All about a new collaboration in skepticism. It's very mysterious, and I think you will like it.
Hello and welcome to this new shiny home for my ramblings. It's much prettier, right?
I really wanted something that looks a bit less like it has been cobbled together by an idiot in a few hours, even if that is, ultimately, what it is. Because I listen to a lot of podcasts, and pretty much every one in existence is sponsored by Squarespace, I started to feel like they were sponsoring my brain. It seemed natural (or simply the inevitable effect of subliminal marketing) to give them a try, and it turns out that I really like it as a platform. It meant I even finally got round to sorting out a proper domain name and everything. Hurrah!
I'm still getting to grips with it so far, so its likely that there will be a few bits and pieces that don't work or problems that need ironing out. Do bear with me, and do let me know if you come across anything that isn't working yet. If you nip over to the About This Blog bit in the menu in the top corner, you can find a contact form or more details about how to give me a shout.
In other news, I was really pleasantly surprised to find out a while ago that I had been shortlisted for a Ockham award. Although I didn't win, I've found it a real honour to be recognised in this way, amongst really important skeptical activism campaigns like Stop The Saatchi Bill. The shortlist is determined by nominations, so its really wonderful to know that many of you thought my little blog worthy. I'm truly lucky that so many people like what I do. The evening of the awards ceremony was good fun too- it was held at the QED conference, and it just felt great to hear the title of my blog read out, the rowdy whooping it got in response, and to see excerpts of it being shown on the big screens.
So I just wanted to say a big ole' thank you to all of my readers. I know I'm not the most consistent of posters, thanks to the mundane realities of daily life, but hopefully having a lovely new slick website might spur me on to post more regularly. Remember to change your bookmarks and all of that other stuff.
Vicks Vaporub. It's a staple of our medicine cabinet, and we all reach for it at the first sign of sniffles. You may have seen (usually on a poorly made image posted on Facebook) or heard (from a friend who heard from their friend who heard from their aunt's sister's niece's dogsitter) that actually we've all be using it all wrong.
It's logical to use Vaporub on your chest, pillow, in a steam inhalation. It makes sense, because the vapours will end up in or around your nostrils, which is where it acts. But no- according to this particular internet fraud, it is only by smearing our tootsies with it that we will get the full benefit.
I'm going to pick apart the standard Facebook post, piece by piece, so you can see my thought processes and logical reasons why I don't believe a word. Even if you do think this works, stick with me and see whether or not you agree with any of my individual points, or if you can come up with a more robust argument for using it on your feet.
"Some of us have used Vicks Vaporub for years for everything from chapped lips to sore toes and many body parts in between."
Wait, What? Who uses Vicks Vaporub for chapped lips? I've never heard of anyone do this, ever. Firstly, it would sting lots, and secondly it could be highly toxic, given its essential oil content, and aspiration risk when swallowed due to petroleum. I wouldn't put the stuff anywhere near my mouth.
But I’ve never heard of this. And don’t laugh, it works 100% of the time
100% of the time? Nothing in medicine works 100% of the time, so alarm bells are ringing loudly, unless this is the single most important medical discovery that's ever happened. If a medicine had been truly found to be 100% effective for anything, it would have been ground-breaking, world-changing news- probably not something that's just shared by your cousin on FB.
In the interests of research, I actually tried this when I had a troublesome post-infective cough. Needless to say, it did nothing to the frequency of my cough, so we've already disproved that number straight away. Whether or not it works, it most certainly does not work 100% of the time, and if that number isn't true, then why on earth should we believe anything else in this post?
...although the scientists who discovered it aren’t sure why.
What scientists? What were their names? Where were they working? Where did they receive their funding from? Why aren't their details given? If they aren't sure, do they have any working theories?
The lack of detail here is really telling. It really suggests that this is a whole load of hokum, especially given that a search (see below) shows no formal records of any "scientists" or research.
To stop night time coughing in a child (or adult as we found out personally), put Vicks Vaporub generously on the bottom of the feet at bedtime, then cover with socks.
Ahh, feet. Feet really are a favourite for peddlers of quackery. I'm not sure why, but from reflexology to detox foot patches, the alt med world seems to be obsessed with them. Any time feet are suggested as therapy for anything going on elsewhere in the body, loud alarm bells start going off.
The ironic thing is that feet are probably the worst place to apply any medicine. The skin on your feet is miles thicker that elsewhere. Absorption through the skin tends to be low and erratic at the best of times, but if you apply something onto your feet, the chances of absorbing anything useful from it are very low indeed.
Additionally, your feet, when lying down, are very far away from your airways. The post requests that you put socks on over it. Therefore there is certainly no way that vapour could get to your airways in any clinically relevant amounts.
Even persistent, heavy, deep coughing will stop in about 5 minutes and stay stopped for many, many hours of relief.
Coughing fits are just that- fits. They're acute- you cough a lot for a little while, then stop, then it all starts again. A more chronic cough will still follow this pattern or stopping and starting. So yes, persistent, heavy deep coughing will usually stop- albeit temporarily- in probably much less than 5 minutes. If you're coughing for longer than that, it's likely you're going to be having severe problems breathing, and you'll need urgent medical care- you wouldn't really be thinking about smearing goo on your feet. You may find that you put Vicks on your feet and your coughing stops shortly after, but the likelihood is that the coughing would have stopped even if you hadn't. This is called regression to the mean, and its one reason why we can't rely on anecdotes for deciding whether a medicine works. We need to scale up and look at robust clinical trials instead.
Works 100% of the time and is more effective in children than even very strong prescription cough medicines.
That 100% claim raises its improbable head again. To claim that something is more effective than other medicines would suggest the existence of comparative trials, which-spoiler alert- don't actually exist. This is rather a strawman anyway, as there are very few prescription cough medicines on the whole. Even conventional cough medicines don't really work to any great degree, and are based on very shakey evidence. It would be a very, very rare occasion indeed that a doctor would prescribe a cough medicine on prescription for a child.
In addition it is extremely soothing and comforting and they will sleep soundly.
I can see how that tingly, cold sort of feeling you get from menthol could be pleasant, though I don't think I'd go as far as to call it soothing. To be honest, you'd have to have perfectly soft skin on your feet to feel anything at all- when I tried it I didn't even feel a tiny tingle, especially since it was covered over with socks.
Just happened to tune in A.M. Radio and picked up this guy talking about why cough medicines in kids often do more harm than good, due to the chemical makeup of these strong drugs so, I listened.
What guy, and on which radio station? What qualifications does this guy have for making medical recommendations? Who is even meant to be narrating this post? The only medicines now available for coughs in children in the UK are glycerol and simple linctus paediatric. Both of these essentially work on the basis of being sugary, slightly gloopy water. There's no "strong drugs" here, just some soothing "demulcents" that taste nice and are supposed to leave a soothing lining on the throat, making a cough feel less raw. They're mainly placebos.
It was a surprise finding and found to be more effective than prescribed medicines for children at bedtime, in addition to have a soothing and calming effect on sick children who then went on to sleep soundly.
Where is this finding published? What sort of a study was it and how was it designed? How many participants were there? Was there a control group, or a comparator group and if so, what was the comparator? As it happens, all of this is irrelevant really, as no studies exist. These statements come from the head of an internet fraudster, rather than actually being grounded in reality.
My wife tried it on herself when she had a very deep constant and persistent cough a few weeks ago and it worked 100%! She said that it felt like a warm blanket had enveloped her, coughing stopped in a few minutes and believe me, this was a deep, (incredibly annoying!) every few seconds uncontrollable cough, and she slept cough-free for hours every night that she used it.
We don't even know who is narrating this thing in the first place, let alone their wife. As I've explained above, this is an anecdote, and we can't derive anything from it. A person, who may or may not be mythical, had a cough, and it went away after they did a thing. It might have gone away anyway, we just can't tell.
A warm blanket? far from it. It actually just feels like you have some oily gunk on your feet. At best it might feel a little cold, but for most of us, it'll feel no different at all thanks to our thick skin.
If you have grandchildren, pass this on. If you end up sick, try it yourself and you will be absolutely amazed at how it works!
Well that's just bizarre. Presumably you don't need to bother if you're simply a parent, only if you're a grandparent? What a load of nonsense. I wasn't left amazed, I was just left feeling a little silly. And I had minty-smelling feet.
So of course I have done a search for the evidence and claims included in the post and have found a grand total of Nothing At All. I will say this though: If I was the manufacturer of Vicks, and someone had done some studies which found my product to be 100% effective, I would sing it loudly from every rooftop I could find. I would be the manufacturer of The Number One Most Effective Medical Product In The World Ever, and I would make sure that I made my millions on the back of that fact, as well as collecting my Nobel prize for Medicine and probably world peace as well. What I probably wouldn't do is ignore the claims, and continue on selling my product and advising that its used in a way which has a less than 100% chance of it working.
Direct harms from following this advice could include dermatitis and skin reactions. Indirect harms? Well, you've slathered some slippery, oily unguent onto the bottom of your feet. When you take your socks off, you may be slip-sliding all over the place.
The moral of the story is: Very rarely should you believe anything posted on Facebook. Unless its me, posting a link to my blog, of course ;)
If this skepticism lark has taught me anything, its that disagreeing is a beautiful thing. Disagreeing with someone is a hard thing to do, in any context. Yet as humans, health care professionals, and as skeptics, its one of our keenest tools. Its only by being able to step into disagreement that we can understand our topic, our audience, and hopefully steer hearts and minds away from those willing to mislead.
I recently attended a panel about daring to disagree, which mainly focused on religious debates over Twitter and the like. I'm guilty of wiling away hours of my life arguing with homeopaths over twitter, and I'm often asked why, as I'm never going to change their minds. The short, and most noble answer is that someone undecided might spectate, and I might be able to make some impact into how they think about the subject. The more self-serving version is that its good practice to hone my skills in identifying fallacies and flaws, finding workarounds and ways of wording things, and to understand an argument in advance of the next time. In these types of arguments, the people who you are speaking to are removed from yourself, perhaps not anonymous as such but they tend to be used to arguing. Their position is usually on the defensive in the first place because their chosen subject has usually been the butt of skeptical inquiry for years.
But what of those closer to home? Sticking out heads up above the parapet in other situations is one of the hardest things in life to do. Most of us instinctively see disagreement as a threat and a personal attack, and we react accordingly. Even now, despite all I've learnt about constructing arguments and debates, with all of this practice, I certainly still get physical reactions when someone disagrees with me. My heart will pound, my mouth with become dry, and I'll want to curl up in fear because my body and brain immediately leap to the conclusion that no one likes me, that I'm so insignificant that I must automatically be wrong. I'm thankful to skepticism in that I'm able to take a deep breath and overcome those initial few moments, then can try to reassess my position. Am I actually right, but there are some good points to take away from the other stance? Or actually, is my reasoning flawed? In which case, why? Where could I have found more information, what is the other person bringing to it? Whichever way it goes, I, and the other person, end up learning more. Ultimately, we're not here to be right or wrong- we're hear to learn more, and that's the important bit.
Problems arise though because often our instincts take hold. I can't describe the number of times its all gone tits up. I can spend ages agonising over whether or not to disagree. Once I've decided to do so, I write and rewrite my argument so that it is as objective as possible, structured clearly, evidence based etc., only to have the response be “Eurgh why are you being so mean?! I thought we were friends!” or similar. I've tried all sorts of ways to word things, and I haven't quite come up with an answer on how best to avoid this response. Its not just Facebook etc. where this is a problem- we all hear in the news about irrevocable breakdowns in the doctor-patient relationship (Ashya King, as an example). We've all encountered the patient at the pharmacy counter who believes a random person waiting in the queue over our own expert advice. No one learns anything from these sort of exchanges, and that's a real missed opportunity.
So the question is, how do we go about promoting disagreement as a positive thing that we all need in our lives? How do we turn the tables on the thousands of years of evolution that make us shut down arguments as soon as they begin? Well I think the answer has to initially come from example. I believe the skeptical movement is extremely well placed to start this tidal change in thought, but we all have to practise the heck out of it every single day if we're ever going to get anywhere. We have to start being known synonymously as folk who are really, really good at disagreeing respectfully, and that has to start from within. Its clear that the skeptical community in the UK and beyond occasionally falls short in this regard, and that's a real shame as it appears to be driving good people away.
We need to recognise that we might agree with someone on one thing, but not the other. We can't see a person as synonymous with one of their opinions, and put people in good or bad boxes based on that. We shouldn't be labelling people as anti-this, or anti-that, and then refusing to engage further. We should be experts at digging deeper than that, looking behind the headlines to search for shared humanity underneath. We need to lead the way in disagreeing without bullying, and we should never, ever let up on that. We put ourselves in a position that could so easily be mashed up together with bullying by the general population when we dare to disagree, and we need to be relentlessly exemplary in our behaviour to prove that we aren't. We need to be the type of people who, even if faced with a mutant hybrid of Nigel Farage and Piers Morgan, would manage to keep their cool and be polite.
But then again, feel free to disagree ;)
Cefaly. No, it's not a village in Wales, nor is it a type of cheese (actually, it might be for all I know, but nevermind.) It is instead a new all singing, all dancing miracle cure for migraines, according to its manufacturers anyway. So, in our usual fashion, let's take a look at the evidence and see what on earth it is, and whether it is worth spending money on.
It's a medical headband device that you wear on your noggin, around your forehead. This means that you can easily pretend to be the Empress from the Never Ending Story. The downside is that you'll have to pay somewhere in the region of £250 to do so, plus electrodes and batteries. So, for that amount of money, you want to know that what you're getting is going to provide you with a bit more than simply cosplaying as a child-like film character.
It is essentially a TENS machine, which applies an electric current to the middle of the forehead via self adhesive electrodes. Anyone who has ever used one of those godawful Slendertone thingies on their stomach is probably right now recoiling in horror at the idea of having to endure such torture right between their eyes- I know I am. But first I suppose we need to see if it works- after all, migraines are horrible things which can massively impact on the quality of life of sufferers. Those who are desperate may be quite happy to have their foreheads electrocuted.
Its been approved by the FDA, which is nice. What isn't quite so nice is the fact that this approval is based on one trial- the one and only trial in existence, despite what the manufacturers would have you believe.
This trial included 67 patients who suffered at least 2 migraine attacks per month. Although small, this trial is well designed, with an identical sham stimulator being used as a comparison to the test product. After three months of daily 20 minute usage, the mean number of migraine days in users of Cefaly was significantly reduced (6.94vs 4.88, p=0.023), but were not significantly changed in the sham group. But here's the thing: the difference between groups was not significant (p=0.054).
There was significantly higher percentage of responders (defined as ≥ 50% reduction in no of migraine days per month) in the Cefaly group compared to the sham group (38.24% vs 12.12%, p=0.023).
There was no significant difference in severity of migraine.
Although some of the results in this trial are encouraging, it is limited by its very small size. It is worth noting that the authors and manufacturers claim that this trial proves that the product is effective at preventing migraine, despite the lack of a significant between-group difference in the primary outcome of migraine days.
Other papers have been published in the literature regarding this product, and the manufacturers try their best on their website to make them look like they are real trials. However, these range from letters, conference abstracts, experiments in healthy adults, and case studies- not robust clinical trials.
An uncontrolled survey of 2313 Cefaly rental users found that roughly just over half of patients were satisfied with the treatment and would be willing to buy the device. The rest of the patients stopped therapy- that's a pretty high number of people. There are a number of methodological and confounding problems with this study, so the conclusions drawn from it should be considered unreliable.
Being a rental user is one thing- at least they were able to try it out before taking the plunge and handing over a rather large wad of cash. In the UK, though, it seems that the rental option isn't readily available. £250 is an awful lot of money to spend on a product, especially when, for roughly half of its purchasers, its going to be used a couple of times then lie in a cupboard, forlorn and forgotten about.
Let's have a think about compliance. To get the best results, you are supposed to use it for 20 minutes per day. Now, initially that might not sound like too big a deal, but if you work, have a social life, go to the gym, or spend every waking minute building a house in Minecraft, finding 20 minutes a day for something that could be, in most cases, painful, is probably pretty unappealing, and impractical. I can't see too many people who will be able to religiously use this product exactly as intended in the long term. I'm guessing that in most cases its going to go the way of that bit of exercise equipment that you bought 5 years ago and that you've used twice and now only trip over on occasion.
So to summarise: there is a little bit of encouraging data, though it's not as compelling as the manufacturers would like us to think. It's extremely expensive, impractical, and probably pretty unpleasant to use. Its an interesting device, but one that I am placing firmly in the "Yet to be convinced by larger trials" pile.
I wrote last year about how I dislike Facebook “Games” that “Raise cancer awareness” in a vague and most probably pretty useless manner.
There’s another one doing the rounds – that of taking selfies without makeup on the raise awareness of cancer. The specifics of where it arose are shadowy and exceptionally vague. Some people state that it is for breast cancer awareness, some just for cancer.
It actually seems to have arisen from a well-meaning but very misguided campaign by some friends of a girl who recently hit the headlines after dying from cervical cancer – yet not one selfie post which I have seen mentions this particular type of cancer.
This appears completely random. There’s no connection between wearing makeup and “being aware” of breast cancer. The posts do not on the whole give information and advice on how to check your breasts for signs or what symptoms to look out for.
I’ve questioned it on Facebook, as have others. The response has been… defensive. Of course people who are posting selfies and who are supporting them are doing so in good faith, and I have no problem with this. What I do have a problem with is the vagueness of these campaigns, of the fact that adding “for cancer” on the end of any old nonsense seems to be a code for “Do not question this or else everyone will think that you’re a meanie and will get all offended with you.” This leads us down a dangerous path, which in rare cases leads to real, tangible harm. Those cases - though rare - should be enough to make us stop for a moment and question.
I drew a little cartoon to explain this. I’d like to point out that it’s generalised, and simplified, and is no way aimed at well meaning people who take part in potentially questionable campaigns. Its just the process that I go through, and what many other people do, and I would love it if more and more people understood it, and why it is perfectly okay to question any charity campaign.
A healthy dose of skepticism can make any campaign worth its salt even stronger in the end. Being open and honest when questioned only serves to strengthen a cause. Defensiveness doesn't help anyone.
Postscript: This selfie craze ended up making a lot of money for breast cancer charities, which is great. No one has ever denied that making money for charities is wonderful. I'd argue that donations started for this- as well as the ALS ice bucket challenge that followed- not instead of, but because of, healthy skepticism about the purpose of the craze.
"I like it on the living room floor!"
"I like it on the kitchen counter!"
Blah blah blah. These are the sorts of bawdy Facebook statuses that surface every year. They're then followed up with a message along the lines of "hey, let's not tell the MENwhat we're doing, but according to this arbitrary nonsense below, put something attention seeking as your status update to help raise awareness of breast cancer".
There's always the inevitable guilt trip of "most of you wont bother with this, and you're all terrible, terrible, evil people who don't care about people with cancer and you will all go to hell"
These sorts of statuses/ messages have always bothererd me. The whole Carry On Breast Cancer vibe is just uncomfortable, for starters. They are infused with the same sort of superstitious, guilt-ridden nonsense as the old chain letters you used to get back in the late 80s. And people seem to go to great lengths to defend them, and any even remotely negative comments about them are batted straight back with an unthinking "why wouldn't you want to raise awareness of breast cancer? are you some sort of EVIL PERSON?!" I have raised the point on my own Facebook and have also seen some friends take flack for daring to question these games.
There is a great piece of writing about exactly this subject that you can find about this subject here. You'll also find a piece from Skepchick here. However, there are a couple of other points that I want to raise in addition and to compliment the points raised in that piece, and some of the arguments used to defend the game that I have seen used on Facebook. These points are in no particular
How much awareness are these "games" raising?
Given that the messages contain no information on the symptoms or how to check for breast cancer, or any links to good quality information sources, I'm not convinced that it is raising awareness. There have already been huge campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer- people in the main already know that the disease exists. Therefore this campaign needs to add something specific to that: how best to check for signs of breast cancer, practical tips, or signposting to other good quality sources of information. Furthermore, actively excluding an entire gender or other large group of people from your awareness campaign seems like a very odd tactic indeed. The messages include how the "bra game" made it to the press- this appears to be the case, although not in the way the message would like to imply. But have any of the other campaigns that surface regularly made it to the press? I certainly haven't seen so.
Who has started these campaigns, and what charity etc are they raising money for? its not clear, and it would seem that no one knows who or why they originated. So what sort of awareness are they really raising?
Cold, hard cash
These games aren't asking for money to be donated to any particular charity. Yet, when it comes to cancer research, it is cold hard cash that makes the difference. There is a risk that people may feel that by taking part in the game, they have done their bit already in helping to raise awareness, which might discourage any further action. In actual fact, if you want to help, donate some money to a cancer research charity.Is there any evidence that this sort of bid to raise awareness translate into money being donated? No, of course there isn't, so we should all be focusing our efforts elsewhere.
Really people, are we that unimaginative that we require this arbitrary nonsense to put something titilling as a status? Do we so desperately want to feel a part of something that we will lower ourselves to this sort of bawdy crap? Can we really not think up any better innuendos to grab male attention as we appear to be so desperately doing here? These sorts of statuses sit on the same level of annoyance as the ones that are simply an unhappy face so that many people will reply with "what's up hun?" and the original poster will get lots of attention. If you want to be tacky and attention seeking, go right ahead, but do so with a bit of imagination and personality, not according to some formulaic crap involving handbags.
In 2010, breast cancer rates in men were approximately 1 per 100,000. Just imagine how emasculating, shocking, and devastating this diagnosis may be. The fact that bright pink is constantly associated with this disease can't help matters. That awareness campaigns like this one actively exclude men is frankly unforgivable. Campaigns that raise awareness of testicular or prostate cancer are often very inclusive of women (I'm thinking of the Movember campaign in particular, problematic as it may be for other reasons), despite the fact that for obvious reasons the likelihood of women getting these types of cancers is zero.
In addition, as a good friend of mine pointed out, it may be men who notice or feel changes in their partner's breasts before they do. Why would they therefore be excluded from any awareness campaign? It just doesnt make sense.
"Oh but its just a bit of a laugh isn't it?". I've seen this used as a defence for these games. No actually, no its not a bit of a laugh- its breast cancer, for crying out loud. Humour is undoubtedly a powerful tool in coping with such a diagnosis, but this is going to be different for everyone and needs to be treated as such. some people might find this funny whilst others might find it plain offensive. No Facebook chain message is going to be able to deal with the complexities of when and how to use humour in the face of a potentially devastating diagnosis.
So there is some thoughts to be going on with. I may or may not add to them as time goes on. In the meantime, if you'd like to do your bit, you could always donate a few pennies here. Meanwhile, for information on how to check your breasts, try this Breakthrough Breast Cancer page.
"Girls, come over here. You'll be safe from the evil spirit on this side of the vault. A lady came in today and blessed it- you can see how she left healing flowers as part of the ritual."
This sentence would appear at first glance to be the sort of thing that would send me into an apoplectic rage. There is so much woo encapsulated in that one little sentence: ghosts (which don't exist), sexism (the men were left on the un-blessed side), god (who doesn't exist) healing flowers (medicinal woo) and rituals (spiritual nonsense which makes no difference).
However, standing in the pitch black, musty cold of one of Edinburgh's vaults, clinging onto my friend Hesther and a complete stranger for dear life, I found myself repeating in my head 'its alright, I'm safe. A lady has been in and blessed it. Nothing bad is going to happen' over and over again in a desperate and unsuccessful bid to stave off hysteria.
This was just over a year ago. Every year, my friends and I take a trip over the border to take in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In amongst the sight-seeing, drinking, burning of the candle at both ends, and stand-up comedy binging, we always tend to do something ghostie-related. Edinburgh is a very charismatically historical and spooky city. The first year, we went to Mary King's Close, then last year was a vaults tour. Each time, I have shown myself up as a pathetic, borderline hysterical scaredy-cat.
In another vault during last year's tour, we were told how a coven of Wiccan witches had tried to use a particular vault as a meeting room (I suspect meeting room isn't the correct terminology, to be honest, but never mind.). They had moved some stones to form a protective circle in the middle of the vault, but found that terrible things happened when they were inside the circle, including the appearance of a terrifying, animalistic evil demon which trapped them in the vault, stalking the corridor murderously so they couldn't get out. The tour guide very dramatically informed us of how no one had set foot inside the circle in her presence, but how she would leave us alone for a while and we could do so if we wished, before swooping out theatrically. Now, you and I know that this was just a room, and a tourist putting a toe into a circle of inert stones is not going to make a non-existent demon turn up.
However, as one chap went to put his foot within the circle, an inhuman sound emanated from the corner of the vault. It could only be described as a guttural shriek, and went something like:
Something like that, anyway. I can't quire remember the exact words I used. Here I was, an atheist who believes firmly in science, screeching violent threats at a complete stranger all because he had moved his foot vaguely in the direction of the stone circle. I was, to say the least, utterly terrified, and it was only after a good few vodkas in the bar afterwards that I started to calm down.
But this was before I started to get really interested and involved in skepticism. I've since found myself being a whole lot more rational about many aspects of my life, and applying skeptical principles, critical thinking, and rationality has become a lot more second nature to me. This year's tour, which took in some supposedly more active vaults, as well as a graveyard and mausoleum, home of Edinburgh's most active and evil poltergeist, would be a breeze. After all, I would be able to calmly rationalise all aspects of it and see it for what it really is: pure entertainment. Skeptical pharmacist extraordinaire that I am, I would be serenely smirking at all of my friends and the rest of the tour group as they clung onto one another and shrieked.
As it happened, I was marginally less hysterical than last time. I would love to say that this was due to my skepticism, but in actual fact is due to the fact that there was a bigger group of people, the tour guide was more comedic than dramatic, and that I had imbibed some gin beforehand. But I do mean marginally. I was still clinging onto whoever was near me for comfort, (whimpering "don't leave me, please don't leave me"). I used up the last vestiges of my phone's battery for light because I was so terrified of the darkness. In the graveyard, I was telling myself that ghosts were less powerful in the open air, rather than that ghosts do not exist. In the mausoleum, I consoled myself with the fact that the Mackenzie poltergeist would probably like me because I'm an atheist and not a catholic, rather than that it is merely a tall tale made up to appease tourists and that there was a perfectly rational explanation for everything. Barely a rational thought crossed my mind for the whole sodding one and a half hours of the tour.
It would seem then, based on this n=1 social experiment, that one is perfectly able to be paralyzingly frightened of something that you don't believe in, given the right circumstances. In the dark, having to listen to stories of ghostly hands grabbing at ankles, i can confirm that there is a minority part of my brain that not only takes over the rational, skeptical majority, but beats it into a pulpy submission then stamps on it repeatedly.
P.S. Spirits almost definitely did have something to do with the fact that I randomly fell over just before the tour even started.
Immigration is all over the news today. The last few days have seen a very, very uncomfortable atmosphere developing, which has been widely likened to that seen in Nazi Germany. In a bid to curry favour with UKIP voters (for which read either bigots, or just sadly ill-informed people), the Home Office have begun gleefully posting pictures of people of colour being shoved into the back of vans, along with bragging about how many illegal immigrants they have rounded up in that particular day. And then there is that bloody van driving around too.
Now, dear readers, I am going to sort of write something vaguely political. I'm going to do so in my own, incompetent, ranty way, so do forgive me if it ends up having very little to do with anything except for my thought. I've had very little sleep last night, and am grumpy as anything already. There might even be some mild swearing. There will almost definitely be terrible typos. Just stick with me, though, eh?
Can a white, British girl like me get angry about such things? well, in short yes, and there are many, many similar angry people out there. All it really takes is to have a heart, and some empathy for other humans, to realise that what is going on out there is very, very wrong. Okay, so people might be in the country illegally, and they should have done it by the books ideally. But its easy to see that these people are hardly lying on a bed of solid gold rose petals, being fanned by the poor, downtrodden white folk who have lost their proper job because an unspecified European could do it cheaper. They're probably working crappy jobs for little pay and long hours, and probably living in shitty places. They're dealing with constant shit from ignorant white people. And they're here because its a better life than what they left behind.
If you were to switch the TV on at about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, you will probably find a programme on called A Place In The Sun, or similar. In such programmes, white, middle class, British couples tramp around a foreign country looking for a quaint little 6 bedroomed villa with an olympic sized swimming pool and a simply darling, quaint, local little village just down the road where there are all the amenities *they* need to suit *their* needs, and all for a charming price of £5000. "oh, well its a different way of life", they say. "The pace is so relaxed over here. We don't even mind if it takes 20 mins for Betty down at the Dog and Duck to bring us our steak and kidney puddings- there are plenty of other ex-pats for us to talk to in the meantime"
Why is this sort of immigration not such a problem? Why do we as a country not think that actually we are in no place to criticise, when we merrily trample the globe and plonk ourselves down wherever we like, safe in the knowledge that we can merely speak up to overcome the language gap?
Immigrants to the UK might use our free healthcare system. They probably use it because they're sick, and given that they are humans, and I don't like to see anyone feeling under the weather, I'm pretty cool with that. What of our English acquaintances over in Spain? They'll be paying their way, right? They won't be discussing ways to get round recent changes to the country's healthcare systems on Expat forums, oh no of course they wont. You might also be interested in this article in today's The Lancet, which looks at just how much UK Health Tourism there actually is compared to what the papers say. The implications of UK citizens buggering off to Mexico for cheaper plastic surgery, then returning with a nasty infection that needs to be treated by the NHS don't seem to be shouted about in the Daily Mail quite as much as they probably should be.
Well, but they are at least there legally. It's not like British people would be in a country illegally now, would they? And its not like there would be a massive outcry if the Australian government decided to start doing random checks on anyone wearing a bowler hat just in case they happen to be evil British illegals.
I was nearly an immigrant once. I was going to move to Canada. I studied for nearly two years and passed the PEBC Evaluating Exam (7 hours and a 72 page syllabus, including questions on High Performance Liquid Chromatography, if you please). I kept going back there for holidays and interviews and the like. I was welcomed warmly wherever I went, and was able to freely explore the cities without fear. I knew that, had I moved over there, I wouldn't have had to spend my life having to justify my place there, or defend the fact that I had a job which could have gone to a Canadian citizen. We British folk have that privilege and it is the very scraping-of-the-barrel-least that we can do to at least acknowledge it.
As for stopping people of colour on the street to see if they are an illegal immigrant... Its somewhat of a revelation to me that in this day and age anyone can look "a bit foreign". Believe it or not, Home Office, but there have been black people in this country for many, many years. Some of them were even born here. And then some of those have gone on to have children too. I know, right? What a revelation that British people aren't all pale. Some of us don't even wear socks and sandals with our cricket whites. People just look like people, and unless they happen to be walking around with their noses stuck into a copy of The Illegal Immigrant's Guide To Avoiding Detection By The UK Home Office, there's really no way to judge.
Are we really that insular an (Anglo-Saxon) nation that we can't see our own double standards? Are we really that unable to see people as people, and look past their colour, nationality, and creed? Yes, we are wired to want to stick with people who are similar to ourselves. But it really doesn't take that much effort to overcome that and look through minor differences and just take each person on an individual basis. I know I have generalised horribly in the words above, but I am doing so to demonstrate a point- that the double standards in this country are really quite horrific. And yes, there are many facets to the whole thing that I haven't considered here, blah blah blah. In the end, all I am trying to say is that I'm very saddened, ashamed and disheartened by this whole nonsense, and that I'm a firm believer that immigration is a beautiful, enriching thing that should benefit everyone. Its not scary, its not negative, and it means that we are a better, more versatile and robust country because of it.
If you're reading this and thinking 'hmm, well maybe, but there needs to be limits, and UKIP's immigration policies seem to make sense', then this is a plea for you to dig a little deeper into what those policies are, the evidence that they are based on, and who they benefit.
If you're reading this and thinking 'naive lefty silly girl', then get lost. If, however, you're reading it and thinking 'naive lefty silly YOUNG girl' then by all means go right ahead.
I seem to have gotten myself a bit of a reputation as a Vaper-hater. In truth, I'm actually really not.
I even once owned a disposable e-cigar. It was a good few years back now. Although I consider myself a non-smoker, I do smoke the odd cigar, but about one a week and only when the weather is nice (so about 4 days a year then) and only when someone has brought me some back from their holidays probably does not constitute a habit, or would be considered the world's most pathetic addiction. I would never dream of smoking indoors, and somebody thought it would make a nice stocking filler for me one year.
I used it a few times, and it was alright, in the same way that a Pot Noodle is mildly enjoyable in its own right, but bears no resemblance to a steaming hot bowl of freshly cooked spicy Szechuan chicken in udon noodles (no 69. on the menu at Nudo, my favourite restaurant in Newcastle. Its always giggle-worthy ordering it). E-cigarettes are the Smash mashed potato of the smoking world, a Cup-A-Soup to a home-made broth.
I can see how it would be good to have something vaguely resembling a cigarette if you're trying to give up smoking, and I can certainly see how a nicotine delivery method that avoids all the tar, chemicals and other gunk that smoking dumps in your lungs is more healthy.
My reservations are thus:
If they're unregulated, you have no idea what's in them. It might say on the pack that it contains x mg of nicotine and chemicals y and z but there is no guarantee of this. Some have been found to contain toxic chemicals like ethylene glycol, for example. Its undoubtedly likely that they still contain less dangerous chemicals that cigarettes, but it would be very nice to have that guaranteed.
There's no long term safety data. We literally don't know what the long term effects of these things are. For all we know, the seemingly safe-at-first ingredients could actually prove to be carcinogenic, say, when inhaled in this way in the long term. Admittedly its unlikely the products would be as bad or worse than smoking, but without the studies we just don't know. Theoretically they may seem like they're going to be harmless, but without the data there to back it up we just cannot make that assumption- its that sort of reasoning that lead to the thalidomide disaster, for instance. Unknown does not mean safe.
There's evidence that products are often do not contain what it says on the label (if they even have a label at all). A study in the BMJ's Tobacco Control found that products contained variable and potentially dangerous amounts of nicotine- most often the product contained less than was stated. Now, if I'm paying for a product that says it contains 72mg/ml of nicotine, I expect that product to contain 72mg/ml of nicotine, just as I would expect a 500mg paracetamol tablet to contain 500mg paracetamol. If it contains less than this, I'm essentially being ripped off. The other available nicotine replacement products- patches, gums, inhalators etc- all have a license, and I don't really see why these electronic cigarettes should be any different.
In smoking cessation, using a product which looks like a cigarette might be helpful in the short term, but it doesn't help to address the habits of smoking rituals, and in my experience of helping people quit, that's half the battle.
The risk of serious accidental nicotine poisoning in both adults and children.
There is a risk that the ease of use of the products and ability to use them indoors might actually increase nicotine intake in some people.
Even if nicotine itself were entirely safe (which it isn't), its still an addictive substance. Any addiction can lead to harmful effects in a person. For evidence of this, try speaking to me on a day when I have not had any caffeine. If I added up all the time and money I have spent in my life engaging in drug-seeking behaviour to feed my addiction (mainly desperately trying to find the nearest kettle or coffee shop), I suspect it would be very upsetting.
Today there has been, in my opinion, some good news. The MHRA have decided to start . This decision essentially eliminates concerns number 1, 3 and 5 and starts us on the road to also ruling out concerns 2,4 and 6. The BMA have responded enthusiastically to the news, stating:
“We can now build on this and press for good research which looks at the efficacy and health implications of e-cigarettes. It’s really important that we find out if the hand to mouth use of e-cigarettes either breaks or reinforces smoking behaviours. We need to know if e-cigarettes actually help smokers quit."
I'm also enthusiastic about this step. Whilst it may lead to decreased availability and choice of these products, it will hopefully lead to a smaller number of better quality products being legitimized and incorporated more formally into smoking cessation or harm reduction schemes- if they are proven to work in robust clinical trials. This is yet another case where, instead of waiting until we have good, robust data that a product works and is safe, it has been widely sold and adopted by users in lieu of risk or efficacy information. There will no doubt be an outcry from users and manufacturers, and wails that the MHRA have banned e-cigarette sales, that its a Big Pharma conspiracy to give everyone cancer so they can sell more drugs, that big evil corporations are trying to trample the little guys down, when all they are trying to do is save some lives. But none of this regulation means that.
All a manufacturer of e-cigarettes would need to do to continue selling their product is to prove its safety, efficacy and quality. It will take money and time, but if they have been already producing their wares safely and in accordance with Good Manufacturing Practice guidelines, they're already some of the way there. Gaining a license will of course cost time and money, but if these manufacturers are genuinely interested in saving lives- and not just unscrupulously making profit- they would see the value in the licensing process, and the opportunities available for a licensed product in the long run.
So here's to what could be start of a new dawn of smoking cessation or harm reduction. I really hope so, but will reserve judgement until the evidence starts piling in.
When its cold and dark outside, I like nothing more than snuggling on the sofa under my blanket with a good book or a film. Some would even say its medicinal. No, really, they would. They'd go on to claim that its excellent for treating chronic diseases and that everyone should have a Magic Blankie of their very own at home.
Enter the healing blanket TMB-01, which stands for Treatment Multilayer Blanket. I prefer The Magic Blankie, though to be honest. Or Truly Mad Bollocks, that would also work. I love how they think also assigning it a number will make it more scientific sounding. Mind you, coming from SCENAR (Self-Controlled Energo Neuro Adaptive Regulation), we can be fairly confident that they have a robust, experienced Department Of Shoehorning Random And Sceince-y Words Into Acronyms (DoSRASWIA) on the case.
They're all the rage in Russia apparently. And I suppose, given how cold their winters are, it's only natural that every household would have a cosy blanket lying around. At only $325 a pop, why wouldn't you?
So what can the healing blanket actually heal? Lets see what Scenar have to say about it:
"The healing blanket TMB-01 can be combined with other therapies for a treatment of a wide range of diseases as well as stand alone independent treatment for psycho-emotional regulation, insomnia, stress and reduction of muscular spasm. The TMB blanket also helps to regulate psychosomatic conditions, relieves constant tiredness, and improves feelings of well being."
Insomnia, stress, tiredness, psycho-emotional stuff. Well we all have problems with those, don't we. Lets have a look at how we should use the blanket:
"Maximum effects are achieved when the patient is wrapped completely and sleeps... One procedure takes around 40 minutes and could be repeated 2 – 3 times a day. The course of treatment is between 15 – 20 days 9 up to 1 – 3 procedures a day)".
Right, so to make yourself feel less sleepy, or to stop insomnia, what you should do is get cosy in your Blankie and sleep. Yep, seems perfectly plausible to me that the effects on conditions caused by lack of sleep are purely down to the blanket itself and nothing to do with sleeping, or just having a bit of a relax. Although frankly, having a 40 minute nap three times a day for 20 days is unlikely to help my stress levels as I'd have time to get sod all done in the rest of the day.
How is The Magic Blankie supposed to work? Similarly to a tin foil hat, it would seem. It's made of layers of metal, which apparently shields the body from all external electromagnetic fields and radiation. Except, presumably, your head, which you'd probably not be covering with the blanket to avoid the minor inconvenience of suffocating. Its a reverse tin foil hat, I suppose.
Physicists, forgive me if I'm wrong here, but aren't there some forms of electromagnetic radiation that even several feet of lead won't stop? But those clever Russians have found a way to stop all of it. Makes you wonder why X-ray departments aren't simply tents made of these blankets held up with curtain poles. They could be renamed X-ray dens.
Anyway, what about evidence? There is some, of course. It's just been blown away by the electromagnetic fields of reality.
P.S.I hope the sarcasm is clear enough in this post. Don't want to end up with quotes being used as testimonials or anything. "AT $325 A POP, WHY WOULDN'T YOU?"- Sparkle Wildfire, Skeptic Pharmacist
I shouldn't be having to write this blog. We shouldn't still be having to see news stories about measles outbreaks in 2013. We have an effective, relatively safe vaccine which should have massively reduced the incidence of this potentially fatal or life-changing disease. But no, here we are in the midst of an outbreak which is starting to reach scary levels. The first fatality has been reported, in 25 year old man, although it hasn't yet been confirmed that measles is the reason for his death.
So why is it still one of the main topics of conversation at the moment? Well I'm pretty sure you're aware of the truly awful, entirely discredited research by the now-struck-off the register Andrew Wakefield. If anyone is unsure about whether or not its unfair to think of Wakefield as a nasty piece of work, remember that he was struck off because of 4 counts of dishonesty and 12- yes, 12-counts of the abuse of developmentally challenged children. Its been 15 years since the publication of his "elaborately fraudulent" paper which suggested a link between the MMR vaccine and autism- and yet still to this day a dark cloud of fear surrounds the big scary needle that evil big pharma and nasty doctors want to inject into innocent children.
A quick history of events goes thus: Wakefield's paper is published in The Lancet---> Wakefield's paper is picked up by the media---> all hell breaks loose---> Children aren't vaccinated---> Wakefield's paper is discredited---> media continues panic-mongering--->Children still aren't vaccinated--->Other research says MMR isnt associated with autism---> media continues panic mongering---> Children still aren't vaccinated---> Measles outbreak---> media continues panic mongering ---> Wakefield denies responsibility ---> media denies responsibility. And that pretty much brings us back up to date.
So, are the media right to deny any responsibility? Are they hell, and there's evidence to prove it. Anecdotally, I found myself a few months ago having a lengthy, in-depth conversation with a customer about whether or not his first child should be vaccinated. "I thought it was all sorted out and was rubbish" he said. "But then I read about it in theDaily Mail and they said it was proven." Luckily it was quiet, and I had a chance to spend some time with him, discussing the problems with the Daily Mail report, the original research, and the risks of not being vaccinated. "Oh", he said: "we hadn't thought of the fact that measles might be dangerous." He left hopefully feeling reassured, but concerned that his girlfriend still wouldn't believe him and wouldn't want to vaccinate their child. One of my best friends isn't vaccinated, because his Mum read the seemingly terrifying stories in the press and refused to allow him to have the vaccine. As a result he caught measles, and german measles, (and whooping cough too), bless him. This got me wondering about whether or not there is good, hard evidence that the media is to blame.
In short, the answer is yes, a bit. In a telephone survey of the parents of 177 children who hadn't had the MMR vaccine, fear of side effects was the most common reason given, and the most common source of information was the media. Another study found that parents were more influenced by the fear of harm from the vaccine than fear of harm from measles itself. In another, parents seem to have thought that the information on vaccines given to them by healthcare professionals was poor. A qualitative study again found that parents did not rate science or evidence as important factors when making a decision about whether or not to vaccinate their child.
All of this leaves us with an unfortunate dichotomy. We healthcare professionals usually deal in science and evidence- and so we should, as this provides us with the safest and most objective method of treating patients. But it seems like this is a currency that the general public not only don't often deal in, but on occasion actively reject.
Yes, vaccines have risks associated with them, but these risks are nowhere near as bad as the risks of the disease itself- its a simple case of harm reduction. If your teenager is going to have a drink, would you rather that they had one glass of wine at the dinner table, in your house where they are safe, or a bottle of vodka on a street corner in an area surrounded by drug dealers and murderers? Wouldn't you rather give a small, highly controlled dose of a disease in a vaccine than take the risk of your child getting the whole, dirty, nasty disease itself? It does seem that the potential for harm of the disease itself can be forgotten in the decision making process.
So how do we go about changing this? I have no idea, to be honest. Its amazing to me, and quite mystifying, that one utterly rubbish- and rather cruel-piece of research can still- 15 years later- hold so much weight over the safety of children. Is it the misguided fear of a poorly understood condition in autism, or the terror of big pharma, or an unquestioning faith in what the papers say? It seems to me that all we can do, as health care professionals, is continue to attempt as much as we can to give rational, evidence-based advice to our patients. We can improve our communication skills, but i'm not convinced that we will ever be able to truly "win" the good fight if the media continues on with such atrocious health and science reporting. 15 years on and some of the newspapers still insist on calling him "Dr" Andrew Wakefield, when he is very demonstrably no longer a doctor. They use scary photos of massive needles, and continue to give space to the idea that MMR can cause autism, when all of science and rationality disagrees. They reach for emotional language at any opportunity, pitting devastated parents against the picture of a cold, uncaring healthcare profession that they paint. We can try as much as we like to convince our patients on a one-to-one basis, but its like trying to take a drink from a firehose with such irresponsible reporting reaching millions of people every day.
The short answer here is that the blame for the current measles outbreaks lies in all sorts of places. ITs a comedy of errors, but not a very funny one. But, it seems clear to me that the media in particular needs to sit up and realise the harm that it is reaping on a daily basis.
So today's news (well, what news has managed to slip through the ridiculously large amount of attention Margaret Thatcher's death has been receiving) brings us the revelation that Asda's Smart Price corned beef contains phenylbutazone. I had sort of thought that the FSA's statement after the initial horsemeat scandal might have gone some way to assuage peoples' fear, but it would appear that the media are pretty hysterically reporting about it, and a small sampling of the general public (i.e. my mum) would suggest that people are still worried about it.
"The levels of bute that have previously been found in horse carcasses mean that a person would have to eat 500 - 600 one hundred per cent horsemeat burgers a day to get close to consuming a human's daily dose."-FSA
Let's have a think about phenylbutazone then. It's a member of a group of drugs called the non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), the same group as ibuprofen and aspirin. This is reassuring- its not some horrifically toxic chemotherapy agent, or poison, or anything like that. It's a painkiller, related to one of the most commonly used OTC painkillers. That's already looking reassuring. It used to be used in humans as a painkiller, but it was discontinued as it was superseded by other NSAIDs which have a better safety profile.
Whoah there, I hear you say in a panicked fashion. It was withdrawn for safety reasons? What safety reasons? ARE WE ALL GOING TO DIE BECAUSE OF CORNED BEEF? Well, in short: no. Yes, phenylbutazone can be associated with some nasty side effects, as can pretty much every drug going, but these are incredibly unlikely with small (I'll come onto how small later), acute doses from the occasional corned beef hash. Aplastic anemia, for example, is associated with long-term therapeutic use of the drug- usually after about a year. Likewise with leukemia, which has an even less clear association with phenylbutazone. I sincerely doubt that there will be many people who eat Asda Smart Price corned beef in large quantities every day for a year, and if there are, I suspect their heart may be more likely to give out than them suffering from any drug toxicity.
Let's say though that you had eaten some. This doesn't necessarily mean that you will have ingested all of the drug. Drug companies invest quite a bit of money in their drug delivery systems: tablets, capsules, injections etc. There's a reason why corned beef isn't used commonly as a drug delivery system: there's no data on stability of drugs within it or its dissolution properties. For all we know, phenylbutazone may well be broken down if its stored in such a substance for any appreciable length of time. stability. When you take a tablet, you don't absorb all of the drug within it immediately. Some of it wont even get through your GI tract or into your blood stream. Some of it will tag onto blood proteins, whilst some might be converted into inactive metabolites by the liver. Only the free drug portion that remains will actually exert any effect. And in this case, the drug has had to go through all this process already in the horse before it even gets into you.
All of this is by-the-by when you get down to looking at amounts. If you eat 1kg of horsemeat containing the highest possible levels of phenylbutazone, the dose you would get in the worst case scenario is 0.0019 milligrams. Back in the days when it was used therapeutically, the dose given was 100mg every 4 hours.
The corned beef in question has been found to contain 1% horse DNA. Lets say that's all horsemeat. And lets say this horsemeat had the highest possible levels of phenylbutazone in it.
If you ate an entire 340g tin, you'd a)be fairly greedy or hungry and b) eating 3.4g horsemeat:
3.4g horsemeat= 0.0000019 milligrams phenylbutazone
Now, by my reckoning, that works out as having to eat 100,000,000 tins of Asda Smart Price Corned Beef to get the equivalent of two therapeutic doses (and its only half of the recommended loading dose). Even by Adam Richman's standards, that is a hell of a lot of corned beef. And remember, you'd have to eat that for approximately a year before you got any of the nasty side effects.
So really, don't worry about the 'bute. The amount of salt in there is more likely to cause toxicity first.
The difference between skepticism and cynicism, so we skeptics often say, is that skeptics are willing to accept scientific evidence and adjust behaviour accordingly.
Today, I grudgingly put this principle into practice in one of the most important areas of my life. I have used science to change my behaviour.
I am a passionate lover of tea. It is my life force, and runs through me, sustaining my body and soul, much in the same way some people would say qi does. And my whole life, I have been making tea in what I considered to be "the right way". Teabag in, pour water over, leave for a few minutes, put milk in. Any suggestion of a variation from this pattern would usually be enough to send to turn me into an angry, spluttering whirlwind of fury. I love tea so much that I even devoted hours of my life to school physics projects investigating the diffusion properties of differently shaped teabags. FYI, pyramid >> round=square
It seems, however, that science disagrees with me, so today I accepted this fact and have been making tea as recommended by science. In 2003, the produced a press release, which states:
"Milk should be added before the tea, because denaturation (degradation) of milk proteins is liable to occur if milk encounters temperatures above 75°C. If milk is poured into hot tea, individual drops separate from the bulk of the milk and come into contact with the high temperatures of the tea for enough time for significant denaturation to occur. This is much less likely to happen if hot water is added to the milk."
Now that I am finally aware of this scientific basis, I have realised the error of my ways.
So this is me accepting the evidence, and accepting that, when it comes to making tea, I am wrong and have been all my life. I hereby follow science, and have joined the Milk In First brigade.
My commuting-podcast of choice this morning was The Pod Delusion. I was really interested to hear their piece on the effects comments have on someone's opinion of science information.
You can listen to the piece here: http://poddelusion.co.uk/blog/2013/01/11/episode-169-11th-january-2013/
It featured an interview with Dominique Broussard, who had been involved in some research which ultimately showed that people's opinions of a science article (nanotechnology was the basis for the research) could be swayed by the comments left on the page. Essentially, the research found that abusive comments could actually lead to more polarised opinions in the reader, so if someone had vaguely held views against nanotechnology, and the comments on the piece were derogatory to the science in the paper, they would end up with more strongly held views against nanotechnology.
This got me thinking about a bit of research that me and my colleague Nancy (ofEvidence Based Skepticism fame) did a while ago. We looked at information available if you searched for antineoplastons on google, and whether the quality and types of concepts used on websites differed depending on the motivations of the writer. I'm not going to cover the whole Burzynski saga here, because its been done much better elsewhere, but I just wanted to focus on one really interesting finding.
We split the concepts found in original articles from those found in comments left on each article, and one thing became very glaringly obvious: Hardly any sites that had "pro-Burzynski" sentiments had the facility for commenting, whereas those that were questioning the value of his treatments tended to have comments available, in which rather heated debates would strike up (in some cases, becoming rather abusive at times, mainly on the part of the pro-Burzynski supporters).
When I set up this blog, I decided to have open comments. I'm happy to invite debate and feel confident enough in my arguments because they are backed up in evidence as much as possible, and if they're not, I will have said so in the post. I don't want to be accused of not publishing comments from people who disagree with my views. But it strikes me that, based on this new evidence, this may not be the best tactic. Should we, as skeptics, rethink how we invite commenting on our blogs and websites, and take on the tactics of, for example, Burzynski supporter websites and just close down commenting? To me, this feels like the wrong thing to do, and it seems to counteract a lot of principles that i think we as skeptics share. But we also need to reassess our stance given evidence to the contrary.
Do we need to consider the risk that someone who may have vaguely held views reads something we write, then sees the sort of comments we are becoming used to from anonymous shills or those who disagree with the evidence, which makes them disagree with us more?
I guess it's ironic to now invite comment, but I would love to know what other people think on this subject.
Edit from future me: please see my note on comments in the About This Blog section for an explanation as to why blog comments have been disabled.