A canna’ change the laws of physics

Scotty, The Naked Time, stardate 1704.3, Episode 7

Dim As a Toc H Lamp

Posted by apgaylard on December 6, 2007

 My Dad used to puzzle me with an expression he used to imply stupidity: “…as dim as a Toc H lamp…”  I think this anachranism is a particularly apt description of BBC Information’s response to my complaints about a spectacularly daft piece on a spurious ‘treatment’ for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD).

If you look at the piece you should soon see that this is nothing more than transparent quackery.

If you wish, you can follow the saga of my attempts to pin down any evidence of effectiveness in SAD for the ‘treatment’, Lightwave Stimulation (LWS) Therapy.

The short summary is: there is no evidence.

The only assertions of effectiveness are to be found in a dubious book written by proponents of various forms of ‘light medicine’.

So what have the BBC had to say? ( [ ] indicate where names have been removed, emphasis is mine)

“… We are sorry if you were unhappy with any part of the report and felt it was an advertisement for the light simulation box.  The BBC takes allegations of advertising very seriously and therefore I have contacted [the] Deputy Editor for Week-End Breakfast with your complaint.

[She] felt it was important to highlight that Richard Westcott did express the scepticism of some scientists over both the condition and this particular treatment of SAD.  She therefore does not believe it is fair to say the coverage amounted to an advertisement.

Although the discussion which followed Richard’s report did discuss light stimulation boxes, other treatments for the condition were talked about.

Please be assured that your comments have been registered and thank you again for taking the time to contact the BBC. …”

The letter makes a most unpromising start.  The representative of BBC Information, who drafted the letter, is clearly confused. The piece focussed on Lightwave Stimulation (LWS) Therapy not light simulation

This is an important distinction: LWS is based on reproducing, at very low levels of illumination, specific parts of the visible spectrum (colours).  Light treatments with at least some supporting evidence of effectiveness (e.g. bright light therapy) generally attempt to replicate the full visible spectrum (minus the potentially harmful UV component) at more realistic levels of illumination.  This latter group of approaches could be called light simulation; LWS cannot.

Now for the dim bit.  To say that “…Richard Westcott did express the scepticism of some scientists over both the condition and this particular treatment of SAD. …” is just plain false.  Listen to the report:  The only element of scepticism that Richard Westcott introduced (at 1 min 35 seconds) was a seven second statement: “… There are plenty of sceptics though; mental health experts who say seasonal affective disorder is being over diagnosed and it’s just medicalising for what for many people is just simple unhappiness …”

As you can see the only sceptical interjection referred explicitly to over diagnosis of the condition.  This is somewhat ironic as Westcott started the piece by saying that “… half of us apparently suffer from the winter blues …” when the BBC Health website provides an estimate of up to 1 in 20!  Nice to see the BBC balancing their own wild claims.

Nowhere is any scepticism presented over either the condition (not that I would wish to express any) or this particular treatment.  Quite frankly, I’m at a loss to see how anyone who has actually viewed this piece could make that statement.  Dim indeed!

If that’s the best defence that the BBC have against my charge that this was nothing more than advertorial then that tells its own story.

The concluding comment: “…Although the discussion which followed Richard’s report did discuss light stimulation boxes, other treatments for the condition were talked about ….” is very unsatisfactory.  I don’t think that it can be argued that this clearly reversed the misconceptions that Westcott presented as fact.  In any event the Westcott piece appears on the BBC website without even this context.  Therefore the BBC is implying that it is an acceptable stand alone item.

If it needs the discussion that followed to place it in context and correct its errors than it should be removed from the BBC website

This response leaves a number of issues that I have raised unanswered.

  1. Why was LWS therapy featured when there is absolutely no evidence of effectiveness in this condition?

  2. Why did Richard Westcott say of SAD sufferers: “…For many this is the answer, test what light you are missing and give a colour top-up the extra light triggers the hormones that can make you happy …” given that there is no evidence to support its use in SAD?

  3. How did the Sound Learning Centre, a small private clinic, come to be so prominently featured when only 1.5% of their clients present with SAD?

  4. Why was the Sound Learning Centre representative, Pauline Allen, not asked to produce any evidence for the efficacy of LWS therapy?

  5. Why didn’t this piece focus on the more credible treatments featured on the BBC health website?

I hope that these will be addressed as I clamber my way up the various levels of the BBC complaints process.

It’s also rather annoying to see that the Sound Learning Centre are using the BBC piece to advertise their SAD treatment.  Here’s an extract from their website:

“… Many people suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder will find some relieve from the symptoms by looking at a bright light for between 20 minutes and one hour each day, using a ‘light box’. This, however, has to be repeated each day for up to eight month of the year. In alternative to this time-consuming ritual is to open up the Visual Fields of Awareness, allowing more light to reach the eyes in a natural way, which is a more effective and longer lasting way to ensure improved health. Lightwave Stimulation (LWS) light therapy is an acknowledged method to achieve this.

Worries over ‘winter blues’ / SAD on BBC Television News video clip.

Interview with Pauline Allen regarding SAD on BBC Radio Scotland. …”

It’s particularly galling that they are pitching their totally un-evidenced ‘therapy’ by undermining a therapy that has some evidence to support its use. 

Finally, after listening to the report very carefully I’m struck by the similar vocabulary used by Allen and Westcott.  It could well be coincidence, but it makes me suspicious.

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