it now Ben Goldacre got pretty enthused about the idea of making a God Helmet – a device that is supposed to generate “spiritual” experiences through magnetic coils around the skull, without the need to believe tosh. Goldacre acknowledged that the device developed by Dr Michael Persinger was a serious scientific project. He said:

You can order a commercial product online for just $220 (£119): it is basically eight magnetic coils that fit over the relevant parts of your skull; the signal is generated by your computer’s soundcard, and then played through these magnetic elements, instead of through the magnetic coils of your speakers.

More excitingly, you can go to the open source development forum Sourceforge and check out “Open-rTMS”, where designs for the necessary hardware and software are being developed collaboratively and openly, and by the same people who brought you “OpenEEG”, a surprisingly effective EEG system that you can also make at home

My electronics wizard skills wouldn’t get me into the first grade at an electronic Hogwarts, so my chances of making one are admittedly zero. But, the idea really appeals. Why should the religiously deluded get all the peak experiences?

This post was partly sparked by the news item about the PC-induced out of body experience which was the source of a blog post here two days ago. EvolutionaryMiddleman commented to say there’s a video of it on Livescience.com.

Good science

Today’s excellent Bad Science discusses some reasons for why drug trials remain completely in the hands of Big Pharma. Ben Goldacre mentions the Cochrane Collaboration as an alternative.

If we ever had a scientist in charge of health, instead of tinkering with payments to big pharma, they would do one simple thing: move hell and high water to collect and collate the best and cheapest evidence on healthcare. First you would give huge amounts of money to the Cochrane Collaboration, which collects and collates data independently on all healthcare interventions (and is quietly one of the most subversive organisations ever to be created, because it blows the lid on false commercial claims

Wow. This is an amazing resource. They provide free “Plain Language” abstracts and summaries of the research. I tried a few. Go to the reviews page and choose a topic from the drop down list.

I was a bit constrained by having to pick things that I could understand the arguments about. Depression, anxiety and neurosis seemed a fair start, so I chose that. Nice comprehensible summary.

Active placebos versus antidepressants for depression
Tricyclic antidepressants are only slightly better than active placebos.
This review examined trials which compared antidepressants with ‘active’ placebos, that is placebos containing active substances which mimic side effects of antidepressants. Small differences were found in favour of antidepressants in terms of improvements in mood. This suggests that the effects of antidepressants may generally be overestimated and their placebo effects may be underestimated.

Drugs and alcohol?

Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programmes for alcohol dependence
…The available experimental studies did not demonstrate the effectiveness of AA or other 12-step approaches in reducing alcohol use and achieving abstinence compared with other treatments, but there were some limitations with these studies.

Alternative AIDs treatments?

Herbal medicines for treating HIV infection and AIDS?
There is no compelling evidence to support the use of the herbal medicines identified in this review for treatment of HIV infection and AIDS.

(Although another link says exercise can be beneficial)

What an amazing resource. A busy healthcare worker can access the results of research from around the world in a few mouse clicks. A nosy member of the public, e.g. me, can find a better source of medical information than the daily scare stories/new miracle cures stories. It’s one of those things that makes you realise what the Internet can achieve.