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MICHAEL HEAP

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FROM THE JOURNAL OF THE ROYAL SOCIETY OF MEDICINE

This paper, slightly amended here, first appeared in Issue 7 of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), 2003, p2.

Every month I receive the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine and most of its contents are unintelligible to me, as, as I have already stated, I do not even have an O-level in Biology. I have noticed that the term 'evidence based' is making an increasingly frequent appearance in the Journal's pages. 'Evidence based', though a worthy aspiration for any treatment offered to the public, should not be interpreted as the sole justification for the promotion of that treatment. Nobody would buy a car solely on the basis that 'it has just passed its MOT'.

The risk is that this particular selling point will in due course come to serve more the interests of the supplier than the consumer, rather like 'holistic' and 'natural' in the case of alternative medicine and 'organic' and 'low fat' in the food industry.

Amongst the papers in the latest issue of the journal is a study of dowsing in homeopathy. (As an aside, this set me thinking what could be the sceptic's 'headline from hell' - e.g. 'Astrologer's psychic pet in past-life mystery' or 'Uri's UFO crop circle drama'). I had not realised that some homeopaths claimed to be able to distinguish homeopathic from dummy preparations (the paper's authors use the term 'placebo' which I do not like in this context) by dowsing. In this particular study six dowsers attempted to distinguish Bryonia in a 12c potency (a dilution of 10-24 and therefore unlikely to contain a single molecule of the starting material) from a dummy preparation prepared in an identical manner using distilled water as a starter. The trial was double-blinded. None of the six homeopaths performed better than random selection on 26 trials, despite their high level of confidence in most cases.

Another paper of interest to sceptics is entitled 'What's the Point of Rigorous Research on Complementary/ Alternative Medicine?' by Edzard Ernst, Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter. Professor Ernst lists eight arguments that he has encountered against applying the principles of science to complementary or alternative medicine. I shall not list them here, but suggest that you guess what these are. (If you can't get the paper, email me and I will list them for you.)

Skipping the paper on 'Psychiatry, Post-Modernism and Post-Normal Science' by R. and J. Laugharne, which I have yet to get round to reading, I must mention 'The Dangers of Wearing an Anorak' by six ophthalmologists from the Birmingham and Midland Eye Centre. This is not the cryptic title of a speech at a conference of train spotters or UFO buffs. It is a serious analysis of the visual field restriction caused by the anorak hood and thus the 'theoretical' increased danger of the wearer's being knocked down by a vehicle whilst crossing the road. The article concludes, 'Anorak wearers should turn their heads to look sideways when crossing the road'. Ah yes! But the anorak hood that the authors studied could be drawn tightly around the face. The anorak I wore until last year had a very roomy hood with no such facility. Whenever I turned my head, all I saw was the inside of the hood, since it stayed in the same place. I eventually gave the anorak to a jumble sale, but maybe I should have had it incinerated.