Archive for the ‘Homeopathy’ Category

In one (y)ear and out the other

December 31, 2010

Happy New Year!

And just to let you know: I shall refrain from posting an end of year round-up.

I will however, make some predictions for this time next year – in case I am doing a round-up post then.

–  We will all be a year older (On the other hand, considering the alternatives….)

–  I will still feel knackered

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still feel three times as knackered (or more)

–  The kids will still be engaged in their ongoing competition for attention / psychological guerilla war / life-or-death struggle for access to their mothers’ lap

–  Junior Aust will have lost interest in Harry Potter and will instead be telling me the plot of some other complicated book.

–  The house will still be a tip.

–  UK Universities willl still be under financial pressure

–  The NHS will still be the subject of endless daft reforms.

–  I will still be pondering whether it is time to jack in blogging.

–  Mrs Dr Aust will still be mystified as to why I bother blogging at all.

–  The Homeopaths will still be talking utter transcendental raving nonsense.

[a classic recent example is here, which I think should really have the same title as the present post, given the author’s utter imperviousness to reason and reality]

–  So will the rest of the Alternative Medicine Fraternity (be talking nonsense, that is).

–  They will still have the enthusiastic support of Prince Charles, and of various medical grandees who suffer from “knight starvation”, or who crave HRH’s patronage

–  They will still get lots of laughably credulous media coverage, especially in the People’s Medical Journal

Now, I would usually add to this list

“-  I will still be pondering my next series of lectures”

But given what is happening in the Universities, and what is likely to happen this coming year, I’m not at all so sure about that as I would have been even a year ago. One of my best friends and scientific colleagues, who does his own experiments and busily cranks out three papers a year, is taking voluntary early retirement next year.

He is 59.

Several other scientists I know in their mid to late 50s at other Universities have also bailed out. Most of them still had active research programmes and laboratories. One, I hear, has taken a part-time job as a lab technician. Another is teaching physiology in a medical school in Trinidad. Another is writing a book about fishing and working as a fishing guide.

Where that leaves those of us still aboard the Titanic, I mean “in the Universities”, is anyone’s guess.

I guess we will see.

Anyway, in the meantime, and ignoring the dark clouds on the horizon, I thought I should follow the always-excellent Dr Grumble and declare:

“The same procedure as EVERY year!”

Und ein fröhliches neues Jahr!


Podcast plug – Dr Aust live (ish)

September 30, 2010

In which Dr Aust does some heavy breathing into a headset.

A week or so back, thanks to the wonders of internet-based communication technology (aka Skype) I joined the guys from Greater Manchester Skeptics for their podcast Just Skeptics (Episode 12, apparently). It is now out – if you’re interested, you can listen to it here, or here, or even download it (free, of course) from the iTunes store.

You’ll have to excuse the heavy breathing, which I’m embarrassed to say was me. I’d never used a microphone headset before – I’d only installed Skype a day or two earlier – and I think the microphone distance needs adjusting. Or perhaps I’m just a heavy breather.

Anyway, if you do fancy checking it out, you can first hear us talking about “Charity mugging”, the phenomenon whereby you can’t walk twenty metres in a British town centre in the daytime without being accosted by someone trying to sign you up as a charity (direct debit) donor. Until the podcast I hadn’t heard that these “Chuggers” are often out-of-work actors.

We also discuss mad chemists, that hardy stereotype of the man in the white coat with the mad staring eyes. This was inspired by the UK Government’s “Crazy Chemist” anti-drug campaign – the one that got the Royal Society of Chemistry so hot under the collar.

And finally, at 24 minutes in, you can hear me having my “Soapbox” where I poke fun at Alternative Medicine. It’s not terribly original stuff, and will probably be fairly familiar to regular readers, but hopefully you might find some of it amusing.  This segment is followed by a discussion of similar themes, which runs for most of the rest of the podcast. It  concludes with the Richard Feynman reflexology story that you may remember from here.

Anyway, let me know what you think, especially if you stick it out all the way through.

PS Listening to the podcast I now notice a couple of minor factual inaccuracies on my part, notably giving the wrong name for something… ah well. Shows that talking off the cuff is not as easy as one might think. Try to spot the slip(s), if you like.

Pro-reality activism soundbite – from the desk – UPDATED

April 7, 2010

In which Dr Aust embraces a small bit of activism, though without rising from a sitting position.

As some readers will know, following the damning (and admirably well reasoned) House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee Report on Homeopathy, long-time Pro-Unreality campaigner David Tredinnick MP (noted, inter alia, for claiming his astrology CDs on expenses as “research materials”) put down an Early Day Motion. Said Early Day Motion, EDM 908, asks MPs to support the idea that local Primary Care Trusts (PCTs) – the main “gatekeepers” in the National Health Service of what treatments are acceptable – should continue to be able to contract for homeopathy services.

This EDM has attained a certain amount of fame online, with Ben Goldacre and other Bad Science and/or Pro-Rationality types (e.g. Professor David Colquhoun) noting that it gives you a quick way to tell if your MP really understands the concept of scientific evidence. Or as Ben more pithily puts it:

“Does your MP seriously believe in fairies and magic beans?”

Obviously at election time these issues come to have more of a significance – especially given the oft-expressed sentiment, which I have heard from quite a few of my friends and colleagues, that the main UK parties are so indistinguishable on many issues that it is hard to see any point which way you vote. This is especially noticeable on healthcare, as anyone who follows UK medical blogs like Dr Grumble and the Jobbing Doctor will know. I think I personally expressed this not so long ago as it being  “hard to get a cigarette paper between Labour and the Tories on their attitude to the NHS” (particularly their mystifying enthusiasm for more private sector involvement in UK healthcare, but that is a discussion for another time.)

Times Science Editor Mark Henderson wrote an interesting opinion piece a few days ago in which he argued that one could and should distinguish, regardless of political affiliation, MPs that were generally “pro-science”. The obvious implication would be that this might give one a reason to vote for a particular candidate, or at least to quiz all the candidates in one’s constituency on their position on scientific issues.

Now, when I looked at the list of signatories to Tredinnick’s EDM 908 I was rather disappointed to see my own MP, who is generally pretty sane on most things, on the list. So I sat down to write them a letter explaining my unhappiness. I should say that I have written to said MP a few times before, the issues that prompted me being:

– the attempt in late 2006 by some religious groups to blizzard schools with pro-“Intelligent Design” literature

– the May 2008  House of Commons vote on stem cell research (and time limits for termination of pregnancy)

–  the BCA v Singh case and more generally the campaign for libel reform.

So it seemed like about time for my annual letter to the MP. Anyway, here is what I penned and sent off last night.


Dear xxxxxxx

As one of your constituents I was disappointed to see that you had signed David Tredinnick MP’s EDM 908 on NHS support for homeopathy.

As a scientist, and the husband of an NHS doctor, I feel strongly that homeopathy has no place in the NHS. As my wife says, when other services – things like health visitors, and home occupational therapy services for people housebound with disabilties – are under threat due to financial shortages, it is indefensible to be spending money on placebo therapies. Even if the actual amount is small, it could be better used elsewhere. Funding homeopathy on the NHS has no place in the era of basing medical treatments on evidence.

Moving to evidence, from a scientific standpoint the EDM, like the evidence the homeopaths gave to the recent Science and Technology Select Committee Hearing on homeopathy, is misleading. In any discussion weighting scientific and medical evidence, the simple NUMBER of published results is not the most important thing. It is the quality of the data – things like the size of the trial (number of patients enrolled) and in particular a trial’s freedom from obvious biases – that counts. Simply totting up the number of trials is a bit like assessing the value of the ideas in a book by asking how many pages it has. The overall verdict on homeopathy is quite clear, and that is that it is no more than a placebo.

Mr Tredinnick does not appear to understand the idea of scientific evidence, and has a long history of bizarre pronouncements on health matters, such as commending astrology and suggesting it is worthy of consideration as a health intervention. His views on the subject of Alternative Medicine are regarded, by every doctor or scientist I have ever discussed them with, as utterly partisan and wholly at odds with the evidence.

The provision of homeopathy is often defended as a matter of “choice”. I should say that I am entirely happy that people CHOOSE to use their own money to visit a homeopath, in the same way that they can choose to join a health club, take a spa break, or patronise a fortune teller. It is clearly their right to do so. But funding such things from the public purse is something else.

Could I ask you to please re-consider whether you wish to support EDM 908.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Aust


I have so far received the form “received your email” reply from my MP’s office, noting that it is a very busy time so a proper reply may take a while. Given the imminent election they have more of a point than usual. But I will let you know when I hear anything, and add any replies below.


UPDATE April 9th.

Hurrah! – I am gratified to see that my MP has removed their signature from the EDM.

Though I wouldn’t presume to claim the credit – I suspect s/he was getting admonished (or let us say “informed” )  by sceptical members of his/her own parliamentary party.

Meanwhile, to see the kind of crap that is going on in the NHS as it struggles, under political Diktat, to make cuts whilst simultaneously saying “there will be no cuts”, see here.

And fear not, the Peoples’ Medical Journal knows what is needed in healthcare. This tragic story manages to suggest it is the Tories, while this one suggests hypnotherapy. *sigh*

Off-topic PS: For those interested in the Daily Fail’s tragic-cancer-patient-can’t-get-drug-due-to-Labour-NHS-meanness story alluded to above:

(i) a response from Sir Michael Rawlins of NICE (I can’t quite tell if he is bemused, or angry, or both – though I suspect the latter) ;

(ii) note that the Daily Fail story quotes Karol Sikora. Enough said.

Crystalline stuff – but it’s NOT Woo

April 6, 2010

In  which Dr Aust greets a newbie (ish) to the Sceptical Blogoverse

It is always nice to welcome a new blogger to the Bad Science blogosphere – especially when the blogger is:

(i) A proper scientist (works in a lab, and that stuff)
(ii) Someone you’ve actually met
(iii) Doing a nice job of debunking the Magic Beans Shaking Water Brigade, aka the Homeopaths.

In which context, it is a pleasure to see fellow skeptical drinker “Xtal Dave” now live and blogging on WordPress, having transferred his blog over from his old spot at Posterous.

If you are wondering what this has to do with crystals, as per the title, Dave is an X-ray crystallographer (and a biochemist, but we won’t hold that against him).

Dave is, in fact, the second blogging x-ray crystallographer I know, the first being the excellent Professor Stephen Curry, who blogs at Reciprocal Space.

“Xtal” is a sort of reduced scientists’ shorthand for “Crystal”, if you were wondering.

Anyway, Dave has moved his blog archive, which stretches back to late Autumn, over from Posterous, so do go and check it out.