Archive | September, 2012

Are plastic bottles killing upborn children ????

28 Sep

In teaching students to be discerning consumers of information I’m always looking for ways to show them that they need to look beyond ‘headlines’, and that sometimes just reading a whole story can allow them to be ‘rational’. I can across a great story in the Daily Mail this week that’s perfect for illustrating this point. The story was headlined ”Gender bending’ chemicals from household goods like plastic packaging and make-up ‘raise risk of miscarriages and Down’s syndrome’. What I particularly like about this story is that just by reading to the end of it students can begin to see ‘problems’.

The story begins with the ‘shocking’ news that a chemical ,Bisphenol A, that is found in many everyday products can cause miscarriages and Down’s syndrome. The story goes on to give details of  an interesting study exposing pregnant rhesus monkey to this chemical. All seems well until you get 80% through the story, when you discover a ‘world expert’ from our own Medical Research Council saying that the dose of Bisphenol A given to the monkeys in the study was ‘many 100-fold’ that of usual human exposure. Suddening I was a little less ‘shocked’ by the story

This alone is a nice illustration that somethimes the story itself doesn’t entirely fit the headline, but things got more interesting when I typed ‘Bisphenol A’ into the Mail’s own online search engine I discovered that Bisphenol A is also supposed to cause breast cancer, obesity, diabetes, heart disease, beard growth in women, bad behaviour in children, fatal clogging of the arteries, low sperm count, birth defects, prostate cancer and breathing probels in babies !! This may either be the worse health scandal in world history, or possibly another of the Mail’s strange obsessions.

Do academic journals hamper rational thinking ?

21 Sep

Earlier this week I came across a news report of a study by Dr. Jeremy Osborn of the Albion College Michigan Department of Communication Studies entitled “When TV and Marriage Meet: A Social Exchange Analysis of the Impact of Television Viewing on Marital Satisfaction and Commitment”.

The news report suggests that Dr. Osborn’s paper proposes a link between belief in TV postrayals of romantic relationships and difficulties in individual’s own romantic relationships. As you might imaging this peeked my skeptical antenna, and so I set off to do exactly what I try and teach, and find and read the original paper.

As others (Ben Goldacre !) have often complained about, this story appears in many media outlets, but very few of them reference the original paper, and even fewer link to the original source. Eventually I discovered that the paper appeared in the September 2012 issue of ‘Mass Communication and Society’, and so off I went to my institution’s Library Catalogue to find the original paper. This is where the trouble started.

I work in a reasonably well-resourced UK higher education institution, and thus I have access to a huge range of academic journals straight from the computer in my office. I was delighted to find that we has a subscription to ‘Mass Communication and Society’, but then I discovered that the e-sunbscription has an eighteen month publication lag. I was half way through filling out a British Library request form when it occured to me that it’s not an option easily available to my students and even more difficult for a member of the general public.

All of this got me to thinking about how ‘the man in the street’ could think rationally about this paper. If you can’t access the source material you can only rely on third parties (i.e,. the popular media) who are less than reliable. This makes me think about the irony that academic journals, with their elaborate paywalls are actually actively hampering rational thinking. So, there are some limits to rational thinking, and ironically thay are being mainatined by the very people who ought to be breaking them down !

I’m off now to e-mail the journalist that wrote the original story to ask if they have access to the paper. Surely a member of the British press wouldn’t have written a story just froma university press release !! (You might want to look at Nick Davies’s excellent ‘Flat Earth News’  for a measure of the likelihood of this )

The Irrationalists have landed. Another Americanism crosses the Atlantic !

19 Sep

A few week’s ago I wrote about cultural differences between the US and the UK, and talked about the Texas Republican Party’s decision to try to outlaw critical thinking. The subtext of much of the writing about this bizarre position (including my own writing !) was ‘we Europeans are much saner than those odd Americans’, but a couple of things that I’ve read over the last week make me think that the irrationalists may well have crossed the Atlantic and established a bridgehead in the UK Government.

Last week’s Government reshuffle in the UK led to the appointment of Jeremy Hunt as Secretary of State for Health, running one of the worlds largest employers with a multi-billion pound budget. Things become interesting if you delve a few years to an Early Day Motion put before the House of COmmons in 2007. EDM 1240 stated :

‘That this House welcomes the positive contribution made to the health of the nation by the NHS homeopathic hospitals; notes that some six million people use complementary treatments each year; believes that complementary medicine has the potential to offer clinically-effective and cost-effective solutions to common health problems faced by NHS patients, including chronic difficult to treat conditions such as musculoskeletal and other chronic pain, eczema, depression, anxiety and insomnia, allergy, chronic fatigue and irritable bowel syndrome; expresses concern that NHS cuts are threatening the future of these hospitals; and calls on the Government actively to support these valuable national assets’

It is worrying enough that 206 MPs supported this motion, but amongst those MPs was Jeremy Hunt. We thus now have the slightly odd position of the British National Health Service being run by someone who doesn’t think ‘Science’ is the best approach to medicine. There is an interesting postscript to this, in that one of Hunt’s constituents wrote to him to question his support for EDM 1240, and received the following response :

Dear Mr Ellis,

Thank you very much for your letter regarding EDM 1240 in support of Homeopathic Hospitals. I appreciate that you are disappointed that I added my name to this motion, and read your comments on this issue with interest.

I understand that it is your view that homeopathy is not effective, and therefore that people should not be encouraged to use it as a treatment. However I am afraid that I have to disagree with you on this issue. Homeopathic care is enormously valued by thousands of people and in an NHS that the Government repeatedly tells us is “patient-led” it ought to be available where a doctor and patient believe that a homeopathic treatment may be of benefit to the patient.

I am grateful to you for taking the time to write with your concerns. I realise that my answer will be a disappointing one for you, but I hope that the letter helps to clarify my view.

Yours sincerely,


Jeremy Hunt Member of Parliament South West Surrey

You’ll notice here that Hunt’s has moved slightly from suggesting there is evidence supporting homeopathy to suggesting that ‘because people want it the NHS should pay for it’. You can find more of this story in an excellent summary written by Tom Whipple

The man charged with running the NHS being an advocate of homeopathy is worrying enough, but a second recent story suggests that ‘irrational’ thinking may well be spreading across the UK.

As part of the UK’s move towards state-funded schools being run by private organisation a number of new ‘Free’ school are due to open shortly. Amongst these are schools run by the Steiner Waldorf Schools Fellowship. Steiner already run an academy in Hereford where some disturbing evidence has appeared. The Hereford Academy has written to parents seeking permission to treat students using homeopathic medicines (including for burns !!!) and uses a Science textbook that questions the Darwinian explanation of evolution.

For anyone who might be imagining that this is a party-political point, it’s worth noting that the 206 MPs who signed EDM 12040 came from all three major political parties including some who really should know better (Vince Cable). ‘Irrationalism’ doesn’t seem to be associated with a particular political view.

(Just as I was about to post this piece live seen Mitt Romney’s ‘47%’ speech. Maybe the UK still has a way to go to reach the USA level of ‘Irrationalism’ !!!)

All of this seems to me to suggest that the ‘irrationalism’ that looks rampant in the USA is spreading to this country. It makes me even more convinced that universities need to be producing a generation of graduates who are equipped with the rational cognitive skills to fight back !

Acupuncture as an example for rational thinking

11 Sep

I’ve written previously about using homeopathy as an example for discussing rational thinking, but in the last couple of days I’ve come across a couple of articles about another ‘alternative medicine’, acupuncture , that might be useful in getting to deploy higher-order rational thinking skills.

On Tuesday 11th September 2012, the Daily Mail reported a meta-analysis of acupuncture studies under the headline ‘acupuncture ‘does help to relieve pain’ say US researchers’. There is a certain irony, in that six days earlier the Mail had reported a story headlined ‘The hidden perils of acupuncture’, that detailed a range of cases in which NHS acupuncture patients had come to some harm including some cases of punctured lungs ! Irony aside, my interested was peeked by a quotation from original story, that has the studioes lead researchers saying:

”Although the data indicate that acupuncture is more than a placebo, the differences between true and sham acupuncture are relatively modest, suggesting that factors in addition to the specific effects of needling are important contributors to therapeutic effects’

As you might imagine, the Mail doesn’t enlarge on what ‘relatively modest’ means, but a brief bout of Googling led me to the Guardian’s version of the sample story that does list the size of the effects found:

Differences better actual acupuncture and sham controls

   Back and neck pain  .23  standard deviations

   Osteoarthritis            .16  standard deviations

   Chronic Headache   .15  standard deviations

So, in reality whilst this study did find that acupuncture did have some benefit beyond placebo in fact the benefits found were tiny. It’s interesting that whilst reporting of this study is widespread, from India (‘   Acupuncture proved effective for chronic pain  ‘) to the USA (‘Acupuncture may actual work after all’) very few of the articles bother to mention that the effect found were so small.

This little saga seems to provide a number of useful teaching opportunities. ‘How would you go about testing acupuncture’ is a great question as it lead to interesting discussion of the placebo effect and especially how you might create placbo acupuncture. Simon Singh and Edzard Ernst’s book ‘Trick or Treatment’ a great chapter on this. Beyond that, this story is a nice illustration of the importance of ‘looking at the numbers’ . Saying that this study showed that acupuncture ‘worked’ for back and neck pain, osteoarthritis and chronic headaches might be technically ‘true’, but without looking at the numbers you get no idea of how well they ‘worked’. For the statisdtcally mined this is a nice example of why students should always report significance AND effect size.

Finally, this story is another example of the importance of reading beyond newspaper headlines and where possible looking at the original source material.

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