Medical sense reclaiming ground in Australia

I’ve seen a couple of articles recently that give me faith that medical science – and medical sense – are causing a reversal of some worrying trends.

Treatments that don’t work

In 2012 the previous Australian federal government asked the Australian chief medical officer for a review of “natural” therapies that were – and still are – covered by Medicare and many private insurance policies. Those treatments included naturopathy, aromatherapy, ear candling, crystal therapy, flower essences, homeopathy, iridology, kinesiology, reiki and rolfing.

This was welcomed by anyone who approves of taxpayer money being spent on treatments for which there is clinical evidence.

The Australian newspaper has posted a couple of articles in recent days (which I haven’t linked because they’re behind paywalls) about leaks that that review will be released soon, and it will not be good for those alternative therapies. Homeopathy got an early knocking already last year. Bravo, I say.This letter to the Australian agrees.

It’s a shame that practices like acupuncture, chiropractic, and Chinese medicine were explicitly omitted from the review, but it’s still a very good step.

Homeopathic Literature

Homeopathic Literature

Anti-vaccine movement declines

In other good news, the Guardian reports that “the income and membership of the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network (AVN) has significantly diminished in the past three years”. Both media and governments are treating the AVN appropriately (that is, they’re not pretending that theirs is an informed or balanced view), and people are responding.

Now for immunisation rates to climb back up.

News of the Obvious: Homeopathy is Nonsense


From Lifehacker:

The Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has released a new draft paper on the effectiveness of homeopathy following an in-depth analysis across 68 different health conditions.Unsurprisingly, the paper concludes that there is no reliable evidence that homoeopathy is effective for treating any ailment. Rather, it’s a potentially dangerous pseudoscience that can dupe patients into rejecting conventional and effective treatments.

The emphasis is mine.

It will take a lot more than this restatement of obvious science before the scores of homeopathic “treatments” disappear from Australian pharmacy shelves, or before the government stops listening to “alternative” medicine lobby groups.

A lot of Australia’s media coverage on climate change is political and wrong

The facts are simple:

  1. There is scientific consensus on human-caused climate change. Looking at 12,000 peer-reviewed abstracts on the subjects of ‘global warming’ and ‘global climate change’ published between 1991 and 2011, where those papers took a position on the cause of global warming over 97% agreed that humans are the substantial cause of it.
  2. One third of articles in Australia’s major newspapers rejected or cast doubt on the overwhelming findings of climate science. Also, Andrew Bolt indulges in humanity-baiting for ratings.


Climate sceptics are more likely to be conspiracy theorists


A study just published in PLOS One finds that people who deny man-made climate change are more likely to believe in (a) completely free markets and (b) conspiracy theories about vaccination and the new World Order.

Free-market worldviews are an important predictor of the rejection of scientific findings that have potential regulatory implications, such as climate science, but not necessarily of other scientific issues. Conspiracist ideation, by contrast, is associated with the rejection of all scientific propositions tested.

Read the entire paper here, or this summary in the Guardian.

Genetic breakthrough brings scientists closer to cure for multiple sclerosis

From the ABC:

A team of scientists from 13 countries, including Australia, examined the DNA collected from 80,000 people with and without MS, in a bid to understand why certain people are susceptible to the debilitating disease and others are not.

They were able to double the number of known genetic variants that they say can make a person more susceptible to developing MS.

I actually know someone whose partner was a particpant in that study. It’s exciting and hopeful that we’re making advances in understanding multiple sclerosis. It’s an incredibly damaging disease, both physically and psychologically.

It’s also interesting, though perhaps not surprising, that the study shows that the genes it identifies overlap with genes known to be involved in other auto-immune diseases such as Crohn’s and coeliac disease.


The Australian and attacks on science

The Australian newspaper (one of Rupert Murdoch’s News Limited broadsheets) has a long history of getting science wrong. In fact, over at Scienceblogs’ Deltoid it’s a very common topic.

So it was perhaps not surprising to see this headline at the top of their paper today:

They then quote a few lines from a statement introducing the (presumably new) syllabus for Queensland Years 11 and 12:

Explanations of natural phenomenon may be viewed as mental constructs based on personal experiences.

Science students are encouraged to appreciate the social and cultural perspectives of science.

Accepted scientific concepts, theories and models may be viewed as shared understandings that the scientific community perceive as viable in light of current available evidence.

The article pooh-poohs these points. There’s also an editorial doing the same, saying that science must be a rigorous search for truth. They quote the executive director of the Australian Council of Deans of Science.

I can only assume that the director was fed these handful of lines in isolation. Either that or some other misunderstanding must have happened, because I don’t see how anyone could have a problem with these.

First, it seems to me that these statements might be an attempt to implement the guidelines being put forward by the national education assessment authority, which I blogged about recently, because some of the language sounds quite similar. If that’s true, then these are only a couple of statements in a lengthy set of documentation that clearly establish science as a rigorous, truthful discipline.

But to heap rebuke on science education because of these few statements seems to me like the act of an organisation with an axe to grind against science. I see nothing worrying in them.

It’s patently true that our explanations of natural phenomena are mental constructs based on what we experience. The ancient Chinese came up with a dragon eating the sun as their best guess for an eclipse. Now we have more precise ways of explaining it, and so we do. But we’re still coming up with models for things like string theory, and wave-particle duality, and quantum states: we don’t understand any of these things completely, but come up with mental models based on whatever evidence we have. The statement doesn’t imply that we make a New Age guess despite the available evidence of whatever explanation we find convenient.

Anyone examining political attitudes around the climate change “debate”, or around the existence of famine, or stem-cell theory, could not deny that there are social and cultural aspects to science.

And while it’s true that consensus does not make truth, educated consensus does, in fact, constitute accepted scientific theories and models.

Cheap shots and cherry-picking. Yep, sounds like typical anti-science ignorance.

One columnist doesn’t understand science

Simon Jenkins is a columnist for a couple of UK newspapers, an author, and an editor. I agree with some of his positions; the benefits of nuclear power, for instance. But lately I’m disagreeing with him a lot more than I’m agreeing.

Back in January he tried to argue that the UK’s reaction to the swine flu threat was overblown by scaremongering scientists. He doesn’t seem to understand probabilities, or the value of problem avoidance (that is, that an appropriate and timely response may have prevented a crisis, which is really the entire point).

Now Jenkins is taking shots at Martin Rees’ recent Royal Society address. This time he’s saying that scientists are money-grubbers who won’t allow anyone to question them.

Science, [we are told], should “engage broadly with society and public affairs”. In other words, it should get more money.

The Large Hadron Collider [is] on a par with aircraft carriers and Olympic games for useless extravagance.

It’s a good thing that no useful scientific discoveries have ever been made by accident, then, Simon, or come from an unexpected source. He goes on and on. University science programmes get more funding per student than arts! he exclaims. Well, duh, those programmes require far more labs and equipment.

He also employs that slimy tactic of making someone’s position seem suspect by putting lots of double quote around individual words and phrases:

Yet [Rees] promotes just such theft. He wants more money or Britain’s “success in attracting mobile talent will be at risk”. Unless we continue to attract and nurture foreigners, we will “not retain international competitiveness”. Less cash would jeopardise the nation’s status in “the international premier league”. It would damage Britain’s “standing”, its “leverage”, indeed, the very “sustainability of its society”.

Jenkins is cranky. I’m not sure why. Luckily the comments on his column have plenty of people calling him out on his bullshit.

Leading scientists condemn climate of aggression toward climate researchers

Following the release of hacked emails from climate scientists at the University of East Anglia and two mistakes makes by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN climate body, climate change deniers have been waging war on those who are trying to highlight a real problem.

Now, a group of 255 of the world’s top scientists are fighting back, in an open letter. That letter rightly points out that the published errors are inconsequential, that man-made climate change is now as supported and accepted as the Big Bang or evolution, and that attacks on the errors have been completely political.

It’s good that they’re fighting back. I don’t hold much hope that they’ll win any hearts and minds, though. As recently reported in Bad Science, if you’re strongly predisposed towards a certain viewpoint receiving evidence against that viewpoint often makes you dig in your heels and believe your now-doubtful viewpoint even more than before. This is why politicians engage in smear campaigns: even if the smear is discredited, “true believers” won’t change their minds about the smear.


Steorn: now with even more forms of an Orbo that doesn’t work

A few months ago Irish company Steorn gave their final demonstration of Orbo, the whirling magnetic device that they claim creates more energy than it uses but which demonstrated nothing to anyone.

Now Steorn are back. And this time they have another version of the device that doesn’t do what it says: and it’s solid state.

I have no idea how a supposed whirling magnetic energy-maker can be made without any moving parts. Although I guess it’s no more ludicrous than the whole creating-free-energy idea.

For a good laugh, read the Steorn public forum.