Tag Archives: Simon Singh

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.

More on the UK’s ‘best-loved psychic’.

17 Aug

I’ve written previously about Sally Morgan, the UK’s self-proclaimed ‘best-loved’ psychic. A couple of recent articles make this an even better teaching opportunity that it was previously.

The first article is a review of one of Sally’s shows from June 2012, written by an ex-magician who points out some of the techniques she may have used. The article doesn’t provide anything hugely surprising, but it’s worth paying attention to the comments at the bottom of the article. Two commenters, both who claim to have attended the same show, defend Sally Morgan’s work and suggest that the report is not accurate. Whilst you might like to believe the original article, as a rational thinker you have to accept that article can’t be accepted at face value.

However, the second article makes things much more interesting. When the author and renowned skeptic Simon Singh originally wrote about Sally Morgan’s activities he asked anyone who had had a reading from her to contact him. He has now written about the response to this request, including audio recordings of one particular reading by Sally Morgan (There is a certain irony in the fact that the recording was made by Morgan herself). Having an audio recording allows for a point by point dissection of Morgan’s methods, which makes very interesting reading.

There are a couple of useful teaching points here. Firstly, it’s the quality of the evidence that separates the first article from the second. Whilst students might latch on to the first article, it’s a good way of demonstrating the questionable nature of testimonials. The quality of the evidence in the second article is what allows for the better critique of Morgan’s methods. The second teaching point is, I think, a more interesting one. I’d like to use this to get students to think about whether psychics do any harm, and whether we shouldn’t get involved if adults wish to spend their own money of psychic readings. In areas such as alternative medicine I think the question of potential harm is clearer, but here I suspect there is, at the very least, an argument to be had.


Strange developments in the psychic world

8 May

Sally Morgan is, at least according to her web-site, ‘Britain’s best-loved psychic’, who provided psychic reading to the late princess Diana.

As ‘Britain’s best-loved psychic’, she has peaked the interested on the ‘skeptical’ community, and there are a number of recent articles about her work which are worth discussing with students. At a performance in Dublin in Sept 2011 some members of Sally’s audience reported hearing a voice apparently feeding inform to her whilst on stage. Subsequently she was accused of wearing a concealed earpiece to allow her staff to communication information about members of the audience during the performance. Subsequently the illusionist Paul Zenon wrote about this incident in a story in the Daily Mail. Morgan is now suing both the Mail and Zenon for libel.

Following this incident Simon Singh examined the reviews of Sally Morgan’s shows blogs and found a fall in her ratings after the Dublin incident. Singh took care to point out that he was not suggesting that this was as a result of no longer being able to use an earpiece.

The story gets even more convoluted in Feb 2012, when Drew McAdam attended Sally Morgan’s Edinburgh show. McAdam reports planting a story that Morgan subsequently repeated during her show. Sally Morgan has, obviously, vigorously challenged McAdam’s claims.

This whole story makes for a great ‘knock-around’ teaching session. Students seem to love anything about ‘psychic-powers’, and the McAdam portion of the tale is a nice illustration of how some psychics might work. It’s worth getting students to think about how they might objectively test claims of psychic powers. For students interested in such work, the work of Chris French at Goldsmiths is worth following

In addition, it’s interesting that the Daily Mail come out on the right side of this story !

At interesting postscript to this story is that very little seems to change in relation to psychic powers. Below is a video of James Randi investiagting Uri Geller in the early 1970’s. Much of what Randi reports seems to be replicated in the above story

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