Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Enforced Quackery: the literature

As I've already noted, one of the pieces of "evidence" that they were given to read about homeopathy was this, with the somewhat ridiculous title of "An Overview of Positive Homeopathy Research and Surveys".

The other document, when I finally dug it out, was a print out of this page. So far as I can tell the main idea of the page is the idea that homeopathy is a little bit giving people vaccinations, which I guess is true, for sufficiently small values of "bit" - homeopaths give people a really really tiny amount of something that causes a disease and this makes them better. It then seems to claim that Pasteur therefore stole the idea of vaccinations from homeopaths.

Now, I'm not in a position to judge the historical accuracy of the document (although I can't help but find it somewhat suspicious - that's probably because I'm biased). But again, that's beside the point. The real question is, how is this in any way relevant to the applications of homeopathy in modern medicine?

If I'd gone up to a lecturer in my calculus II course asking for help on solving partial differential equations and they'd given me a link to some website which explained that Liebniz stole his theory of the calculus from Newton*, I would not have been much impressed - and I'm not even sure that analogy is quite ridiculous enough to explain how useless this document is to a medical student who wants to know more about how homeopathy works in practice.

Day 5 was today - I'll have an update sometime before the end of the week.

* NB - I'm not knowledgeable enough to have an opinion about that debate either, but at least it's an actual historical controversy.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Enforced Quackery Days 3 & 4

I'll give a brief summary of day 3, and also the real reason I've finally gotten round to writing these posts. Basically, I don't really know what happened, my girlfriend was too ill to attend.

All I really know is that by the end of day 3 the students *still* hadn't seen any patients and that, when confronted with this fact the person in charge is reported to have said that this was because she was scared of what the students might say to the patients... Apart from this being a massive insult to the professionalism of the students, it is at least an encouraging sign that they have not been very effectively indoctrinated.

Day 4 consisted almost entirely of a 1/2 hour meeting with a patient (finally!) - details of which it would probably be inappropriate to publish - suffice it to say that it was rather a sad story.

Anyway, as I was saying, my decision to actually post this stuff (which I've been meaning to get round to for weeks) was prompted by an email I received this morning from a rather more prominent (and consistent) blogger than me, David Colquhoun (I hope I spelled that right), who has now picked up on the story. His email asked about how things have been going at the GNH, so I'm going to pass on the documents (when I find them) to him, and let him take the story from here.

Day 5 is this Tuesday, if there's anything interesting, I'll try to post sometime before Christmas...

Enforced Quackery Day 2

Sorry for the delay in writing this - I got caught up doing actual work, and the girlfriend missed one day of her quackery training through being ill (presumably through not taking the arnica that she was given on the first day...). I'll try to catch up all the posts in the next few days.

First, as pointed out in the last post, the girlfriend told the "teacher" exactly what she thought of homeopathy (it's nonsense, it doesn't outperform placebo in proper blinded studies, etc.). She was challenged to bring in some evidence for her views (oops!) I was all for just taking Ben Goldacre's book, but the girlfriend thought taking something with "Bad Science" on the cover might be a bit too antagonistic, so we looked up some references and she took some metaanalyses instead. Needless to say, these were ignored.

She was then given some documents to take home and peruse as "evidence" that homeopathy works. The first of these genuinely astounded me. It was a document entitled (I kid you not) "An Overview of positive homeopathy research and surveys". (online here)

This document is published by the "European Network of Homeopathy Researchers". A network which has practically zero presence on the web apart from having authored this document, and which is sponsored by the European Council for Classical Homeopathy, but let's forget about it's provenance for a second... an overview of positive research?

I'm sure anyone who is reading this doesn't need me to point out quite how ridiculous this idea is, but my girlfriend hadn't realised until I did, so I'm going to make it explicit here. Imagine I have a dice and I roll it 10,000 times, calling every set of 10 rolls a "trial". I then decide to publish only those "trials" which say that my dice is biased towards the number 6. There are going to be an awful lot of "trials" which give statistical support to this hypothesis (at the 95% level, approximately 50 of them) - does this mean my dice is biased?

It reminds me of the overcomplicated slogan I wanted to get put on a t-shirt once "Is homeopathy better than a placebo? 1 in 20 trials say YES with 95% confidence", and unfortunately confirms my hypothesis that homeopaths just wouldn't get it.

There are many, many more flaws in the document (several trials are repeated, most of them are flawed, the wrong figures are quoted from several) but it's hardly worth taking it to pieces when it's such a ridiculous thing to write in the first place.

There was also some other document about homeopaths having more sympathy for Jenner than the medical establishment at the time, or something like that... I didn't actually read it and I can't seem to find it - but I'll dig it out.

Not much else happened - still no patient contact. Yes, that's right, the "Medicine in Society" module where the students get to see how medicine is practised by real-life practitioners and by day two, still no actual medicine being practised.