A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

My First Thirteen Months

Posted by apgaylard on October 5, 2008


What do I remember?

I’ve just come back from holiday and it’s dawned on me that I’ve been blogging for just over a year now; so I thought I’d indulge myself with a bit of a retrospective.

What got me going?  I had been lurking, and then commenting on Ben Goldacre’s Bad Science blog.  I had got drawn into the site via his weekly column in the Guardian.  I found that the use of basic scientific principles to expose nonsense in the media really got me thinking about science more generally again.  It also started to remind me how much of the physics I’d studied for my degree I had forgotten as my career had drifted into a narrow branch of engineering. 

The next hook was the Journal Club Ben ran on the infamous ‘Memory of Water‘ issue of the ‘journal’ Homeopathy.  I could see that many of the papers were talking rubbish about things that I knew (or remembered knowing about).  My postings on Bad Science got longer and I wondered whether I could generate enough material for a reasonably credible blog – at least one that wouldn’t embarrass me. 

A Rose By Any Other Name

Next came the quandary about a name and the degree of anonymity that I would use.  I have a long history of internet use (including usenet postings) and I’d mostly combined my initials and surname to make a username; it encourages me not to say anything that I wouldn’t mind friends, family or my employers stumbling across.  It generally means that I don’t say anything on-line that I wouldn’t say in person.  However, I did want a degree of separation between blogging and professional identities, so I gave my blog a name that doesn’t identify me directly.  It’s a very thin disguise; but one that I have become progressively less worried about maintaining. 

So, A canna’ change the laws of physics was born.  The name captures my interest in science, physics in particular.  It also suggests that physical laws bound our activities, but expresses a degree of uncertainty as to where that limit might be.  And there is the obvious sci fi reference, which points to another near life-long interest.  The tag line under the name also hints at a particular concern of mine: the referencing of sources.  (It’s also useful that it starts with an “A”)

Recurring Themes

So what have I ended up writing about? The claimed flouting of the first law of thermodynamics has been a recurring theme.  An early post dealt with Ecowatts’ Thermal Energy Cell.  This built into a small series as I complained to the BBC about their credulous coverage; this culminated in having a complaint upheld by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU). 

A stunningly ignorant coverage of dowsing by BBC Radio 4’s Questions, Questions also set me off. The best thing about this piece was it made me revise the physics of induction.  It was also encouraging to be part of a small group of listeners that succeeded in getting a correction broadcast.  I’ve been surprised just how often dowsing has reared its ugly head. 

Phototherapy has also cropped up from time to time.  The BBC’s advertorial for treating Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) with the frankly ludicrous LWS therapy formed the basis of an interesting dialogue with then BBC.  My complaint was upheld by the ECU and eventually I managed to get the broadcast item removed from the website.  It was also gratifying to see coverage of the adjudication by the Press Association

Challenging claims made for a device that allegedly treats hay fever using red LEDs resulted in an interesting dialogue with Trading Standards (still ongoing), getting a free ‘lloydspharmacy allergy reliever’ and having an excuse to publish photographs of the other half and I with our noses glowing like the proverbial Rudolph. (Though I couldn’t get a letter into the journal which carried the rather thin work upon which this devices relies for evidence of effectiveness.)

No reader of this blog could escape sensing a growing preoccupation with homeopathy.  This, I think, has a couple of sources.  In my innocent youth I, somewhat lazily, allowed myself to buy into some common homeopathic propaganda: the Royal family use it, so it must be OK; it works like vaccination – introducing your body to small quantities of pathogens to build up resistance.  When, in my early twenties, I discovered that there was typically no medicine in the medicine I felt a little cheated. 

Some members of my family have used homeopathy from time to time.  It was clear that they could ill afford it and that it didn’t work for them: yet some of them still believe.  I found this both annoying and intriguing. 

More recently the forays of homeopaths and their apologists into the realm of physics piqued my interest further; as has their misrepresentation of science.  This probably forms my main motivation in discussing this nonsense to the extent that I do.  It has become my muse for reflection on the nature of science and evidence.  It has also driven me to update my knowledge of statistics and philosophy.

The ‘papers’ in the ‘Memory of Water’ issue of Homeopathy, in particular, shifted my interest in homeopathy in this direction.  So, credit where it is due: the work of Bohumil Vybíral and Pavel Voráček reminded me of the joys of rheology and the perils of seeing things in your data that just aren’t there.  Their lack of investigative method also reminded me just how important a systematic approach to studying the physical world is.  Otto Weingärtner prompted me to think about quantum mechanics and the pivotal physical importance of Planck’s constant.  His paper also provides excellent examples of circular reasoning and mis-citation of sources.  This issue of the journal also introduced me to the bizarre world of Lionel Milgrom; a once excellent porphyrin chemist turned homeopath and quantum mystic.  Leaving the deconstruction of his quantum claims to the excellent Danny Chrastina, I explored Milgrom’s flawed take on the philosophy of science.  This work reminded me of the importance of checking original sources and not just trusting that an author actually understands them, or is using them honestly.

A strange highlight for me was seeing two letters published in Homeopathy, leading to me being listed on PubMed.  Odd to think that, going by impact factors, these are the most prestigious publications of my career!

Milgrom has not just provided me with on-going blog-fodder but also re-ignited an interest in the philosophy of science.  This has driven me to dissect Kate Chatfield‘s ridiculous philosophical apologia for homeopathy – this ten thousand word (by no means all mine!) monster has been my third most popular post.  It also moved me to carefully read Thomas Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (SSR).  It has been very enlightening to see that this work doesn’t bear many of the interpretations placed upon it.  I’ve also found in its pages some interesting insights into the world of science.

Meeting New People

One of the things that I didn’t expect to happen was that my blogging would lead me to interact with so many interesting people.  I’ve learnt a lot from discussions with pleick, dvnutrix, Dr Aust, shpalman, Paul Wilson, David Colquhoun, Gimpy and jdc325 – along with many more bloggers.

It’s also been a delight to exchange e-mails with Ben Goldacre, even getting liked to on occaision from his blog (always my busiest day for blog traffic!) 

Occasionally I’ve had the nerve to contact people who have been involved in some of the stories that I’ve covered.  When I was writing about Ecowats I was very grateful for the insights provided by Professor Stephen Smith; and that Professor Saffa Riffat took the time to reply to a couple of my e-mails.

I also asked Professor Kleinert a question about his work on low-temperature superconductors and super-fluids, when it was being cited as support for the so-called Weak Quantum Theory and homeopathy.  I would like to thank him for his reply. 

I was astonished that R. Barker Bausell, author of the compelling “Snake Oil Science – The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine”, made the time to exchange some helpful e-mails with me.  I felt the same level of shock when Bob Park did the same.  I’ve even briefly exchanged views on philosophy with Jean Bricmont

A Mixed Bag of Comments

For me, one of the most challenging things has been dealing with the less friendly correspondents and commenters. Now, I welcome constructive criticism and am always pleased to learn something new. I can’t say I like making mistakes (who does?) but I’m always happy to acknowledge them and make corrections.

I have had some really excllent and helpful comments posted on the blog.  Inevitably some people have been offended by some of the things I have written and let me know about it.  This is welcome: I rarely, if ever, set out to offend and will edit pieces if I have got things wrong or have been unfair.

However, my most vociferous critics have often been misguided or plain wrong.  For example, a response to a piece on dowsing by nigp was notable for its fallacious reasoning; he never did get back to me when I pointed this out.

Others have started a debate, and been quite aggressive in their criticism, without getting their facts straight first:  woowooscience provided a good example of this genre.  His downfall was that he was trying to debate Kuhn with me when he clearly hadn’t understood the topic.  He did eventually concede that, “I guess I’m not in a position to argue the finer points of Kuhn’s definitions. t’s [sic] time to re-read the book.”  This stands as a good example of the importance of checking ones facts before launching an attack.  I do wonder if he ever got around to reading SSR; unfortunately I haven’t heard from him since.

I would, though, like to thank him for providing this memorable quote,

 “As for your so-called “scientific homeopathy,” yes, it would vanish. Your “proper respect for evidence and its methods of collection” is just allopathy. Your argument becomes circular: if homeopathy were truly scientific, it would be allopathy, in which case it wouldn’t be homeopathy.”

Carmen G didn’t like what I said about lumatron (a.k.a. LWS) therapy for SAD.  Unfortunately she hadn’t spotted that I was criticising its use for a specific (real) condition, rather than the overall good vibes that she got from the device.  Neither did she get that anecdotes aren’t data.  I replied, but she never responded.

gewis didn’t like the tack I took in critiquing the over-unity claims of Gamma Manager for EBM or the underlying ECE theory.  Unfortunately he didn’t understand the difference between the fallacy of argument by authority and citing the work of an authority; or that authorities can have something useful to say.

I wouldn’t like to give the impression that all CAM advocates are aggressive, rude and wrong.  Take camwoo for example: she was a very nice acupuncturist who made her points politely and seemed pretty reasonable.

I’ve also been having a pretty interesting debate with Dr Damien Downing, the Medical Director of the Alliance for Natural Health (ANH).  It was a bit testy to start with – to be fair I had made a few impolite comments about some things he had written (I have edited the piece to moderate some of my grumpiness- it adds nothing to the debate).  However, it did seem to settle down to being quite reasonable.  My main gripes were that he had perpetuated the common homoeomythology about Shang et al never disclosing the identity of their ‘final eight‘ studies and that he had been overly optimistic in his assessment of the evidence for homeopathy provided by the NHS NLH database. 

To his credit he conceded the first point and we have been debating the second.  It’s a shame though that his erroneous claim about Shang et al is still in the statement carried by the ANH website.  It would be easy for him to correct it. 

I do hope that he’ll soon return to the fray, as I think that I’ve provided some pretty satisfying answers to other criticisms that he made of the Shang paper.  I also think that I have demonstrated examples of an overly generous view of the evidence for homeopathy on his part.

Correspondence Recieved

My prize for the worst correspondent of the year goes to the (hopefully) inimitable Dana Ullman.  I made a very polite point about comments he made in a published interview (the Shang paper again!) and he accused me of, “being either dishonest or inadequately informed”.  Well, I exchanged some e-mails with him and, among other things; I did put it to him that he tended to leave a lot of unfinished business when debating on the internet.  He asked, “Please spell out what issues you think are hanging”; I sent him a list (essentially the one that appears at the end of this post) in August and am hoping that he’ll reply some day.

Again, not all CAM advocates are cut from the same cloth.  I was delighted to have a very friendly exchange of e-mails with ex-homeopath and author Anthony Campbell. He’s a real gent.  His book on Homeopathy is excellent too.

Commenting Elsewhere

The prize for the longest time taken for my comments to pass through moderation (as opposed to Sue Young who just doesn’t accept them at all!) must go to Newparadigmmedicine.  I had been enthusiastically responding to an invitation to read and discuss Kuhn’s SSR, but having kicked off the discussion the blog owner never posted again. (I do hope that there isn’t a personal tragedy behind this).  I’ve had comments in the moderation queue since December 20 and December 27, 2007 respectively.

Lessons Learned

I’ve learnt some valuable lessons from running this blog.  Perhaps the most important is captured in the motto of the Royal Society: nullius in verba (roughly: take no nobody’s word for it).  The number of times people have cited papers and other sources at me that turned out not to support (or even contradict) their claims is legion.  The use of philosophical references by Lionel Milgom and Kate Chatfield are excellent examples of this failing.

In the same vein, it has also surprised me how easily someone with no medical training, like me, can puncture the claims of even medically trained CAM practitioners or advocates.  Mostly, all that is required is an objective reading of the evidence and a keen eye for logical fallacies.

It’s also important to keep up-to-date if you are going to engage in public debate.  For instance it seems that some people who make their living from practising or researching homeopathy (or both) believe that Shang et al never disclosed the identities of the studies upon which they based their final assessment.  They continue to go into print with this claim even though the author’s corrected their oversight in December 2005, in the same journal that carried the original paper and in the same issue that carries critical letters they like to quote.  Even when presented with the evidence in print some still will not believe.

I have also come to the view that it’s best to complain when things are put in print that aren’t right.  Sometimes you can get them out of the public domain.

A final lesson, as you will see shortly, is that at least one article containing the word ‘hamster’ is a useful way to boost blog traffic.

A Blogging Summary

So, in my first thirteen months I’ve managed to write 68 posts.  I’ve received 380 comments – I’d like to thank all those people who have taken the time and effort to make a comment; even those people who haven’t liked something I’ve written!

Here’s a graph that shows I had an initial burst of enthusiasm, which has waned somewhat.  However, I hope that I’ll feel sufficiently motivated to write at least a couple of posts per month. (Excuses – I have been on holiday for the last few weeks and written two conference papers in the last couple of months.)

In terms of the number of views, here are my top three posts:

  1. Good News For Hypercholesterolemic Hamsters
  2. Operation Rudolph
  3. It’s Evidence Jim, But Not As We Know It!

My personal favourites have been the series of posts on Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions (mostly because it got me reading philosophy again) and my review of the NHS NLH database evidence for homeopathy (because it got me to review what leading homeopaths think is their best evidence – the cupboard is clearly bare). 

Blogging has also driven me to complain when things are put in print (or broadcast) that are clearly wrong.  In this regard, I’d count as my successes two complaints upheld by the ECU and one that would have been had the programme makers not broadcast a corrective piece.  Getting two critical letters published in Homeopathy also surprised me – credit is due to Peter Fisher for at least exposing his readership to criticisms of their particular delusion. 

Future Plans

The blog will continue.  It’s mostly for my enjoyment and it is forcing me to revise things that I had forgotten and explore new areas of knowledge; though it is very encouraging that some of what I write is occaisionally read!

Over the next year I will cover some more of the philosophy of science.  I have promised something on the (in)famous work of Paul Feyerabend and I am also keen at looking at the ideas of Imre Lakatos in more detail. 

I have published a couple of posts covering aspects of my professional interests.  I’ll probably do some more – including some simple home experiments in fluid mechanics.

I am waiting for the MHR to give its opinion on the lloydspharmacy allergy reliver, and will discuss that when I get it.  The ECU is also considering a complaint I have made about the ‘happiest place‘ debacle.  I also hope that Jayney Goddard will get back to me about an erroneous citation in her presentation at the Scientific Research in Homeopathy conference.  A couple of other presentations at the same event are also ripe for blogging.

So, between these items of unfinished business, the continued ramblings of homeopaths and the abuse of science by the media: I don’t think that there is any shortage of material.  I just hope my enthusiasm holds out! 

Finally, I would like to thank all those who stop by to read what I have written and/or post a comment.  I am also very grateful to the bloggers who have seen fit to link to posts that I have written.

Anyway, It’s been fun and taken me to places that I would never have imagined when I set out.

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10 Responses to “My First Thirteen Months”

  1. pleick said

    Thirteen months? Hard to believe it’s been that long – it’s been an entertaining ride, and I’ve also learned quite a bit. Certainly, some people besides me have enjoyed reading your pieces.

    Congratulations, and I’m very much looking forward to the next thirteen months!

    By the way, I find your comment about how accessible most scientists are and the level of the discussions you’ve had to be very encouraging.

  2. dvnutrix said

    This work reminded me of the importance of checking original sources and not just trusting that an author actually understands them, or is using them honestly.

    For me, this is the most eye-opening and disturbing part of most of the material that you have dealt with and that we deal with over at HolfordWatch

    Your standard is high and you have written a number of posts that are classics and will remain so the “It’s evidence, Jim”, Rudolph, and your responses to Milgrom to name but a few. You’ve shown diligent scholarship and admirable manners in commenting elsewhere and in your conversations with your own commenters.

    Many congratulations and I look forward to more.

  3. stavros said

    Keep it going apgaylard, nice to have you around. I always enjoy your posts.

  4. apgaylard said

    Thanks for your kind comments. Time has flown by for me too – that’s why I’ve ended up reviewing thirteen, rather than twelve months. To pick up on pleick‘s comment, the accessibility of some senior researchers has been a very pleasant surprise. Dvnutrix has mentioned my least favourite surprise. When I started covering these issues I at least thought that prominent CAM proponents would have clever arguments, keep up to date and present referenced material honestly. Given what one can find in a few minutes on the internet (I don’t even have an academic library to help me out) I’d have thought that they would realise that their critics would find them out rather quickly. I do wonder whether they fail to understand the nature of the medium, or rely on people just accepting what they say.

  5. wilsontown said

    Just to re-iterate what the other commenters have said. I always enjoy reading this blog, and I have learned a lot from it. Which is why I got involved in blogging in the first place. I look forward to many more 13-month blocks in the future…

  6. jdc325 said

    Congratulations on your first 1.083 years. I hope you’ve enjoyed writing this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed reading it.

    Re P Leick’s comment: “By the way, I find your comment about how accessible most scientists are and the level of the discussions you’ve had to be very encouraging.”
    I was intrigued by the names in the ‘meeting new people’ bit of this post. I have to admit that I tend to assume that, for example, if I’m writing about a paper the author(s) will probably be too busy to bother with my emails. It seems academics and authors are more accomodating (heh – or less busy) than I had assumed.

  7. apgaylard said

    Wilsontown and jdc325:
    Thanks for the gracious comments. I’d like to thank Wilsontown for being my key colaborator on the Shang saga. To pick up on jdc325‘s point about the accomodating nature of academics: my success rate in getting a reply is about 70%. Only one of the replies that I’ve received was not very informative. I was, as I said, surprise; but there again I sometimes get contacted ‘out of the blue’ by people who have read some of my stuff and always try to reply helpfully. Academics don’t work under the same kind of commercial restrictions that I do, so maybe I shouldn’t have been as surprised. It could also be that the fact that four of those named are physicists helped as well.

  8. pleick said

    A strange highlight for me was seeing two letters published in Homeopathy [...]
    going by impact factors, these are the most prestigious publications of my career!

    Actually, the strangest thing as that I, who also had a letter to Homeopathy published, have received a few invitations to alternative medicine conferences and was even asked by somebody compiling a book about the luminaries of Homeopathy to provide some biographical details!

  9. apgaylard said

    pleick:

    received a few invitations to alternative medicine conferences and was even asked by somebody compiling a book about the luminaries of Homeopathy to provide some biographical details

    That is absolutely fantastic! I hope that you obliged. Now I’m jealous – I did get two letters published afterall. I guess that your one contribution has a higher potency!

  10. [...] bookmarks tagged impolite My First Thirteen Months saved by 4 others     tamjee13 bookmarked on 10/08/08 | [...]

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