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What Do the Party Platforms Say About Science and Research?

April 19, 2011 4 comments

As with every Canadian election, the primary issues are healthcare, the deficit, and the “scandal” de jour (Conservatives being in contempt of Parliament is this year’s scandal).

But what about science and research? This is an issue which gets lost in the fray of other issues, but is vital to Canadians maintaining a strong image around the world, as well as strengthening the economy.

So I went through all the party platforms in an effort to summarize their views on science, technology, and research. As a first step, I counted the number of times each of the words “science”, “technology”, and “research” each appear in the party platforms.

The results certainly jump out at you. The Green Party seems to be most interested in funding research and technology. This mainly stems from their wish to increase funding to “green” technologies, in an effort to save the environment.

The Conservatives and Liberals are pretty similar. In the Conservative Party platform, their promises regarding scientific endeavours are:

  • Establish 10 additional Canada Excellence Research Chairs;
  • Support the outstanding work of the Institut national d’Optique in the fields of optics and photonics;
  • Invest in strengthening the Perimeter Institute’s position as a world-leading research centre for theoretical physics; and
  • leverage funding to support Brain Canada’s efforts to support new diagnostics, treatments, and cures for brain disorders, including Alzheimer’s Disease.

In addition to these measures, the Conservatives discuss their “Digital Economy Strategy”, which includes (I’m summarizing here)

  • Extend broadband coverage to 200,000 additional rural homes
  • Increase competition in the wireless market
  • Support projects between colleges and small businesses to accelerate the adoption of new technologies
  • Promote enrollment in science, technology, engineering and math post-secondary programs

These points sound very well and good, but are very vague and I wonder how they would actually get implemented.

The Conservative Platform also states the Liberals and NDP “opposed” these measures when they forced this election. However I believe this is misleading, because rejecting a budget does not mean they reject every expenditure in the budget.

So what about the Liberals? What are they up to? Here are a few key points pulled from the Liberal Party platform:

–  A Liberal government will work with provinces, territories and the research community to bolster innovation in the health and bioscience field, improve the health of      Canadians, and help bring Canadian products to global markets.

– A Liberal government will make digital technologies one of its Canadian Champion Sectors, boosting incentives for investment in innovators seeking to conquer world markets.

– A new Innovation and Productivity Tax Credit (IPTC) that will grant Canadian investors a 15 percent tax credit for investments in small, early-stage start-ups that don’t yet have the track record to seek financing from more traditional sources such as banks and the stock market.

– An extension of the popular “Flow-Through Shares” tax model to start-ups in the three Canadian Champion Sectors. This tax incentive would allow venture companies with little or no revenue to pass on tax deductions to investors, creating a significant incentive to invest in Canadian entrepreneurs from promising sectors where Canada can become a world leader.

– A Liberal government will launch a new Innovation Gateway providing a “single window” approach that consolidates government support for innovation and entrepreneurship in emerging fields as well as long-standing areas of strength like aerospace, manufacturing and natural resources.

The Liberals also take advantage of the Conservative government’s poor record of investing in “green” technologies and taking action on climate change, which he once called a “socialist scheme”.

The Liberals discuss investing in cleaner technologies for processing the oil sands and reducing carbon emissions, though details on their plans are sketchy. Indeed, they state that investment in these fields will occur “as the economy improves”, which certainly allows plenty of room for interpretation on timelines for implementing these strategies.

Let’s take on the NDP next. As you can see from the above graph, the NDP does not talk about science to the extent of the Liberals and Conservatives. Part of this has to do with the fact that the NDP’s platform is quite a bit shorter than the other parties, but it also deals with the fact that the NDP’s primary concern is healthcare, job creation in all sectors, and social programs.

When they do discuss scientific issues, it deals with climate change and renewable energy. Some points from their platform (again, I’m summarizing):

  • Reduce green-house gas emissions to 80 percent below that of 1990 by 2050.
  • Introduce a carbon emissions cap-and-trade system
  • Cut subsidies to non-renewable energy
  • Federal financial incentives for “clean” energy, such as solar, wind, tidal and biomass
  • Support for research of “made in Canada” green technologies
  • Establish “Green Bonds” so Canadians can invest in green technologies and energy

The NDP chooses to spend their money directly helping Canadians. Which is all well and good, but I feel they don’t do enough to help bolster the economy, which is increasingly dominated by the technology industry.

Ok, now as for the Bloc. Well they hardly mention science at all, and I feel this political cartoon summarized not only their debate strategy, but their platform too, so let’s not waste any time on them.

Cartoon by Brian Gable - The Globe and Mail

Ok, so now we come to the dear Green Party. As I mentioned earlier, their platform discusses science and research more than any other party.

Of course to be fair, the Greens have exactly zero chance of winning this election (and a very slim chance of even winning a seat), so they are free to talk about how much money they want to throw at “green” technology research, without worrying about where this money is actually going to come from.

[Aside: I’ve been writing this post over about a week. It would appear that the Green Party platform I used to generate the graph at the top of the page is no longer the “official” platform. The document is now called their Vision Green and they describe it as “a comprehensive statement of our policies and programmes”. I’m not sure why they aren’t using it as their official platform anymore, but I just wanted to make that clear so you guys don’t think I’m making stuff up.]

So when the Greens talk about science and technology is pretty much always has to do with the environment and climate change. Some of the major points include:

  • Retrofitting Canada’s buildings to a high level of energy efficiency by 2025
  • Upgrade all low-income housing by 2025
  • Provide grants to cover 50% of the cost of solar-powered roofs
  • Rapid deployment of wind turbines to generate 17 GW of power (enough to power ~14 DeLorean time machines, FYI)
  • All bikes and bicycle gear will be tax-deductible and GST free
  • Massively increase funding to public transportation systems
  • 85% reduction in vehicle emissions by 2040
  • By 2017, no landfill will be able to operate without methane capture

And the list goes on. And on, and on…

All these changes will require a huge investment in researching of new technologies, assuming they ever got put in place.

These policies are well-meaning, and many of them have been implemented in other countries. But to try and get them to work in Canada, and so many of them at once, seems unfeasible.

In addition “science”, “research” and “technology”, I also made a chart searching all the party platforms for the word “homeopath”,

Indeed, as Skeptic North pointed out, the Green party would put a greater emphasis on homeopathy and other alternative medicine in our health care plans.

It makes me wonder how a party that talks a big game about using science and research to better our planet, can so greatly miss the mark on science and research in healthcare. Something to consider.

Be sure to vote on May 2. Check Elections Canada for all pertinent information.

Just How Dilute are Homeopathic Remedies?

March 4, 2011 Leave a comment

Homeopathy operates on a principle that the more dilute a “remedy”, the more potent it becomes.

Homeopathy makes no sense, and it doesn’t work, but people still cling to it even though it is simply an over glorified placebo effect.

Many homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point that not a single molecule of the original ingredient remains. Just HOW dilute is this?

Steve D wrote a post called “Putting Homeopathy in Perspective” and uses a very pretty visual: Felicia Day.

For example, one such homeopathic dilution is called 3C, which means the remedy was diluted to 1 part in 100, 3 times. This is approximately the number of Felicias in the world who are Felicia Day:

The post is really quite awesome and very well illustrates how ridiculous homeopathy is. Especially since some homeopathic remedies go up to 200C! To have even a single molecule of the original substance still in a sample of a 200C dilution, you would need a sample the size of not only our ENTIRE UNIVERSE, but

100 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000 000

ADDITIONAL UNIVERSES! (Thats 10320 in scientific notation).

It boggles the mind.

Show Homeopathy Works, Win A Million Dollars!

February 7, 2011 3 comments

ten23. Homeopathy: there's nothing in itOn Saturday, February 5th 2011, skeptics from 10 different countries took a mass overdose of homeopathic “remedies”.

Everyone was ok.

It was part of the 10:23 campaign, which I blogged about on Friday. The point of the demonstration was to show that these products are not medicine, and do absolutely nothing.

Concurrently with the demonstration, James Randi of the James Randi Educational Foundation issued a challenge to Homeopaths. The challenge is quite simple:

Show that a homeopathic remedy works better than a placebo for ANY illness, in a double-blind clinical trial designed by YOU, the homeopath, and supervised by reputable scientists. If you can show a statistically significant effect in a study of this kind, you will win $1 million for yourself, or the charity of your choice.

If homeopathy worked, this challenge would be an easy win for homeopaths. If a homeopathic remedy did anything at all, it would show a statistically different effect than a placebo. Of course, this type of study has been done many, many, many times and the results are remarkably consistent: homeopathy does not work.

James Randi gives a very nice explanation about the ideas behind homeopathy, which unfortunately are not common knowledge. My favourite quote from the video is

Many people think that the work ‘homeopathic’ just means ‘herbal’ or ‘natural’ medicine and they are shocked to learn what it really means. It should be a crime for pharmaceutical corporations to profit by denying the public this critical information about the products on their shelves.

It is extremely important that the truth about homeopathy becomes well-known. Particularly now, since I have just read on the Huffington Post (which I read when I am feeling masochistic) that a Doctoral degree is being offered in Homeopathy in the United States.

Those who graduate from the doctoral program will be qualified to diagnose illnesses and treat them with homeopathic medicine.

This is frightening. Many people have been harmed by seeking homeopathic treatment in the place of real medicine. And it just simply doesn’t work.

Homeopathy: There’s Nothing In It

February 4, 2011 2 comments

This coming weekend, protesters from 10 different countries and 23 different cities will be overdosing on Homeopathic remedies in the 10:23 campaign.

Don’t worry. They’ll be fine.

The point of the demonstration is not only show that homeopathic remedies are nothing more than sugar pills and are merely placebos, but also to gain some publicity and get the word out that Homeopathy is pseudoscientific nonsense.

There are several Canadian cities participating in the demonstration as well:

  • Montreal
  • Vancouver
  • Toronto
  • Ottawa
  • Kitchener
  • Edmonton
  • Winnipeg

For those who don’t know, 10:23 is a reference to Avogadro’s number, which is 6.022 x 1023. It is a number used frequently in chemistry to link the number of atoms of a particular substance to the mass of the substance (specifically it is the number of atoms in 12 grams of the Carbon-12 isotope). In essence it links the microscopic and macroscopic world.

It is a fitting name for this campaign since homeopathic remedies are diluted to the point that virtually (or literally) no atoms or molecules of active ingredient remains. The products are, in fact, only sugar pills.

The event is being organised by the Merseyside Skeptics Society. The event will culminate on February 6th when more than 300 people will overdose on homeopathic “medicine” at the QED conference in Manchester.

This comes at a particularly good time in Canada. The recent episode of Marketplace on CBC about Homeopathy (called “Cure or Con”) has raised quite a stir. In that episode, a small group of skeptics in Vancouver gave a demonstration of an overdose of homeopathic medicine. Nothing happened.

So hopefully this weekend’s events will garner some strong media attention and help expose this practice for what it is: nonsense.

Thanks To CBC Marketplace’s Erica Johnson

January 18, 2011 Leave a comment

A few days ago, I wrote a post about the CBC Marketplace episode on Homeopathy called “Cure or Con?”

I was quite pleased with the episode, and made that known. I also decided I would send my appreciation to the host of the show, Erica Johnson via Twitter.

I didn’t expect a response, but to my surprise she was kind enough to this nerdy little internet blogger a message back.

There certainly is a lot of animosity towards her and the episode from homeopaths, mainly because they are running out of options on how to defend their practice. The evidence is quite clear that homeopathy is nothing but a placebo, and homeopaths are bilking honest consumers out of their money.

Perhaps more importantly, they are putting people at a huge health risk if they choose homeopathic remedies rather than real medicine.

Just know that you have lots of supporters Erica, and don’t let the Homeopaths nonsense get to you!

The Adventure of Links: January 17, 2010

January 18, 2011 Leave a comment

After a long break, the Adventure of Links is back. This week,  an anti-pirate laser, the largest molecule ever made, and the most pornographic study ever. Enjoy!

Physics/Astronomy

Thunderstorms throw anti-matter into space. If I tried, I couldn’t come up with a cooler sentence than that one.

Playboy photo that was in the Apollo 12 spacecraft is up for auction. Dude, didn’t you know you can get porn for free now on the interwebs?

An astronomical portrait with 1 TERApixel resolution.

A little girl from Canada discovers a supernova. What am I doing with my life?

Astronomer reveals the Zodiac is out of whack. Loyal astrology followers ask him what they should do…

Sex is part of the problem if we are going to colonize Mars.

Health/Biology

Your weekly stoopid: Jenny McCarthy responds to the BMJ calling Andrew Wakefield a fraud. (He falsified his data. His work is a fraud.)

What do sex, drugs, and rock & roll have in common? Dopamine!

Listing nutrition information at fast food joints doesn’t discourage patrons from ordering the Double Quarter-Pounder.

The largest molecule ever made. Hint: It’s carbon-based.

Homeopaths show their nasty side. As opposed to their anti-science woo-loving side, which is closely related.

Fun/Funny

A device that blocks the noise from a dental drill.

The runways at Tampa airport need to be renumbered because the Earth’s magnetic pole is moving.

How to cut the top off a champagne bottle with a knife (with video!).

Trouble with pirates? Blast ’em with a laser!

Discovery of the world’s oldest wine-making facility.

Changes in climate correlate with the fall of the Roman Empire. Scientists once again try to explain the difference between “correlation” and “causation”.

Watson, the IBM supercomputer, beats two human champions in a game of Jeopardy!

NCBI ROFL finds the most pornographic study abstract of all time. Gotta love science!

Florida woman arrested for slapping a horse. And you thought YOU were having a bad day!

 

 

CBC Marketplace Crushes Homeopathy

January 15, 2011 6 comments

Homeopathy is bull. 100% pure organic bull.

And for once, reality TV delivered everything I had hoped for.

An episode of CBC’s Marketplace aired tonight puts homeopathy to the test. I watched it, and I still can’t believe how happy I was with the episode.

I was expecting some science with mostly woo trying to make a “balanced” view for the story. Boy was I pleasantly surprised.

In this weeks episode, CBC Marketplace host Erica Johnson heads out to try and find the evidence of efficacy behind homeopathy. What she finds is excuses, loopholes and shrugging shoulders.

One homeopath even went so far as to warrant the treatment of stage 1 breast cancer with homeopathy. A claim met with (unexpected) skepticism from this TV show. How does it work? “We’re not really sure” she replied. Are you freakin’ kidding me!?!

The episode also featured a piece about a group from the Canadian group from the Centre for inquiry, a skeptic group, who went outside a Vancouver hospital and purposefully overdosed on a variety of homeopathic medicines. The result? Yeah they’re fine.

But as one of them pointed out, the real tragedy would be if someone gave their child homeopathic medicines instead of real medicine. In fact, homeopaths are selling “vaccines” for a huge range of diseases, including whooping-cough and, yes even polio. Are you freakin’ kidding me!?!

Homeopathic remedies have no active ingredient. None, whatsoever. They have been diluted to the point that no single pill has any active ingredient in them. To think that these pills could actually have any effect on the body is ludicrous. Yet because of tradition, these medicines have been given credence and even legitimacy by the Canadian government.

It is incredibly irresponsible of our government to give this kind of credibility to a product that, well, has no credibility! Its crap!

Homeopathy has been debunked time, and time, and time again. It has no credible science behind it, no logic behind it, and now it doesn’t even have the CBC behind it (whom I have criticized of late).

So great job CBC. Hopefully Ontario takes the hint and will get rid of its plans to regulate the sale of homeopathic medicine and call it “witchcraft” like the British government.

Update: You can now watch the full CBC Marketplace episode of  “Cure or Con” here.

“There’s Probably No God. Now Stop Worrying and Enjoy Your Life.”

December 2, 2010 2 comments

That’s what was postered on the side of buses in Toronto, Calgary and Montreal last year. And they are planning to do it again.

The Centre for Inquiry (CFI) is launching a campaign which would see similar ads on the sides of buses in Toronto starting in January, pending final approval from the Toronto Transit Commission. This  year’s campaign is “Extraordinary Claims Require Extraordinary Evidence”, and compares the belief in God and Allah to the belief in Bigfoot and Tarot reading.

Photo From Centre for Inquiry

The campaign’s website says:

Why is belief in Big Foot dismissed as delusional while belief in Allah and Christ is respected and revered? All of these claims are equally extraordinary and demand critical examination

Assuming they get approval to run the ads in Toronto, the CFI hopes to move the campaign into other major Canadian cities. 

Justin Trottier, national executive director of the Centre for Inquiry said about the campaign
 
I’d love it if everyone saw the ads and know the point of the campaign is to emphasize not the kind of knee-jerk debunking to anything suspicious but that we’re interested in a genuine debate, a conversation about so-called extraordinary claims. We’re not here to mock people who believe in these claims
 
But of course, there is mixed reaction from both the religious and atheist communities. Many religious leaders felt that the ads were designed to ridicule people’s faith. Others felt that their beliefs can stand atop the belief in Bigfoot, so a discussion on the topic would be welcome.
 
Some in the scientific and atheist communities felt that the ads were too confrontational, and that this was not the proper way to elicit a discussion on these topics.
 
My opinion is that extraordinary claims certainly do require extraordinary evidence. Bigfoot, psychics and the like all need proof before we can accept them as facts. But religion is built on faith; the belief without proof. I maintain my right to believe in a God or not, just as the rest of the world should. Challenging those beliefs on a bus is not a proper forum for this discussion.
 
Furthermore, if people want to worship a God I do not believe in, it is not my place to challenge them about it. They have as much right to believe as I have not to believe. However, if religion starts to influence government policy, then it definitely becomes fair game to argue the proper place of religion in politics. Thankfully, this is not as big a problem in Canada as it is in the USA.
 
I’d love to hear what  you guys think about this issue, so please take a second and answer this poll below, or leave a comment.
 

“Natural” Does Not Mean “Better”

November 18, 2010 10 comments

At least, not always.

But that’s what purveyors of Natural Health Products (NHPs) say. Synthetic is bad. Natural is good.

Unfortunately, things are not that simple. Some things that occur naturally on Earth are very good for you. But some of them are very bad.

Some things that are synthetic are very good for you. But some of them are very bad.

And some things, natural and synthetic, do nothing at all.

Along with the Green revolution came the Natural Health revolution. We’ve begun to hear more and more about how many chemicals permeate through our food chain, how many pills we take and how many food additives we eat.

As a corollary, we have begun to see Natural Health and Food stores cropping up on street corners. Supermarkets have "all organic" sections. Pharmacies have a whole aisle dedicated to herbal supplements.

Whole Foods Market in Redwood, California. Via Wikipedia

Companies respond to customer demand. Customers have begun demanding natural and "organic" foods. So companies have committed resources acknowledging this demand.

But are these products as good as the companies say? Do the hippies down at the natural food store know, without a doubt, that taking certain supplements will boost your immune system, or help prevent cancer, or increase your energy level? Or are they simply reading the label and regurgitating it to their customers?

It is a question that has gotten some international attention recently. Most notably perhaps, is the company POM Wonderful, which has

…been banned from endorsing any product without competent and reliable scientific information to back up the claim. [The Globe and Mail]

POM Wonderful has shown up in the news a couple of times this year. In March, POM was one of 17 companies given a warning letter from the Food and Drug Administration for making misleading statements about their POM Juice and POMx pills.

In the case of POM pomegranate juice, the agency said that the company’s Web site, which is listed on its bottles, carried misleading claims that the juice could prevent or cure diseases like hypertension, diabetes and cancer.Such claims are not allowed on food products and would require that the juice be treated, in regulatory terms, as a drug, according to the letter sent to the company. [The New York Times]

In September of 2010, the Federal Trade Commission released a statement concerning the advertisements of POM. David Vladeck, Director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection said

When a company touts scientific research in its advertising, the research must squarely support the claims made.  Contrary to POM Wonderful’s advertising, the available scientific information does not prove that POM Juice or POMx effectively treats or prevents these illnesses.

POM disputes the FTC’s claims, and has filed suit against them. This battle will go on for a while.

But this situation raises a big question: how are NHPs regulated? How are the health benefits they claim to provide substantiated? Let’s investigate…

Perhaps unsurprisingly, NHPs are not regulated in the same way as drugs. Up until the 1990’s, Canada did not have a non-drug supplement regulation framework in place. Products were either drugs or they were food products.

After several years in development, the Natural Health Product Regulations (NHPR) were put into effect on January 1, 2004. So what products fall under these regulations?

Products that fall within these Regulations include herbal remedies, homeopathic medicines, vitamins, minerals, traditional medicines, probiotics, amino acids and essential fatty acids. In addition, many everyday consumer products, such as certain toothpastes, antiperspirants, shampoos, facial products and mouthwashes are also classified as NHPs in Canada because of their medicinal ingredients and intended uses. [Health Canada Website] (emphasis mine)

I emphasize ‘homeopathic medicines’ because I am not a big fan of homeopathy and I am thoroughly disgusted that Canada allows such products to be sold.

So the NHPR does require that these products meet certain standards of safety and efficacy. Unfortunately, these standards are set extremely low.

In the case of homeopathic medicines, for example, Health Canada will accept references to the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia or Homeopathic Materia Medica. These documents are essentially a collection of anecdotal evidence, and have no scientific basis.

For other NHPs, Health Canada will accept "references to a traditional use". This means that if a product has been used for over 50 years to treat a certain ailment, it is deemed "effective" by Health Canada standards. No scientific evidence or medical studies are necessary in this case. If sufficient documentation is not available to prove that a product has been used for 50 years, the word of "three or more herbalists or aboriginal elders may serve as the source of information".

What pops into my mind in this case is bloodletting, which was used for well over 50 years and, by these standards, it would have sufficient evidence to prove its efficacy.

The topic of efficacy becomes the primary issue here. I would never take a prescription medication, or even an over-the-counter medication, without knowing that it has been sufficiently tested. Why then, do we take NHPs without demanding the same high standards of testing?

It seems as though we should. Looking at Health Canada’s Advisories, Warnings and Recalls for the Public – 2009, we see that more than half of the warnings were issued for NHPs.

Natural, it seems, does not mean better.

It is a very polarizing issue. A post written by Barry Green on Ottawa Skeptics a couple of years ago summarizes the position of the two sides extremely well.

When skeptics look at NHPs, they see a broad spectrum of products ranging from those proven effective under certain circumstances (vitamins) to those with possible pharmacological properties yet unproven (naturopathy) to those which are the very essence of quackery (homeopathy).  Skeptics see efficacy regulations as necessary to prevent wasting healthcare spending on nonsense and to protect the public from fraud and the dangerous distraction of ineffective treatments.

When CAM advocates look at NHPs, they see a rich pharmacopoeia of natural remedies whose curative powers, tapped through ancient wisdom, can be experienced firsthand without the need for scientific sanction, the dangers of "allopathic" medicine or the enrichment of "Big Pharma."  NHP supporters see efficacy regulations as unethical restriction and unnecessary expense.

My personal opinion is that NHPs should be required to undergo a higher standard of efficacy and safety testing. I don’t think all NHPs are bad. However I do feel that any product which is intended to alter the function of your body, even if the intent is to improve function, should be rigorously tested.

This will not go over well. It was announced recently in the European Union that all herbal supplements must be classified as either food or drugs by April 2011. This puts the supplements under the same guidelines of testing as pharmaceutical drugs. However, many NHP proponents see this as a big problem, since many small-time manufacturers of NHPs will not be able to afford to get the regulatory approval and be driven out of business.

This seems a bit hypocritical to me. If you are so concerned about the health of people, don’t you want to guarantee that what you are selling them is not only safe, but also that it truly is making them healthier?

Another big problem is that the current system of regulation makes it far too easy for peddlers of pseudoscience and quackery to make a profit off the general public, whose choices about products and treatments for maintaining a healthy lifestyle have gotten much more complicated in recent years. The recent acai berry scam comes to mind, not to mention the large number of sham diet drugs on the market today. All of these products were able to flourish because of the lack of strong regulation on NHPs.

So sometimes "natural" is better. Sometimes it’s not. But in order to be sure the products need to be tested. We can’t take tradition, word of mouth, or anecdotes as evidence anymore. We need something more concrete. Because after all, we are all trying to be healthy. So let’s do the legwork and find the best way to make that happen.

Homeopathy “Tricks You” Into Feeling Better? *Facepalm*

November 17, 2010 1 comment

Homeopathy is a form of Complementary and Alternative Medicine which has been largely discredited by the medical community. At its core, it is the belief that by diluting a substance to extremely small amounts, often until none of the active ingredient remains in the final product, makes the remedy more potent.

It makes no sense, and it doesn’t work. Yet because of tradition and some unfortunate legislation in 1938 in the United States, Homeopathy is still around.

A study was published earlier this week in the journal Rheumatology. Some news outlets are saying that the outcome shows that homeopathy “tricks you” into feeling better. This made me feel like poor Captain Picard here.

The study examined 5 groups of patients suffering from Rheumatoid arthritis. It split these participants into 5 groups:

  1. Those that received consultation and individualized treatment from a Homeopath
  2. Those that received consultation and complex treatment from a Homeopath (complex treatment is giving the patient a group of standard homeopathic remedies which are not tailored specifically to the patient).
  3. Those that received consultation from a Homeopath but given a placebo.
  4. Those that received no consolation and given complex treatment.
  5. Those that received no consolation and given a placebo.

The groups were blinded as to whether they received a placebo or a real treatment, but obviously you couldn’t blind them to whether or not they received a consultation.

I won’t go into all the data analysis or statistics, but the results eventually state that there was no difference between the placebo treatment and homeopathic treatment, which is not surprising.

However, the authors go on to assert that there was a significant difference between those that received a consultation and those that didn’t, and that this is evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy.

From the Telegraph:

Dr Sarah Brien, the study’s lead author, said that while previous research had suggested homeopathy could help patients with rheumatoid arthritis, the study provided the first scientific evidence to show such benefits were “specifically due to its unique consultation process”.

There are a few problems with this. The first is that the study is fairly small, therefore the power of their results is not high enough to make any broad stroke conclusions about the efficacy of homeopathy.

Second, the group which received a consultation was not adequately compared to anything. Comparing a homeopathic consultation to no consultation, and then claiming that homeopathy made these people feel better is not a sound conclusion. The authors should have compared the group receiving a homeopathic consultation to a group which received some other form of personal consultation or experience, like speaking with a medical doctor or hell, even a motivational speaker!

Steven Novella gives a good explanation on Science-Based Medicine about the Hawthorne effect which can have a significant impact on a study. Having the personal experience of speakin to a person may make for a better patient outcome, but it certainly does not prove any efficacy of homeopathy itself.