Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Stephen Green is Not The Voice of Christianity


Classic FM runs an ad and promotional competition for Not The Messiah, a spoof of Handel's Messiah based on The Life of Brian.

This erks Stephen Green, whose "organisation" shall not be named.

Green posts a story to his website, and sends an email out to his contacts.

Some time later the ad disappears from Classic FM. Why we do not know.

However, Green posts another story to his site, claiming victory:

Faced with hundreds of distraught emails sent over the weekend, and bombarded with so many telephone calls they stopped taking them, managing director Darren Henley ditched 'Not the Messiah' quicker than you can say 'Whose bright idea was that?'

Which makes one wonder how Green knew they had stopped taking calls.

If Green is right, and Classic FM did a reverse ferret on their promotion of this screening, then Classic FM has bowed down to an organisation that actively promotes such wonderful items as:

The Sexual Dead-End (on homosexuality); The Pink Swastika (Exposes the deep roots of homosexuality in the Nazi party(seemingly missing the point that the Nazis gassed homosexuals)); The Poisoned Stream ("Gay" influence in human history); A Generation Betrayed - "The Reality of Safer Sex"; Understanding Islam: (... How do we win Muslims for Christ?); and Diwali - A Parents' Guide; October 2003 (The truth about Hinduism, its 'gods' and its social consequences).

Green is driven by homophobia and intolerance; a friend of mine cannot view his organisations website because it filters it out as "hate speech"; we must question the importance we attach to his views, and the opinions of those happy to ascribe to the values of his organisation.


I've received an email from someone at Arts Alliance Media who has this to say:
Thank you for your email, there isn't any truth to this I'm afraid, the campaign we ran with Classic FM was always scheduled to finish on Sunday night (to allow us to gather names for competition winners before the screenings on Thursday), so the fact it's no longer live has nothing to do with Christian Voice or anyone else.

The thick plottens. Pepper Harow over at the BHA replied to a query I made following their call for people to write to Classic FM asking them not to take notice from what is, after all, a self-appointed, marginal pressure group.

Thank you for your email. The BHA checked with Classic FM before we put the story up and asked people to take action. They confirmed over the phone that the reason they took the promotions down were because of the complaints.

Classic FM themselves have yet to respond to my email.

60% Again

Following some information the UK IPS released in response to a FOIA request, I can now revise the figures of my earlier post on the Greater Manchester National ID Scheme pilot. You can find the post here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Apple Test

Thanks to @iszi_lawrence and @SkepticBarista for pointing me towards this bit of nonsense. You cut an apple in half, bung one in a bottle marked "love" and the other in a bottle marked "hate". You then love the one half however you see fit, and hate the other. As the Daily Mail's photo dramatically shows, the hate half will rot faster than the love half. Let's see how we might put it to the test properly.

We need to run the experiment on more than one apple. If we only do this once, it's not going to tell us very much. We're expecting a binary result, that each apple will have a marked difference in quality by the end of the week. We'll only get meaningful data, then, through repeated experimentation.

Blinding - we're going to use bottles that are identical, but each has a collar, with "love" or "hate" attached. The tops of the bottles will feature a randomly assigned number. The randomly assigned numbers are in pairs that are already randomly assigned as either "love" or "hate". This will become very important later.

We fill the bottles with water. As long as it's the same kind of water in both bottles, whatever we use ought not make much impact on the test. We then cut the apple in half. It may be worthwhile examining ways in which we can ensure that an identical procedure is used for this, so that comparisons can be made across different apples. However, for the purposes of comparing the "love" and "hate" halves against each other, as long as the apple is cut more or less into two equal sections, it oughtn't affect the test due to the randomisation. We would expect any biases in cutting to be spread out.

The apple halves are placed into the bottles and sealed. It is at this stage that we discover which bottle is to be "love" and which "hate", by checking the number on the bottle cap. This process can be kept secure by giving this job over to a particular individual, rather than allowing each "apple host" to have access to the codes for their bottles. We only establish the love/hate bottles after the apples have been sealed into the bottles because we do not want to introduce a possible bias. We don't want experimenters to decide based on any kind of aesthetic reasons, or through the early browning of the apple half prior to it being introduced into the bottle, as this will skew the results - we will no longer be comparing like with like.

The collars are placed on the correct bottles. Next we need to isolate the thing that we are looking to examine, which is the application of "love" and "hate" to the apple halves. This means that the only thing different between the treatment of both halves will need to be the emotional attachment created by the experimenter. Therefore, the halves need to be kept together, or in separate containers that are kept at the same level of light, heat, humidity, noise, etc.

You may wish to formalise the way in which the love and hate bond is created. This could be through, perhaps, addressing the love jar with kind words and compliments for half an hour a day, before turning to the hate jar and insulting it for half an hour a day. Keep in mind the requirement for maintaining like atmospheres for both jars. There must not be handling of the jars, unless one can guarantee that the jars are handled in an identical manner.

Once the week is up, the collars are removed, and each pair is judged in turn. The judges, who will not be aware of the love/hate assignation, must decide based on examination of the apple halves, which half is in a better condition. It is vital at this point that any possibility of feedback is removed. Ideally the apple hosts should remove the collars before passing both bottles together to someone who in turn passes them on to the judges; this reduces the possibility of any cuing, subconscious or otherwise, that will give the judge a better idea of which is the love half, and which the hate.

Only after they have made their judgements can we compare their results with the actual love/hate halves.

By chance alone, when this experiment is run in sufficient number, we would expect a fairly even spread - we would expect roughly half of the "love" apples to be in the better condition. If we find that there is a bias in distribution of conditions, then we need to examine our protocols to ensure that "leakage" is not taking place anywhere; i.e. that the randomisation process and the blinding process are working as they should. If we are certain that our experiment is holding true and giving us reliable data, then we publish our findings, and invite our peers to decide if the results of the experiment are meaningful. It is not unusual that our peers may at this stage uncover flaws in our methodology that have led to the results. Where this is the case, we look at how we may eliminate those flaws in further experiments.

Given sufficient funding, I will be happy to undertake this experiment and shed some light on whether or not Nikki Owen is on to something.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Would've Could've

The 30 Second Skinny Mrs Xiao-Ping Zhai runs a fertility clinic based on Traditional Chinese Medicine. Some time ago The Beacon complained to the ASA that she was using the name Doctor in her advertising despite not being medically qualified, and that she was making outlandish claims for the success of her treatment. Mrs Zhai failed to be able to provide evidence for these claims and so agreed not to make them in advertising in future. In explaining away science's failure to find a positive result for TCM and fertility to the BBC, she betrays some clouded logic that even serves to undermine her own claims.

Friday, March 05, 2010

Homeopathy as Misdirection

This is just a brief observation about the activism, both for and against homeopathy, that surrounded the Evidence Check. As was ruled by the check itself there is no robust evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. It has been shown in randomised placebo controlled trials that it is no better than a placebo. So certain are many that the implausible mechanic of water and sugar-pill memory can in no way lead to any clinical benefit that they feel it unethical to undertake further research into it. The pro-homeopathy lobby might believe otherwise, but when Robert Wilson, the Chairman of the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers, bemoans the lack of large sample trials, and in almost the same breath volunteers what really ought to be his best piece of evidence for homeopathy and chooses a trial with a small sample size, he neatly sums up the state of play, and the relationship with evidence that most proponents of the magic water seem to have. Weak clinical evidence is waved about, strong clinical evidence against homeopathy is ignored, and if all else fails they decide that homeopathy is so special that it "defeats" science. This last argument has always puzzled me, as it consitutes an open admission that the effects of homeopathy are so fickle that you can't put any amount of faith in it.

But here's the rub. It's great fun to discuss tipping a thimble full of arsenic into the Atlantic and giving it a stir. Homeopathy is an irresistible lure to skeptics because: it turns out a lot of people don't realise what homeopathy actually is; the physics is simple to demonstrate and involves silly big numbers; it's an easy thing to compare its trials with those of mainstream medicines. I'd say this is much of the thinking behind the overdose stunt. It's purpose wasn't really to prove to people that homeopathy doesn't work, because an overdose doesn't make sense in homeopathy, irrespective of the confusing mixed messages its packaging and proponents give out. It's purpose was twofold: to demonstrate to people who don't yet know that homeopathy pills are empty, and also to have fun doing it. I'm not saying the first purpose is not important, it is. I'm not saying the second purpose is inappropriate, ridiculous beliefs are open to ridicule. However, something a little strange happened after the report was published, and is crystalised by a number of tweets and a blog post by Bruce Hood.

Hood suggests that one of the possible implications of the NHS withdrawing the supply of homeopathic remedies is that people will undergo long and fruitless investigations in order to determine what is wrong with them (homeopathy canard: we cure the whole person, what are your symptoms) and these investigations will end up costing the NHS more than providing sugar pills. I'm not sure I entirely agree with Hood, though it's worth noting that if reports are to be believed, I suspect the evidence check itself cost more than a year of NHS homeopathy. Hood is no supporter of the homeopathic hypothesis by any means, but is more interested than many are willing to be with the implications of restricting access to placebo-based treatment. And here's the observation. You can find plenty of skeptics willing to tell you that homeopathy is just a placebo, and you can find plenty of homeopathists willing to tell you otherwise. A debate that is much less popular, however, is: what are the ethics of providing people with placebo-based treatment?

Ugly isn't it. I've discussed in the past how alternative medicine has sometimes been used to fob off the underclass because the money or expertise simply wasn't there to provide conventional medicine to the masses. The trouble is, as the money and expertise isn't there, what else do you do?

From what I can gather, the NHS ideal is that medicines should stand on their evidence base (though how many common treatments have evidence is surprisingly low), and that patients should be allowed to make informed choices about the treatments they receive. We measure treatments against placebos, so no placebo-based treatment has evidence, and part of the mechanic of placebos is deception, which goes against the idea of informed choice. The path seems clear, then, were it not for the fact that the placebo effect is real; certainly real enough to require placebo control arms in the first place. If no other treatment is available, is it ethical to deprive someone of genuine placebo-based relief in order to maintain the honesty and sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship. Are some homeopathists standing their ground in the face of evidence not because they believe in the magic water, but because they are defending their placebo; keeping the lie in place so that the medicine remains effective.

I've often wondered if there would be ethical and practical grounding in signing off a placebo-waiver whenever you register with a surgery. This would form an explicit agreement between you and your GP that they are able, where no other treatment is viable, to prescribe a placebo. What I like about this idea is that it crosses a line that I think exists in quite a few people's heads. When they discuss how placebos should be available, they tend to couch it in terms relating to other people, and rarely in terms relating to themselves. Plenty of people say "give them placebos", I've heard very few say "give me placebos".

Beyond these arguments are "bigger picture" positions. Getting sugar pills from your GP to help you over the doldrums sadly uses the same lie that leads the genuinely deluded to go off to Africa to try and cure HIV AIDS. If your sugar pill is based on pseudoscience, to legitimise its use in one area legitimises its use everywhere. Ironically a way round this would be to manufacture your placebos as if they were pharmaceutical products, specific active ingredients operating on obscure aspects of human physiology. That way you couldn't possibly be propping upthe beliefs of dangerous fanatics. Except that they're also trying to cure HIV AIDS with vitamin C... 

I'm proudly undecided about the ethics of placebo treatment. I can see valid, if difficult to weigh, points on either side of the discussion, and know that personally I would rather the truth, however bitter a pill to swallow, even when it denies me relief. What pains me more, though, is that few people seem willing enough even to have the debate in the first place, despite it being the only alternative medicine discussion actually worth having.