Posts Tagged ‘Ben Goldacre’

What are the odds?


I have just learned that tomorrow, the 20th of October 2010, is the first ever World Statistics Day – officially designated by the UN!

As a scientist, I directly use statistics every day, analysing and reporting results of experiments, and reading and evaluating the research of others.  As a regular person, I indirectly use statistics every day.

Some are statistics that I have gathered, consciously or unconsciously.  (When is the bus due?  How likely am I to catch it if I wait another 5 minutes?)

Some are statistics that I’ve been explicitly exposed to – in advertisements, media reports, or conversations with people I know.  (Will dressing like this help me get the job?  Will this candidate’s policies really improve the economy?  Will this candidate really implement these policies?  How bad is my lack of regular exercise for my long-term health?)

Responsible use of statistics is one of the greatest boons to modern science – from the development and evaluation of medical innovations (yay, Florence Nightingale!) to the examination of global climate (it’s changing).

Irresponsible use of statistics is an increasing threat.  From frauds misusing the numbers to promote quack alternatives to medicine, to news outlets misrepresenting results for the sake of a headline, to politicians and industry executives lying with a veneer of scientific credibility.

Without (responsible) statistics, we would be at the mercy of our appallingly bias-laden intuitions.  (Be honest, did you get the Monty Hall problem right when you first came across it?)  Without a basic understanding of statistics, we are at the mercy of people who will distort the data to try to convince us of anything.

A tiny side-note here:  despite the popular aphorism, it is not true that you can prove anything you want with statistics.  You can claim anything you want.  If your audience is ignorant enough you might get away with it.  But only by lying and distorting.  Statistics don’t lie to people; people lie to people (and often to themselves.) If you understand statistics – and I mean the basic concepts, not the fancy mathematical equations – then it is much harder for someone to lie to you with statistics.

Okay, I’d love to go on at greater length.  But I have some data to analyze.

In celebration, here are some things to check out.  Enjoy!

  • R, the best way to do statistics.  It’s free and it’s friendly.  It’s used in beginners courses, and it’s used by professional statisticians.  Give it a try.  You know you want to!
  • Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog and book, with loads of tips about what to look out for in popular portrayals of science and statistics.  (That book would serve as a good introduction to statistical thinking, among other things.)
  • Hans Rosling’s presentation of beautiful statistics (YouTube) – proving that stats don’t have to be boring and opaque.

Homeopathy at Boots: an open letter


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,, 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.

Homeopathy awareness


Steve Novella at the Neurologica blog just pointed out that this is the British Homeopathic Association’s “Homeopathy Awareness Week”.

He is right – I think we all need to be more aware of just how homeopathy can affect our lives. I encourage you to read Steve’s post, which gives a quick history and an overview of what homeopathy entails. (See also the Science-Based Medicine blog.)

I also encourage you to look at what the carefully-assembled evidence from multiple scientific studies has to say about homeopathy. I recommend Ben Goldacre at Bad Science for this – here’s a list of his Bad Science blog posts about homeopathy, and here’s a particularly good overview. Also, anyone who can’t imagine that their experiences with homeopathy could be “just placebo effects” should really listen to his two-part programme on the BBC about the placebo effect. You don’t need to look to homeopathy for some mind-blowing, magical-seeming effects. There’s plenty in the real world of scientific medical research. And read his book, Bad Science.

Bottom line: Real medicine is about proving something is safe and effective, and abandoning it as soon as it is shown to be either unsafe or ineffective.

Alternative medicine is about believing something is safe and effective, and rejecting, ignoring, or suppressing any evidence to the contrary.

It hurts people. It hurts people because alternative practitioners encourage distrust of real medicine in general. It hurts people because they take homeopathic treatments instead of real medicine. See for example this tragic story about Gloria Thomas Sam, a nine-month-old girl who died horribly because she was given homeopathic treatment rather than real medicine for eczema. Eczema!

Real medicine isn’t infallible. But its researchers abide by strict rules of evidence: something must be proven both safe and effective before it is used in medical practice. Real medicine is self-correcting.

Homeopathy, and most alternative “medicine” modalities, are not self-correcting.

I encourage everyone – adherent, opponent, and uninterested layperson – to become a little more aware of homeopathy this week.

Photo credits:

Bad Science cover art from Bad Science blog (assumed fair use).