Nancy Malik shows us how NOT to conduct a poll on homeopathy

For those not aware “Dr” Nancy Malik is one of the more prevalent Internet homeopaths, happily promoting the anti-science quackery we know as homeopathy. She attracted the attention of skeptics with a very long (and now defunct) Google Knol which supposedly contained hundreds of peer reviewed articles which provided evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. Despite pretty much every link being scrutinized and rubbished by the wonderful Xtal Dave, Malik has moved the list to her new blog, amusingly entitled “Science-based Homeopathy” (a contradiction in terms if ever there was one).

Malik has come up with a poll about medicine, presumably in an attempt to gather evidence on the popularity of homeopathy. However, as I type this it’s not looking too good for homeopathy.

As you can see, conventional medicine is currently surging way ahead of all the alternatives to medicine. Ironically, if Malik wanted to set this poll up to get the result she wanted, she’s done pretty much the opposite of what she should have done in all cases. Let’s have a look at some ways to knobble a poll, and where she’s gone wrong.

1. Ask a leading question to point the responder towards the answer you want them to give

Malik asks “Which medicine you prefer when fall ill”. Apart from the embarrassingly bad use of English, it doesn’t steer people towards homeopathy. For example, a lot of quacks say things along the lines of “if you’ve tried everything else, why not try homeopathy?”, so why doesn’t Malik’s question attempt to represent that?

2. Place the answer you want people to give at the top

The answer presented first will obviously be the one that the respondent looks at first, so if you want a certain answer to come out on top, put it before all the others! Malik fails here by putting ‘conventional’ first, the answer that she presumably does not want people to pick.

3. Present the options you do not want people to pick in an unfavourable light

As mentioned above, Malik uses the term ‘conventional’ medicine. Alternatively, you could term it “evidence based” or “science based” medicine (which both sound good), but if you were a devious homeopath set out to discredit it you could call it something else. Homeopaths often like to call conventional medicine “allopathic” (treating like with non-like), as if it was some sort of polar opposite to homeopathy. You can also confuse people who don’t know what ‘allopathic’ is by doing this, something that Malik fails to do.

4. Split the vote of the options that you don’t want people to pick

A simple tactic, splitting the vote involves presenting more options than necessary for those that you don’t like. For example, say that you were out with friends and you wanted to get a cup of coffee, whereas your friends fancied a pint of beer. If you were to vote on where to go, you could present one coffee house and six or seven pubs. That way, everyone who wants a beer will vote for different pubs, but those who want a coffee will all vote for the same coffee shop, increasing the proportion of the ‘coffee’ votes.

So, for Malik’s poll, she could have quite easily presented all the non-evidence based practices as one option, perhaps calling it “alternative and complementary therapies”, and split up ‘conventional’ into several options, but once again this was not done. Another fail!

Taking all that into consideration, here is how I would have presented Malik’s poll if I was looking for a result that favours homeopathy:

“Which form of medicine would you prefer to use?”

  • Complementary and alternative therapies
  • Allopathy
  • Pharmaceuticals
  • High street drugs

With this poll, I’ve tried to apply the rules mentioned above to get a result in favour of homeopathy. For a start, I’ve rephrased the question to ask people what they would prefer to use, rather than what they actually do use. Who wouldn’t prefer to use lovely natural plants and gentle sugar pills? Second, I’ve placed the CAM option at the top to give it the most prevalence. I’ve also avoided using the term ‘homeopathy’ altogether, instead lumping all the alt med guff into “Complementary and alternative therapies”. That sounds nice doesn’t it? On the other hand, for conventional medicine I’ve tried to split the vote by using the terms “allopathy” (hoping that people won’t know what it is and therefore not check it), pharmaceuticals (scary big pharma) and “high street drugs” (no one likes the sound of “drugs”, especially when in close proximity to the word “street”).

Perhaps Nancy could use this for her second poll?

Anyway, I suggest you vote in Nancy’s poll before she takes it down!

Why Professor Brian Cox can dismiss ghosts from his armchair

In my last post, I praised Brian Cox for standing up for science and brazenly criticising the “woo-merchants” who promulgate its misunderstanding. This prompted an exchange on Twitter from Fortean UK about ghosts, which you can see below:

Twitter ghost conversation

I’m firmly of the opinion that you can dismiss the existence of ghosts without the need to investigate ghost claims. Please allow me to make my point with a simple thought experiment.

Imagine that you get a phone call from a very excited friend, claiming that they have drawn a four sided triangle. You know from your school mathematics lessons that a triangle has to have three sides, not four, so you can safely conclude that your friend has not drawn a four sided triangle as claimed. What do you do next? Here are a few options.

  1. Launch some profanities at your friend and point out how stupid they are before slamming the phone down
  2. Politely explain to them why they can’t have drawn a four sided triangle
  3. Ask them to explain what they have drawn so you can tell them the reality of the situation

Clearly, option 1 could be argued as being correct but rude and not in the least bit helpful. Option 2 is much more preferable, as it gives you the opportunity to educate your friend. However, best of all is option 3 as it will set everyone straight, but it requires the most effort.

So how does this relate to ghosts? Firstly, we need to consider what a ghost is supposed to be. I know that there are differing opinions, but for argument’s sake I shall define a ghost as a manifestation of a dead person. Let’s consider how preposterous this is. The mind of the person would somehow need to keep living even though their body is dead and cold. Science tells us that the human mind is the product of brain activity, so no living brain, no concious mind. That fact alone should make the very concept of ghosts laughable, but even if there was some sort of medium for the mind to be independent of the brain, that mind would somehow then have to manifest itself. How could a ghost appear to and communicate with someone? The list goes on, but I think I’ve made my point. I would even go so far to say that anyone who thinks that there is a possibility of ghosts existing (at least according to my above definition) is either totally ignorant of science or they lack respect for it, just as someone who believes a four sided triangle can exist is either ignorant of or disrespectful towards mathematics.

To that end, ghosts are a four sided triangle.

Professor Brian Cox stands up for science

I consider myself to be a passionate supporter of science. I dismay when science comes under attack from people such as alt med pushers, global warming denialists and creationists. That is why I was so heartened to read this blog post by everyone’s favourite physicist, Professor Brian Cox, entitled “Why Quantum Theory Is So Misunderstood”.

I’m not going to talk about quantum theory too much, as I don’t really understand it (hopefully Richard Feynman would be proud), but what really impressed me about this article is Cox’s almost ruthless attitude to those that would take ‘quantum theory’ and besmirch it’s good name by using it to justify almost any new-age piece of nonsense. Deepak Chopra, I’m thinking of you!

Although countless woo-mongers misappropriate quantum physics to sell tomes of drivel, I agree with Cox that this should not deter people from making science a part of popular culture. I think that any ideas along the lines of “it’s too complicated for the great unwashed” are deeply patronising, and you only have to look at the popularity of the “Wonders” series to see that there is a demand for science programmes.

Having said that, I’m of the opinion that the scientific method itself is often poorly communicated, leaving many people without a solid grounding in what science actually is (hence why I give talks on the scientific method). Therefore, it’s too easy for people like global warming denialists to muddy the waters by claiming that there is a “debate” on climate change. Antivaccinationists find it too simple to ensnare people with distorted statistics and scare stories about the perils of vaccination, and creationists all too often exploit a lack of understanding of terms such as “theory”. After all, evolution is “only a theory”. I think we need to have more confidence in teaching science and treat it as something to be embraced, not feared.

Finally, it’s refreshing to see such an eminent scientist be so unequivocal about the role and achievements of science:

Our civilization was built on the foundations of reason and rational thinking embodied in the scientific method, and our future depends on the widespread acceptance of science as THE ONLY WAY WE HAVE to meet many, if not all, of the great challenges we face.

If you doubt that sentiment think about what, we humanity has achieved through science. Smallpox, a disease that once scourged the planet, was defeated with the use of vaccines, not homeopathy. Modern telecommunication methods make the world that much smaller, and they were developed with science, not with wishful thinking. The application of science allowed us to leave this planet entirely, we did not put men on the surface of the Moon through prayer.

So let’s stand up for science like Professor Brian Cox does!