ipadio: A Reading Of A Homeopathic Medical Article

Listen to my latest phonecast

OK, this phlog turned out to be a strange and overly long experiment! Having seen a particularly tantalizing tweet from @TredinnickMP talking about shamanistic homeopathy, I became dazzled by this article from the bad BHA, and for some reason I thought it would be a good exercise to read it out and commit it to iPadio. It ended up being quite an exhaustive exercise, taking over twenty minutes (all in one go) to record! However, if you stick through it you’ll be treated to some particularly batty homeopathic nonsense!

My first ‘phlog’ via iPadio

I thought I’d try out iPadio, a free service available from ipadio.com which allows you to record your phone conversations and publish them as ‘phlogs’ on the iPadio website. You can also sync them up to social media such as Facebook and Twitter, or in my case my WordPress blog.

My first foray is just a little introduction about myself and what I do. As it appears to have worked, I’ll be using it to do a series of interviews at the upcoming QED conference in Manchester (February 5th and 6th, but of course you all know that by now!). If you want to share your thoughts with me at conference, feel free!

Just two weeks to go till QED conference!

QED ConferenceOn February 5th and 6th the QED (Question Explore Discover) conference comes to the Piccadilly Hotel Manchester, and I for one cannot wait! A plethora of great speakers will be in attendance, as well of lots of exciting events including live podcast recordings and this year’s 10:23 event, campaigning against homeopathy.

I’ll be there helping out, so if you see me be sure to say hello! I’ll have my iPhone and I’ll be updating this blog live with iPadio (hopefully) and I’ll be asking all kinds of people over for a quick chat. Tickets are just £99 for the weekend (£75 for students with ID) and day tickets are available for £59, so get yours now if you haven’t already done so!

The most pathetic antivax photo ever?

As an admin of the Facebook group “Stand Against Vaccinations..Find Out the TRUTH” (a group which ran out of antivax admins and was taken over by a sane person) I’m privileged to the finest in antivax tripe. However, I’ve just seen something that really tips the scales. John Best, a man with presidential aspirations, has just informed everyone of his mode of transport:

Naturally, I questioned the authenticity of this photo, thinking that a fellow provaxer had made it in photo shop in order to take the piss. This is the response I got:

facebook antivax garbageI await their further response.

Daily Express Antivaccine Paranoia

Following the embarrassment of their coverage of the Andrew Wakefield saga, you would have thought that gutter tabloids like the Daily Express would have learned their lessons when it comes to the issue of vaccination. Sadly not, as their “health editor” Lucy Johnston has written an unscientific scaremongering article critical of the vaccine Pandemrix, one of the pandemic influenza viruses approved for use by the European Commission. It begins with a hugely inflammatory gambit:

UP to a million under-fives have been inoculated against the flu virus with a controversial vaccine containing poisonous mercury.

Thimerosal structure

3D structure of thimerosal, with the mercury atom shown in silver. Note that the mercury is with the structure of the thimerosal molecule.

The complaint from Johnston is one that is so familiar it should make any decent antiantivaxxer groan: Pandemrix contains thiomersal, an organomercury preservative. The (lack of) toxicity of thimerosal is well documented, but the antivax argument always runs along these lines: thimerosal contains mercury, mercury is toxic, therefore thimerosal is toxic. Of course, this simple reasoning fails to take into account the levels of mercury in vaccines (typically about 50ug per shot, way less than in an average serving of tuna), the fact that thimerosal is metabolized to ethyl-mercury and not methyl-mercury or elemental mercury, and the fact that no studies have ever implicated thimerosal in vaccines as being harmful.

Despite this, Johnston tries desperately to cling on to the old thimerosal canard, even bringing in acupuncturist and antivaccine doctor Richard Halvorsen for a quote, as well as Jackie Fletcher from “support group” Jabs. It just so happens that these three form a little antivax triumvirate, with Jabs hosting an article from Johnston on it’s website, which one again quotes Halvorsen. An example of circular journalism if ever there was one.

In the short term, I suggest inundating the article with comments explaining where Johnston is plain wrong. Although quite why the Express would have a staunch antivaxxer as their health editor is beyond me…

Power Balance bands: the “Dumbo’s Feather” of the 21st Century

Dumbo's featherOne product has really got skeptics worked up recently: the Power Balance bracelet. In case you are not familiar with it, the Power Balance bracelet is merely a silicone bracelet with a hologram in it. The makers claim that the hologram “work’s with your body’s natural energy field” and is “designed to resonate with and respond to the natural energy field of the body”. Of course, the manufacturers offer up no scientific evidence whatsoever to back up these claims.

The Power Balance website contains at least one huge contradiction: due to a ruling by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, Power Balance were forced to retract claims of efficacy in a corrective advertisement, admitting that “there is no credible scientific evidence that supports our claims and therefore we engaged in misleading conduct in breach of s52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974”. However, they released a statement addressing this on their website, where they use an amazing double negative:

Contrary to recent assertions in the Australian press, Power Balance has made no claims that our product does not perform.

So, it is clear that there is no evidence to suggest that wearing a hologram would improve your supporting performance, so why on earth would a professional sportsman wear a Power Balance bracelet, yet alone endorse it?

Quite simply, Power Balance is all about exploiting the psychology of the customer. It starts by relying on the placebo effect, where the athlete in question thinks “I’m wearing something that should make me perform better”, so they EXPECT to perform better, and consequently may feel they are performing better, even if they are not (or in the case of England cricketer Paul Collingwood, getting worse).

I would compare this effect to the feather that the eponymous hero of the Disney film Dumbo carries. Just in case you are not familiar with this character, allow me to explain: Dumbo is a baby elephant with extraordinarily large ears. He gets given a feather by his mentor (who happens to be a mouse, of course), which he’s told is a ‘magic feather’. This gives Dumbo the confidence to use his ears to fly. The feather itself does nothing physical, but it is exerting an effect on the psychology of Dumbo, much like the Power Balance exerts a psychological effect on the people who wear it and believe it works.

Why does Power Balance seem to work as a placebo? There are several important factors:

  • It’s shiny
  • It’s got the word ‘Power’ in it’s name
  • It’s very expensive for a piece of plastic ($29.95)
  • It’s sold through a glossy website
  • Sportsmen use and endorse it

That last point is worthy of particular attention. Once one sportsman wears it and thinks it works, they influence other sportsmen. This reinforcement continues until the product becomes a familiar and accepted sight. For example, it’s clearly visible many times amongst the members of the England test cricket team.

Why should we care?

It’s very easy to dismiss Power Balance and say “Why should I care if a rich idiot wants to spend £20 on a piece of plastic?”. However, I always find myself asking the same question when I come across something like this: “If you believe in Power Balance, what else do you believe in?”. Power Balance should serve as an example as to what can happen if you let woo into your life. If you’ve wasted money on Power Balance bracelets, what else have you spent on exploitative crap?

On top of that, Power Balance makes about $35 million per year. Is it at all ethical that a company should make that much money by exploiting people’s lack of critical thinking?

What can be done?

Power Balance relies on endorsements from sports stars to further it’s profile. I would love to see a sports star stand up to them and say “Listen people, Power Balance is just a piece of plastic, it does nothing!”. I know that’s highly unlikely, because there is no monetary incentive to do such a thing. Still, I can dream…

Cotesia glomerata: an amazing example of what evolution is capable of

I’ve recently read Richard Dawkin’s The Greatest Show on Earth (the Evidence for Evolution) and it pointed me in the direction of the family Ichneumonidae, a family of parasitic wasps. Most reproduce by injecting their eggs into their hosts (usually caterpillars). An example is Cotesia glomerata, subject of the National Geographic program In the Womb: Extreme Animals. Here is a short clip:

I find this species to be an incredible example of evolution at work. Not only does the larvae of the wasp feed off of the caterpillar host, but after they bite their way out and make cocoons, the host caterpillar spins it’s own cocoon over the larvae, and protects them until it starves to death! Yes, it could be considered pretty gruesome, but fascinating nonetheless.

A New Website for Liverpool Cafe Scientifique

Public science is pretty strong in Liverpool, with regular talks from the Merseyside Skeptics Society, Scibar and Cafe Scientifique. Liverpool Cafe Scientifique have started their new year with a new website, which now includes a blog and videos relating to future meetings. Their next meeting will be on Tuesday January 11th, and the speaker will be Professor Andrea Varro of the Liverpool Biomedical Research Centre, who will be talking about Helicobactor pylori as a possible cause of stomach cancer. The talks are aimed at the general public and are always engaging, so I hope to see you there!