pseudoscience

World Homeopathy Awareness Week – Raising Awareness that Homeopathy is Bulldust!

Well, this week is rather special – it’s World Homeopathy Awareness Week!

First, a very brief primer on homeopathy. Homeopathy was founded in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his postulation that “like cures like” – for example, a small amount of a stimulant, such as caffeine, is purported to help with sleep troubles. Homeopathic preparations are produced by “dynamisation” or “potentisation”, in which active ingredients are diluted with alcohol or distilled water, then “succussed” (a form of ritualistic vigorous shaking). The dilution process is repeated until the likelihood of a single molecule of the original ingredient being present in a bottle of homeopathic “remedy” is as close as can be to zero.

Homeopathic remedies are sold as liquids or sugar pills and can be found in health food stores, online shops and to my great disappointment, in pharmacies in Australia. Homeopathy is at times confused with herbalism, as it is included within the scope of “natural medicine”, thus it is worth noting that while herbal remedies contain active ingredients, homeopathic remedies contain no detectable trace of such. For more information, visit the 10:23 Campaign’s page, “What is Homeopathy?” 

 

Beginning on the 10th of April each year,coinciding with the birthday of Hahnemann, World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW) has been established by the World Homeopathy Awareness Organization to coordinate global promotion of homeopathy by those who practice and advocate it. Simultaneously, WHAW has been embraced by critics of homeopathy as a fine time to raise awareness of the lack of plausibility behind the mechanisms used to create homeopathic “remedies”, and the lack of evidence that homeopathy has any physiological effect beyond that of a placebo.

This year, WHAW related discussion kicked off a couple of days early, as Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council released a draft of their information paper, “Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions“. The NHMRC is accepting feedback on this paper until May 26th, so if you wish to provide them with any feedback for consideration, details on doing so are available via the above link.

Admittedly, when I first heard that the NHMRC were conducting a review on homeopathy studies, I was flummoxed – I was familiar with the findings on homeopathy already, and it seemed akin to reviewing findings on whether the sky was blue, or whether water was… wet. However, more public awareness on homeopathy – and the findings that no credible evidence supports its efficacy – has been a great prompt for the media to get on board and for public discussion of homeopathy to increase.

In short, people are still investing their money and hope in products and treatments which have no plausible mechanism of action beyond a placebo. Pharmacies are still selling homeopathic products, in what I consider to be a terribly unethical case of lending false credibility. A small but important minority of general practitioners are referring their patients to homeopaths and naturopaths (some of whom include homeopathy in their practice). There are people who, heart-breakingly, eschew evidence based medicine in favour of homeopathy – as was seen in the tragic case of Penelope Dingle. As such, I believe that it is worth getting the word out, loud and clear, that homeopathy is a sham.

 

I’ve spotted a few fantastic reads during WHAW this year. First up, Ken Harvey has written a piece on The Drum titled “Homeopathy – We Can’t Have it Both Ways“, in which he discusses the fact that, while the NHMRC paper condemns homeopathy, other authorities still give it legitimacy, by accrediting the study of homeopathy, including it in health insurance plans and allowing it to be sold in pharmacies.

From the Good Thinking Society, here is a wonderful page on Homeopathy Awareness Week, with a list of twelve quick facts on homeopathy. The project director, Michael Marshall, explains the importance of the site and of awareness of homeopathy in his Guardian piece, “Homeopathy Awareness Can Make The World A Happier and Healthier Place“.

This week’s episode of The Skeptic Zone Podcast (permalink) has more information on homeopathy than molecules of active ingredients in a homeopathic dilution, and includes my first attempt at a podcast report (replete with awful jokes, such as the one I’ve just made), in which I cover a minor skeptical activism success on the Better Health Channel’s promotion of WHAW. After an impromptu letter writing and social media campaign last week, and in light of the NHMRC draft report on homeopathy, the Better Health Channel made the commendable decision to remove WHAW from their events calendar. If you’re not already a regular Skeptic Zone listener, I encourage you to give it a go this week – despite my cheesy lines, the show is great.

Speaking of humour, I’d like to provide two more links on which to end this post. They’re not to be taken seriously, but sometimes laughter is… the best medicine. (Sorry – I’ll see myself out).

How Does Homeopathy Work? (from the 10:23 Campaign)

List of scientifically controlled double blind studies which have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy (from RationalWiki)

10:23 Campaign Against Homeopathy – Antarctic 2011 (a short video via The Skeptic Zone, in which Dr Paul Willis puts himself on the line and takes a homeopathic overdose!)

2009-11-02-homeoComic by Luke Surl, shared under Creative Commons Licence

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End of Year Detox – Free Gift Included!

With the end of the year upon us, many of us are feeling the effects of celebratory excesses. The traditional over-indulgence in alcohol and rich foods which can accompany the festive season can leave one feeling somewhat under the weather, particularly when combined with rushing about preparing for parties, attending gatherings of family and friends, and shopping. Tired and flat, the appeal of a New Year’s resolution to improve our health and fitness is understandably rather alluring to many. Gather round ye, ’tis the season for detox!

With the myriad advertisements for detox kits, cleansing diets, “superfood” secrets and liver supporting supplements appearing in health food store windows, on social media and on television, the detox industry is big business. Unfortunately, it’s a business that is built on a falsehood… our bodies are quite capable of “detoxing” themselves.

Unless an individual is suffering liver, kidney or lymphatic system malfunction, or has overdosed on a poisonous substance (both of which should be investigated and treated by a medical professional), our bodies are perfectly capable of filtering and removing waste products from our own systems. The best things that we can do to support these systems (and feel well in the process) are to eat a healthy and balanced diet, remain hydrated, be active and get sufficient sleep. No detox product can either take the place of basic self care, nor improve the body’s ability to look after itself.

So while the detox industry tries to sell you products or secrets this season, I would like to give you something for free. Admittedly, it’s just a somewhat daggy graphic to share – but my hope is that perhaps it may cause someone out there to think twice before investing their money and faith in detox products that are completely unnecessary.

detox

This was adapted from a tweet I sent to Dr Karl a last week, in response to somebody asking him about detoxing. It amassed a fair few retweets, so I figured that it was a message that people wanted to communicate – I know that I certainly do. And yes, his “billions” amendment is correct!

In this graphic, I also wanted to stress that should somebody have concerns about their health or lifestyle, I would urge them to speak with a qualified health professional. Regarding dietary issues, a dietitian is the most appropriate health professional to provide evidence-based assessment and advice – qualifications in dietetics are much more tightly regulated than those of nutritionists. Here’s a clear summary of the difference between dietitians and nutritionists via the Dietitians Association of Australia.

For more in-depth information on detoxification, visit Sense About Science – Debunking Detox, Science-Based Pharmacy – The Detox Delusion and Science-Based Medicine – The Science of Purging or the Purging of Science?

On a personal note, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best, whatever you celebrate (or don’t) at this time of the year.

The last couple of months have been busy but fulfilling ones for me; the rush of finishing my studies and sitting exams was punctuated by my first skeptics convention unfortunately said punctuation was a pair of brackets rather than a full stop – getting home and back to exam revision was a challenge. I’ve also celebrated the festive season with two curious preschoolers, my four year old son and two year old daughter both simultaneously hitting the “Why?” phase, which I admit I’m reveling in. A nerd parent moment was had last week when my son finally asked me why the ocean was blue – I adore asking the kids about their hypotheses and looking up information with them.

As an aspiring science communicator and advocate, several months ago I set myself a challenge to overcome my shyness and discomfort with verbal communication, be it recorded or with a live audience. Quite unexpectedly, at the Australian Skeptics National Convention, interviewer extraordinaire for The Skeptic Zone PodcastMaynard confronted me with a microphone and an array of questions – if you’re curious to hear my babbling, I make brief appearances on The Skeptic Zone #270 and #271. I don’t feel that it went too badly and have resolved to follow through with some podcast related plans for 2014. I also plan to continue working my way through my science degree – I have especially enjoyed my biology units over the past year and am looking forward to introductory epidemiology and infectious disease units when I hit the books again in late February.

During my break from uni, I hope to get a few posts written here – I have a couple of topics simmering away in the back of my mind. Comments and feedback on this blog are always welcome and if you’re so inclined, you can find me on Twitter at @joalabaster.

Thank you for being with me this year, here’s to a fascinating 2014!

Nobody Deserves To Be Lied To

On Twitter last night (or to be honest, very early this morning), I saw a statement which I took umbrage with and would like to address here.

“Isn’t pseudoscience just a tax on stupidity?”

This was retweeted by Simon Singh (with his response, “Do you mean some of my friends/relatives?”).

There are two points that I would like to make in response to the above suggestion.

Firstly, nobody, regardless of their ability to analyse claims made by charlatans and woo-peddlers, deserves to be swindled or to have their health compromised. Nobody deserves to be taken advantage of by liars and thieves. I believe that, barring cases of extreme wilful ignorance, the blame for harm caused by belief in pseudoscience rests squarely on the shoulders of those who propagate it.

Second, to a degree, critical thinking is a learnt skill. We should be mindful of assuming it to be a marker of intelligence, or suggesting that a lack of critical thought denotes a lack of intelligence.

Simon Singh was generous enough to retweet my first point (frankly, I’m honoured – he’s a wise and accomplished person and has put me in some amazing company) and it received a reply from Mark Pentler, who stated,

“that should be the mantra of every skeptic. Educate the masses for the good of the species, not to feel smug”

I agree with Mark’s sentiment. Those of us with the ability to see through deception can use this skill to help others and to take down those who lie and take advantage of the credulous. We can also encourage others to develop the same skills, by which they will be better able to look out for themselves. And while it is satisfying for many reasons to point the finger at a lie and loudly call bullshit, I feel that the greater satisfaction comes from doing good with our faculties, rather than the smugness of being right for it’s own sake.

I am relatively new to skepticism and as such, tend to veer away from making generalised statements regarding such (or, indeed make grand claims regarding my own skepticism – I openly admit to my amateur status), but I’m willing to overlook my hesitation today because I feel that these are points worth making.

Skepticism is a tool. It can be used to protect others and taught to others so that they can protect themselves. The greater the number of people who are empowered by skepticism, the less successful the pushers of pseudoscience will be.

Further Reading/Listening:

The Critical Thinker Academy

The Debunking Handbook

Me on Twitter: @joalabaster

Parenting and the False Dichotomy Between Nature and Technology

NB: The quote is actually from ‘Christiane Northrup MD’, more about her in ‘Further Reading’. The Facebook page I saw the above image on was not the one mentioned in the bottom left hand corner.

A couple of months ago, I happened upon this quote posted by a breastfeeding support and advocacy page on Facebook. As a new mother, I visited many such pages while I navigated my way through learning to breastfeed, alongside other pages and communities relating to various aspects of parenting infants.

The text in the above image demonstrates an ideology that I see expressed often in the realm of online parenting information; the simplistic appeal to nature and subsequent derision of technology.

I’ll quickly state that I do not dispute that breast milk is an ideal food for babies*. I’m not quite willing to call this part of the quote out as being a straw man argument, but it is very rare in my experience to see the claim made that formula is as good as breast milk. As such, I’m not quite sure who or what the quote is intended to be in response to. Perhaps this would be more evident if the quote was not taken out of context, but for the purposes of this article, I think it appropriate to leave it as the short excerpt that has been used to create this meme.

What I wish to focus on in this post is the notion suggested in the second part of the last sentence. On reading it, my immediate response is to declare that yes, sometimes relatively new human innovations are superior to the products of several million years of evolution.

The poliomyelitis virus is the product of three million years of evolution. Relative newcomers, the range of polio vaccines that have been developed over the past fifty years have fortunately proven to be superior to the poliomyelitis virus. As a result, we are now on the verge of eradicating polio.

Snakes are evolutionary success stories and populate every continent aside from Antarctica. The administration of antivenom, a medical technology, allows us a greater chance at surviving their bites.

Some of the high risk events associated with childbirth – uterine rupture, cord accidents and other complications with delivery, post partum haemorrhage – are natural. Modern obstetric medicine with its comparatively new technologies is able to intervene when required and save the lives of both infants and their mothers.

In some developing nations, a varied diet is unaffordable and people rely on easy to grow rice to make up the larger part of their sustenance. To help combat morbidity and mortality caused by nutrient deficiencies, the humanitarian Golden Rice Project have created a genetically modified variety of rice which accumulates bioavailable beta carotine in its grains. Golden Rice is still in the development phase, the eventual goal is to distribute seed to farmers free of royalties, which they will be able to grow as they do traditional rice varieties, saving and replanting seed.

I hope the above examples not only illustrate that those things which are considered to be natural are not always the safest or most beneficial for us, but in the case of the latter two, that the natural can work in conjunction with technology to offer optimal outcomes.

My concern with separating out that which is considered ‘natural’ and that which is considered to be a product or tool of technology is the risk that we turn our backs on the safest or most beneficial choices in order to maintain an idealisation of the natural that is not always reasonable. The appeal to nature argument is used to sell many products and ideas, from harmless natural baby toiletries and foods to dangerous concepts such as rejecting vaccination and using homeopathic treatments in lieu of seeking legitimate medical care.

Automatically equating ‘natural’ with ‘safe’ is a presumption we must be mindful of. Likewise, whether we consider a concept or product to be natural should hopefully be of less relevance than whether it is the safest and most effective option.

I would like to suggest an alternative means by which we can claim our power as women (or, indeed, as parents and human beings in general). We can equip ourselves with a greater range of useful tools in our lives if we assess individual concepts and products on their own merit, rather than pigeonholing them as natural or otherwise. If we reject the notion that nature and technology are diametrically opposing notions, we can embrace both and make use of all available resources to facilitate the best possible wellbeing for ourselves and our loved ones.

Further Reading:

Christiane Northrup, MD: Science Tainted with Strange Beliefs – by Harriet Hall MD on Science Based Medicine

An Open Letter to My Fellow “Natural Parents” – by Madonna Behen on Redbook

The Golden Rice Project

* I don’t think that I am able to make this post citing such a highly emotive example without making a short statement on my position on the breastfeeding/formula feeding issue. As somebody who wanted to breastfeed my kids, I have been fortunate and tenacious enough to have succeeded – my son self-weaned at seventeen months and my daughter is still at it at the time of posting. The accepted consensus is that breast is best; I’m down with that and happily support any woman who wishes to breastfeed their child. However, if a woman chooses to formula feed, it’s her business, just as choosing to breastfeed is mine. If a woman is unable to breastfeed and wished to, I acknowledge her efforts, am sorry that things didn’t work out as she’d wanted and hope that she is feeling okay.

It is possible to advocate breastfeeding without being critical of those who formula feed. I’ve seen some awful attempts to guilt-trip women who formula feed and I do not understand what these critics are trying to accomplish. There’s no shortage of pro-breastfeeding information out there, it is unlikely that a woman who is already formula feeding their baby needs educating about the advantages of breast milk, nor is it common for women to attempt to re-induce lactation. I would ask those who make negative statements about formula feeding to question how constructive they are being. Which is of more use, a shamed, ostracised or hostile mother or a mother who feels supported and not judged?

Additionally, I acknowledge that a baby’s nourishment can be almost all-encompassing during their first year of life, but within the context of an entire childhood, it is a relatively small factor compared with whether the child is loved, supported, able to develop and express their identity and safe.

Little Boxes Made of Whicky-Whacky – The Bamboo Charcoal ‘Hei Cube’

My apologies if I’ve just earwormed you with ‘Little Boxes’.

A few weeks ago, I was settling into bed of an evening with some light reading (Organic Gardener Magazine*) to wind down with when I spotted a relatively benign but nonetheless irritating feature in an advertorial. This is the ‘Hei Cube‘.

Hei Cube advertisement, text transcribed below.

The text reads as follows:

“Don’t forget your home-office in the spring-cleaning spree, but let the Hei Cube do the hard work for you. While it won’t dust the desk, it is said to help absorb electomagnetic waves when placed near a computer. Made from bamboo charcoal, it will also soak up unwanted odours and moisture from the room, and is 100 per cent natural and biodegradable. Available for $16.95 per cube, from purebamboo.com.au; 07 XXXX XXXX.”

Rudimentary as my radiation materials science knowledge is, the above struck me as suspicious. It bothered me enough that I went and confirmed that I was correct in my knowledge that the only materials which are capable of shielding electromagnetic fields are metals. Carboniferous material such as bamboo charcoal is completely ineffective at blocking electromagnetic waves when used in a shield. And any material placed in a cube to the side of a device emitting electromagnetic waves is completely irrelevant, electromagnetic waves do not change their direction because they find a little black cube attractive.

More troubling to me though is the suggestion that electromagnetic waves as found in household environments should pose any concern or present any risk to our health. I can understand how electromagnetic fields (EMF) may sound alarming – particularly when the ‘R’ word, radiation, is mentioned. A quick google about safety concerns about EMF brings up pages of links to sites warning of the dangers of exposure, anecdotal evidence of illness and harm abounds and there’s a substantial number of products sold which claim to protect one from the supposedly damaging radiation emanating from our televisions, computers and mobile phones.

A critical eye must be applied and a credible source of information must be found. This being a health concern, I went with the World Health Organisation.

The effects of electromagnetic radiation have been widely studied for many years now and scientific knowledge in this area is highly extensive. A recent extensive WHO review of available scientific literature concludes that based on current evidence, there are no health conditions which have been linked to exposure to low level electromagnetic radiation.

To summarise, the Hei Cube claims to protect you from electromagnetic waves which are not known to cause any harm by not affecting the electromagnetic field in any way.

As for the other claim made, that bamboo charcoal can absorb moisture and odours, there is perhaps some truth to it. Bamboo charcoal is a form of activated carbon and activated carbon is notably porous and it’s high surface area makes it capable of binding to a range of chemicals when used as an air or water filter. Whether the efficacy of a stationary cube of bamboo charcoal is noteworthy enough to make it worth $16.95 is debatable, but the claim that it will work as a desiccant (a substance which absorbs moisture) and deodoriser is at least relatively plausible. And I suppose some people may find it more aesthetically pleasing than a small bowl of bicarbonate of soda, which will also act as a desiccant and deodoriser at around a fiftieth of the price.

Note that the copy from the magazine uses language which avoids directly making a factual claim about the EMF blocking properties of the Hei Cube – “it is said to help absorb electromagnetic waves”. I do wonder how deliberate this was, whether the copy writer was aware that the claim was based on pseudoscience and worded the text accordingly, either to create room for doubt or to avoid making a false claim. Either way, I did leave a message on the magazine’s Facebook page. I received a cordial reply from the editor a few days later in which he assured me that he’d taken my message on board and let me know where to find more information on the watermelon frame I’d mentioned.

I’m planning on growing some lovely watermelons this year, an heirloom variety called ‘Moon and Stars’. And I will be growing them by exposing them to the most familiar form of electromagnetic radiation that we all encounter, sunlight!

Further reading:
What are electromagnetic fields? WHO
The Skeptic’s Dictionary – EMF

* I intend on conducting and writing up some critical assessment of the appeal organic home food production methods hold for me. Until then, I’d like to quickly state my position – I am not outright opposed to GMO (I believe that it has the potential for a great deal of good), I am far from chemophobic and I want to stress that the label ‘organic’ is not a literal one – it originated from the view of the garden as a single organism, rather than the now common interpretation that organic gardening is the exclusive use of organic compounds. Oh, and my thoughts on biodynamics? A whole lot of woo which can result in some non-magical but often delicious produce. Nom.