Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Bad Vibrations at UKZN

Far too much pseudo-science and useless or harmful health 'interventions' huddle under the umbrella of 'alternative' medicine or 'alternative' healing. These 'alternatives' thrive in 'alternative' places (such as dubious 'societies' of homeopaths), and with 'alternative' people (exploitative weasels who market their products as 'nutritional supplements' precisely to avoid the standards applied to licensed medication).

Occasionally, though, the nonsense secures some kind of status at a formal research institution - one where proper science normally goes on. This status makes matters worse: it gives a veneer of respectability to dangerous rubbish, when alternative medicine should be robustly criticised and scientifically tested. When this happens, people who care about evidence and effectiveness should kick up a stink.

David Colquhoun has written several fine articles on this phenomenon in the press, and on his blog DC Science, where he also criticises the running (all too often the wronging) of universities. I've included links to a selection of his pieces on this topic near the end of this article.

Here at Intrepid Aardvark, we're going to keep an eye on instances of this in South Africa at least, and to the extent we can, in Africa at large. Here's the first installment.

A recent issue of UKZNOnline (an electronic brag-mag at the University of KwaZulu-Natal) includes an article enthusiastically reporting on a talk on 'body alignment as a healing strategy' presented to the university department of Physiotherapy.

The speaker was Mr Jeff Levin. Looking at his website I see
no evidence of any scientific training, but rather a worryingly long list of fields ("architect, nutripath, author, healer and pioneer in the world of energy medicine"). The webpage as a whole gives no indication of the existence of any rigorous trials, or peer-reviewed research. There's a typical list of testimonials and anecdotes but no sign of a randomised double-blind trial with a placebo condition. So no indication of meaningul evidence.

Jeff waffles; mostly about 'energy' including 'vibrational energy' and 'fields'. There's a description here.

The article in UKZN on-line burbles on enthusiastically about the waffle and the waffler. Levin, we are told, is "internationally renowned for his healing work." Levin, "demonstrated how electromagnetic influences caused by cell phones, electric devices such as tooth brushes, geopathic stress from earth grid lines and negative emotions, can shrink an individual’s energy field. In the same way, positive emotions and the creation of healing vortices can expand energy fields and promote healing."

Here's most of the rest of the article, with quotations from Levin:

"To maintain health the body must maintain optimal vibrational frequency. Any change in the ordered frequency of the body manifests as disease."

"The human energy system is powerfully affected by emotions and the level of spiritual balance. Negative emotional experiences become subconsciously locked into the body at a cellular level and contribute to the disease."

"Body alignment technique lifts the body’s vibrational frequency to its optimal level thereby relieving bodily manifestations of pain, fatigue, chronic and acute conditions and structural imbalance, as well as learning difficulties," said Mr Levin.

During his introductory talk, Mr Levin demonstrated the effectiveness of this modality in relieving pain using some volunteers. The responses were almost immediate to the astonishment of those involved.
It makes sense that Levin doesn't have much to say about evidence, because there's little if any evidence for anything he says, significant evidence against much of it, and the general framework is sharply at odds with some of the best established science from over 100 years ago. Among other things, it's quite clear that:

  • There's no good evidence at all of health disruptions from power grids. (And see this related article on 'magnet therapy' .
  • On alternative Chinese medicine, much of it also regularly talked about in terms of energy, Chi and other flim flam, see this piece.
  • There's a substantial body of science stretching well over 100 years on the conservation of energy, and the fact that the same small set of fundamental [note 1] forms of it are to be found in all systems whether living or not. There's no evidence for the kinds of gaps that would be needed for the woo-energy to fit in. For a recent short review, see here.
In endorsing this stuff, UKZN have scored an unfortunate own goal.

[note 1] That is, if you take 'fundamental' to mean strictly fundamental physics, then the number might be very small, even one, depending on how the unification of fundamental forces plays out.


Relevant articles in DC Science:

Quackery at Leicester
(with a little help from Human Resources)

The Salford 'MSc' in complementary meds, now dropped.

General problems with alternative medicine.

Westminister University (quackery central?).

Amethysts and 'yin energy' (with specific remarks on vibrations).

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Witchcraft in Africa and the feminist fightback

There is a superb but frightening article by Johann Hari in the Independent about witch hunting and genital mutilation in Africa. Let no one say irrationality does not have costs. And please don't dare to suggest we need to "respect" the idiotic ideas that lead to these practices. Hearteningly, there is also a feminist fightback afoot -- one that we should all support. A sample:
Across Africa, a war is being waged on women – but we are refusing to hear the screams. Over the past fortnight, I have travelled into the secretive shadow world that mutilates millions of African women at the beginning of their lives, and at the end. As girls, they face having their genitalia sliced out with razors, to destroy their "filthy" sexuality and keep them "pure". As old women, they face being hacked to death as "witches", blamed for every virus and sickness blowing across the savannah.

For decades, we have not wanted to know, because it sounded too much like the old colonialist claims of African "primitivism", used as an excuse by our ancestors to pillage the continent's resources. Our bad memories stop us hearing their bad experiences. But today, a rebellion of African women has begun, in defence of their own bodies, and their own freedom. They are asking for our support, and receiving it from Comic Relief and the tens of thousands of people raising money for them tomorrow. This is the story of the great African feminist fightback – and how you can be part of it.
(Cross posted on Ionian Enchantment).

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Planethoodia vs. ASA

This week saw a victory for evidence based medicine when the South African Advertising Standards Authority ruled that Planethoodia remove false advertising regarding their hoodia slimming gel. Planethoodia had been claiming that their product was scientifically tested and effective for weight loss. They have had to remove these false claims and state clearly on their website that they base their advertising on anecdotal evidence.

What exactly is Hoodia? How has it been tested?

I try to answer these questions on my blog, here.

Muti murders

Cross posted on Ionian Enchantment.

The Southern Africa Network against Trafficking and Abuse of Children (SANTAC) has released a disturbing report on muti murders, the killing of people and the use of their body parts in traditional African medicine. From the summary:
This report documents that body parts are frequently trafficked in South Africa and Mozambique and so-called witchdoctors, usually through a third party, actively seek human body parts from live victims to be used in their medicine. The research found that it is a commonly held belief in South Africa and Mozambique that traditional medicine, when made with body parts, is stronger and more powerful.

The report highlights that the policies and programmes in place to counter trafficking body parts are practically nonexistent. The limited policies that could be used to counter this activity are out of date and not generally enforced.

The report draws attention to the lack of an internationally recognised definition of trafficking body parts and highlights that without such a definition, any attempt to counter this activity will be impaired and these Human Rights violations will continue unabated.
If there is another magic belief that is as evil as this one, I would be very surprised. These practises, it seems to me, are the very best example of the dangers of magical thinking. Having to ask "what's the harm?" seems like a luxury when considering these beliefs..

(See also: Wikipedia on medicine murder and a News24 article on the report).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Carnival of the Africans #7

The 7th edition of the Carnival of the Africans -- the premiere (and only...) African science and skepticism blog carnival -- is out over at The Lay Scientist. Several of The Intrepid Aardvark authors have articles in this edition, so go check it out!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Owen Swart

I think it's about time I introduced myself... I am Fleet Captain Owen Swart of the Federation Starship Dauntless. Seriously.

Since I was a little boy, I've been fascinated by both the revelations of science, and the visions of possibility presented in science fiction. As an adult (well, legally anyway) I've taken the opportunity to dedicate the bulk of my spare time to promoting both of these ideas in any venue I could find.

My own blog, 01 and the Universe is devoted primarily to sceptical analysis of ideas in popular culture, be they religious, political or pseudo-scientific - and sometimes some Star Trek.

Although I have yet to settle into any sort of specialist niche, as far as scepticism is concerned, one of my pet peeves is the proponents of the Planet X and Ancient Astronauts silliness. Oh, and homeopathy.

I'm really looking forward to contributing to this blog with my esteemed colleagues, not to mention reading their contributions!

Swart out.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Rational thoughts about homeopathy

The most excellent Leonie Joubert (a journalist and acclaimed author) has a good recent Mail & Guardian column about homeopathy that rather nicely complements Angela's recent post here on Intrepid Aardvark. Writes Joubert:
I've taken my share of homeopathic remedies over the years and have given the same assertion that most users do: "I tried it when I had x-y-z and I got better." Well, maybe the placebo effect was strong, or I was going to get better anyway (after all, illnesses either run their course or kill you). Personal anecdote isn't evidence of efficacy.

What's the harm in a bit of placebo effect, dressed up as a legitimate remedy? Britain's Royal Pharmaceutical Society agrees there's place for "harmless faith-based ­remedies". But when a cancer patient abandons chemo or a kid's eardrum ruptures because the infection didn't get treated with more than sugar pills, that's another matter. And my medical aid payments are subsidising another's sham treatment. That irks.
Also check out Leonie's blog. Oh, and I just finished reading her book, Scorched -- it's very good indeed, I heartily recommend it.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Michael Meadon

I'm Michael Meadon, the author of Ionian Enchantment and a graduate student in cognitive science at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. In my younger days, I was rather heavily into the social sciences (I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the Universty of Cape Town as an undergraduate), but I've come to a rather dim view of the possibility of a rigorous science of society. As a result, when I'm not procrastinating or trying to read the whole internet, I do research on a narrow but tractable topic: the effect of rapid and unreflective facial judgments on political elections.

It has long seemed obvious to me that South Africa, and Africa generally, badly needs skepticism, science, logic and reason. The great Sir Francis Bacon wrote in the Novum Organum that:
Human knowledge and human power meet in one; for where the cause is not known the effect cannot be produced. Nature to be commanded must be obeyed; and that which in contemplation is as the cause is in operation as the rule.
Knowledge, in the words of the popular corruption, is power. Achieving our ends depends (at least in part) on our understanding of how the world works. But, as Bacon also pointed out, (1) the world is exceedingly complicated ("[t]he subtlety of nature is greater many times over than the subtlety of the senses and understanding") and (2) the human mind is sadly prone to error ("[f]or the mind of man is far from the nature of a clear and equal glass, wherein the beams of things should reflect according to their true incidence, nay, it is rather like an enchanted glass, full of superstition and imposture"). Making sensible decisions in a complex world, then, depends (in part) on us recognising the fallibility of our minds, and demands a commitment to science and skepticism.

The aim of this blog is to advocate the application of reason and skepticism to topics relating to Africa, and I hope to pay my dues and make my small contribution.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Accupuncture has no real benefit

Apparently fake acupuncture is as effective as real acupuncture. Unfortunately Michael Kahn of news24 completely missed the boat when he reported on the work of Klaus Linde and the Cochrane Collaboration. Kahn represents Linde's work at the Technical University in Munich as positive for acupuncture when his article claims that acupuncture treatment works "just as well" when the needles are correctly inserted into the hypothetical meridians of ch'i as it does when they are not.

Perhaps Kahn is unaware of what acupuncture actually is, and perhaps he is also woefully ignorant of how scientific trials work. Let me try to clear up some of the confusion, I will start with the acupuncture.

Acupuncture is an ancient medicinal treatment based on the idea that a persons health and well being depend on the uninterrupted flow of an innate life force, a special kind of energy widely known as ch'i, through pathways (known as meridians) in the human body. Acupuncturists pierce the skin with fine needles at important points along the meridians in order to remove blockages and encourage the correct flow of ch'i.

In his excellent book, Bad Science*, Ben Goldacre highlights six central principles of acupuncture. There are many schools of acupuncture and they have evolved slightly different interpretations of ch'i, however they all maintain the following core tenets;

  • Each meridian is associated with and connects to one of the major organs of the human body.
  • Each meridian has an internal and external pathway.
  • There are hundreds of possible acupuncture points along the meridians
  • Depending on the school and condition being treated, the acupuncturist will insert needles at particular points on particular meridians.
  • The penetration depth varies from 1cm to 10cm and often the therapy involves rotating the needles in situ.
  • Needles can be left in place for a few seconds or a few hours.
From the above principles it is abundantly clear that the concept of ch'i and it's pathways throughout the body are absolutely critical to the practice of acupuncture. If your needles are not being placed in the meridians you cannot be influencing the ch'i and you are not performing acupuncture.

Unfortunately for proponents of acupuncture, there is no evidence for the existence of this life energy whatsoever. The very concept of ancient life force was developed in pre-scientific times. People did not understand the way the body works and they came up with the best story which they could to describe what they observed.

Chinese medicine grew up in a society which did not allow human dissection, as such the Chinese medicinal system was based on the world around them. The human body was interpreted as a microcosm of the universe as opposed to understanding it in terms of it's own reality. Having been based on hand waving and story telling, acupuncture is at a very real disadvantage.

In Europe a very different understanding of the human body was developed, one which depends on facts and evidence. A definitive way of winnowing the facts from the tripe is by the use of the randomised controlled trial. The Bandolier journal has published an excellent meta-analysis of clinical trials of acupuncture which helps us to understand how feeble acupuncture is. When Kahn tells us that "Acupuncture prevents headaches and migraines" he is actually asking us to believe something for which there is no convincing evidence at all.

The claim that 'fake' acupuncture has equal benefit to the 'real' thing is utter nonsense. Michael Kahn clearly does not understand the concept of placebo and is too lazy to do a little research. The concept of placebo is a little complex, wikipedia defines a placebo as follows;

The placebo effect is a medical phenomenon in which a physiologically inert treatment, or placebo, improves a patient's condition relative to similar patients who receive no treatment at all. One well-known placebo effect occurs when a patient is treated with an inert pill or a sham surgery. Although these placebos cause no medically relevant changes to the body, patients who are treated with them will improve more on average than patients who receive no treatment. The placebo effect can also be an additional boost for a real therapy or drug beyond that warranted solely by its actual physiological action.
Despite many rigorous trials and years of testing, acupuncture has not been proven to have an effect better than placebo for the ailments it is supposed to be good for. Furthermore, there are numerous complaints which are treated with acupuncture where the treatment has no effect at all. If sham acupuncture is as effective as the real thing, then real acupuncture has no benefit. It is as simple as that.

In his blog, Bad Science, Dr Ben Goldacre discusses this eact topic (and he does it far better than I do). Whilst Dr Goldacre's article takes a close look at the mechanisms of back pain and how simply being in a trial can influence a persons health, I would like you to learn something a little different from mine.

Acupuncture is magical thinking woo-woo science. There is no evidence for it's efficacy. Fake acupuncture, real acupuncture, placebo, what's the difference? There is no difference. Because neither acupuncture nor sham stick-a-needle-anywhere acupuncture has any measurable benefit.

*edit - I previously mis attributed Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst's book "Trick or Treatment" to Dr Goldacre. My humble apologies.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Doctor Spurt

Hello, I'm Doctor Spurt from Effortless Incitement. In 'real' life I am a professional academic, working in both the humanities and science. I'm especially interested in the sciences of decision making, including behavioural economics, cognitive psychology, social psychology, cognitive neuroscience, and neuroeconomics.

More generally, I'm concerned to defend quality thinking. Our chances of achieving worthwhile objectives depend (partly) on having mostly true beliefs. And our chances of having mostly true beliefs depend (partly) on the quality of our thinking, which means avoiding fallacious inferences, and using the best available evidence in responsible ways. Mostly that means following the best science of the day. But lots of people are reluctant to do that, and there's money to be made exploiting the gullible, and attacking science is often part of the process. I'm committed to spending some of my time fighting the science bashers and evidence abusers. I do it a bit in 'real' life, a bit through my blog, and I'm looking forward to doing a bit more right here at The Intrepid Aardvark.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Skeptic Detective

Having been the go-to sceptic in my circle of friends for many years I finally decided to make a hobby out of it. I started writing a sceptical blog, The Skeptic Detective, in May 2008 and it has been an eye-opener for me. I rediscovered the joy of writing and thoroughly enjoy exercising my sceptical muscles in the public arena.
I have a passion for science which probably started when my mother bought me my first real books: one was about dinosaurs and the other was a beautiful journey through the solar system.
Astronomy has fascinated me ever since that first book and I now find myself working my way slowly through a bachelors degree in Astronomy and Physics, between working and raising a very inquisitive little boy. When I finish it I would like to combine my knowledge and passion for writing to produce educational books for kids based on the wonders of the universe surrounding them.
For this blog I will mostly write about things in our everyday lives which we should be more sceptical about such as e-mail hoaxes and pseudoscience. I will also focus on critical thinking skills (as I hope to sharpen mine in the process) and of course, the love of my life, Astronomy.
My friends think that I'm really smart, lots of fun and totally HAWT!