Does money get votes? A city of Ottawa example, part II

Does money get votes? A city of Ottawa example, part II

In a previous post, I looked at the plausible influence of campaign donations on council member’s voting records.

Ottawa city council members have been the recipients of a lot of cash from developers. To see if there is a link between cash received and their voting records, one can look at how they vote and see if it matches with the amount of money received. It’s a crude kind of analysis, but then, companies giving cash to a candidate’s electoral campaign isn’t exactly sophisticated or subtle.

In the vote on expansion of the urban boundary, the council voted not to expand by 2,000 hectares (which is what the developers wanted), nor by the 800 hectares (as recommended by city staff), but only to allow a single expansion of 220 hectares, to complete an area that was already largely developed.

Here’s how councillor’s votes lined up with cash received.

220
hectares

Amount
taken

% Total
contributions

Gord Hunter

n

$14,600

49.15

Rob Jellet

y

$13,450

39.05

Diane Deans

y

$12,150

35.55

Larry O’Brien

absent

$11,150

2.57

Maria McRae

n

$11,000

33.48

Jan Harder

n

$10,900

39.92

Michel Bellemare

y

$7,850

25.01

Rainer Bloess

n

$7,400

29.35

Bob Monette

n

$7,350

31.79

Rick Chiarelli

n

$5,600

21.12

Georges Bedard

y

$4,600

17.52

Eli El-Chantiry

n

$3,850

11.15

Doug Thompson

n

$3,650

39.09

Marianne Wilkinson

n

$2,850

16.72

Christine Leadman

y

$2,300

9.87

Steve Desroches

n

$1,500

8.29

Jacques Legendre

y

$950

4.59

Shad Qadri

n

$150

1.72

Glenn Brooks

y

$0

0

Alex Cullen

y

$0

0

Clive Doucet

y

$0

0

Peggy Feltmate

y

$0

0

Diane Holmes

y

$0

0

Peter Hume

y

$0

0

The vote to allow a limited expansion of 220 hectares was acceptable to all the councillors that had received no money from developers. As this motion was passed, the previous committee recommendation for 842 hectares expansion was not voted upon. The councillors that had received most money from developers, and voted against the motion to allow only 220 hectares, may have done so as they felt 220 hectares was not sufficient.

Ecology Ottawa were right to highlight the amount of campaign contributions from developers. There are plenty of examples of the subtle and not so subtle influences played by lobbying, contributions and freebies. A University of Kansas study found that a one-time tax break allowed several multinational corporations to receive a 22,000 % return on lobbying expenditures. Even though the amounts of money spent on campaign contributions to Ottawa councilors is tiny in comparison, even small gifts can change the recipient’s perception of the donor. Clipboards and notepads from drug companies given to medical students, though trivial gifts, were sufficient to improve the student’s perception of that company’s products.

So does money buy votes on Ottawa City Council?  It’s plausible, insofar as any donation can influence the perception of the recipient, although clearly votes do not line up exactly with campaign contributions. It could be that councillors that vote for expansion represent wards outside of the core, and they may perceive a need for growth in their wards quite differently to councillors from inside the city.

Ultimately, both voters and the councillors themselves need to be aware of the influence campaign donations can have on decision making. If the electorate remains silent on an issue, then a vote in favour of developers is not even controversial. In our representative democracy, developers and voters alike have the right to participate, to lobby and to donate.

A chiropractor struggles to defend chiropractic

A chiropractor struggles to defend chiropractic

Lawyered up

The British Chiropractic Association took Simon Singh to court for libel. In a stunning example of the Streisand Effect, the criticism that they were trying to suppress –  that their claims that “chiropractic can be used to children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying” were unsupportable – have come under new, unprecedented scrutiny.

Richard Brown, chiropractor and Vice President of the BCA, tried to defend chiropractic in the pages of New Scientist. Here is some analysis of his unconvincing defence.

Chiropractors are so misunderstood

Brown:  Many critics – including Edzard Ernst  – hark back to the origins of chiropractic. This has the clear intention of suggesting that modern chiropractors cling to the 19th century idea that spinal misalignments are responsible for the majority of diseases. While a tiny minority retain this view, most are aware that such claims have long since been debunked.

Let’s take a look at his first testable claim: that a tiny majority of chiropractors retain the view that “spinal misalignments are responsible for the majority of diseases”. Palmer’s original belief was that subluxations of the spine cause disease, and that correcting subluxations, therefore, will correct the disease. What do UK chiropractors believe?

A  survey of chiropractors in the UK (from 2007) found that:

Non-musculoskeletal conditions in adults, including asthma (64%), gastro-intestinal complaints (61%) and pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) (70%), were considered conditions that can benefit from chiropractic management. Opinions on the treatment of osteoporosis (43%), obesity (26%), hypertension (42%) and infertility (30%) were less conclusive. Childhood musculoskeletal and muscular conditions, infantile colic, otitis media and asthma were perceived to benefit from chiropractic intervention by more than 50% of the respondents.

Far from just a tiny minority, we can see that clear majorities of chiropractors hold the belief that asthma, GI complaints and PMS can all be treated with chiropractic. Large minorities believe chiropractic can help with hypertension, infertility, osteoporosis and obesity. Infant colic, ear infections and childhood muscular problems were believed to be treatable by chiropractic by more than 50%. A fair reading of the survey will see that it shows a majority belief that spinal misalignments play a role in at least these aforementioned, non-spinal diseases.

Of course his actual statement,  “that modern chiropractors cling to the 19th century idea that spinal misalignments are responsible for the majority of diseases” is extreme and exclusionary, and deliberately so. A critic will find it hard to factually dispute, which succeeds in shifting the frame away from the areas of debate where chiropractic is weak, viz. the evidence and the philosophy. One must, on the evidence, accept that his statement is likely to be true, as there surely are but few chiropractors who firmly believe subluxations to be the cause of every disease. However, a majority of chiropractors do still cling to the ludicrous belief that subluxations are the cause of the aforementioned diseases, as the evidence clearly shows.

Brown also uses the rhetorical device of ‘conceding the point’. By admitting that the basic principle of chiropractic has “long since been debunked” – he even uses the language of the skeptic – he hopes to get the readership on his side. But in a scientific publication, defending chiropractic will take more than decorum. One also needs logos.

Cherry picked data

Brown: Claims that chiropractic is dangerous overlook two recent pieces of research. One found no causative association between chiropractic manipulation and stroke. The other concluded that the incidence of stroke after chiropractic was no greater than after a consultation with a general practitioner (Spine, vol 32, p 2375, and vol 33, p S176).

Here is the second testable claim: that there are two research papers that demonstrate the safety of chiropractic that the critics have overlooked. For a skeptical, scientific audience, that’s a sit up and listen moment, but as one is reading the claim and not being Gish-galloped with it in a live debate, the audience has the luxury of testing it out. There are two questions we can ask. First, what do the two papers say, and are they of good enough quality to support the idea that chiropractic does not cause stroke? Secondly, where do the papers fit into the larger body of research on the safety of chiropractic?

Spine, vol 32, p. 2375.  Safety of Chiropractic Manipulation of the Cervical Spine. A Prospective National Survey. (2007). This survey was the first national, large scale effort to poll chiropractors and estimate incidence of adverse events arising from cervical spine manipulation. The authors found that minor side effects of chiropractic manipulation were common, including neck pain, stiffness, soreness and headaches. However, no serious adverse events such as stroke or hemorrhage were reported by the chiropractors. So, no stroke, but the paper is far from a ringing endorsement for the safety of chiropractic. They report that manipulation of the neck commonly leads to headaches, a finding that is profoundly concerning. And there are other criticisms: patients were not followed up, it is not known if chiropractors under-reported adverse events, and people may not have told their chiropractor about a serious adverse event after chiropractic treatment. If they found themselves in hospital with a vertebral arterial dissection, they would have more important things on their minds. To keep things in context, a number of researchers have found that there is an association between chiropractic and stroke. A survey of chiropractors, like this one, does not invalidate all the research that preceded it.

Spine, vol 33, S176.  Risk of Vertebrobasilar Stroke and Chiropractic Care. Results of a Population-Based Case-Control and Case-Crossover Study. (2008). This paper is very popular among chiropractors, who see in it validation for their practice of manipulating the neck vertebrae. I’ll not recap it in depth, but will just say, again, that one paper does not supercede all that has preceded it, and wonder why it is that it takes a survey or an indirect population study, like this one, to identify the risks of chiropractic. It begets the question: does the profession not want to find out the risks for itself? Apparently not. For a more detailed look at what the researchers found, go here.

So, placed into context, Brown’s cherry picked citations rather reveal that there are risks associated with chiropractic, and chiropractors themselves have done little research, on their own initiative, to quantify these risks. Furthermore, there is a large body of research that shows an association between chiropractic and stroke, and Brown would do well to read up.

More to chiropractic than spine bending

Brown: Our critics also make the mistake of equating chiropractic with spinal manipulation, especially with regard to treating non-spinal conditions such as asthma. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the fact that chiropractors utilise a range of treatments, including postural advice, reassurance and exercise.

I suppose that if one cannot defend the claim that subluxations cause asthma, one should retreat from the claim. Why argue for something that is factually indefensible? The problem with what Brown says here is that he seems to suggest that chiropractors can utilise postural advice, reassurance and exercise… to treat asthma.

It is no surprise to me that chiropractors do more than spine bending. Practice growth and financial success in the chiropractic business is not held back by the same barriers that real doctors face, like prescribing restrictions or evidence based medical practice. Take a look at a chiropractor’s office and see what they have to offer. In fact, Richard Brown, our valiant defender of chiropractic, offers all manner of wonderful woo at his clinic: aromotherapy, reflexology, ear candling and Indian Head Masssage.

So yes, there’s more to chiropractic, but not much more.

I know you are, but what am I?

Brown: Ernst and others claim that chiropractic lacks evidence, pointing to a paucity of randomised controlled trials. This overlooks the fact that many accepted medical interventions have little or no research evidence to support them.

No, it doesn’t overlook that fact, because that fact is not, in fact, relevant. What is relevant is the fact that chiropractors lack evidence in support of their claims, and ignore the evidence that disprove their claims.

Medical interventions, when found to be unsuccesful, will be discarded. Chiropractic, when found to be unsucessful, will just insist on being tested again and again until the researchers get their sums ‘right’.

Summary

The last thing the chiropractic profession wants is scrutiny, but by suing Simon Singh, that’s exactly what they got. This is a profession that chooses to sue a science writer for criticising their claims, rather than countering with the evidence. It is a profession that won’t look for evidence of harm from chiropractic unless first prodded to do so. It is a profession where the majority are adherents to a discredited, bogus 19th century pseudo-medical concept of disease. It is a profession so divorced from reality that the best they can muster in their defence is a grab bag of rhetorical tricks and diversions and the hammer of English libel law, because, as they well know, the evidence for chiropractic just isn’t there.

free debate

Canada to fund research into alternatives to physics, chemistry

Canada to fund research into alternatives to physics, chemistry

The Chalk River nuclear facility was a major producer of isotopes for nuclear medicine. Unfortunately, it broke down.

No worries though. Specialists in nuclear medicine called for more research into alternatives to Tc-99m, and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq heard their call for help:

“…we hope to research into alternative, non-nuclear isotopes that could supplement or replace Tc-99m in certain medical imaging procedures.”

Minister? I know the Harper Conservatives are not the Party of Science, but do you not have someone that you can call?

Homeopathy Awareness Week 2009: Zicam!

Homeopathy Awareness Week 2009: Zicam!

Its homeopathic awareness week!

Were you aware that homeopathic nasal cold remedies can burn out your sense of smell? The FDA wants you to know about it.

Zicam make popular homeopathic products such as nasal sprays. Two of their products, Zicam cold nasal gel and and Zicam cold nasal swabs, were recalled by the FDA this week after they were found to destroy people’s sense of smell.

There is more to homeopathy than the snake oil gambit of diluting a compound so much that not a trace of the original remains. The philosophy of homeopathy is, rather,  The Law of Similars, or ‘like cures like’. If a chemical causes a certain set of symptoms, then treating a disease that produces those symptoms with said chemical will effect a cure.

Hence Zicam, et hinc illae lacrimae.  The homeopathic (active) ingredient in Zicam is Zincum Gluconicum, or zinc gluconate, which was approved by the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia Convention in 1997. It was ‘proven’ to produce cold like symptoms in healthy individuals, and added to the The Homœopathic Pharmacopœia of the United States (HPUS) that year. HPUS dictates the maximum strength that a compound can be for over the counter use, although based on what criteria I know not. For Zinc Gluconicum it is a 1x dilution, that is, one part compound to nine parts water. Zicam actually used a higher dilution, 2x, where the previous dilution is taken and diluted a second time. The final dilution is 1:100. Bear in mind that Avogadro’s limit is not reached until around 24x dilution, and many homeopathic over the counter preparations are diluted beyond that, and you can see Zicam’s mistake: their homeopathic cold remedies actually contained ingredients.

Not only that, the effect of using actual ingredients in Zicam neatly disproves the concept of the Law of Similars and the essential philosophy of homeopathy. Sticking harsh chemicals up your nose, it turns out, has potentially life threatening consequences. It doesn’t cure congestion or sinus pain; it causes sinus pain and the loss of smell.

Why did Zicam do it? Probably because, by labelling an over the counter treatment as homeopathic, they avoided the regulation and safety testing that would be demanded for proper drugs.

Remember, homeopaths, Avogadro’s limit is your friend. Make sure that your treatments contain nothing at all and you will avoid these unpleasant lawsuits.

The FDA can’t regulate a placebo.

When $2.5 billion can’t buy the results that you want…

When $2.5 billion can’t buy the results that you want…

Its been ten years since the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) was established. Ten years and $2.5 billion dollars. What do they have to show for it?

Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.

Senator Tom Harkin, the driving force behind NCCAM, has long been aware of the problem. From the outset, the center was bedeviled by practitioners of evidence-based medicine. The “unbendable rules of randomized clinical trials”, as he described them, proved unforgiving. Harkin lambasted scientists for their resistance to accepting therapies on faith: “It is not necessary for the scientific community to understand the process before the American public can benefit from these therapies.”

Sadly, his valiant defence of alternative medicine from the Armies of The Enlightenment was all in vain. After being described as ‘Tom Harkin’s folly’ in a New York Times editorial, in 1998, the center was elevated to the status of National Institute of Health center. It was to be run under a mandate of promoting a rigorous and scientific approach to the study of alternative medicine.

The result has been a disappointment to Senator Harkin.  He told a Senate hearing in 2009, “One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short.” After all, the center has been “disproving things rather than seeking out and approving things.”

I see the problem, Senator. If only scientists had not adhered so rigidly to RCT standards. If only they had been willing to accept other sources of information. In fact, their willingness to disregard folk wisdom and tradition and their privileging of evidence-based medicine is, well, gosh darn it, it’s almost fascist. Not all the way fascist. Lets say… microfascist.

hitler-baby

As someone far more intellectual than I once wrote, “the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge.” The problem? Scientific research operates inside a post-positivist paradigm that excludes alternative forms of knowledge. I would argue that by refusing to contemplate the experiential, the traditional, the imagined and the anecdotal, the evidence-based movement  “acts as a fascist structure”. Indeed, credentialed “scientists”, through their “secular priesthood” hold a monopoly on the production of scientific knowledge.

Senator, by privileging ‘regimes of truth’ like evidence-based medicine, the NCCAM has been a good example of microfascism in action. If you want to see your center fulfil its original intention, if you want to see an end to microfascism in the National Institutes of Health, if you want to prevent the elimination of alternative ways of knowing and the reduction of health sciences to the totalitarian ideology of evidence-based medicine, that ‘regimented and institutionalised version of ‘truth”, take back the NCCAM. Alternative medicine can never be integrated with the singular, totalising ideology of evidence-based medicine and its microfascististic worldview.

It is in deconstructivism that the radical singularity of knowledge that is complementary and alternative medicine will find a welcome space of freedom to territorialise and colonise.  It is time for CAM to resist the totalitarian program of randomized controlled trials, to decolonise the masculine narratives of large sample sizes and competing hypotheses.

It is time for CAM to embrace postmodernism. And then you can get the results you want.

Ottawa City Council debates urban sprawl

Ottawa City Council debates urban sprawl

Every five years, the city’s official plan comes up for review. Developers have been pushing for a huge increase in expansion of the urban boundary of some 2,000 hectares. This despite the city’s stated vision of intensification and densification and the existence of a greenbelt around Ottawa. The city has also been dealing with the consequences of amalgamation, which increased the city size and incorporated outlying communities. As a result of that process, council members represent some very different wards with very different interests, and it is unsurprising that council debates are often split on the big issues.

This debate was no different.

While developers had been pushing for 2,000 hectares, city staff had recommended just over 800 hectares, a recommendation that had been approved previously in committee.  However, full council, by a vote of 12 to 11, approved only 222 hectares connecting Kanata and Stittsville for new construction.

Councillor Peter Hume put forward this motion, after an attempt by Councillor Diane Holmes to halt all expansion failed by a vote of 10 to 13.

Here are some of the highlights:

Following the clear cutting of a wooded parcel of land on the urban boundary –  clear cut so that it would be more likely to win approval for development if the boundary were expanded – Councillor Jellet proposed that specific area be eliminated from the proposed urban expansion area. As Councillor Hume put it, to include the site of the ‘Orleans tree massacre’ would “just be rewarding that kind of behaviour”. Gratifying to see council pushing back.

Councillor Harder was put out that council did not want to respect the committee’s recommendation or the work of city staff. Legal counsel told her that ‘Council reigns supreme’ and any motions passed would overrule the committee recommendations.

Councillor Monette took umbrage at a previous suggestion that we could be more like Europe. The very idea. “We are not like Europe. In Canada we have ample land.” Well, that told this European. He argued that families dream of a home with a garden, and we should keep that dream alive. New Canadians [the sprawl-loving trouble makers], are in Orleans because they are able to purchase single  family homes there. If we don’t expand the boundary, we could run out of single homes, and we want our grandchildren to have the chance to buy a single home. Yes, the ‘think of the grandchildren!’ argument.

Councillor Jellet was succinct and emphatic. I paraphrase slightly: “We don’t need any more land. We meet all the regulations, we have plenty of land within (the boundary).” As laconic as Leonidas.

Back to the real engine of urban sprawl, the New Canadians. We were all apparently raised on the American Dream and reruns of Blame it on Beaver. Councillor Wilkinson, speaking on our behalf, told council that ‘New Canadians want to have their own place’. We need starter homes, apparently, and for New Canadians, the ability to own our own place is very important. Her ward has lots of New Canadians moving in, all in pursuit of the white picket fence. Oh yes, and “to say ‘never expand’ is to say that people can’t have their own place.” She paints an unusual vision for the city, one where the core is filled with indigenous Ottawans, practicing their native and entirely unappealing to outsiders culture, while New Canadians all head for the suburbs to, one supposes, take commuter jobs as advertising executives. Did she miss the part of the plan that talks about intensification and densification?

Enter Diane Holmes, with the one, truly passionate speech of the afternoon. She got straight to it, calling the official plan ‘timid’ and saying with just a small adjustment, by changing the proportions of different housing types, we would not have to expand at all. I have to paraphrase again: “We are subsidising people to buy single family homes in outside areas to enable people to live in the 1950s American Dream. But we can’t afford to live that 1950s dream. What is the most efficient use of the land? That is holding the line. That is going from single homes to doubles. We need to be living in smaller places. Using transit. What I am hearing is the same old 1950s thinking.” You know what Councillor? Me too! I felt that we just shared a moment. But she wasn’t done. There was a segue into climate change, and a dig at some council members for their denialism: “Some people think there is no green problem. But that is not facing reality.” So what is the future, what is the vision? “Smaller houses, smaller lots, fewer single family homes.” And she’s right. Densification and intensification necessarily means just that, and she’s also right that it is the most efficient use of the land. Sprawl doesn’t benefit the city. Studies have shown that urban expansion has cost 1,000 dollars per unit in the city core, amounting to a subsidy paid by the inner city denizens so the suburbs can live the American Dream.

Councillor Hunter doesn’t believe those studies. Council’s role, he told us, is “meeting the demand of what our citizens want and not social engineering into what we want it to be.”  No word on when the city’s planners will be having their job titles changed to ‘social engineers’, and no word on whether Councillor Hunter has ever played Sim City. I have and if I learned anything it is that social engineering is, like, hard, so I’m totally with him on that. But oh yes, back to the study, the one about the core subsidising the suburbs. I wonder if he read it?  Apparently,he told us, if Ottawa doesn’t grow, other communities will, and they will use our park and rides, our amenities and our hospitals, and we won’t get the tax revenue. The thing is, councillor, if Ottawa isn’t getting net tax revenue anyway from our suburban sprawl, surely not expanding is a net plus on the balance sheets?

Councillor El Chantiry invoked the Canadian Dream, which was uncannily similar to the aforementioned American variety, expressed some vague disatisfaction with the greenbelt and deployed a new acronym: BANANA. Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone! Cute, but it doesn’t quite square with the intensification and densification plan, which would mean, by definition, ABSNS, Always Building Something Near Someone. He also pointed out that if council doesn’t support the committee recommendation and the recommendations of city staff, it was a waste of taxpayer money to have made the recommendations at all.

Councillor Feltmate, like Diane Holmes, also has the vision thing. Not the 1950’s dream, but the sustainable living vision, one based around the city’s light rail and transit plan. Densification and intensification used to make a lot of coherent sense when the transit plan was in place,  but it got ditched by the new mayor in between the old official plan and the new official plan. So keep the urban boundary as tight as possible, people, and remember, 1,000 dollars in the hole if you live downtown and we expand the boundary.

Finally, GM got a shout out from Councillor Deans. “I’m not sure that it is 1950s planning… but I will say that 20 years ago, I would not have imagined we would see big car companies collapsing, and they are collapsing because they didn’t get the importance of change. And city council has to get the importance of change.”

I’ll end on that note. And one final comment: council has been listening to its constituents, and the community has been making its opinions known. This from the Ottawa Citizen:

Councillors against expansion were bolstered by a growing community push to limit suburban sprawl, which studies show drain the municipal finances and can harm the environment.

So there you have it. Writing to your councillor really does make a difference. So keep it up, and hopefully Ottawa will become more like Futurama, the world of tomorrow, and less like a subsidized, sprawling and inefficient version of ‘I Love Lucy’.

What to call chiropractic

What to call chiropractic

Chiropractic was invented in the 19th Century by Daniel David Palmer, a spiritual and magnetic healer. In 1895, he claimed to have cured a deaf janitor by  ‘racking’ the man’s back. Shortly thereafter, he cured ‘a case of heart trouble’ in similar manner. In a truly epic failure of logic and reason, Palmer decided that all human ailments could be treated by manipulating the spine, and thus was Chiropractic born.

This strange and bizarre fantasy got its name from a brief dalliance with the Greek language, as recorded in Palmer’s book, ‘The Chiropractor’s Adjustor’:

“Rev. Samuel H. Weed of Portland selected for me at my request two Greek words, cheir and praxis, meaning when combined ‘done by hand’, from which I coined the word ‘chiro-practic.'”

But ‘Chiropractic’ is such an unwieldy word. Even people that should know better, those guardians of the English language (okay, journalists) can’t quite believe it is correct. Hence The Independent calls it ‘Chiropractice‘. The Telegraph calls it ‘Chiropracty‘. Clearly there is a need for another word.

‘Chiromancy’ would fit nicely, being constructed from the two Greek words ‘cheir‘ and ‘mantea‘, meaning ‘hand’ and ‘divination’ respectively. It aptly captures the manual manipulation and magical thinking needed for chiropractic to work. Sadly, though, ‘Chiromancy‘ is already in use as an alternative word for palmistry, so that’s out of the question.

‘Chiropraxis’ has the virtue of sounding the way that people seem to expect the word to sound. But the potential for confusion only begins with this construction. In German, ‘chiropraxis’ is in fact osteopathy, a similar and equally as daft 19th Century system of medicine, one that believed the bone was the starting place for all human ailments. But the Germans only add confusion on top of this with alternate spellings. Their homophone to ‘Chiropraxis’, ‘Cheiropraxis’ does in fact mean ‘Chiropractic’, although, rather more helpfully, so does the word ‘Chiropraktik’. In the interest of international relations, perhaps ‘Chiropraxis’ should also be left off the table.

The elegant and derisive portmanteau derived from the words ‘chiropractic’ and ‘quack’, ‘chiroquacktic’, has acquired new popularity, driven especially by the media storm around the British Chiropractic Association’s decision to sue the writer Simon Singh for libel. ‘Chiroquacktic’ does have the quality of conveying the snake oil origins of the chiropractic art.  In fact, a very early usage can be found in the Journal of the American Medical Association from 1922:

“To the Editor:

—Noticing that THE JOURNAL, January 14, made reference to an article on chiropractic, which appeared in Leslie’s Weekly, I procured a copy of the magazine.

Might I say that this seems a step in the right direction— articles exposing such quackery as chiropractic. I wish that every Fellow of the American Medical Association would buy a copy of Leslie’s and read Severance Johnson’s article on “Chiro-quack-tic” and then leave it on his waiting-room table for his patients to read, or pass it on to some newspaper editor, in his town or city.”

In addition to the excellent and venerable ‘Chiroquacktic’, I would like to propose, and with apologies and gratitude to that master of manipulation, prestidigitation and magical thinking, Mr. Uri Geller,  that Chiropractic also be called ‘Spine Bending’. After all, bending spoons with the power of one’s mind is as plausible as curing deafness by bending the spine with one’s hands.

But whether they are to be called spine benders, chiropractors, chiromancers, chiroquacktors or just plain quacks, for the love of all that is good, let’s not call them Doctor.

Helping politicians get science

Helping politicians get science

The disconnection between what scientists know and what politicians do can be very frustrating. How do we bridge that gap?

In the US, Congress had the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment, but chose to disband it in 2005. Its role was to provide “unbiased information concerning the physical, biological, economic, social, and political effects” of technological applications. An authoritative body like OTA is one approach to bridging the science gap, and one that I hope the Congress will restart soon.

In Canada, the Partnership Group for Science and Engineering (PAGSE) has been making a very useful contribution to bridging the gap. They provide regular lectures for parliamentarians on subjects of scientific interest, in an informal, unofficial but well attended series called “Bacon and Eggheads”.

This flagship series brings together Parliamentarians with experts across science and engineering, showcasing outstanding Canadian research accomplishments. Its purpose is to provide unbiased insight into topical scientific issues, within a non-partisan forum in which lobbying is not permitted. This prestigious forum represents a unique opportunity for scientists to communicate important findings to a distinguished and influential audience, which includes key decision-makers.

The series is organized by PAGSE, an umbrella group of 25 + science and engineering organizations operating under the auspices of the Royal Society, and is cosponsored by NSERC. Breakfasts are held once-monthly in Room 200 of the West Block while Parliament is in session.

Recent lecture topics include: Hot prospects in the cold: the new Geological Map of the Arctic; Life, Climate and Vanishing Ice at the Top of Canada; and Are Batteries and Fuel Cells ready for All-Electric Vehicles?

Read more: Ottawa Citizen

The Green Party has a problem

The Green Party has a problem

Specifically, the Green Party of England and Wales has a credibility problem.

The European elections are underway in the UK. Seats for the European Parliament are awarded using a system of proportional representation, rather than the first past the post system that elects members to the House of Commons. As a result, small parties, like the Greens, have a better than usual chance of getting elected.

George Monbiot wrote in the Guardian that voting Green is the only choice if one would like to send a message to the three main parties on climate change.  I suppose there’s a certain amount of merit to that suggestion, although the message sent will be subject to interpretation. Certainly it will be this year, where, in the wake of the expenses scandal, votes will be cast all over the place in protest at the incumbent parties. The ballot box is a poor, blunt instrument for sending political messages. After all, one doesn’t have to complete a questionaire explaining one’s voting intention in order to be able to vote.

Back to the question of credibility. Martin at the Lay Scientist has some useful information. He sent requests to the main parties for their positions on a number of different scientific issues, and the results were, for me – in the case of the Greens – surprising.

Here they are on alternative medicine:

Do you believe that complementary and alternative medicine has a role in public health care, and do you believe it should be subjected to the same regulations as conventional medicine?

Green: Yes, we believe that complementary and alternative medicine has a role in public health care. The Green Party, for example, is in favour of increased funding for research on methods of integrated conventional and holistic treatments for cancer. We want the gradual inclusion of complementary therapies within NHS provision so that patients have access to all available and appropriate treatments. Complementary therapies can often prevent the situation worsening and thus save resources. We would oppose attempts to regulate complementary medicine, except by licensing and review boards made up of representatives of their respective alternative health care fields.

The NHS provides free health care for UK residents, and, more and more, takes an evidence-based approach to its provision; for example, NICE, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, look at various treatments and consider their costs and benefits. The Green Party want more complementary therapies on the NHS,  but framing it as a matter of patient choice rather misses the point. If something doesn’t work, if there is bugger all evidence for a treatment, the NHS shouldn’t be providing it and NICE shouldn’t be approving it. It’s hard to see how the provision of more alternative medicine is anything other than a step back from the laudable progress being made toward evidence based medicine by the NHS. As for holistic cancer treatments, they ask for more research funding. But again, this misses the point. A lot of holistic / alternative / complementary treatments have been shown over and over again to just be bogus, and don’t need more research. The request for more research monies is yet another attempt to have scientists do the same old studies, over and over again, until they get their sums ‘right’. The NHS doesn’t need to integrate homeopathy, chiropractic, aromatherapy, traditional Chinese medicine, flower remedies or whatever into its conventional treatment algorithms. These treatments have not been shown to work. It isn’t worth it.

They also oppose regulation of complementary medicine, except when said regulation is done by proponents of complementary medicine. But why? Is there any good reason that complementary treatments should be exempted from the same kinds of controls to which conventional  treatments are subject? The only reason that comes to mind is simply that in many cases, complementary treatments don’t need regulating because they don’t do any harm, and they don’t do any harm because they don’t do anything at all. Take homeopathy. A sugar pill that claims to be Oscillococcinum will be chemically indistinguishable from any other homeopathic sugar pill, even one that claims to be something else. All are equally worthless as they do not contain any active ingredient. In fact, in terms of regulation of homeopathy, this is all that is needed: a manufacturer can make no claims for treatment, efficacy or application if their product has not gone through the same regulatory process as any other medication. That would be fair, evidence based and scientifically reasonable. Sadly, this is not currently the case, as homeopathic treatments can make such claims, based on ‘traditional useage’.

In other cases, complementary medicine does cause direct harm. Chiropractic, the invented pseudo-medicine of stressing the spine in the hope of treating back problems or illnesses, can lead to stroke and death, but the profession is not interested in monitoring itself. If there is another treatment modality more in need of regulation, I don’t know it.

The idea, then, that the only regulation complementary medicine should undergo is by members of the self-same health care field is nonsensical. These fields have a vested interest in preserving and expanding their scope of practice, and a demonstrable unwillingness to engage with the evidence, or lack thereof, for what they do. Complementary medicine should be subject to the same scrutiny and regulation as is conventional medicine. To want otherwise, as the Green Party of England and Wales do, is not scientifically credible.

On Genetic modification:

The field of genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

Green: Genetically modified food presents significant and un-quantified risks to human health and the environment. These outweigh any benefits. We would ban the production or import of any genetically modified food. GM is any food that is genetically modified or includes genetically modified ingredients; from genetically modified animals; or from animals that have been given genetically modified feed. People in Britain need to know what they are eating. As such, any GM food available in this country needs to be clearly labelled as containing genetically modified ingredients or coming from genetically modified sources.

It is politically safe to oppose genetically modified foods in Europe, as public opinion is on side. But opposition – from a political party – should at least make some kind of sense. My question to the Green Party of England and Wales on this is simply: if the risk is significant and unquantified, how the heck do you know it outweighs the benefits? As the amount of land growing GM crops has increased every year, and after more than a decade of growing these things, I think the risk would be at least a little quantified by now.

An explanation:

In comments on Gimpy’s blog,  Aram tells us that “any member [of the Green Party] can propose policy, get a number of seconders and get policy passed democratically at conference. It’s not a party that makes policy top-down, with only a few people having “authority” over potential changes.” That could go a long way to explaining why the Green Party of England and Wales comes across as so flaky on these issues. Sure, its democratic, but as in many things, the mob don’t know jack. Ignoring expertise in favour of popular opinion may not be the best way to formulate policy.

What the Green Party of England and Wales get right:

I have to say, I’m impressed with the willingness of their members to engage with their critics, and they are open to reexamining their policies. See Gimpy’s blog for examples. And it is plausible that if enough critical thinkers joined them, the Green Party’s policies could take a decidedly more rational turn.  Whether it is worthwhile to try and improve a brand that is so much associated with sandal eating, Guardian-wearing, granola haired hippies, rather than joining, say, the Liberal Democrats and improving that, is for the individual to decide.

The final thing I will highlight is their stance on climate change, which is on solid scientific grounds.

On climate change:

How will you use a seat in the European Parliament to tackle climate change and its impact on the UK?

Green: The top priority, and the cheapest, is to reduce demand though cutting waste and improving efficiency, The Green New Deal includes massive investment in insulation. Renewables then have maximum value against a backdrop of reduced demand, rather than as currently only filling the gap in increased demand, which allows fossil fuel use to remain high. Carbon trading can work, but needs to be better co-ordinated with meaningful systems and actions. Exempting major polluters is clearly a nonsense. EU and UK carbon reduction targets need to be deeper and managed more actively.

I agree with all their points here. This proposal should get results fast, and I wish there were another party in the UK with a similar level of committment to combating climate change. Then again, I wish that the Green Party had the level of credibility of one of the other major parties; then policies like this could have a chance of implementation.

Summary

As with most parties, their platform represents the particular ideology or world view of their participating members. Many of the issues that the environmental movement has taken on are well supported by good scientific evidence: acid rain, ozone depletion, climate change, ocean acidification, to name a few. The problem is that the philosophy of the Green movement is only sometimes coincident with the scientific evidence. It is a worldview that looks on conventional farming as bad, disregarding centuries of research and innovation, but sees organic farming, the principles of which were spun from whole cloth by a German mystic, as good. It is a short intellectual step to believing in homeopathy or chiropractic and their principles of sympathetic magic and vitalism. There is a willingness to disregard or ignore the entire discipline of risk assessment in favour of the precautionary principle. It is best to do nothing at all, in case the very worst scenario that they can possibly imagine comes true.

The sad part is that scientists could find a home in a party like the Green Party of England and Wales, as so many ‘Green’ issues first came to public awareness because of the gathered scientific evidence. Indeed, in other countries, Green parties are more reasonable.

George Monbiot suggested that a vote for the Greens would send a message on climate change to the main parties. I would suggest that a vote for the other parties just as clearly sends a message to the Green Party of England and Wales. That message? You are not credible. Getting it right on climate is not good enough.

Chipped cycles and parking attendants

Chipped cycles and parking attendants

Copenhagen: bicycle city

Copenhagen: bicycle city

The city of Copenhagen has an innovative approach to cutting down on cycle theft. Copenhagen is one of the best cities in the world for cycling, a place where the advantages of cycling are taken as a given by all politicians.

Every year, 16,000 bicycles go missing in the city, never to be found again. But there is hope, with the city’s ‘Vi vil ha’ en lille chip på‘ campaign. Here is how it works.

Turn up with your bicycle at one of the events being held this summer, and  have your name, address and email registered with the city. They will put a chip on the bicycle. When the bike gets stolen, call the city and they will register it as missing. Mobile scanners, carried by parking attendants, will be alerted by the chip if the bike is in the vicinity and automatically send an email to the owner with the location of the bike.

No word if the parking attendants themselves will be alerted to the stolen bike. I would assume that they have enough to do without having to contend with potential bike thieves. However, just knowing that your bike has been located in the city could be good enough for a lot of cases. You can go check out the location and hopefully recover the bike.

Have you seen this bike?

One problem that Copenhagen has with its bicycle culture is resale of stolen bikes. Bikes can be registered with the police and given a stamp, and bike stores are supposed to check to see if the bike has been reported stolen or not. As I understand it, if someone purchases a stolen bike, they do not have the right to keep it if it has been reported as stolen, and the owner wants it back. Chipping bikes will add an extra level of deterence, and hopefully cut down on bike theft in the city.

How do you violate an Albertan’s human rights? Teach them

How do you violate an Albertan’s human rights? Teach them

Thanks to Bill 44, the HUMAN RIGHTS, CITIZENSHIP AND
MULTICULTURALISM AMENDMENT ACT, 2009

Here’s the relevant portion:

9 The following is added after section 11:
Notice to parent or guardian
11.1(1) A board as defined in the School Act shall provide
notice to a parent or guardian of a student where courses of
study, educational programs or instructional materials, or
instruction or exercises, prescribed under that Act include
subject-matter that deals explicitly with religion, sexuality or
sexual orientation.
(2) Where a teacher or other person providing instruction,
teaching a course of study or educational program or using the
instructional materials referred to in subsection (1) receives a
written request signed by a parent or guardian of a student that
the student be excluded from the instruction, course of study,
educational program or use of instructional materials, the
teacher or other person shall in accordance with the request of
the parent or guardian and without academic penalty permit the
student
(a) to leave the classroom or place where the instruction,
course of study or educational program is taking place or
the instructional materials are being used for the duration
of the part of the instruction, course of study or
educational program, or the use of the instructional
materials, that includes the subject-matter referred to in
subsection (1), or
(b) to remain in the classroom or place without taking part
in the instruction, course of study or educational
program or using the instructional materials

Parents now get the right to opt their children out of classes, if the topic is on something they don’t want them to hear.

Here’s how it all went down, legislature style:

On the motion that the following Bill be now read a Third time:
Bill 44 Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, 2009 —
Hon. Mr. Blackett

A debate followed.

Mr. Chase, Hon. Member for Calgary-Varsity, moved the Bill be amended by deleting
all the words after “that” and substituting the following:
Bill 44, Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, 2009,
be not now read a Third time because the proposed notice provisions contained
in the Bill will cause a chill in expression that will adversely affect Alberta’s
education system.

A debate followed on the amendment.

The question being put, the amendment was defeated. With Mr. Cao in the Chair, the
names being called for were taken as follows:
For the amendment:
Blakeman
Chase
Hehr
Mason
Notley
Swann
Taylor

A brave stand, but futile. 35 other members voted against, and Bill 44 passed. So to the few legislative members that stood up for reason and free expression, this Big Rock is for you,  Laurie Blakeman (LIB), Harry Chase (LIB), Kent Hehr (LIB), Brian Mason (ND), Rachel Notley (ND), David Swann (LIB), and Dave Taylor (LIB).

And here is why it matters.