Stuff that occurs to me

All of my 'how to' posts are tagged here. The most popular posts are about blocking and private accounts on Twitter, also the science communication jobs list. None of the science or medical information I might post to this blog should be taken as medical advice (I'm not medically trained).

Think of this blog as a sort of nursery for my half-baked ideas hence 'stuff that occurs to me'.

Contact: @JoBrodie Email: jo DOT brodie AT gmail DOT com

Science in London: The 2017 scientific society talks in London blog post

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Alternative medicine conferences and events - a guide for hotels and conference centres

tl;dr is it a good idea to produce a checklist for hotel event bookers so that they can avoid hosting out and out quackery? What would go in the checklist? 




Occasionally skeptically-minded people* will learn that a hotel's conference rooms are to be used for a health-related event on a topic that has the potential to be harmful and costly to customers ('patients'). Occasionally such talks even take place at universities or on hospital trust grounds too.

Universities and hospitals generally don't want to be associated with quackery, particularly dangerous stuff, and tend to be pretty amenable to cancelling the event or having it moved off-site. That's not always the case with hotels. Many of us would prefer that these events were cancelled completely but as long as the event is legal then there's not much we can do.

Cancer-related alternative health events, however, may be in danger of breaching the Cancer Act 1939 and it may be more appropriate to cancel them. Of course it's entirely possible that someone wants to talk about complementary support for people with cancer with no mention of stopping their treatment and no advice about undertaking unevidenced treatments - despite the treatment being quackery it's probably fairly hairmless and I suspect we don't really have much of a valid objection.

This example below though - where a speaker encouraged audience members who had cancer to give up their medication (or avoid taking it in the first place) - that took place at a hotel in Liverpool would seem to be one of the ones that should not have gone ahead. The report, from Michael Marshall of the Good Thinking Society, is a startling read.

Cancer ‘Cure’ is Quackers Skeptical Magazine, November 2017, by Michael Marshall

Hotel event bookers might not know whether a health-related talk, perhaps badged as a 'wellness' event, is unevidenced quackery or the latest thing that everyone should know about and that's where the skeptical-minded community might be able to help.

I wondered if we might put together a short checklist to help people appraise whether events are likely to cause problems. Does this idea have 'legs' as they say?

For example I might include things like
  • if it mentions cancer at all ask them to assure you (the hotel booker) how they will ensure that the content of the presentation and any responses to questions don't breach the Cancer Act 1939 (Trading Standards can veto these events, or bring criminal proceedings against the speaker - I've never heard of venues being prosecuted though, anyone know?)
  • if it talks about curing any health condition beware - this may fall within misleading advertising (overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority in general, anything relating to the use of medicines would fall under the MHRA [Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Authority]
  • also be wary of "that they don't want you to know about" type of hyperbole
  • be aware that skeptically-minded people often attend these events for monitoring purposes
  • possibility of the whole social media backlash thing, though I think hotels can probably weather that!
  • the very real possibility of doing harm to members of the public either by them paying out money for a duff event, or a duff treatment (or them failing to follow better treatment advice) - this is not a good look.
  • a list of 'treatment modalities' known to be unevidenced twaddle (eg homeopathy, MMS aka Master Mineral Solution or Miracle Mineral Solution, it goes by other names too)
  • a list of treatments for which the evidence is not very good
  • how the skeptic-minded community can help beforehand 
  • links to other 'how to spot quackery' checklists including these red flags, or this rough guide to spotting bad science
*healthcare professionals, scientists, skeptical activists, concerned members of the public etc
Skepticism-based clearing houses
Any of these organisations would possibly be able to field, or forward on, enquiries from hotels or other event-conference-centres about potentially problematic health events.
Obviously if your organisation is listed above and you're thinking "hang on, we don't really have the capacity for that!" I can remove you (or amend the listing to clarify the way you might like to be involved).
  • Are there any good skeptic-monitored hashtags? (Beyond #homeopathy and #Burzynski?).
  • Do we have examples of successes (from our point of view) where an event has been cancelled or moved?

Examples of events being cancelled or moved

A Cinema In London Has Pulled A Documentary By A Disgraced Anti-Vaccine Activist (January 2016) Buzzfeed - Vaxxed, an anti-vaccination film directed by Andrew Wakefield, was to be screened at Curzon Soho but an outcry from scientists and the public stopped that. The film had previously been removed from the Tribeca Film Festival.

Manchester United cancel David Icke show at Old Trafford after backlash (17 November 2017)  The Guardian - the cancellation possibly more to do with alleged antisemitic remarks than quackery per se but an interesting example of social media backlash causing a venue to investigate further.

UCL cancels homeopathy event by Indian docs after complaints (2 February 2016) The Wire - see background to this story in Andy Lewis' blog Indian Homeopaths come to UK to Lecture on Treating Cancer (comment: “Event cancelled. Booking made by junior sec unaware of issues. Lessons learnt process set up. New instructions on booking in IoN now in place.”)

Cancelled: Man who claims to have cured cancer will not be speaking in Ireland (16 June 2015) The Journal - one event was scheduled to take place at the Clayton Hotel in Galway but was moved to another hotel, which later cancelled once the organisers learned how controversial the speaker's views were, a second event in Dublin was also cancelled. More info at Cork Skeptics' page (they led the campaign).

Other responses to quackery






Saturday, 11 November 2017

Updating my list of places that might employ science communicators

In 2003 when I began working in science communication I didn't know about all the different type of jobs available or the different sectors, so I began collecting examples of places that had employed, or seemed likely to employ, science communicators. 

That list became a hugely popular blog post in 2009 and I have been perennially updating it ever since. The latest version (checked Nov 2017) now lives in a Google Spreadsheet: Scicomm jobs - list of vacancies pages employing science communicators

Science communication happens in medical research charities, schools, newspapers, museums, universities, community groups, learned societies, pharma companies, government - it is impossible to completely map all the possible ways that one can do scicomm.

The jobs are hugely varied too - health information professionals (my own background), PR people, journalists, museum explainers, bloggers, television or radio presenters and vloggers, scientists who talk about their work, non-scientists who talk about other people's work. It's a big sector!

Anyway if you're new to science communication I hope you'll find something interesting among the suggestions.

Note that these employers also employ IT specialists, HR personnel etc so the vacancies pages will probably be of use to anyone looking for a job, but the focus is on scientific (broadly) institutions.

Note to employers
PLEASE consider adding a /jobs redirect to the end of your homepage address and pointing that to wherever you're currently keeping your jobs. The reason this list of science communication vacancies pages needs updating so frequently is partly because you keep moving your jobs around every time you have a website refresh but also because you use different terms to describe jobs (jobs, vacancies, recruitment, work for us, work with us, opportunities). 

Obviously you are free to put your vacancies pages wherever you wish and call them whatever you like but please let's all point to them with /jobs for simplicity. Thank you. This will let anyone type /jobs at the end of your homepage URL and go straight to your vacancies page, hooray!




Tuesday, 7 November 2017

I've had it up to here with homeopaths marketing CEASE therapy quackery for autism




UK homeopaths are not allowed to make misleading claims about homeopathy (no marketer is allowed to make misleading claims about any product or service). We have a fairly strange situation with the marketing of CEASE therapy in the UK though, which I have written about before, in passing, in October 2016 and July 2015.

CEASE stands for 'Complete Elimination of Autistic Spectrum Expression' - a name that belies its intention despite advertising regulations. As marketers are allowed to write out acronyms in full they are able to strongly (and wrongly) imply that the treatment can help people (typically children) who have autism.

I shan't link to it but there's an official CEASE therapy website which has recently been strongly criticised by the Dutch equivalent of the UK's Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). However that website, not being hosted in the UK, is more able to ignore the ASA's requirements for advertising. Homeopaths around the world who have completed the CEASE training can also have a page about them in the practitioners section of the website.

UK homeopaths can therefore bypass advertising regulations while still obliquely promoting CEASE as a treatment for autism by
(i) avoiding making direct claims about homeopathy, CEASE and autism on their websites (some of them instead say that the ASA forbids them from making certain claims, or that the ASA has told them to remove certain claims etc)
(ii) spell out the acronym CEASE in full
(iii) link to the official CEASE page which is currently free-er to make claims. That is, defer the actual marketing to another site
(iv) leave page visitors to draw the hoped-for conclusion

Basically it's "I can't say anything about this treatment (or I'll get in trouble with the ASA) but go and have a look at this website that can say stuff and then come back here and make an appointment." As an added bonus the sites often talk about detoxing from vaccinations, thereby maintaining the background anxiety that autism and vaccinations are linked in some way (they're not).

I would like to see the term 'CEASE' ceased and no longer used in marketing, also no more linking to the 'cease-therapy' website. Ideally the homeopathy professional societies would sanction their members for implying any treatment was useful for autism.

~oOo~    •••    ~oOo~

Teddington Homeopathy (Melissa Wakeling) has been on the ASA's non-compliant list of online advertisers since August 2015 for failing to make all the required corrections to her marketing of CEASE therapy. She did make a few changes, but the website still makes misleading claims.

Interestingly one of the criticisms in the original adjudication was that Teddington Homeopathy linked to two websites which contained problematic phrases in their URLs (web addresses). Here's what the ASA said -
"The page also contained links to external websites containing "homeopathy-for-autism" and "homeopathy-and-autism-faq" in the visible URLS..."
and
"We welcomed Teddington Homeopathy's decision to remove the testimonial and other material from the page, but considered that the information about Tinus Smits and the URLs still implied a benefit for homeopathy and CEASE therapy for autism, and that the intention of CEASE therapy was to treat autism."
Comparing what the page was like on 23 December 2013 and currently (screenshots below) shows that some changes have indeed been made, though the current version is at pains to imply that they haven't.

Teddington Homeopathy's page on CEASE therapy in 2013 before the ASA made them change it.

Teddington Homeopathy's page on CEASE therapy after amendments were made, in line with ASA's requirements. As not all the amendments have been made yet the site has been listed as a non-compliant online advertiser.

The Society of Homeopaths has noted in their 2016 annual report that CEASE therapy was something that a lof of their members were keen to learn about, as part of their continuing professional development... obviously I'd prefer that they take to task their members who are promoting a non-therapy to vulnerable families.







Friday, 3 November 2017

Invented words and phrases (by me) - a small collection

Sometimes the existing language won't do and you have to create a new word, or one suggests itself. A lot of the time it's just recombining prefixes, infixes and suffixes but occasionally one that I quite like emerges. I'm sure you have your own, here are mine. If you tell me yours I might add a section at the bottom for them :)

While you're listening enjoy the excellent poomphing sounds of Groove Armada's Chicago.



Apostroppy - people who get extra miffed with misplaced apostrophe's (see what I did there!). Inspired by @PenguinGalaxy's misspelling of 'apostrope'

Damplitude - a measure of how hard it's raining, from how high the drops bounce on the pavement

DNAouement - the conclusion of a Jeremy Kyle show

Flim-flammable - a phrase looking for a use, without much hope of a resolution unless there are some good fire myths it might be applied to

Lipidome / lipidomics - I came up with this in 2000 after attending a conference on lipid chemistry. Around that time proteome (and later metabolome) was all the rage I think and I, being the only lipid chemist in the department, jokingly suggested the lipidome - which has since become a real word. I doubt I was the first to think of it! The lipid-ome is the full complement of all lipids (eg cell membrane lipids).

Malheureuse legumes - reaching for a description for poisonous mushrooms during an O Level French oral exam in which I had to role play the sister of a boy who'd eaten them in the forest. I'd forgotten the word 'champignon'. Fortunately I never had to use it as the examiner used the correct word in the preliminary introductions to the role play.

Quantumacious - the absolute determination, despite no evidence or even evidence to the contrary, that your particularly brand of quackery can be explained by 'quantum' something or other

Monthabetically - my efforts to solve the fact that the months of the year are not alphabetic so I've renamed them Anuary, Bebruary, Charm, Dapril, Ey, Fune, Guly, Haugust, Iptember, Joctober, Movember, Zecember for my own filing purposes.

'ping it me-wards' - please send me a copy. I don't really know what I was thinking there

Teledelegates - people attending a conference solely via the Twitter hashtag

Whirritation - persistent helicopters overhead (to be honest I do quite like the sound, especially if Chinooks though they never seem to hover sadly), often heard early on Sunday mornings at the London Marathon which runs through bits of Blackheath near where I live. Those can be quite whirritating.




Thursday, 2 November 2017

Seller of GcMAF on trial - 'banned' product, unlikely claims made for it

Some of the people behind Immuno Biotech Ltd are to stand trial later this week for selling products containing GcMAF which has been wrongly touted (papers retracted by the journals that published them) as a cure-all for a number of conditions, including cancer. Despite that this trial does not appear to involve the Cancer Act 1939.

There's no good evidence that GcMAF is of any particular use as a treatment for anything and the fact that it's derived from blood products means particular care would be needed when giving this sort of thing to people.

In 2015 the MHRA (Medicines & Healthcare products Regulatory Agency) shut down a Cambridgeshire factory (UK's MHRA Shuts Down GcMAF Plant, 27 Feb 2015) that had been producing GcMAF (also known as First Immune).  The product itself is unlicensed / unapproved (effectively 'banned') so may not be marketed for anything and the equipment used to produce it may have been contaminated because poor manufacturing processes were in place.

It was also banned from import into Guernsey in Feb 2015 and their health department urged users or former users of GcMAF to contact their GP.

David Noakes, CEO of Immuno Biotech Ltd, is a former Guernsey resident who appeared on The One Show in 2015 talking about GcMAF - the interview did not appear to go well.



He and colleagues* appeared at Southwark Crown Court yesterday before their trial begins on 5 Nov (or possibly in 2018, conflicting reports "All four will stand trial at the same court next year.") - it's expected to take six weeks.

Further reading
*David Noakes - CEO, Brian Hall - associate, Emma Ward - biochemist and Loraine Noakes - distribution firm director and also his ex-wife.

Things to bear in mind
There are several different ways in which an untested alternative "treatment" can cause harm -
1) by containing an ingredient that's harmful, or by being prepared in such a way that means harmful ingredients are present at problematic doses
2) by being utterly harmless but containing nothing of use and offering no real help - wasting time for getting real treatment and wasting money
3) by offering false hope