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Trinity College Dublin – DC's Improbable Science

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Trinity College Dublin

First the MHRA lets down the public by allowing deceptive labelling of sugar pills (see here, and this this blog). Now it is the turn of NICE to betray its own principles.

The National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) describes its job thus

“NICE is an independent organisation responsible for providing national guidance on promoting good health and preventing and treating ill health.”

Its Guidance document on Low Back Pain will be published on Wednesday 27 May 2009, but the newspapers have already started to comment, presumably on the assumption that it will have changed little from the Draft Guidance of September 2008. These comments may have to be changed as soon as the final version becomes available.

The draft guidance, though mostly sensible, has two recommendations that I believe to be wrong and dangerous. The recommendations include (page 7) these three.

  • Consider offering a course of manual therapy including spinal manipulation of up to 9 sessions over up to 12 weeks.
  • Consider offering a course of acupuncture needling comprising up to 10 sessions over a period of up to 12 weeks.
  • Consider offering a structured exercise programme tailored to the individual.

All three of this options are accompanied by a footnote that reads thus.

“A choice of any of these therapies may be offered, taking into account patient preference.”

On the face if it, this might seem quite reasonable. All three choices seem to be about as effective (or ineffective) as each other, so why not let patients choose between them?

Actually there are very good reasons, but NICE does not seem to have thought about them. In the past I have had a high opinion of NICE but it seems that even they are now getting bogged down in the morass of political correctness and officialdom that is the curse of the Department of Health. It is yet another example of DC’s rule number one.

Never trust anyone who uses the word ‘stakeholder’.

They do use it, often.

So what is so wrong?

For a start, I take it that the reference to “spinal manipulation” in the first recommendation is a rather cowardly allusion to chiropractic. Why not say so, if that’s whar you mean? Chiropractic is mentioned in the rest of the report but the word doesn’t seem to occur in the recommendations. Is NICE perhaps nervous that it would reduce the credibility of the report if the word chiropractic were said out loud?

Well, they have a point, I suppose. It would.

That aside, here’s what’s wrong.

The Evidence

I take as my premise that the evidence says that no manipulative therapy has any great advantage over the others.  They are all more or less equally effective.  Perhaps I should say, more or less equally ineffective, because anyone who claims to have the answer to low back pain is clearly deluded (and I should know: nobody has fixed mine yet).  So for effectiveness there are no good grounds to choose between exercise, physiotherapy, acupuncture or chiropractic.  There is, though, an enormous cultural difference.  Acupuncture and chiropractic are firmly in the realm of alternative medicine.  They both invoke all sorts of new-age nonsense for which there isn’t the slightest good evidence. That may not poison your body, but it certainly poisons your mind.

Acupuncturists talk about about “Qi”, “meridians”, “energy flows”. The fact that “sham” and “real” acupuncture consistently come out indistinguishable is surely all the evidence one needs to dismiss such nonsense. Indeed there is a small group of medical acupuncturists who do dismiss it. Most don’t. As always in irrational subjects, acupuncture is riven by internecine strife between groups who differ in the extent of their mystical tendencies,

Chiropractors talk of “subluxations”, an entirely imaginary phenomenon (but a cause of much unnecessary exposure to X-rays). Many talk of quasi-religious things like “innate energy”. And Chiropractic is even more riven by competing factions than acupuncture. See, for example, Chiropractic wars Part 3: internecine conflict.

The bait and switch trick

This is the basic trick used by ‘alternative therapists’ to gain respectability.

There is a superb essay on it by the excellent Yale neurologist Steven Novella: The Bait and Switch of Unscientific Medicine. The trick is to offer some limited and reasonable treatment (like back manipulation for low back pain).  This, it seems, is sufficient to satisfy NICE.  But then, once you are in the showroom, you can be exposed to all sorts of other nonsense about “subluxations” or “Qi”.  Still worse, you will also be exposed to the claims of many chiropractors and acupuncturists to be able to cure all manner of conditions other than back pain.  But don’t even dare to suggest that manipulation of the spine is not a cure for colic or asthma or you may find yourself sued for defamation.  The shameful legal action of the British Chiropractic Association against Simon Singh (follow it here) led to an addition to DC’s Patients’ Guide to Magic Medicine.
(In the face of such tragic behaviour, one has to be able to laugh).

Libel: A very expensive remedy, to be used only when you have no evidence. Appeals to alternative practitioners because truth is irrelevant.

NICE seems to have fallen for the bait and switch trick, hook line and sinker.

The neglected consequences

Once again, we see the consequences of paying insufficient attention to the Dilemmas of Alternative Medicine.

The lying dilemma

If acupuncture is recommended we will have acupuncturists telling patients about utterly imaginary things like “Qi” and “meridians”. And we will have chiropractors telling them about subluxations and innate energy.  It is my opinion that these things are simply make-believe (and that is also the view of a minority of acupuncturist and chiropractors).   That means that you have to decide whether the supposed benefits of the manipulation are sufficient to counterbalance the deception of patients.

Some people might think that it was worth it (though not me).  What is unforgivable is not to consider even the question.  The NICE guidance says not a word about this dilemma.  Why not?

The training dilemma

The training dilemma is even more serious.  Once some form of alternative medicine has successfully worked the Bait and Switch trick and gained a toehold in the NHS, there will be an army of box-ticking HR zombies employed to ensure that they have been properly trained in “subluxations” or “Qi”.   There will be quangos set up to issue National Occupational Standards in “subluxations” or “Qi”. Skills for Health will issue “competences” in “subluxations” or “Qi” (actually they already do). There will be courses set up to teach about “subluxations” or “Qi”, some even in ‘universities’ (there already are).

The respectability problem

But worst of all, it will become possible for aupuncturists and chiropractors to claim that they now have official government endorsement from a prestigious evidence-based organisation like NICE for “subluxations” or “Qi”.  Of course this isn’t true.  In fact the words “subluxations” or “Qi” are not even mentioned in the draft report.  That is the root of the problem. They should have been.  But omitting stuff like that is how the Bait and Switch trick works. 

Alternative medicine advocates crave, above all, respectability and acceptance.  It is sad that NICE seems to have given them more credibility and acceptance without having considered properly the secondary consequences of doing so,

 

How did this failure of NICE happen?

It seems to have been a combination of political correctness, failure to consider secondary consequences, and excessive influence of the people who stand to make money from the acceptance of alternative medicine.

Take, for example, the opinion of the British Pain Society. This organisation encompasses not just doctors. It
includes
“doctors, nurses, physiotherapists, scientists, psychologists, occupational therapists and other healthcare professionals actively engaged in the diagnosis and treatment of pain and in pain research for the benefit of patients”. Nevertheless, their response to the draft guidelines pointed out that the manipulative therapies as a whole were over-represented.

Manipulation

The guidelines assess 9 large groups of interventions of which manual therapies are only one part. The full GDG members panel of 13 individuals included two proponents of spinal manipulation/mobilisation (P Dixon and S Vogel). In addition, the chair of the panel (M Underwood) is the lead author of the UKBEAM trial on which the positive recommendation for
manipulation/mobilisation seems to predominately rest. Proponents of spinal manipulation/mobilisation were therefore over-represented in the generation of these guidelines, which, in turn could have generated the over-optimistic conclusion regarding this intervention.

It seems that the Pain Society were quite right.

LBC 97.3 Breakfast Show (25 May 2009) had a quick discussion on acupuncture (play mp3 file). After I had my say, the other side was put by Rosey Grandage. She has (among other jobs) a private acupuncture practice so she is not quite as unbiassed as me).  As usual, she  misrepresents the evidence by failing to distinguish between blind and non-blind studies. She also misrepresented what I said by implying that I was advocating drugs. That was not my point and I did not mention drugs (they, like all treatments, have pretty limited effectiveness, and they have side effects too). She said “there is very good evidence to show they (‘Qi’ and ‘meridians’] exist”.  That is simply untrue.

There can’t be a better demonstration of the consequences of falling for bait and switch than the defence mounted by Rosey Grandage. NICE may not mention “Qi” and “meridians”; but the people they want to allow into the NHS have no such compunctions.

I first came across Rosey Grandage when I discovered her contribution to the Open University/BBC course K221. That has been dealt with elsewhere.  A lot more information about acupuncture has appeared since then.  She doesn’t seem to have noticed it.  Has she not seen the Nordic Cochrane Centre report? Nor read Barker Bausell, or Singh & Ernst?  Has she any interest in evidence that might reduce her income?  Probably not.

Where to find out more

An excellent review of chiropractic can be found at the Layscience site. It was written by the indefatigable ‘Blue Wode’ who has provided enormous amounts of information at the admirable ebm-first site (I am authorised to reveal that ‘Blue Wode’ is the author of that site). There you will also find much fascinating information about both acupuncture and about chiropractic.
I’m grateful to ‘Blue Wode’ for some of the references used here.

Follow-up

Jump to the homeopathy debate

Jump to follow-up: Brian Kaplan

Obama wins! Bush and Blair have gone. Could this mark the beginning of the end of the fashion for believing things that aren’t true?

Trinity College Dublin: the Phil. “Creationism is a valid world view”

This is the 324th year of the Trinity College Philosophical Society (known locally as the ‘Phil’).  Its former members include Bishop Berkeley,  Dean Jonathan Swift, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Samuel Beckett, and E.T.S. Walton .  It was founded for “discourse of philosophy, mathematics, and other polite literature ”, and is now a debating society.

Click to enlarge

The motion was Creationism is a Valid World view.  At the dinner before the debate, the students all dutifully stood as one of them recited long graces in Latin both before and after eating.  All very Oxbridge.  So I wasn’t optimistic.  However I hadn’t taken into account the conformist tendencies of undergraduates.   Notwithstanding the Latin graces, the result of the debate was very clear indeed.

Result. The Creationists were totally wiped out. Almost the only vote for the motion was a young born-again student, who made a desperately sincere speech.

I don’t need to give the details of what happened, because the opposer of the motion, Bob Bloomfield (of the Natural History Museum) has given an excellent account (The Discovery Institute send big guns to Ireland but only manage to fire blanks) on the Beagle project blog.  Two of the proposers were Americans, from the Discovery Institute, and they said what you’d expect: nothing that would impress anyone with any education.    I’ll settle for Bloomfield’s description of me as “charmingly irascible”. Irascible, moi? Well it would make anyone mildly irritated to have to spend time arguing about creationism in 2008.

Religion, all religion, seems to me to be boring and not a thing worth wasting good time on thinking about, but the rise of barmy fundamentalism has made it essential, if only so that genetics can be taught without  accusations of racism,   I’m entirely with Dawkins,  I can’t prove that there is no god, and I can’t guarantee
that the bottom of my garden is free of fairies.  Both questions merit about the same amount of time, though if pressed, I’d go for the fairies. They are, allegedly, rather better behaved than gods.

The 24th president of the USA said, when asked for his thoughts on evolution, said

“of course like every other man of intelligence and education I do believe in organic evolution. It surprises me that at this late date such questions should be raised”.

Woodrow Wilson, 1922

That, of course, was from a president who has been described as ” leading intellectual of the Progressive Era”.

How things have changed in the time of Tony Blair, George Bush and Sarah Palin. Very few people had such barmy beliefs in 1960, never mind 1922. My thesis is much the same as that of Francis Wheen in “How mumbo-jumbo conquered the world” Sometime around 1980, with the conjunction of Thatcher, Reagan and Khomeini it came into fashion to believe things that aren’t true, just because you wished they were (actually I’d put it a bit earlier than Wheen: arguably it started when the Beatles went to that guru), It was after that when suddenly people started to believe in magic medicine, religious fundamentalism. weapons of mass destruction, and, ahem,  that the market would make us rich if only we would remove all the regulations.

Tony Blair defended in parliament the Emmanuel School which is run by a young earth creationist and used car dealer, Peter Vardy.  The head of the school, Nigel McQuoid, features strongly on the web site of the Christian Institute, This curious organisation seems to be devoted largely to creationism, homophobia and the virtue of beating children (a search of the site for “corporal punishment” gives 43 hits).  An essay by Burns & McQuoid says

“There are those who argue that Science and Christianity can be harmoniously reconciled .  ; ;. We cannot subscribe to this view”

The former head of science (yes, of science) at McQuoid’s school, Steven Layfield, had an article on the Christian Institute web site. It vanished as soon as it got some publicity but you can read it at http://www.darwinwars.com/lunatic/liars/layfield.html.
Try this quotation.

“Note every occasion when an evolutionary/old-earth paradigm (millions or billions of years) is explicitly mentioned or implied by a text-book, examination question or visitor and courteously point out the fallibility of the statement. Wherever possible, we must give the alternative (always better) Biblical explanation of the same data.”

These guys are really at the fruit-cake end of the religious spectrum.  In contrast, the young anglican chaplain of Trinity, Darren McCallig, spoke against creationism, eloquently and sensibly.  His religiousness did seem at times to be diluted almost to homeopathic extremes, but all the better for that. He seems to have a sense of humour too, judging by the poster for his services.
click to enlarge

There is, of course, a very healthy opposition to creationists in the USA too,  I like particularly Gerald Weissman’s article “The facts of evolution: fighting the Endarkenment” (it may have been the first time that I saw the wonderful word endarkenment, which describes so well the last 30 years). It starts thus.

“Those of us who practice experimental science are living in the best of times and the worst of times, and I’m not talking about A Tale of Two Cities, but a tale of two cultures. “

Here are a couple of pictures of the meeting.

Chris Stillman (geologist)

Berlinski (left) Luke Ryder (speaking), Bloomfield, DC, Stillman (right)

And some pictures of Dublin here

James Joyce, TCD quadrangle and Molly Malone. Click to view

UCL homeopathy debate

This was organised by the UCL students’ debating society.  The Darwin Lecture theatre was surprisingly full for this debate, but they weren’t all students. As usual on these occasions, the homeopaths tried to pack the audience, but this time they failed.  That tactic is fair enough I suppose, but it means that the vote failed to tell us anything much about the opinion of students, beyond the fact that not many of them opposed the motion.

There are a few though. To the horror of some of our pharmacology and neuroscience undergraduates, a student society devoted to medicines that don’t work has been started at UCL, for the first time ever.  Luckily, it seems to be a rather small society.  I was fascinated to see that they are going to hear about the evidence base for complementary therapies, from George Lewith. I had occasion a while ago to look at Dr Lewith’s attitude to evidence: see Lewith’s private clinic has curious standards.

The proposers were Simon Singh and me. Simon is author of, among other things, Fermat’s Last Theorem and Trick or Treatment.  I thought he did an excellent job.




Singh pointed out that, contrary to the view propagated by quacks, science likes wacky ideas, as long as you can produce the evidence for them  He cited dark matter as an example.

The main opposer was my old friend Peter Fisher, homeopathic physician to the Queen.  It was a pleasure to show the video of Fisher agreeing with me that there is not enough science in homeopathy to justify a BSc degree in it.  Fisher, in his papers, strikes me as one of the most honest of homeopaths.  He was “very angry” when homeopaths were caught out recommending their sugar pills to prevent malaria.  But is his speech, he struck me as less than honest. He cherry-picked the evidence quite shamelessly as usual.  And his suggestion that there was an analogy between the ‘memory of water’ and a DVD was disposed of ably by a physics student who spoke from the floor.

The results were too close for comfort, 65 for, 53 against and an amazing 37 abstentions,

Sadly we’ll never know how the students voted, because of the imported homeopaths.

Dr Brian Kaplan was there.  He had given the meeting some advance publicity, in a web posting that also kindly gave publicity to our 2006 letter to the Times. He didn’t like the letter, which is unsurprising given that it turned out to be more effective than we could ever have hoped (see also here).



On the second row, getting very excited, was homeopath Grace Da Silva-Hill and her husband,  She runs the ‘Healing with Grace’ business.  On her web site she makes the ludicrous claim that

“Homeopathy will treat the cause of your health problem, not just alleviate your symptom”

She also says, inter alia, that

“Homeopathy is effective in treating a wide range of conditions such as: asthma, . . . “

In contrast, the Cochrane review says

“There is not enough evidence to reliably assess the possible role of homeopathy in asthma. “

I have been sent her account of the debate (a reply to a query from the ubiquitous Dana Ullman).

“Hello Dana, The debate, on monday 20th Oct., organised by UCL debating society, was poorly managed, and biased, attended mostly by students, who appear to have gone there to practice their debating skills. The motion was lost by 12 (65 for and 53 against), with 37 abstentions. Peter Fisher put on a good show, and so did his second, in comparison with the rather stale and poor presentation of Simon and Qulquoun (sorry, can never spell this). My husband Ken did a rather
good caricature of him, unfortunately can’t share it here. Pity there were not more  homeopaths/supporters there. Kind regards,”

Uhuh. Well, I guess she would say that.

You can judge the critical faculties of Mrs Da Silva-Hill from a comment she left on a piece in the Daily Telegraph, ‘Homeopathy putting lives at risk with claims’. I quote from it verbatim.

“The public does not care about the research available, the public care about having their health problem sorted, where conv. medicine has failed,”

(I apologise for attributing to Mrs Da Silva in the original post a quotation from the Telegraph that appeared above her name but was actually written by somebody else. I apologise also for using a picture of her without permission.)

On the way out of the debate, I walked back to Euston Road with another homeopath, William Alderson, who had come all the way from Kings Lynn to cast his vote.  He was earnest and sincere, the conversation was amicable but his idea of evidence was so different from mine that no progress was made. You can read more about Alderson on Dr Aust’s blog.

It’s fascinating stuff.

Follow-up

Dr Brian Kaplan has posted some splenetic comments on this post. I suppose the paranoid tone is an indication that we are winning, but I do wish he’d be a bit more careful about the facts. Let me correct some of them.

(1)Neither the letter of May 2006, nor its follow up in May 2007, was written under the NHS letterhead. The follow-up letter of May 2007 contained the words

“If you have not already reviewed your own trust’s provision, you might find it useful to consider, in conjunction with your Director of Public Health, the paper that we have enclosed which, while not a full review of the scientific position, has been used by other trusts to promote evidence based commissioning.”

The enclosed form was a sample commissioning letter which reproduced the NHS logo with a notice saying “insert your NHS logo here”. The accompanying letter made it perfectly clear that the enclosed form was simply an example to help those who wanted to save money and not an official NHS communication.

(2) Kaplan says I accuse him of lying to his patients, but his reference is to (an old version of) my Dilemmas at the heart of alternative medicine. It says nothing of the sort. I have said many times that I believe homeopaths are perfectly sincere, but they are just deluded. The reference to lying in the ‘dilemmas’ concerns how to get the maximum placebo effect when you know it is a placebo. Homeopaths have not reached that stage yet.

All this information has been available since May 2007.  He should have checked.