Archive for the ‘health’ Category

Skepticism and personal demons

2014/06/14

Humanism isn’t just a lofty label to attach to what I aspire to, or to identify myself with a particular sect of humanity. It’s also a reminder to myself about how I want to live.

Today, I want to share something I read a while back on Greta Christina’s blog – a personal account of her struggle to reconcile her ideals as a skeptic with her daily life.

She opens her account with this question:

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who’s losing weight?

On the one hand, she believes that society has an insanely inflated idea of the dangers of excess body fat, and that this distortion is especially bad for women’s emotional well-being. In her own words,

My attitude towards my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist fat-positive movement: I wasn’t going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be — eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. — at the weight that I already was.

On the other hand, she has a knee problem that makes it very sensible for her to try to lose weight.

Now, I suspect that many of the rational types in the audience are already shrugging and thinking, “What’s the issue? Follow the evidence, lose the weight, problem solved.”

But of course, anyone who has ever been through the emotional turmoil of unsuccessful dieting in the general atmosphere of society’s condemnation of excess weight can tell you that it’s not that easy. There is a minefield of emotions to navigate through, even when one has a very supportive and accepting social circle.*

Here’s an example that Greta Christina relates:

It’s really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it’s hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

So, she doesn’t just want to assert the right answer; she is also after ways to make it work in the messy, emotional rough-and-tumble of real life.

What I’m looking for is psychological tips. Ways of walking through the emotional minefield. Ways of framing this that make it more sustainable.

That’s how she closes the article.

Fortunately for those of us who want more, she has a follow-up article or two. And an ongoing blog that occasionally dips back into this intimately personal (but immensely valuable) journey.

Footnotes:

* To be perfectly clear, I have not been through such emotional trauma firsthand, but I have at least one very close friend who has walked that minefield. I have the blind luck to have a naturally thin frame: on the ancient savannah, I would have starved in the first half-decent drought. As it is, I can indulge in the gastric excesses of our culture without visible consequences. But I must remember, a healthy diet and regular exercise are as good an idea for me as for anyone – most of their benefits are not dependent on body size.

 

Conservative health?

2014/06/01

[In an ongoing renewal of this blog, I have come across a draft article that was neglected well past the expiry date of the current events it describes. However, I feel that the ideas are still worth airing, so with a little editing I'm releasing it into the wild.]

I have moved back to the province of my birth – beautiful, bountiful Alberta. It happens that an election was held shortly after our return, in which the decades-long domination of the Progressive Conservative (PC) party may be overturned was extended for another four years.

I have a tendency to lean more liberal than my Albertan family and friends – and it may not surprise them that I am writing a post critical of the PC party. What might surprise them is that my current criticism is for a failure to be sufficiently conservative.

I was perusing the PC leaflet that arrived in our mailbox before the election. (similar to the platform statement here [PDF]), and discovered a policy whose motivation is most transparently vote-buying rather than holding to a consistent political ideology. At the top of page 8 in the linked file, we read the following:

Alternative medicine plays an increasingly important role in preventative health, and needs to be considered in a holistic approach to wellness – especially in cases where naturopathic, homeopathic, chiropractic and other therapies help patients attain personal health goals. Qualified patients will be able to claim up to $500 per year for these treatments starting in 2013.

How is paying for new treatments with unproven efficacy (often, proven inefficacy) either socially or fiscally conservative?

Alberta, the wealthiest province in Canada thanks to the various economic benefits that derive from rich oil deposits, currently has a struggling health system. Many people are without a family doctor. Oh, we do have a public health system, and it’s a fair sight better than what they have south of the border, but it’s far from perfect.

And here is a nominally conservative party, electing to subsidize witch doctors. (I’m not going to go over the arguments. If you don’t know why I’m so negative about “alternative medicine”, browse the Science-Based Medicine site.) All of the approaches mentioned in the PC literature – naturopathy, homeopathy, and chiropractic – have failed to pass the tests of efficacy that we rightly demand of real medicine.

My guess, gleaned from the greasy language of the document, is that they have perceived a popular trend toward alternative medicine, and want to be seen as open-minded.

Bah.

Let me plant a flag here. I may be a social liberal. I may think that the government has no place dictating private life choices – from who you marry to how you manage your reproductive health. But when you’re putting public money toward public health – as I think we should – then the treatments paid for by that money damned well better have evidence supporting their usefulness.

And if you’re one of those open-minded individuals who likes to ask, “What’s the harm in trying new techniques that haven’t been proven yet?”, let me point you to a site where someone has done more than just ask the question – he’s tried to find the answer. It’s called What’s the Harm? It’s not pretty – there is a body count.

Sadly, as I hadn’t been resident here for the required 6 months, I didn’t get to vote in this election. But I will be voting soon enough. And sharing my opinions. What would I like to see in a party or candidate? I’d like to see the following:

  • uphold basic civil liberties (not generally a problem here – the anti-abortionists and anti-gay-marriage types seem to be on the back foot, even in conservative Alberta) (see my recent post about abortion in federal politics)
  • support democratic voting reform (my choice would be to switch to single transferable vote from our current first-past-the-post) to create a more representative form of representative democracy
  • commit to evidence-based regulation wherever possible (for example, in licensing and funding of medical practitioners and practices)
  • maintain a social welfare net that includes universal healthcare, a welfare system that encourages people back into the workforce when they are unemployed, and minimum wage laws that ensure a viable living salary for anyone who is employed

So, you know, not much.

Running for mental health

2012/08/17

No, this isn’t a post about some new research linking exercise to psychological well-being.

I’ve entered a run – I’ll be doing my first official run (after about a year of very moderate casual running). I’ll run 10 kilometers (about 6 miles). And I’m doing it for Schizophrenia. It’s the annual Open Minds Walk and Run, put on by the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta.

It’s a first for me in a couple of ways. First, it’ll be the first time I’ve run as part of an official event. Second, it’ll be the first time I’ve tried sponsored fundraising since 30-Hour Famine back in high school.

So I’ve set myself a couple of goals. First, I hope to complete the run in under 50 minutes. I’ve only run 10 km once before. Well, 9.77 km. I did it in 58 minutes 20 seconds. I think with a little training, I can meet that goal.

Second, I hope to raise $400 for schizophrenia research and outreach. If you’re interested in helping me meet that second goal, please go here to learn more. If you’d like to help me meet the first goal, perhaps you could come cheer me on. It’s in Edmonton (map on the site just linked), on September 22.

This has been an unpaid advertisement on behalf of the Schizophrenia Society of Alberta. We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog-reading …

What is religious freedom?

2012/03/15

Religious groups and Republican presidential hopefuls Rick Santorum, Mitt RomneyNewt Gingrich, and even Ron Paul, are claiming that the recent health care reforms in the US amount to an attack on religious freedom.

It seems that employers who offer health benefits cannot choose to omit “objectionable” services on the basis of religious dogma. Specifically, they cannot exclude coverage for contraceptives. Opponents of the reforms assert that, by being forced to contribute to health plans that cover these services, their religious freedom is being tossed aside.

First of all, let me say that I understand their objection. While I don’t share it, I understand that if you believe contraceptives are evil, it must be galling to be in a position where you may be financially supporting their use.

On the other hand, does this policy really net out as an attack on religious freedom?

Let me share a couple of reasons I think it is not.*

First, let’s look at parallel cases. What about a church that takes literally the old testament injunction about punishment for disobedient children? Is it religiously intolerant for the civil authorities to prohibit stoning them? No.

What about people who come from a culture where an man’s honour is more important than his wife’s or daughter’s life? Is it religiously intolerant to treat him as a murderer for satisfying his (often religiously-motivated) sense of honour? No.

Why are these not cases of religious intolerance? Because the rights of the victims not to be beaten or killed trump the rights of their attackers to satisfy whatever code of ethics they are following.

And, whether you agree with it or not, modern developed societies have decided that individuals have rights to reproductive freedom – to decide whether to separate acts of sex from acts of reproduction, through the use of contraception, and to not allow an embryo to develop into a full human being, through abortion. So far, it seems to me that the current issue is parallel with these other, less controversial issues.

Also, remember that individuals, not organizations, have rights. They are human rights, not corporate rights. So, when two “rights” appear to be in conflict – on the one hand the individual’s right to reproductive choice; on the other hand the employing organization’s right to express religious prohibitions – it is always going to be the individual’s right that triumphs.

Note that, in most cases, these will not conflict. Employees of Catholic hospitals will tend to be observant Catholics, for example. But there are plenty of Catholics who disagree with the Catholic Church’s stance on contraception. (Just as there are Jews who eat non-Kosher. I think this observation refutes William Lori’s very clever “ham sandwich defense“.)

Nothing in the law requires anyone to use contraception (contrary to the shrieks of some self-perceived victims of this law). So the question in my mind is this: should a person be free to choose contraception, as they would other (covered) medical services? Or should the employer be given veto right? If the relevant human rights laws assert a right to reproductive health services (such as contraception and sterilization), then that’s that. Rights are rights. If you disagree, try to get the rights legislation rescinded.

It is more complicated than this, of course. If health care in the US were a universal, socialized operation – as it is in most of the developed world – then these conservative religious employers would have no reason to worry. It would not be their money, but general tax money, paying for the services. (Yes, there would of course be taxpayers who would object to supporting these procedures – but that’s a different kettle of worms.)

The point is that, yes, as things stand, it looks like employers – even those affiliated with particular religious beliefs – are required to offer comprehensive health insurance. They don’t get to opt out, any more than religious educational institutions would get to opt out of child abuse laws just because they “sincerely believe” that lashes are the only appropriate, god-sanctioned way to enforce discipline.

Religious freedom doesn’t mean that you can use sincere religious belief as a loophole to ignore laws you don’t like. It means that laws cannot be created solely to discriminate against particular religious groups. It means that laws must be applied equally to all people, regardless of religious sentiment.

Is the current solution imperfect? Sure. Even more enlightened, socialized health care systems are imperfect.

Is the “Obamacare” solution eroding religious liberty? Of course not.

I’ll close with a quote from a very well-written editorial on the issue. I encourage you to read the whole thing, but this is the core:

The courts have consistently held that freedom of religion is not absolute. Religious actions have been regulated throughout American history to preserve or promote the public good. Providing health care, including contraceptives, is a public good. Religious practices have been banned when they are contrary to the public good. Freedom of belief is absolute; freedom to act on the basis of belief is regulated and must not injure others.

Footnote:

* Of course, it may be that these attacks over-state what the law demands of employers. See here for another perspective.

I’m a junkie

2011/07/06

I’ve discovered a drug. A wonderful, happy-making, pain-soothing drug. And I’m hooked.

This morning I got up and, before anyone else was awake, slipped out of the house to get myself a hit. When I came back, Deena and Kaia were up. Deena could see on my face that I’d been out getting high. She knew the look. She’s the one that got me hooked in the first place.

She was proud of me.

I was proud too.

You see, I’ve taken up running. And when you run, along with the sweat, the encroaching feeling of heaviness, the mind-fogging weariness that creeps over you, there is a payoff.

The body gives you the gift of endorphins.

Let me tell you, it’s awesome.

It’s powerful.

It’s more than a little bit habit-forming.

Just over a month after I went for my first run with Deena, I find myself eager to go out for more. Even though we’re in the middle of a hot, humid Boston summer. (Hence the early morning run, when the temperature is moderately bearable.) Even though I’m not getting quite enough sleep (two young kids and all). Even though I have all the excuses I’ve always had not to spend time on exercise.

I am almost up to five kilometres in one go – long enough to enter a proper run. My goal by the end of the summer is 10k, and at the current rate I’ll get there no problem.

Now, I hear you thinking that maybe it’s not this endogenous drug cocktail my body is dosing me with. Maybe I’m simply high on life. Maybe I’m elated at the sense of personal accomplishment.

To which I say yes, of course. I am an animal, and my subjective experiences are built from complex interactions of hormones, neurotransmitters, synaptic potentials, and other things that I (a non-biologist) don’t really understand. Stupendous!

The subjective experience is captivating, compelling, even addictive. By extension, the biological processes supporting it are pretty nifty too. (Anyone know of a good popular-level book on the science and physiology of running? Or of exercise more generally?)

And now, I’m beginning to wonder if running endorphins are some sort of gateway drug. I’ve been getting this odd urge to try out weight training too. I’m starting with push-ups, but who knows where this spiralling behaviour will lead?

(By the way, can anyone suggest any late-summer or autumn 5k or 10k runs in the Boston area that I could set my sights on?)

The flock is not the flocker

2010/09/21

Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column.  Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around.  We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.

The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority.  Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context.  Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators.  Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.

And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional:  “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.

Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves:  “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.”  That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking.  The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”  This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.

In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.”  Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves:  public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding.  Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.

We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church.  Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies?  But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave.  Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism.  Is it really rational to expect them to leave?  And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?

So where does that leave us as humanists?  I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within.  But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.

Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:


Friendly take on alt-med

2010/04/02

The latest issue of Humanitie is now out, and with it the twin columns of the Friendly Humanist and the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist.  Note to readers who have the magazine itself:  a slight editorial hiccup this issue has our columns switched – Mike’s article is attributed to me, and mine to him.  The following is my contribution.  You can read Mike’s here.

Having complementary and alternative medicine (“CAM”) as the topic of this column puts me in a dilemma.  How can I put a friendly spin on a collection of beliefs and practices that go against science and reason?  These are cornerstones of the humanist ethic.

Let’s take a very quick look at what we’re talking about.  First, the proposed mechanisms are ridiculous:  “like cures like”, chakras, chi, etc.  Second, the denigration of real medicine – of real science – that seems to inevitably accompany promotion of CAM is ignorant and dangerous.  It causes people to waste time on CAM treatments before seeking real medical advice, and makes room for even more dangerous nonsense, such as the deadly anti-vaccination paranoia.  Instead of being friendly, maybe I should be recommending that we ban all CAM practitioners from hawking their snake oil to a vulnerable public.

The only real advantage to most CAM treatments is that clients get very detailed and personal consultations.  If you’ve read about the placebo effect, you understand that our social mammal-brains are positively affected by that sort of one-on-one attention, whether or not it’s accompanied by real medicine.  It gives an air of gravitas to the water (or hand-waving or needles in the skin or whatever magical elixir is being peddled).  This encourages the brain to do its thing:  for example, reducing the sensation of pain, or soothing an inflammation.

And there lies something promising.  You see, these actual, real benefits of CAM have nothing to do with the magical beliefs of the practitioners (and clients).  In fact, even real doctors could harness this capacity for self-improvement.  If only they weren’t run ragged by overstretched health budgets, they might have time to give the same sort of deep, personal consultations.

So here’s what I’ve come up with:  the friendliest proposal I can honestly support.

Since alternatives to medicine act to erode public confidence in real science and medicine, and since this is already hurting the public health through (for example) the resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases, let’s tax them.  The high tax on cigarettes helps pay for the damage they do to the public’s health.  Similarly, a hefty tax on CAM treatments could help pay for the damage they do to the public’s health.  We could use that money to train and hire more people to practice real medicine.

The more front-line medical staff we have, the more time each can dedicate to personalised consultations, maximising the placebo benefit of simply having the attention of an expert.  And because people would have more satisfying and effective interactions with real medicine, this would reinforce rather than erode people’s confidence in a scientific approach to knowledge and healing.

How about that!  I found something positive in that pool of intellectual chaff that is euphemistically called “complementary and alternative medicine”, and I’ve managed to lay out a plan for incorporating it into a real medicine.  All without asserting that CAM practitioners should all be tossed in the sea for polluting the arena of public discourse with misinformation and ignorance.  That was pretty friendly of me, don’t you think?

In the company of woo

2009/12/29

I find myself in the company of woo, and as a skeptic it is bringing me some grief.

It’s all about homebirth – planning to deliver a baby at home, attended by a midwife, rather than in a hospital.

Deena and I came to homebirth through an examination of the evidence. (Here’s a discussion I participated in on the Bad Science forums before Kaia’s birth.) We were convinced, by scientific studies and analyses, that planning a home birth here in the UK was at least as safe as planning a hospital birth, given a competent attendant and a handy hospital in the event of complications. So we went for it.

However, many people choose homebirth for less evidence-based reasons. They cite personal intuition, or the “naturalness” of it. Not just as reasons to prefer homebirth, but as evidence of its safety.

At Edinburgh’s Pregnancy and Parents Centre (a haven for various types of woo, as well as useful support groups and great toddler activities), when we went to the “home birth support group” to relate our experiences and our evidence-based approach, it was alongside others promoting woo of various flavours as part of their support of homebirth.

A recent post on homebirth at Science-Based Medicine has stirred up an epic-length discussion, with passionate defenders on both sides. I’ve participated, but fear that just being on the homebirth side has made me, in some people’s eyes, an advocate of woo.

This is the problem: I agree with the woo-birthers that homebirth can be safe, but I disagree (passionately, vigorously) about why this is a legitimate position. And the disagreement isn’t immaterial. At the homebirth meeting, someone recommended homeopathy to treat post-partem haemorrhage. One of the most serious and potentially life-threatening complications of pregnancy, and she advised drinking high-priced water. That is dangerous advice, and I wish I’d been quick-thinking enough to respond persuasively (rather than sitting like a lump and grinding my teeth).

What is a skeptic to do? On the one hand, having someone agree with me in one breath, and back me up with an appeal to intuition in the next, makes me want to revisit and question my beliefs that much more carefully. (That’s something a skeptic should be doing anyway, for all their beliefs, but who has the time?) On the other hand, to adapt Niven’s 16th law, “There is no belief so true that one cannot find a fool believing it.” Just because someone agrees with you for bad reasons doesn’t mean you’re wrong. I came to my belief about homebirth on the basis of the science, and I’m determined that only science will dissuade me.

But there’s also the whole social side. Just as many of my fellow atheists wrinkle their brows at me when I say I go to church, many skeptics seem to do the same when I talk about homebirth. Atheists often assume that the word “church” is synonymous with supernatural beliefs and submission to a holy text, things that would feel alien in our Unitarian church. Similarly, many skeptics assume that, because it’s associated with modern medicine, hospital-based birth is inherently safer.

I’m tempted to close by declaring, evangelist-style, that skeptics must beware of this tendency to take association as evidence. Its association with woo-birthers says nothing about the safety of homebirth; nor does its association with high-tech hospitals demonstrate the superiority of hospital birth.

But perhaps a more humble conclusion is in order. Here goes:

I promise to keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict my current beliefs.
I promise to honestly communicate any changes of position that such evidence might lead me to.
I promise to avoid being swayed by other people’s assumptions (whether or not they are skeptics).
I promise to make every effort to pin my beliefs to the evidence, and nothing else.

Homeopathy at Boots: an open letter

2009/12/02

In a move reminiscent of the very successful Australian Skeptics open letter to pharmacists, the Merseyside Skeptics Society has issued an open letter to Boots pharmacies.

This is in the wake of a parliamentary subcommittee meeting on the status and labelling of homeopathic remedies sold in pharmacies (“chemists” in this country). If you have time, check out the transcript here – a long but interesting read. (Thanks to Mike for the heads-up.) Here’s Ben Goldacre’s summary, as one of the people who gave evidence at the meeting.Link
Boots sells homeopathic products. By association, it lends medical authority to these products – which have been demonstrated, so far as good research is able to demonstrate, to be medically indistinguishable from placebos. That is, they are not real medicine, and do not replace real medicine. The will not protect you from malaria; they will not protect you from H1N1. They won’t even cure your headache. If your headache does get better after homeopathy, there are three much more likely explanations: (1) it was a random coincidence (unsatisfying, but sometimes the world works that way), (2) it was going to get better anyway (you can’t tell this from a single case, but a large study of many people could), or (3) your belief in the treatment had a real effect on your malady (a very cool possibility – see Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science for more, or go read his blog).

Though they sell them, the Boots representative who spoke to the committee admitted that homeopathic treatments have no good evidence supporting their effectiveness in dealing with any health complaint. His best argument for selling homeopathy comes out in this excerpt from the start of the transcript:

Mr Bennett: We do indeed sell them and there is certainly a consumer demand for those products.

Q4 Chairman: I did not ask you that question. I said do they work beyond the placebo effect?

Mr Bennett: I have no evidence before me to suggest that they are efficacious, and we look very much for the evidence to support that, and so I am unable to give you a yes or no answer to that question.

Q5 Chairman: You sell them but you do not believe they are efficacious?

Mr Bennett: It is about consumer choice for us. A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious, but they are licensed medicinal products and, therefore, we believe it is right to make them available.

Q6 Chairman: But as a company you do not believe that they necessarily are?

Mr Bennett: We do not disbelieve either. It is an evidence issue.

They don’t have good evidence that they work, but people want to spend money on them. This is a disgustingly cynical attitude toward the public, and toward Boots pharmacists’ own responsibility as front-line dispensers of medicine.

I include the open letter below. I will also be contacting Boots. If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to do the same.

An Open Letter to Alliance Boots

The Boots brand is synonymous with health care in the United Kingdom. Your website speaks proudly about your role as a health care provider and your commitment to deliver exceptional patient care. For many people, you are their first resource for medical advice; and their chosen dispensary for prescription and non-prescription medicines. The British public trusts Boots.

However, in evidence given recently to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, you admitted that you do not believe homeopathy to be efficacious. Despite this, homeopathic products are offered for sale in Boots pharmacies – many of them bearing the trusted Boots brand.

Not only is this two-hundred-year-old pseudo-therapy implausible, it is scientifically absurd. The purported mechanisms of action fly in the face of our understanding of chemistry, physics, pharmacology and physiology. As you are aware, the best and most rigorous scientific research concludes that homeopathy offers no therapeutic effect beyond placebo, but you continue to sell these products regardless because “customers believe they work”. Is this the standard you set for yourselves?

The majority of people do not have the time or inclination to check whether the scientific literature supports the claims of efficacy made by products such as homeopathy. We trust brands such as Boots to check the facts for us, to provide sound medical advice that is in our interest and supply only those products with a demonstrable medical benefit.

We don’t expect to find products on the shelf at our local pharmacy which do not work.

Not only are these products ineffective, they can also be dangerous. Patients may delay seeking proper medical assistance because they believe homeopathy can treat their condition. Until recently, the Boots website even went so far as to tell patients that “after taking a homeopathic medicine your symptoms may become slightly worse,” and that this is “a sign that the body’s natural energies have started to counteract the illness”. Advice such as this directly encourages patients to wait before seeking real medical attention, even when their condition deteriorates.

We call upon Boots to withdraw all homeopathic products from your shelves. You should not be involved in the sale of ineffective products, because your customers trust you to do what is right for their health. Surely you agree that your commitment to excellent patient care is better served by supplying only those products whose claims can be substantiated by rigorous scientific research? Or do you really believe that Boots should be in the business of selling placebos to the sick and the injured?

The support lent by Boots to this quack therapy contributes directly to its acceptance as a valid medical treatment by the British public, acceptance it does not warrant and support it does not deserve. Please do the right thing, and remove this bogus therapy from your shelves.

Yours sincerely,
Merseyside Skeptics Society

—–

Other blogs and websites have noted this, including Skepchick, The Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, Bruce Hood, Bad Science, A Glasgow Skeptic, RichardDawkins.net, Bad Homeopathy, and New Humanist.

Also, various newspapers have picked up on Boots’ strange position: The Telegraph, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Guardian (and Ben Goldacre again, and their liveblog of the meeting), Times, and Mirror.

Feel free to comment and link to any I’ve missed.

Healthy newsreading

2009/11/03

Very closely connected with humanism is scientific skepticism. I doubt there are many (secular) humanists who wouldn’t also identify with the skeptical movement, exemplified in popular science blogs like Bad Science, podcasts like the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, and books by folks like Simon Singh.

Keep in mind, I’m not talking skepticism as in “kneejerk doubt”. I’m talking skepticism as in “I’ll believe it if you show me good evidence” – the definition most self-described skeptics would give. Much of skepticism involves learning how to tell good evidence from bad evidence.

One of the greatest day-to-day benefits of being a skeptic is having the skills to filter the claims we’re exposed to. Particularly those that get uncritically spread by journalists (and by friends and family). To that end, in addition to recommending the above sources, I’d like to pass on an article that was passed on by Ben Goldacre at Bad Science:

How to read articles about health, by Dr Alicia White

The most important rule to remember: “Don’t automatically believe the headline”.

Of course, there’s much more – read the full article to see what else she has to say. Skeptics will already be familiar with her points, but other people may find them useful. Pass on the link, or download and print off the PDF and pass that out.

I’ll take this opportunity to point out that it is simple little strategies like the ones Dr White outlines that make up most of scientific literacy. People often tell me that they would never be able to understand things like quantum physics, evolution, or acoustics, because they’re not scientifically trained.

Rubbish. The only barrier to most people understanding the key points of any science is lack of interest.*

And, when it comes to health, that’s a rather strange barrier to erect around yourself. What possible excuse could anyone have for cultivating disinterest in their own well-being? (I know, I know – whole psychological schools of thought are devoted to answering this question.)

Anyway, enjoy the article.

Footnote:

* Okay, that was a very strong claim. But I stand by it, with one caveat: one must have a teacher (or book) with some competence to communicate the science.


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