Monday 23 August 2010

Getting into the health pages

It intrigues and amuses me that, while it took three years of devoted care and learning to get anywhere in the field of astronomy communication, all I have to do is annoy a couple of people by pointing out that homeopathy doesn't work and next thing I know I'm grinning like a moron in a newspaper.

The first time was in my local, as part of the Ten23 campaign. The second was in the Western Mail a couple of weeks ago. Upon the birth of Cardiff Skeptics, Dean and I were contacted by a very friendly, straightforward lady named Kirstie McCrum, asking us for more information. Her editor is not (yet) interested in running a piece on us - though we have had some interest from a new radio program - but we did pelt her with information about our skeptical acvitities in the hope that she could use it somehow. I was pleasantly surprised when she got back to me a few weeks ago to let me know she was writing up a piece on the pros and cons of homeopathy to go in the health section of the Western Mail.

It came out on Saturday 14th August. I wrote to ask if there was a link. It never did make it online, but Kirstie has kindly sent me a PDF and given me permission to put it here. As luck would have it, I can't upload PDFs, but I've taken some screenshots which with luck you should be able to expand. (Click on them and then click again.) I can also e-mail it to you if you ask!

The full page spread:

The "yes" column:

The "no" column:

Thanks to my sister, incidentally, for coming out into the sunny garden with me to take this photograph at two minutes' notice!

Now you may be interested to know, if you don't already, that things have a great deal of room for alteration between the time they get said or written to the journalist and the time they end up in the paper. Kirstie offered to interview me by telephone, but in the end we decided that I would write a 600 word article and she would write with any more questions. I did, and she asked me how I'd got into skepticism in the first place and a few other good ones that got me thinking and drew out a lot more information.

The only thing that really snuck in on its own was the point that my parents were doctors. I mean, they are, and she asked and I answered, but the article gives the impression that that is the reason I'm a skeptic. I'm a skeptic because I've spent three years working with scientists and dealing with large amounts of data and working on the communication of that data, and I've seen how easily the mind and eye can be tricked by exceptions or led by other people's interpretations. I'm a skeptic because I joined Twitter and learnt what was going on with Simon Singh and the BCA, and I learnt through that just how much misinformation there is out there. My parents certainly encouraged me to learn and to think scientifically, but alternative medicine is not a huge interest of theirs, pro or con! But if that's the only inaccuracy, then all's certainly well.

It was of course just my luck that I warn against homeopaths who believe that all conventional medicine is evil, and then it turns out that my "opponent" does not say this at all. Elaine Weatherly-Jones is definitely a moderate - not at all typical of the sort whose voices are loudest on the web - which makes me look a little hysterical by comparison. I expect some of the readers will have come across less moderate homeopaths, however, and that many homeopaths would villify her for her moderation! Not to mention her referring to clinical trials as "the gold standard". Note her careful wording, though. She does not say that they prove homeopathy works, only that some people like it and believe that it has worked. She can't say otherwise, and what she says does not refute my statement that the sugar pills are effectively all the same and swapping them around unknowingly would have no effect at all.

Anyway, Kirstie and I agreed that a great way to start would be the story of my overdosing on arnica, and here is the text of what I originally wrote for her . . .

On a snowy day in January, I swallowed an entire bottle of homeopathic pills. They tasted nice, of crunchy sugar. They allegedly also contained arnica.

Spread on the skin, arnica is an effective traditional herbal remedy. It works by encouraging dilation of nearby blood vessels. If swallowed, this leads to gastrointestinal bleeding and danger.

I felt no effects, good or ill. Whatever arnica had been in those pills had been so diluted that I would have had to take millions to consume one molecule of the stuff.

Homeopathy is not a natural herbal remedy. It is a a multi-billion pound industry using an 18th-century idea which contradicts basic science. Jacques Benveniste claimed that water "remembered" antibodies, but no scientist has been able to reproduce these effects when experiments are carried out in an unbiased manner.

Water molecules move around freely until frozen; they readily collect around dissolved substances; they then continue on their way.

Banging them ten times against a leather and horsehair contraption, as Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, suggested, does not magically cause them to swim back into the (gigantically larger) shape of a molecule a person wants - physically or metaphorically. Sorry.

The manufacturers had got another principle of homeopathy confused when they marketed the pills, anyway. "Like cures like" is the dogma, such as caffeine for sleeplessness. But this arnica had been sold for its healing properties of the skin. The packet certainly contained no information about the difference between that and swallowing it, nor any warnings about the dangers of swallowing arnica. I looked those up.

It did contain some extreme specifics, such as not touching the pills with your hand and dissolving them under the tongue. No reasons were given. One might feel proud of accomplishing this fiddly activity. It would be easy, later, to atrribute your recovery from illness to that achievement. "Our medicine stimulates the body to heal itself." But bodies heal themselves anyway. Next time you have a cold, make sure you wear red socks every day. You'll probably get better then, too.

Homeopaths occasionally try to get round this by claiming: "If you feel worse temporarily, this is your body excreting toxins," but are never able to say what these toxins are. Again, your body naturally excretes waste that would be harmful if it built up. Think a) jaundice, b) going to the toilet.

When you're ill, it's a comfort to feel that someone is doing something about it. An industry with plenty of money, homeopathy can offer a listening ear and a great specificity of choice between diluted substances - none of which prove any more effective or specific than another when swapped around.

Effectively, it's hope, and the illusion of power over your fate. Perfectly harmless, until you actually need medication.

Gloria Thomas was only 9 months old when her eczema killed her. Doctor after doctor revealed that her life could have been saved even hours before her death, but her parents refused. They treated her with homeopathy alone. Diabetic Nakhira Harris died when her insulin was replaced with homeopathy. Both sets of parents doubtless meant the best for their children.

Belief in homeopathy may boost your sense of well-being. But it also demands a belief in the evil of conventional medicine and the "Big Pharma" that also manufactures it (read the label). Nasty little stories are spreading of people being advised not to be vaccinated for malaria before going to the tropics, or to give up their medicine for heart trouble.

There are things wrong with "Big Pharma" - but my great love, science, sides with neither. It does not tell, but shows. It'll show you what's really going on with all those beautiful little water molecules, with the complexities of biology and our bodies. And it'll show you what medicine works, even if it's not what you want to hear.

I guess not all of that would have fitted onto the page spread!

Many thanks Kirstie for being helpful and interested and appreciative throughout, and I hope I can persuade her (among many others) to come along to Cardiff Skeptics' opening night.

If you're in the mood for something from a bigger newspaper, there is a wonderful article - "Government ignored our advice" - in the Independent, backed up by brilliant columns from David Colquhoun and Julian Huppert. How sad that Julian Huppert is the only scientist left in the House of Commons, and science is such an essential part of the world now. We can but keep trying to get it out there!


David Colquhoun said...

That's lovely bit of work. It's really important to make sure that these folks don't get away with using newspapers as free advertisements.

Alice said...

Thank you very much David! I am disappointed that OfQuack wouldn't have you any more - and I hope the entire country learns why not!

Sakib said...

Go Alice! Next stop, world domination! It find it really shocking how much misinformation there is out there! Another consequence of "fake knowledge" is that it sows the seeds of doubtfulness when consuming "real knowledge" and some people sternly misinterpret genuine information as false. Also on a slightly unrelated note, it really angers me when official space press releases include glaring errors that members of the general public might regard as fact.