Archive for the ‘bad science’ Category

Plants make chemicals too.

July 28, 2013

It’s been a long (very long!) blogging hiatus for me.

Whilst there are a large number of contributing reasons – more work at the Univ, kids getting older and requiring less sleep (and thus more keeping an eye on and even the occasional bit of help with homework), new hobbies (blog and work-unrelated) etc.etc. – there are a couple that stand out.

The first is running out of things to say – or at least things I didn’t feel I’d said already, and possibly better, if it was the first time around and I was thus relatively fresh to the topic.  To take just one (recurring) example. how many new ways can one find to point out that homeopathy is nonsense?

The second reason is  Twitter. 150 characters is great for bashing out a quick thought, and if the ‘extended version’ is something you’ve already done, you can just post a link. No need for long conversational and/or explanatory posts. So I am pretty sure much of my ‘blogging impulse’ has transferred to Twitter. I assume the hits here on the blog – I’m interested to see they still run at a few dozen a day – are ‘referrals’ from the Twitter feed.

Actually, there is a third reason too, though not entirely separate from the two just described. That is the feeling that the main work of explaining / exploding ‘Alt.Reality’ has been done, at least for those who are actually seeking explanations. For instance, I find it difficult to imagine that people who are mostly ‘undecided’ about alternative therapies CANNOT now find reliable information about them if they hunt around.

Of course, this may not apply to Conservative Secretaries of State for Health, or to members of the British Royal Family (Warning – links to the Daily Mail). But then again, those people pay a lot of money to be permanently surrounded by people whose job it is to agree with them, no matter how idiotic, evidence-free or nonsensical the view expressed is.

Anyway, these days, it takes a really ‘out there’ Alternative Therapy story to make me sit up and take notice.  I thought I’d seen it all.

So what has picqued my attention this week? Well, it is this terrifying story, which was re-tweeted by Frank Swain, aka The Sciencepunk, who BTW is now a published author.

If you’ve not seen the thread, which is from a ‘natural treatments for skin cancer’ forum , you will be quite unable to do so without gasping. That was certainly my reaction.

I am utterly, utterly unable to fathom what would make someone do this to themselves – in essence, give yourself a completely uncontrolled chemical burn in the middle of your face  It is so wrong, on all sorts of levels, that to list them would take pages.

Perhaps the scariest thing of all is the people on the forum offering advice and encouraging the person to keep on going. At a scan down the thread, I couldn’t find a single person saying ‘Run, don’t walk, to a conventional dermatologist’ – not even once it became abundantly clear that the treatment was burning a big hole in the patient’s nose.

Anyway, I feel very sorry for the person at the centre of it all. Hopefully she will stay cancer-free, and the reconstructive surgery to rebuild her nose will be a success. But I am still left with that question:

What, for goodness sake, would leave you so phobic about mainstream medicine that you would go, instead, for giving yourself a serious chemical burn across the middle of your face?  When the conventional treatment would be minor surgery designed very specifically to remove the least possible tissue?

Answers on a postcard, please.

And coming back to an earlier point about ‘finding information’, the patient refers a few times on the thread to ‘doing my research’ on the alternative treatment. Which again is one of these phrases that I cannot compute.

Research?  Really?


In some ways I’m amazed people are allowed to sell products that do stuff like this, even over the internet.

Anyway – perhaps blogs explaining basic science-y stuff, like that a chemical burn can just as easily come from chemicals from plants as from ‘petrochemical products’, are still needed after all.


The sky fell on me head

September 23, 2011

The ‘bits of satellite might fall on your head’ story that has been all over the news this week (see e.g. the Telegraph here) has provided a nice chance for people to get the wrong end of the statistical stick.

For instance, as I was having the last of my breakfast this morning I heard the BBC Today programme bods responding to emails and texts. Paraphrasing:

“In response to messages, we should make clear that it ISN’T a 1 in 3200 chance that you personally will be hit by a bit of falling satellite. It is a 1 in 3200 chance that someone, somewhere will be hit by some debris. The chance of it being any one particular person are millions and millions to one”

Which is, of course, the exact inverse of the lottery logic used to sell you tickets. The chance of you, personally, winning the lottery is many millions to one against. But the lottery company advertising plays strongly upon the idea that SOMEONE has to win:

“It could be you”….

…but only if you’ve bought a ticket. Or better still, several tickets – that’ll be five pounds, please.

The point is that they are deliberately playing on many people’s tendency to have trouble distinguishing logically between the odds of a rare event befalling somebody, and the odds of it befalling you in particular.

(BTW, for the satellite example, MSNBC have a discussion of where the numbers come from here).

Mind the reindeer

The mention of satellites falling to earth always reminds me of a famous story about “risk perception”, and one that I  sometimes use when teaching the medical students. The version that I know appears in Michael O’Donnell’s entertaining compendium Medicine’s Strangest Cases. I’ve told this one before on the blog, but it seems apposite here.

The story was that debris from a satellite in a decaying orbit was predicted to fall in an remote area of Lapland that was virtually unpopulated save for a few nomadic reindeer-herders. The Swedish Govt. offered to helicopter airlift the reindeer herders out of the area, at significant cost to the Swedish taxpayer.

Hermann Bondi, a famous British mathematician and Government science adviser, heard the story, crunched the numbers and confirmed that the probability of any reindeer herder who stayed put having the satellite land on them was several orders of magnitude less than the chance they would be killed in a helicopter crash on a routine helicopter flight.

So the Swedish Govt’s decision was plain daft.

Well, that depends.

Purely on the statistics, it was a wholly illogical decision. But Bondi pointed out that the Swedes had undoubtedly factored in that if they didn’t offer to evacuate people, and the satellite then landed on someone, the headlines would scream

“Heartless and negligent Govt leaves reindeer herders to die”.

While if a chopper crashed, the headline would be

“Tragic helicopter crash kills herders”

– and the Govt. would be off the hook.

The point being that it was less about the actual risk of events, and more about how people felt about both the event and the risk of it, and who was to be held responsible.

And also, looking at it from a 2011 perspective, how media reporting plays a major role in what things people worry about, and how much

Anyway, given the above, I dare say that the people hoping most fervently that the satellite debris splashes down harmlessly in an ocean somewhere are the men from NASA.

Perceptions not risk. Unfortunately.

Finally, there is another interesting point about people’s differing perception of the risks of different kinds of rare event.

Though the Today programme has obviously had some worried callers this morning, I dare say that relatively few people will be altering their actual behaviour much due to fretting about being hit by a bit of  communications satellite falling from the sky.

Similarly, the finite risk of a plane crashing does not seem to put the vast majority of people off travelling on airplanes.

But then compare the number of people – some of them among the parents at my kids’ school – who seem to believe that the exceedingly small risk of adverse events following vaccination is a good reason for not having their children vaccinated.

Risk, and perception of risk.

It’s a *****


Update – Sat 24th: the reports are now telling us the satellite probably came down ‘somewhere over the Pacific’. Wonder if any of the bits will turn up on land?

Update – Sun 25th:  reports are still suggesting the debris probably fell into an ocean, with none reported on land. An amusing sequel is that someone apparently hoaxed some of the Canadian media with a video clip purporting to show the satellite burning up other Northern Canada.

If I were a cartoonist

July 1, 2011

From 2001... Plus ca change... (PS Click cartoon for slightly better image)

In which Dr Aust wishes he could draw, and muses on the changing appearance of the British “-ologist”.

A recent conversation with one of my twitter readers, postdoctoral researcher, occasional blogger and one-time co-worker dbaptista, chanced upon the topic of cartoons.

Dr Aust has always been fond of cartoons, and I have (another)  long backburner-ed book idea involving a compilation of scientific ones. Sadly, my favourite modern cartoonist, the inimitably black / bleak John Callahan, passed away last year, but his cartoons are still with us, and many remain all-time classics. Though I can’t find it online, a series he did on ‘The Hill of Evolution’ stand out for me. Perhaps I will post a couple here if I can find them in book form.

Callahan’s special gift was to offend pretty much everybody. He once quipped about what happened when he started cartoon-ing:

“Very shortly I was to be identified as a sexist, racist, ageist, fascist communist – in fact, I’m merely cartoonist”

As I said on twitter, if I’d actually been able to draw worth a damn, and had been better at thinking up funny lines, I might have fancied being a cartoonist.

Which explains, I guess, both my avatar, and the one cartoon that I have published. Though ‘published’ is probably  too grand a word; the magazine that printed it is a membership one for the Physiological Society, and the then editor was a friend of mine. And of course I didn’t get a fee.

But anyway, in response to dbaptista’s request, I dug it out of the archives – or rather, found it online – and have reproduced it above*. To my amazement, and even rather worryingly, it is a full ten years old.

Anyway, a few comments on the cartoon, starting with the top panel:

If you look back at photographs of scientists of the 1920s (a nice example can be found in the group photo here),  you will indeed find that tweed suits – usually three-piece ones, with a waistcoat to keep one’s shirt and tie away from the smellier or messier bits of the experiment – were pretty much de rigeur. Though for me personally, this panel was an hommage to Woody Allen, whose early movie Sleeper contained the immortal line:

‘Science is… guys in tweed suits cutting up frogs’

The 1970s scientist is more like the sort of people that I remember seeing around the Oxford University science areas when I was a teenager, and were still common in Universities when I was a student in the 80s (though many of them had trimmed their beards somewhat by then). In the Physiology Department where I did my PhDs in the mid-80s, most of the 40-ish male academics could be seen in older departmental photographs sporting heroically luxuriant 70s facial fuzz. Sir John Sulston is one notable British scientist who keeps this tradition alive.

The 1990s figure probably resembles my own generation of cell physiology people, though it would only actually have been me during a rather abortive Sabbatical year doing molecular biology in the late 90s. Most of my experimental work, back when I still used to do some, was with large microscopes in small dark rooms. These bolt-holes had the added advantage of being good for dozing, and for hiding from the students, or from the Head of Department when he wanted to sign you up for his latest scheme. One thing that was (and remains) characteristic of science academics, at least in the North of England, is the triumph of new fabric Polar-fleece type outdoorwear over the traditional woolly jumper; the latter is now only seen on the most old-fashioned among us.

Finally, the 2001 picture is doubtless pretty self-explanatory. Though a question arises:

If this was how we all felt about the amount of bureaucratic bullsh*t we had to put up with a full ten years ago… how big would that pile of papers be now?


*Sorry the image is so poor, but I originally drew the cartoon with the stylus on the drawing programme of the old Psion 5mx palmtop computer (anyone remember those?). Couldn’t find a digital version so I’ve had to cut ‘n’ paste it (with a bit of fiddling) from the online PDF version (see p 22 here).

Be Careful What You Wish For – Even in Jest

June 25, 2011

As we never tire of repeating here, one of the problems with satire is that you regularly find yourself dealing with reality so surreal that a satirical take on it would be … indistinguishable from the real thing.

I think I would like to christen this ‘Lehrer’s Paradox’*.

There is also a sub-category of this, which might go by the title of this post, namely:

“Be careful what you wish for – even in jest”

This came back to me this week because, at a Skeptics in the Pub social night I trotted along to, we got talking about ‘Electrosensitivity’. The topic has, of course, been back in the news recently with the kerfuffle over the WHO’s comments on mobile phone use.

Now, I recalled that, back in the far-off days before I had a blog of my own, we had had some lively discussions of ‘Electrosensitivity’ over at Ben Goldacre’s Badscience site. So I went to have a look at them.

I spotted that, in one particular thread from early June 2007, I posted the following comment:


“BTW, I have come up with an invention for any electrosmog-sensitive who might need to carry a mobile phone: the NoWavePouch™

– this will look just like a mobile phone holder but will be fully lined with special copper mesh, to prevent those nasty waves getting out.

Combined with the not-conductive earphones the ElectroSmog Nuts are already selling, this will provide TOTAL RADIOSMOG SAFETY.

Well, not quite. For that you will need my patented

Mobile EarthGuard™

– which connects a wire from the NoWavePouch™ down the inside of your trouserleg to a special conductive pad which glues to the bottom of your shoe. Then the evil waves can be properly earthed at all times.

Can you spot the snags with these inventions? (Apart from the obvious ones that they are fictitious and useless, at least until some ElectroSmog Nut starts flogging them online.)”


Well – be very careful what you wish for.

For there are numerous mobile phone pouches for sale on electrosensitivity sites that claim to ‘protect you from cell phone radiation’. Indeed, they now seem to be a pretty common item on all sorts of ‘natural living’ websites.  Some examples can be found here and here.  For a further taster, quite a detailed site for one particular product can be found here, which also links to a Youtube demonstration video, and has a Factsheet and even  – I kid you not – a full Tester’s Technical Report.

And some of these sites also sell – you guessed it – all kinds of earthing paraphernalia. Though thus far I have not found a specific down-the-trouser-leg earthing wire and grounding-to-earth-whist-in-motion footpad.

The question, I guess, is whether I should patent that idea and start selling it – after all, there is clearly a market, with entire websites devoted to, quote, ‘cellphone defence’, unquote.  And the way things are going in the UK Universities, I may soon be in need of a new source of income and employment.

Finally, I wonder if any of my medical friends have had any patients turning up in their surgeries or clinics recently reporting unexplained symptoms that the patients are attributing to their mobile phones?

After all, if the People’s Medical Journal Daily Mail says so, then it must be true.


PS:   Down in Dr Aust’s department at the University of Grumbleton we do, of course, have lots of things to block stray electrical signals…  They are called Faraday cages, and look a bit like this.

An EMF repeller - you could probably sleep in it, but it might be a bit cramped.

If you put your mobile phone in one of these, I dare say it will be totally harmless. Of course, it probably won’t receive any phone calls either.


* The reference is to the great Tom Lehrer, one of my heroes, who famously commented that the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Henry Kissinger made political satire obsolete (for an introduction to why, start here).