Friday, 19 October 2012
All the speakers I've heard of being invited to SITP sessions are skeptics themselves, and many of them are fine speakers with important things to say. A few, and I won't name names, seem to be there to tell skeptics to be skeptics, which strikes me as 'preaching to the choir' (though as an atheist ex-choirboy that's not as pointless as it sounds).
Recently a SITP group announced that one of their future speakers would be Rupert Sheldrake, proponent of 'morphic resonance', the idea that you can tell when you're being looked, and that dogs can tell when their owners are coming home. Not many people take these ideas seriously, and disabusing those who do doesn't seem to me to be the world's most important job. But for the record I disagree with all his conclusions and dispute the reasoning that leads him to them. So is his appearance at a SITP meeting a good thing or a bad thing?
Several twitterers made it clear that they thought it was a bad thing. I'm not so sure, but don't find it easy to condense my reasons into twitter-length, hence this blog-post. The thing is, regardless of how wrong I think his conclusions are, I find the process of identifying and articulating the flaws in his reasoning useful. I'm also aware that I'm not as good as I'd like to be at calmly and lucidly expressing and explaining my opposition to some ideas.
It's a sadness to me that the last time I saw an old friend before his death it was over a cheeseboard and our conversation went from Shropshire Blue to organic farming to homeopathy where it became clear we had a difference of opinion that I allowed to escalate into an unproductive slanging match. I don't suppose I had much if any chance of changing his mind but I could have expressed my reasons better than I did, and maybe influenced some of the other people present if any of them were on the fence. As it happened neither of us was much of an advertisement for our viewpoint, not helped by the fact that we were both in wheelchairs, so a bystander wouldn't have seen either of us as an example of healthy living.
So I'm prepared for the possibility that, as predicted by my twitter-chums, Rupert's SITP session will descend into a 'slagging match'. But I hope it doesn't, because if we Skeptics can't disagree with someone without losing our individual or collective rags then we've got a problem. And frankly I think we can do with the practice, myself included. Some have suggested that this is like the 'false balance' that programmes like Today are often accused of. Maybe it is, but sometimes false balance is all you've got: suppose Today asked you to come on and discuss Rupert's views with him and a presenter who imagines that the truth must lie somewhere between your viewpoint and Rupert's. Opt to stay in bed and he'll go unchallenged. Appear and employ all the withering scorn you like at whichever preposterous idea he's pushing this week but I guarantee that he'll come across as more reasonable and persuasive than you will. Are you quite sure you don't wish you'd come to his SITP session and tried out a few counter-arguments before getting in the Radio Car?
Dog telepathy and so on is all very well, but homeopaths who provide malaria 'prevention' are potential killers, that should make any self-respecting skeptic's blood boil, shouldn't it? No disagreement from me, but remember when Simon Singh took them on on Newsnight; each time he was firm and eloquent but he was also calm and respectful. I know too many skeptics who just couldn't manage it, and could do with some practice.
Has the SITP group that invited Sheldrake inadvertently endorsed his views by inviting him to speak? I don't think so, but it would be a lot easier to counter that claim if he weren't seemingly the only non-skeptic ever to be invited to such an event. By the way I'm struggling to find a word for the type of speaker I mean; 'woo' is nice and short for twitter purposes but doesn't really capture it, and non-skeptic has the drawback that everyone considers themselves to be skeptical. Anyway, whatever you call them I'm not for a moment suggesting that they'd all make appropriate SITP speakers. Many are so incoherent and or deluded that debating with them is impossible and an attempt would probably just exacerbate mental health problems. The only place I want to see 'Jasmuheen' is in prison, possibly a psychiatric one.
But that's not the case with all of them and there's a difference between someone with whom debate is impossible and someone who's opinion it's impossible to change by debate. I don't for a minute think that Rupert Sheldrake is going to change his mind during his SITP session, or that any skeptics are going to come around to his views, but debate is worthwhile even so. I'd suggest that my University of Southampton colleague Professor George Lewith would be an ideal candidate for an SITP invitation. I don't agree with his conclusions but I'm sure he can respond to counter-arguments without blowing his top, and I wish I could be surer that the same could be said of a SITP audience.
One last point: you might think that this class of invitee would be unlikely to accept such an invitation (though apparently Sheldrake did). Fine. Being able to say "We invited X to present his case for alien abduction/crop triangles/etc to an audience of skeptics but he/she declined" is not without value. In the meantime, debate is too important to be left to the Institute for Unspeakable Ideas.
Wednesday, 30 November 2011
Jenny McCarthy to be next Patron of US National Academy of Sciences
Washington DC: At a crowded press conference today a spokesperson for the US National Academy of Sciences confirmed that its next patron would be noted actress, author and activist Jennifer McCarthy. Reading from a prepared statement the spokesperson explained that the role of patron is principally that of a ceremonial figurehead and is traditionally given to a figure from the entertainment industry whose public profile and connections would allow them to showcase the work of the Academy. The spokesperson continued:
"Ms McCarthy is Hollywood Royalty, and will attract the sort of attention that we could never hope to on our own. We look forward to strengthening our relationship with her, which began when she was awarded honorary Membership of the Academy under the special rules that allow us to admit selected showbusiness legends, though without voting rights."Responding to questions from reporters the spokesperson dismissed as 'malicious gossip' the suggestion that Ms McCarthy's record of statements claiming a link between vaccination and autism and sustained criticism of the scientific community might conflict with the Academy's stated aims, stating that "As I already said, the role is ceremonial, her views are her own, and anyone who thinks they disqualify her from playing a role in the Academy's mission is obviously nursing some kind of anti-showbusiness grudge." Asked to confirm that the appointment was for life the spokesperson reminded reporters that Ms McCarthy would only take up the post after the death of the current incumbent, Shirley MacLaine.
[The above press release is, of course, both fictitious and absurd. I wish the Royal Society (the UK Academy of Science) the best of luck when the time comes for them to issue an announcement that, while equally absurd, will sadly be all too real.]
The bellwether for this was the e-Science initiative of the 90s, which ring-fenced a portion of EPSRC's budget for whatever could be passed off as e-science, though this tended not to include new ways to exploit the base of natural logarithms. For this we can thank Gordon Brown who, as Chancellor, was persuaded by then Science Minister Lord Sainsbury that this stuff, whatever it was, was obviously too good to risk the possibility that the STEM community might think there was anything better and had to have the money regardless. Wands were waved and it happened, though not without some disconcerting dislocations, such as the Connections cover story in which e-science czar Tony Hey simultaneously announced that e-science would be judged on its achievements, and that e-science mustn't be judged on its achievements because they were in it for the long haul. Or the EPSRC Fellows' Seminar I attended where a retiring official gave us a remarkably patronising haranguing in the course of which he twitted us for (he assumed) not knowing about the Haldane Principles while defending the e-science initiative that made a mockery of them. He also opined that science funding gave the best return on any investment and that the government ought to do less of it, and gave us a distorted printout of a Monet painting and ordered us to hang it in our toilets. We shall not see his like again, I dare say.
So what about those results? Some very interesting work has been done with e-science funding, but only because, in the words of one Professor of my acquaintance "It became apparent that EPSRC were utterly determined to piss a vast amount of money away, and the only thing to do was to grab a bucket and get in position." He was highly successful at this but many weren't; I heard about so many attempts to recast ideas that involved computer networks, however tangentially, as e-science and it was all time wasted. I mentioned this to another official at the fellows' seminar, in between the country dancing, and she demanded to know where I'd heard of this happening. The first three places that came to mind were Southampton, Cambridge and Edinburgh. "Well, they're all e-science Universities" she said, "so that's not a problem". As for the planned outcomes, I talk to lots of people who use high-performance computing and very few of them care about e-science. The idea that giving a percentage of our science budget to computer scientists makes computing faster is akin to the idea that carrying this stone around prevents tiger attacks; it should be tested by seeing if the effects abate when the purported cause is removed.
In the mean time, this approach has spread and spread so that now EPSRC have a portfolio of priority areas and a timetable for how they see them growing and shrinking, so woe betide you if you, a mere scientist, have had what you fondly imagine is a good or important idea in what they deem to be a shrinking area. And the specificity is scary. To take an example that's close to home for me, sustainable energy is a priority area, one of the least contentious ones by common consent. The UK needs, according to the IMechE 2050 Energy Plan a 40-fold increase in wind energy capacity to meet its targets. The UK also has a much lower rate of installation of onshore capacity than comparable EU countries, instead we're sending it all offshore at considerable extra expense per delivered kilowatt-hour. The reasons for this appear to be a fascinating confluence of political, sociological, psychological, acoustical and other engineering issues which a number of colleagues and I think we have a real chance of untangling and addressing. But EPSRC have determined that onshore wind does not count as the kind of sustainable energy they want to prioritize research into, though offshore wind does. It won't stop happening, but it might not get any quieter. Remember that when planning permission is requested for a wind farm near your retirement cottage.
But they don't just want to decide what should be researched but what should be researched where, a circumstance that allows me to drag in not one but two (near) folksong references. Not only should all academics be like the Vicar of Bray, ready to subvert their vision of what needs to be done to that of the Monarch/Council, they should be prepared to up stumps and travel to wherever the centre for that activity. A significant number of distinguished academics are what are tastefully called 'trailing spouses'. From (the Universities of) Hull and Halifax and Hell, good Lord deliver me.
If you had demanded that the NIH solve the problem of polio not through independent, investigator-driven discovery research but by means of a centrally directed program, the odds are very strong that you would get the very best iron lungs in the world - portable iron lungs, transistorized iron lungs - but you wouldn't get the vaccine that eradicated polio.I could also observe that in the 1970s physicists were widely criticised for wasting their time playing with toys when there was an economic crisis going on and they could have been doing something useful. The toys in question were lasers. You might like to pause and count how many are in the room you're reading this in.
Of course a concentrated push can achieve a lot; just look at the Manhattan project. That was a wartime effort and you could argue that we are at war with global warming. Are we at war with the Digital Economy? With Nanotchnology, and Complexity? In the 1970s there was great excitement about Catastrophe Theory, which was going to take advanced mathematics out of the ivory tower and embed it in the social sciences. It was going to explain anorexia, fight-flight response and cold-war escalation. This didn't happen, and the word 'explain' in the previous sentence was found to be an overambitious substitute for 'be a bit like'. In time the fanciful stuff and the bandwagon jumpers washed away and what was left became bifurcation theory, part of chaos, the next big hype. Now it's complexity, some of which is amazing and some of which is nonsense, and it's still a little early to say which is which in many cases. I've got some ideas that could be framed as complexity, and will be pathetically grateful for whatever scraps of funding I can get for them. But imagine if there'd been a Doctoral Training Centre in Catastrophe Theory back then? We'd know no more now, we'd have spent a lot more, the blind alleys would have been exhaustively mapped and a large number of researchers would have specialised in something they couldn't find much use for later.
Notice that I said 'could be framed' above. Whether they will be won't depend on scientific merits, but on funding likelihood. Every University department/school/faculty will have one or more academics whose role, on top of their own research, is to make sure that all opportunities for research funding are being exploited to the maximum extent possible, so it may not be just the individual'choice. In fact, the department's research income depends on both the overheads on its grant income and its REF score. As both EPSRC and HEFCE become more prescriptive about what they do and don't want to see, this becomes an increasingly tricky optimization problem, not helped by the large element of double-counting: EPSRC like to give money to people they've given money to before, presumably on the basis that they imagine they rarely fund bad work or fail to fund good work.
This arrangement certainly isn't good for scientist's, but is it good for the country? Imagine two professors in adjacent offices. Prof A applies for and gets a million pounds worth of grants, employs five research assistants and publishes ten papers in reputable journals. Prof B thinks very hard and publishes ten papers in reputable journals. What should we say about these two? I wouldn't for a moment say that all academics should be like B, apart from anything else A has helped train a number of young scientists. But as taxpayers shouldn't we be a little pleased about the million pounds that B has saved us, and a little perturbed that from the point of view of his employers, the University, that 'saving' is seen as nothing but a failure?
Both those Professors will increasingly find that they are trying to serve two masters. EPSRC have made no bones about wanting to move from funding research to sponsoring it, though they don't yet go as far as, say, the MRC who directly employ researchers. EPSRC's previous vision statement (which I can't dredge up at this moment) made it sound like they already did, and back when I was doing my PhD on a SERC quota studentship their published guidance to reject all paid employment until we'd written up certainly sounded as though they thought they'd bought us wholesale, and pretty cheaply too, given the size of maintenance grants in those days. Nowadays EPSRC have the power to shut down successful departments with a small change of policy. Is it unreasonable to wonder whether things could be better managed?
Anyway, I'd like to make a couple of modest proposals, not about policy, good heavens no, far be it from me etc., just about the dialogue we have about it:
- Please could we have an immediate moratorium on the use of the phrase "hard choices"? If you're going to kill someone's career by making the research their life has been leading up to impossible then its rather poor form to ask for their sympathy because it was so difficult for you.
- Please could EPSRC collectively recognise that the path that they have chosen in the last few years is, while clearly a response to undeniable conditions, not the only possible response to those conditions, and that many emminent people are unconvinced that it is the best one, and accordingly 'wind their necks back in'. I've seen a mid-level EPSRC functionary scowl and wag his finger at a roomful of seriously heavy-hitting engineers and tell them "you have to live in the real world" when one of them dared point out a possible negative effect of the strategy he was describing. That's completely inappropriate; you're not talking to relativist postmodern philosophers, if you don't want a dialogue stay at home.
- Please, if you're going to kill responsive mode (as the rumours claim) just announce it so we can plan accordingly. The 'non-denial denials' are driving us mad.
Friday, 25 June 2010
Wednesday, 29 July 2009
Beware the spinal trap
Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.
You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.
In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.
You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.
I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.
But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.
In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.
More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.
Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.
Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: “Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.”
This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher.
If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.