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.

Bible Hijacks Brains of Respected Scientists

Oh bugger. How easy it is to become the enemy….

This post on the Scientific Activist: Animal Rights Activists Hijack the Brains of Three Respected Scientists, the subject of which is a paper in Bioessays that suggests that cell cultures and computer modelling should replace more animal experiments.

It’s fair to say that this Scientific Activist blog post isn’t exactly supportive of the view point but it’s a reasonably argued post. It ends with this point.

As scientists, we should constantly be thinking about ways to reduce our dependence on animal research, and this paper does attempt to advance this cause. However, this should not be done at the expense of the science (and at the expense of human lives), and grossly oversimplifying the issue, as this paper seems to, does a service to no one.

Not so Pharyngula’s take on it.

Once we’ve defeated the creationists (hah!), we’re going to have to manage the next problem: well-meaning but ill-informed animal rights activists. Nick describes a recent article that tries to claim we can reduce animal use in labs — and it even has a couple of respectable scientists signing on to that nonsense.

Hmm. Well it rather looks, from the bit I quoted above, as if Nick (assuming that refers to Scientific Activist) did accept that reducing animal use was a goal to aim for, rather than “nonsense”, but Toutatis forbid that Pharyngula blogged on something without reading the whole article. (I mean WhyDontYou blog would never dream of doing anything like that. Well, not very often… )

I’m not a biologist. In fact, my schoolgirl aversion to biology was based precisely on the fact that it involved cutting up dead creatures. So, I don’t know how far slicing up animal’s bodies – or genetically manipulating them so they exist only to exhibit diseases similar to the ones humans have and so on – are necessary for the furtherance of knowledge.

But, it better had be bloody necessary before it’s OK with me.

If that makes me an enemy of reason, that’s tough. “Respected scientists” must have had their “brains hijacked” because they suggest other more animal-sparing alternatives? Those of us who think they have a point are the enemies of science, almost as if we are the wimpier wing of the creationists?

Surely biology shows us that we are animals? Mammals? That we share most of our genes with other sentient beings? But we can just ignore this whenever it suits us and act as if we have a right to do whatever we like with other species.

This form of “atheism” is basically indistinguishable from the Judeao-Christian world view that everything else in the universe is just our plaything, just without the Jahweh figure directing the show. Yada Yada… He gave man “dominion over all the beasts of the field” and so on, to do whatever we damn well please with?

How come that bit of the Bible is still gospel to a lot of atheist scientists?

Today’s sermon

Scientists have bred mice to be schizophrenic, according to the BBC. What? Well, “mimic schizophrenia?” What? In mice?

There seems to be an ingrained monotheistic-religion-originated view that man is master of the universe and everything else is here just for us to pull its wings off. This isn’t a particulalrly heinous example but it ‘s set me off….

US scientists have genetically modified mice to exhibit both the anatomical and behavioural defects associated with the complex condition schizophrenia.
Previous studies that rely on drugs can only mimic the symptoms of the disease, such as delusions and paranoia.

Well, straight off, I am impressed that the anatomical basis of human schizophrenia seems to have been clearly identified and even located in genetics. Or is that not the implication? This seems to be

a key gene – dubbed DISC 1 – which makes a protein that helps nerve cells assume their proper positions in the brain.

So messing about with this protein in mice, by genetic engineering, makes them also “schizophrenic”?

In what meaningful sense can a mouse be said to be “schizophrenic”? I am completely baffled. Isn’t schizophrenia characterised by a whole collection of feelings and behaviours that are most definitely human? So how did these manifest themselves in the mad mice?

As these mice matured, they became more agitated when placed in an open field, had trouble finding hidden food, and did not swim as long as regular mice – behaviours that echo the hyperactivity, smell defects and apathy observed in schizophrenia patients.
Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) also revealed characteristic defects in brain structure, including enlarged lateral ventricles, a region that circulates the spinal fluid and helps protect against physical trauma

OK, on the Frankenstein Scale (TM me) of mad science, this scores relatively low (say, a mere 2 out of 10.) This might prove that the observed brain damage relates to the actions of that specific gene.

But on the WTF scale (TM me) this scores pretty creditably (say, 8 out of 10)

In what way can the mouse behaviour be seen as “schizophrenic?”
Anxiety? I can’t even hazard a meaningful guess about how you determine this in mice ( “So do you feel agrophobic about being in an open field, Jerry?”)
Swam for a shorter time? Well, that’s me buggered then, if anyone tries to extrapolate back from the mouse “schizophrenia” to humans. Because I can barely swim at all. My best attempts lead to me going backwards at a rate of knots for a few minutes. Then giving up. In fact, giving up several hours before any of the people I’ve ever accidentally been “swimming” with who swim at national club level. (One of whom was once diagnosed as schizophrenic ….)
Trouble finding hidden food? Hmm, don’t think I’ve looked recently. Make that lost keys and I could probably out-mad the mice again.

These behaviours may indeed be wierd for mice. They can’t apply to humans or, if you try, they don’t correlate with “schizophrenia” at all. So, why breed some unfortunate mice to suffer brain disease, then kill them to check if their brains were damaged?

Is the scientific ethics bar set so high that a stilt-walker could pass through without needing to bend at the knees?

BBC ethics forum

Mildly ironically, in a week in which the BBC stands accused of doing some serious blagging, there is a discussion forum on the BBC website about Ethics and freethought. OK, ethics= a Good Thing; freethought = a Good Thing. But, how will they fare under a combined onslaught from possibly the madder reaches of the commenting community? (The sort of people who populate some of the BBC comments pages)

Picking a few topics at random:

The latest discussion is called BULLMUCK and has some posts on the Hindu holy bull, Shambo, which is about to face being killed as a supposed TB danger. (Welcome to the badgers’ world.) Continue reading

Community Spirit on the wane?

For some reason, possibly temporary insanity, I ended up buying the Sunday Telegraph today (well actually the choice was Telegraph or News of the World…). As I suspected there are numerous examples of intemperate and illogical thought processes, all with the potential of providing this blog with millions of posts.

One of the things which has caught my eye early on is a page titled “The rise of can’t-be-bothered Britain” (available online). Basically, this is a piece on how since the fifties, community groups (Women’s Institute and the like) are losing out on membership. The thrust of the article seems to be trying to imply this is actually because people can not be bothered rather than anything else. Sadly, the article is riddled with poor historical analysis and some blinding leaps of illogic. Early on it sets the scene:

Seven out of 10 people questioned had no ties to groups or associations in their neighbourhoods. Among 18- to 24-year-olds, the figure rose to eight out of 10. Lack of time, or a dearth of groups relevant to their needs, were given as the main reasons.

The findings reflect the decline of bodies such as churches, the Women’s Institute and the Scouts, and appear to show the rise of a generation that cannot be bothered.

The data seems reasonable enough, so I am not going to debate that. I do have to question the assumption that this means people “cannot be bothered” though. From what I have read in the article there is little to actually support that conclusion – other than an innate journalistic bias. Further on, it continues with this mixed bag:

Membership of the Scout Association has fallen by a third since the early 1990s, to stand at 450,000 last year, while a shortage of Girl Guides leaders has been blamed on the growing number of women who work.

Women’s Institute membership, now 215,000, has halved since the 1970s, and the Labour and Tory parties have fewer than 500,000 members between them, a tenth of the level in the Fifties. According to Christian Research, less than 7 per cent of the population now attend church regularly.

Now, the less than 7% is good 🙂 , but I admit the drop off in political activity may be a “bad thingâ„¢.” There is little doubt in my mind that the increasing number of women in work is affecting the Guides when it comes to trying to get leaders but “blame” seems a strange term. Using a term like blame (remember, a journalist wrote this – they are experts in choosing the correct word for their meaning), seems to be saying women should feel guilty for going to work and earning money, rather than giving up their time for free. I find that odd, and I doubt the Guide Association would have meant it in that manner. It gets better though:

Yet research into work patterns suggests that “lack of time” may be a convenient excuse, rather than a genuine reason not to get involved. The average working week lengthened from 35 hours in the Seventies to 39 hours in 1998, but has since shortened to about 37½ hours, Office for National Statistics figures show.

Welcome to the land of bad statistics. Now, I actually do normally work less than 37.5 hours so maybe I skew the data a little, but I suspect if you average it out over the year (to include the periods where I work 12 – 16 hours a day for a fortnight straight), it comes to 37.5hrs. Despite this, pretty much no one else I know (I am aware this is not really valid data, I am trying to make a point) works less than 37.5 hours. Most work more – either voluntary or to gain overtime pay. I suspect the ONS figures are somewhat skewed and don’t count things like overtime, but this is an argument for another day. I am fairly sure the ONS figures only talk about time which is “worked and paid for” – so the hour for lunch does not count.

The interesting point about it is, this is an attempt by the journalist to imply that as people only work an average of 2.5 hours a week more, they still should have loads of spare time.

In the paper edition, the article is accompanied by a picture of loads of women “mucking in” to clean a street for a Coronation street party (1953 IIRC). The picture shows over a dozen women (probably twice as many) scrubbing the stones and decorating. What wonderful times, when communities were real communities eh?

Sadly, if you check ONS data I very much doubt that the average woman in that community was working 35 hours per week. In the days when WI, Guides etc were at their strongest, few if any women worked in jobs outside the home. Now I am not saying housework is not hard graft (it is) but the women of yesteryear had 37.5 hours a week more to do house work and be involved in the community. Today, nearly every family I know has both partners working (more than 37.5 hours but…). This was not the case in the 1970s and certainly was not the case in the 1950s. If we look at a family with no kids: In the fifties, the husband would have worked about 50 hours a week, leaving (assuming 8hours sleep) 174 hours for the family to get involved in things. Travel to and from work was almost zero as most people lived within a few minutes walk of the work place.

Today, that family will include two people working 37.5 hours a week (remember, 5 hours a week will be unpaid lunchbreaks, so they are actually “in work” for 42.5 hours a week – often people will be in work longer as morning and afternoon breaks are not counted). Now again assuming 8 hours a person a day sleep, this means there is actually only 139 hours a week free. As the average commute today is 45 minutes each way, this takes another 15 hours a week off people. Before we look at any lifestyle changes or issues, a couple today has about 124 hours a week “free time.” This is 50 hours a week less than the halcyon days of yore, or more than a full working week. This doesn’t include things like collecting children from childminders, going to the gym (less manual work means more time spent in the gym!) and so on.

Strikes me as people do have less spare time than they used to. I think this is highlighted by the further commentary:

Working-class people and those living in the north of England were most likely to admit no involvement in any community group. In London and the south, rates were lifted by the popularity of residents’ associations and book groups.

Yeah, people who work for a living (and depend on things like overtime) have less spare time than the idle rich in London. Who would have thought it? (And I am also aware that in London some people work zillions of hours a week, it was a joke).

Looking at the picture in the paper, I cant help but feel the lack of “community” is much more complicated than saying people today can’t be bothered (even in the over 60’s membership is minimal, and they will have grown up with this sort of thing, and certainly have the spare time…). In the 50s people lived in council housing, the state cared for them and, as a result, they cared for the state. Today there is more and more pressure for the state to cut people free (especially from the Telegraph), yet there is amazement that people don’t still care about the state in the same manner.

Now that is what I find strange.