Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I’ve been reading Ben Goldacre’s columns in the Guardian for years, so a lot of the stories in the book were familiar, but it is still a delight to see them put together into this book. After seven years of reporting, his particular and unique role has become critic on the role of the media and how they report on practicising scientists, although that isn’t to say that the media pay any attention to what he says. They really should.

Some of the stories are truly astonishing. The MRSA superbug scare, so prevelant in 2004, is shown to have been driven by a unethical collaboration between the media and a compliant MRSA detection ‘laboratory’. Even worse, the so-called lab was a garden shed. The man that the media lauded as the UK’s leading expert on MRSA had a non-accredited PhD from the USA, but he was their go-to guy for positive MRSA swab test results.

And lets not forget Matthias Rath. After being the subject of a critical Bad Science column, Rath took The Guardian and Ben Goldacre to court for libel. Eventually Rath lost the case, and an entire chapter of this book, devoted to the topic, could finally be included in the later editions after being excluded from the first print. If ever there was a good argument for guaranteeing the rights of journalists to criticise providers of health care, this chapter is it.

There is the usual supporting cast of bonkers homeopaths, peddlers of machines that turn water brown when you put your feet in them, and that awful poo lady Gillian McKeith. But the real villains are their water carriers, the compliant media that don’t seem to have even half a clue when it comes to science. Alternative medicine practitioners are celebrated while scientists are treated like eccentrics unable to make up their minds. All this matters because the public places far too much trust in what they read, and no greater example can be provided than the drop in public vaccination rates after the media-driven MMR hoax. Getting it wrong can, and does, cost lives and harm health. We should all be smarter, and this book can help.

A final note, to Ben Goldacre and his editors. I read a story as a child, possibly in Reader’s Digest, about a reporter who had developed the habit of peppering his prose with colons and semicolons. Despite his editor’s exhortions to cut back, he just couldn’t. The solution? One day, the editor took a pair of scissors and cut the colon and semicolon keys right off his typewriter. Forced to live without them, he found that his prose greatly improved. It is a lesson that I recall every time I want to reach for a colon or semicolon: do I really need to use them; and would the prose be clearer if they were not there? I err toward not using them, for the purposes of clarity. With that in mind, and maybe this is entirely my own complaint, reading Bad Science was somewhat like bicycling in a North American suburb. You are getting up a good rate of speed when you encounter an inexplicable stop sign. Even if the road you are on is busy, and straight, and the only junction is to a lane with just a few houses on it, there’s a stop sign. You can see the destination ahead, but to get there will take three or four stops and restarts before the road – like the sentence – ever ends.

It’s a minor complaint, and Ben Goldacre’s unique prose style certainly hasn’t stopped me purchasing three copies of the book, two of which were to give away. I find that I think of Bad Science as a bit like the A-Team of critical thinking books: “If you have a friend knee deep in woo, and no one else can help, and if they read books, maybe you can buy them Bad Science.” It wouldn’t hurt.

Microwave ovens and the Plant Program

Microwave ovens and the Plant Program

A friend of mine with cancer told me recently about the Plant Program(me), after it was recommended to her by an oncologist.

The Plant Programme is essentially a diet that dramatically reduces the levels of growth hormones and other dietary factors that may cause the growth of certain types of cancer, specifically breast and prostate cancer. It was put together by Professor Jane Plant, a respected scientist. Professor Plant attributes her rapid remission from breast cancer, and subsequent non-recurrence, to the diet.

For the most part, what Professor Plant says is supported by a growing amount of evidence. Breast and prostate cancers are sensitive to a range of chemicals that increase cell proliferation. And as well as there being certain foods that promote cancer growth, other foods may reduce or prevent it, like the phytoestrogens in soy, which may act by blocking estrogen receptors in the body. I wasn’t surprised by all of that. Jane Plant is a well established researcher in a field in which I have worked myself, and, as expected, her evidentiary base was good.

But she doesn’t like microwaving.

That did surprise me, because the people that tend to not like microwaving are the same people that eschew not just that one piece of technology, but also many of the gifts of the Enlightenment, from evidence based reasoning to modern medicine. A quick look around the wonderful world wide web revealed an abundance of supposition and nonsense about microwaving, with nary a good, published, paper in sight. So why doesn’t Professor Plant like microwaving? Here is what she wrote about it (in: ‘Prostate Cancer: understand, prevent & overcome prostate cancer’, p.242 and 245, and ‘Your Life in Your Hands, understanding, preventing and overcoming breast cancer’, p. 202.)

“Never use a microwave cooker because free radicals are formed in the food.”

“I do not own a microwave and try to avoid food cooked or heated in one. Unlike normal heating, microwaving food works by vibrating water molecules in food. This generates free radicals and I suspect would not destroy as many ‘bad’ chemicals as ordinary cooking (although I have been unable to find any data on this).”

Let’s break these statements down.

1. The mechanism by which a microwave oven cooks food (by vibrating water molecules) generates free radicals.

2. The mechanism by which a microwave oven cooks food ‘would not destroy as many bad chemicals as ordinary cooking’

Claim 1. Free radical production

This should be straightforward to verify, but with this claim, I straightaway hit an obstacle. The quotes in the book were provided as is, sans footnotes or references. That shouldn’t be a problem, because I’m fairly sure that Professor Plant and I hang out in the same databases, read the same kind of books, kind of thing. Yet after several hours searching on Google Scholar, Pubmed, and ISI Web of Science, I couldn’t find any support for the notion that microwaving creates free radicals in food. I could have missed something, but given that the only people claiming microwaving creates free radicals are the cranks, and the usual science databases are quiet on the subject, I do not know where to find good evidence to support this claim.

So who does say that microwaving produces free radicals in food? The Atlantis Rising Educational Center in Portland, Oregon, I’m told. As the story goes, the Soviets investigated microwave ovens and decided they were dangerous, and pulled them off the market for two years in the 1970’s. Good luck finding any proof that really happened, because I couldn’t. Anyway, in a fit of largesse, the Soviets shared their findings with the world, the world in this case, apparently, being the Atlantis Rising Educational Center in Portland, Oregon, and not it seems, for what I am sure were sound political reasons, the World Health Organisation. Among their findings were the alarming notion that microwaving produces free radicals in food, especially root vegetables.

If I come across as snarky, it’s because none of this stuff has citations. Trying to find out why Professor Jane Plant has encouraged potentially thousands of cancer sufferers to unplug their microwaves has led me way down into a veritable rabbit hole of woo. I thought it would be simple, but actually I can’t find a single, credible, reliable source for the idea that microwave ovens produce free radicals. Not a one. I can find plenty of ‘references’ to the Soviet research from the 1970’s, and lots of pointers to the Atlantis Rising Educational Center, the unlikely repository for 1970’s Soviet research. So by all means, if you have a good reference, an original citation, or indeed access to the Soviet research, dear reader, then please share it in the comments.

Lets take a different approach. Is it even possible that microwaves produce free radicals in food? Microwave ovens work by heating water and other polar molecules in food, like fat. They do this through rapid rotation of these molecules in the presence of an alternating electromagnetic field, which creates friction and heat. The heated molecules in turn will distribute the energy to the remainder of the food. Microwave ovens are actually pretty simple, in terms of the chemistry that they can affect. Water molecules, because they are polar, are affected by the microwaves – in fact, much more efficiently than other polar molecules –  and all that will happen is that they become very hot. Most other effects on microwaved food are indirect, and caused by heating from proximity to the water molecules. In contrast, an oven will produce a smorgasbord of chemical reactions. A conventional oven can be used to brown food. Maillard reactions occur between sugar molecules and proteins, as when meat is fried. Caramelization occurs when carbohydrates are heated, like when coffee beans are roasted. But you can’t fry food in a microwave. You can’t roast coffee beans in a microwave. You can’t bake bread in a microwave, at least, not in a way that will give you tasty bread. Microwaves really just heat water molecules, which in turn heat the food. At what point in this process could free radicals be produced? Could it be as a result of the rapid oscillation of water molecules in the presence of microwave radiation? No. Is it indirectly, as a result of food being in contact with very hot water? No, although, if yes, then watch out for your pot of tea. Or any food stuff that has been heated, really, by any cooking method, as most everything we eat contains water.

As an aside, here is an example of the kind of nonsense out there about microwave ovens.

“The problem with microwave cooking starts in the molecule of the food/liquid. The molecule of the food/liquid is vibrated from the inside out by the action of the microwave… The electromagnetic radiation causes some of the electrons to be dislodged from the food molecule, which converts the stable food molecule to an unstable molecule. This is called a free radical… When you consume this massive pile of free radicals, it will rob your cells of electrons. It does this so that the unstable molecule can be stable, which then causes your cells to become unstable.”

Scary stuff! Molecules of food are “vibrated from the inside out.” Food cooked in a microwave becomes “a massive pile of free radicals.” Your cells become “robbed of electrons.” Well, don’t worry. It’s all wrong.

Free radicals are atoms, molecules, or ions, with unpaired electrons on an otherwise open shell configuration. They are highly reactive, and thus likely to take part in chemical reactions, which can lead to cell damage. The trouble is, production of free radicals takes a significant amount of energy, and a microwave oven doesn’t provide enough. Don’t believe me? Heating a mug of water in a microwave will not result in a mug of superoxide, singlet oxygen and 2H. Heating a mug of water in a microwave results in a mug of hot water. That is why millions upon millions of people can use microwave ovens every single day. Microwave ovens are safe, produce chemically uninteresting food, and are culinarily quite dull.

Claim 2. “The mechanism by which a microwave oven cooks food ‘would not destroy as many bad chemicals as ordinary cooking'”

Actually, Professor Plant’s point number two  is almost an acknowledgement of safety of microwave ovens. The thing is, free radicals, being highly reactive, would do a lot destruction to ‘bad chemicals’. That is one reason why our own bodies produce free radicals. Our phagocytes churn out superoxide to kill invading pathogens, and that does the job very well. So microwave cooking doesn’t destroy as many ‘bad chemicals’? If microwaving were producing sufficient free radicals to be a concern to human health, then microwaving would be producing enough free radicals to destroy these bad chemicals. But, of course, microwaving doesn’t produce free radicals. It just heats water molecules. I won’t say more about point number two, because Professor Plant had indicated that it was her own supposition, and acknowledged that she could not find any data.

I think it is worth reiterating that what microwaves do is really very simple. They agitate water molecules, creating friction and heat, and that in turn heats the food. In fact, because the process of microwave cooking is chemically simple and fast, there is an additional and pertinent nutritional benefit with microwave food: it can be more nutritious than food cooked by other methods. Here’s why.

For one, the shorter preparation time required for microwave cooking may result in a tendency toward better preservation of micronutrients.

For another, in a 2009 study published in the Journal of Food Science, the antioxidant potential of 20 vegetables was assessed after variously boiling, microwaving, pressure cooking, griddling, frying, and baking. Antioxidant potential was found to be best preserved after griddling, microwaving and baking. The greatest losses of antioxidant potential took place in food that was pressure cooked and boiled. This is not the first time the antioxidant preservation by microwaving was observed. All of that is relevant if one accepts the premise that antioxidant potential in food is a worthy nutritional goal, and a lot of people, including Professor Plant, do.

Summary

There’s a lot of merit to the overall message Professor Plant sets forth in her books. The effect of diet on certain cancers is attracting more and more research interest. The problem is, some of the details in the books, like the statements on microwave ovens, border on the superstitious. People with cancer deserve the facts, not vague and unsupported notions about free radicals and microwave ovens. It may not be a big deal to live without a microwave, but encouraging people to give up their microwave oven because doing so will help with curing or preventing cancer, as my friend had done, based on such little evidence; that strikes me as being altogether unhelpful.

Wind Turbine Syndrome

Wind Turbine Syndrome

Ontario has a choice: in the coming post carbon world, whether it will invest in nuclear power, or start building wind turbines.

More and more wind turbines are going up across the province, and not in the future, but right now. New builds are being facilitated by the Green Energy Act, which took the authority to approve wind farms away from municipalities and gave it to the province. The hope for the Act is that by doing this, it will speed up approvals, overcome local political objections and get turbines up and producing electricity as soon as possible.

Yet wherever wind turbines go up, objections rain down. And for all the objections that can be laid against wind farms – noise pollution, sightline obstruction, and effect on property values – one of the most intriguing objections has to be the fear of damage to people’s health. People living near wind farms have reported a whole range of symptoms, including sleep disturbance, headaches, tinnitus, ear pressure, dizziness, nausea, tachycardia, irritability, and more. One doctor, Nina Pierpont, has put a name to it, calling this collection of complaints ‘wind turbine syndrome‘, and hypothesising a biological cause based on low frequency sound waves.

But wind turbines aren’t new. The technology has been around for decades, and usage, in countries like Denmark and Germany, is so widespread that if wind turbine syndrome was real, surely, surely, somebody would have noticed by now. The beguiling question is why not.

Research from Europe – where people have had extensive exposure to wind turbines, for decades – has failed to uncover any such problems. For example, a mail-in study of 725 Dutch rural residents living close to wind turbines received 268 responses, 92% of which said they were satisfied with their living environment, and no statistically significant correlations between levels of wind turbine noise and health or well being were found. The same study did come out with a few other intriguing findings though, on which more later.

One obvious point to make is that in Europe, wind turbines have a high level of acceptability. Even so, some people do experience disatisfaction with wind turbine builds, and they can experience annoyance, but this has not been elevated to the level of calling their experience a medical syndrome. Let’s take a quick look at the reasons for high public acceptance. It will prove to be relevant to the health issue, as we will later see.

In Denmark, where wind turbines are most common, by the year 2001, 85% of the turbines were owned by local co-operatives or individual farmers. Imagine: local ownership, generating income for local people, sited according to local desires and in accordance with the resident’s interests. That’s in stark contrast to the Canadian situation. In Canada, a large company, with no sympathy for local concerns, can dramatically change the visual and aural scenery of a township or village with a wind farm. Sadly, local or co-operative ownership of wind farms is not likely to happen in Canada. In its absence, wind farms –and the companies that want to build them – will, one hopes, seek other ways to find public approval.

Let’s take a look at what Denmark does with set back distances. Windmills must be situated at a minimum distance of 4 × their height away from habitation. If the windmill is erected closer than 6 × its height, an estimation is carried out free of charge regarding the depreciation of the property value. If the loss is more than 1%, full compensation of the loss in property value is paid out. If the property is situated farther away than 6 × the height of the windmill, 4,000 DKK is payable to have an evaluation of the loss in value carried out. If it is estimated that the depreciation is more than 1%, the loss in value of the property is paid out and the 4,000 DKK reimbursed. If it is estimated that there is no loss in value of the property, the 4,000 DKK is forfeited. Owners of windmills have to pay the compensation.

Implicit in this process is the understanding that property prices will be affected if a windmill is situated too close to a property. If on appraisal, a property is found to have lost value, the owner of the windmill is responsible and must compensate the property owner. This is a serious concern and a source for tremendous angst for any homeowner, and it is a concern that remains currently unaddressed in Canada.

In France, 500 m set back distances are used for wind turbines. Germany considers local noise protection status, and set back distances are determined by the permitted decibel limit for that area. The Netherlands uses a limit of 4x the height of the wind turbine mast, and a maximum noise level of 40 dB. Broadly speaking, set back distances of around 500 m, and permitted noise levels of 35-45 dB, are common in the rest of the world. What about here in Canada? In Ontario, set back distances are mandated at 400 m, which is similar or slightly closer than a lot of other places.

So how is that in Denmark, with its similar set back distances and much greater population exposure to wind turbines, has never come up with wind turbine syndrome, while Canada, with a limited populaton exposed to wind turbines, is so concerned about it?

To give Dr. Pierpont’s hypothesis consideration, I think it is biologically plausible that wind turbines, producing persistent, low frequency sound, could cause perturbations in human health and the symptoms of wind turbine syndrome. It’s certainly possible, albeit unproven as yet. However, Dr. Pierpont’s work, while interesting, is incomplete. Her 38 case studies are far from conclusive when, as in the case of Denmark and Germany, their large populations – and, if you will, very large datasets – should have revealed the existence of a widespread, wind-turbine-related human health problem. But these two countries have not.

And that is a big problem for the wind turbine syndrome hypothesis. It is very unlikely that a problem would only exist in Canada and the States, and not exist in countries like Denmark and Germany, when all four countries are using what is essentially the same technology. So what makes the difference? In Denmark and Germany, wind turbines are widespread, widely welcomed and well managed. In Canada and the United States, they are rare, imposed, and sometimes poorly planned. One is tempted to conclude that the best cure for wind turbine syndrome – or perhaps the best preventative – is to desire wind turbines in the first place, rather than to resent them as an imposition.

Can it be that simple? It should certainly be considered that wind turbine syndrome may be explained, at least for some people, by the nocebo effect. A nocebo (Latin for “I will harm”) is something that should be ineffective but which causes symptoms of ill health, and the ‘nocebo effect’ is an ill effect caused by the belief that something is harmful. In this case, the belief that wind turbines are harmful results in the manifestation of a number of non specific symptoms, including sleep disturbance, head aches, nausea and so on. But I don’t think the nocebo effect alone can really explain wind turbine syndrome. It is also plausible that someone, resentful of the new wind turbine and primed to expect ill health from it, attributes any and all illnesses and ailments to the ever present wind turbine. Ill health can then become a self fulfilling prophecy.

It would not be fair, though, to dismiss every wind turbine related health complaint in this way. Indeed, there are a number of fairly obvious exceptions. A wind turbine is a very large, and, if you are close enough, very loud structure. Can a poorly sited wind turbine that produces constant, audible and persistent noise lead to sleep disturbance, stress and headaches? Certainly. There are also problems related to light flicker from turbine blades moving in front of the sun.

Given all of that, in as much as wind turbine syndrome may be – if it exists – caused by infrasound, as Dr. Pierpont has proposed, it must be disentangled from: any possible nocebo effect; a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of attributing unrelated ailments to the new wind turbine; and a self fulfilling prophecy of illness. Given these confounders, 38 case studies simply do not suffice as proof.

The answer, in the end, may be to just avoid these problems in the first place. This is the other side of the European story, illustrated by the intriguing findings to which I alluded earlier. For the Dutch respondents to the postal survey, the risk for being annoyed by wind turbine noise outdoors increased with increasing sound levels; one would expect exactly that to happen, and it does suggest that set back distances should be based on noise levels as well as minimum distances. But this, for me, is the key finding from the study: “Noise annoyance due to wind turbine noise was associated with stress symptoms, psychological distress and lowered sleep quality.” All of those things, be they stress, mental or psychological distress, or lack of sleep, can result in what would appear to be a ‘syndrome’ of symptoms, but this syndrome doesn’t need a new, cutting edge medical hypothesis based on infrasound to explain it. What it does need is an acknowledgement that poorly sited wind turbines, or turbines sited by fiat, can lead to real physical and mental perturbations.

We do need wind turbines. We need a lot of them. But if people are being made resentful and embittered by the process and the siting of wind turbine construction, we should look at this process as a political failure and one with potential implications for health and quality of life.

Unfortunately, in Ontario, the Green Energy Act has rendered the public uniquely powerless against wind farms. By removing jurisdiction for approval to the province, local people can no longer influence their own politicians and their own town councillors to prevent wind farm construction. Adopting the rhetoric of climate change denial won’t stop wind energy. Pleading for the preservation of a scenic view won’t have much sway on a distant bureaucrat in a distant city. When one cannot argue against a de facto political decision, what can one do? In that regard, claiming an unproven, barely plausible health problem as one’s own has got to be worth a try. Like embarking on a hunger strike, attributing non-specific illnesses to the local wind turbine can seem to be a persuasive, last ditch, desperate form of rhetoric. For stressed, unhappy people, feeling disempowered and wronged, claiming to suffer an unproven syndrome may be all that they have left in their armory.

If the European experience has taught us anything about wind farms, it is that gaining acceptance and achieving consensus is essential to growing the wind power industry. When local communities are involved in wind turbine decisions, when they are treated respectfully and honestly, as the European experience shows, they can be won over to the idea. When wind farms are imposed on communities without consent, without concern, without consultation and with insufficient set back distances, local hostility and resentment can burn for a long, long time. When a company purchases agricultural land at low cost and then seeks provincial approval for a wind farm, with only a cursory attempt to inform the local populace of their plans, it is an imposition. This isn’t the same as NIMBYism. It isn’t that people don’t want wind turbines from the outset. It isn’t even that they don’t want wind turbines in their back yard or local area. It is that wind turbine locations should be reasonable, and the parties that want them should seek, and obtain, consensus. Then, like Germany and Denmark, we won’t see a hint of wind turbine syndrome.

In fact, at the end of this post, I’ll offer a testable prediction. News reports on ‘wind turbine syndrome’ and statements from pressure groups invoking its existence will be more prevalent in countries with lower levels of public acceptance for wind turbines. Conversely, reportage on wind turbine syndrome will be significantly lower in countries with high levels of public acceptance for wind turbines. Check back in 12-18 months, count newspaper articles and we’ll see how things turn out.

If one were to bake a Mandelbrot cake, could one eat all of it?

If one were to bake a Mandelbrot cake, could one eat all of it?

322px-mandel_zoom_00_mandelbrot_set

When computed and graphed on the complex plane, the Mandelbrot Set is seen to have an elaborate boundary, which does not simplify at any given magnification. This qualifies the boundary as a fractal. Because they appear similar at all levels of magnification, fractals are often considered to be infinitely complex (in informal terms).

So here’s the question. If one could bake a cake that didn’t just approximate a fractal like the Mandelbrot Set, but was in fact fractal, could one eat it? Would slicing into it have any effect at all, given that the edge would be, well, infinite?

All other things being equal, of course, and assuming the existence of a Hausdorff oven and a non-Euclidian cake slicer.

I ask because a college room mate, some years ago, baked me a birthday cake in the form of the Mandelbrot Set. It was a great cake, and to this day I am disappointed that it didn’t last the week.

BCA vs. Simon Singh: a letter to an MP, and the responses

BCA vs. Simon Singh: a letter to an MP, and the responses

Back in June, I wrote the following letter to my MP, and received a reply, also printed below.

I encourage anyone who is concerned about the chilling effect and consequences of the BCA’s libel case against Simon Singh to contact their Member of Parliament. MPs that are aware of this case, and are made aware that it is of concern to their constituents, will be much more likely to do something about it.

Representative democracy is responsive democracy, but MPs first need something to which they can respond. So, write!

Dear [M.P.],

I write to express my deep concern regarding the recent libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against Simon Singh, and the implications for English libel law.

In 2008, Simon Singh wrote a comment piece in The Guardian newspaper on the evidence for and against chiropractic. The BCA took offense at one line in particular, on the lack of evidence for the use of chiropractic in treating babies. Simon Singh had recently written in depth about the evidence for chiropractic in his book ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and so knew well of which he spoke in the comment piece. He is, as am I, a scientist, and therefore is used to the scientific method: in the face of scrutiny or disbelief from our peers, we endeavour to defend our work on its merits and on the evidence. This is how science progresses, and it is how advances in medicine are made. It is how the public good is protected. Yet the BCA, rather than provide a robust defence of their practices and claims, chose instead to sue. What was an earnest comment, written in the public interest and for the public good, was pulled by The Guardian as soon as the writ was served.

The implications are profound. You are surely aware of the concerns that many have regarding English libel law, but with this case, English libel law has taken a turn down sinister new paths. For anyone considering writing about the evidence, or lack thereof, for a treatment, the threat of a libel action will have a chilling effect on that intention. The public good is poorly served when scientists or health professionals cannot write freely about evidence and fraud in medicine, for fear of damages and costs that can run into well over 100,000 pounds just for a preliminary hearing.

In the field of public health, it should not be open for any provider or promoter of treatment to sue for defamation in respect of their provision or promotion of those treatments*. There must be a balance between the rights of the individual to protection of reputation, and the rights of the public to hear discussion of the merits of treatments provided by said individual. Defendants should be protected by qualified privilege in such cases, as are journalists under the so-called “Reynolds Defence”, or we may see further erosion of the rights to free speech and comment in England.

I note that the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has been considering libel law. I hope that by bringing this particular case to your attention you will be more aware of the serious and chilling directions that libel law has been taking, and will be able to offer whatever appropriate support you can toward moderating these tendencies. Additionally, the charity Sense About Science has been campaigning for a change in the law, and your colleagues Dennis MacShane, Michael Gove and Dr Evan Harris have put their names to a statement of support that you will find attached to this letter**.

Yours, [name here]

*{h/t to JoK}

** see here and here.

A few weeks later, I received the following reply.

Dear [me],

Thank you for your letter regarding the recent libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against the journalist Simon Singh, and the implications for English libel law. I apologise for the short delay in responding. Your concerns about journalistic freedom of speech and the UK’s current libel law are duly noted.

Freedom of speech is essential in a functioning democracy and indeed is recognised in international and human rights law. The right to freedom of speech is particularly important to the media, which plays a special role as the bearer of the general right to freedom of expression for all.

I have therefore written to the Rt. Hon. Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport about this issue and have asked him to comment. I will let you know as soon as I receive a response.

In order to get the reply to you as quickly as possible, I may forward it to you directly. However, if there are any issues arising from the response which you wish to pursue further, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Thank you again for bringing this issue to my attention.

Best wishes,

[M.P.]

In August 2009, I received the following letter from Bridget Prentice, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, to my Member of Parliament. He was good enough to forward it on.

From: Bridget Prentice MP. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.

Thank you for your letter of 26 June to Ben Bradshaw at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, about a recent libel case brought against Mr Simon Singh. Your letter has been passed to this department and I am responding as the Minister responsible for civil justice issues.

As a Government Minister I am unable to comment on individual cases which are or have been before the courts. In that context, I understand that this case may be subject to appeal. However, it may be helpful if I begin by explaining the law in this area in general terms.

It is important that people have an effective right to redress through the law of libel where their reputation as been damaged as the result of the publication of defamatory material. Whether material is defamatory is a matter for the courts to determine based on all the relevant circumstances. The main tests established by the courts in determining whether material is defamatory are whether the words used “tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally”, “without justification or lawful excuse [are] calculated to injure the reputation of another, by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule”, or tend to make the claimant “be shunned and avoided and that without any moral discredit on [the claimant’s] part.”

Your constituent is concerned about the effects of the libel laws on freedom of speech. The Government firmly supports the right to freedom of expression, which is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In addition, section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires courts to have particular regard to the importance of the right to freedom of expression, particularly in relation to freedom of the press. Of course, the exercise of this right carries with it duties and responsibilities that are expressly recognised in the law. It is not an absolute right, and can be restricted for a number of reasons set down by law, such as public safety, the prevention of crime, or respect for the rights or reputations of others. Often, the right to freedom of expression may need to be balanced against other rights, like the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence, which is protected by Article 8 of the ECHR.

As you may be aware, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into Press Standards, Privacy and Libel and is considering a wide range of issues in this area of law. The Justice Secretary gave evidence before the committee on 19 May and the Government will consider carefully any recommendations that the Committee may wish to make in its forthcoming report.

I hope you find this information helpful, and I enclose a copy of this letter for you to forward to your constituent, should you wish to do so.

Bridget Prentice.

Chiropractors at the Olympics

Chiropractors at the Olympics

The 2008 Olympics, Beijing. Behind the scenes, and sometimes right there with the athletes, were the chiropractors. Here are a few of their stories.

The BMX athlete and the neck adjustment

Samantha Cools was a Canadian medal hope in the debut of BMX on the Olympic stage. She was a five time world junior champion, and she was looking good. That is, until her chiropractor in Switzerland “over-rotated her neck during a routine adjustment, tearing tendons and muscles, which then pushed up against the main artery in her neck and also the nerves.”

Horrifying, potentially fatal and entirely unnecessary. The consequences of her chiropractic ‘care’ were being unable to train for five weeks before leaving for China, and being unable to chew food. And, once she got to Beijing and competed, a disappointing fifth place finish and a DNF.

One would hope that a lesson was learned, but it seems not. Cools credited her being able to compete at all with the care she was receiving from another chiropractor. He worked on her for 30 minutes before each race in Beijing to loosen her muscles. One presumes he was steering well away from the violent chiropractic neck adjustments that injured her in the first place, and just sticking to massage.

The mysterious magical black muscle tape

kerri-walsh

Did you spot the black tape that some athletes were wearing? Kerri Walsh, the US beach volleyballer, was never seen without it on a shoulder. It’s called Kinesio tape, and it was developed in the 1970s by a Japanese chiropractor. It does all sorts of magical things, like: “works to support the muscles, remove congestion, activate the endogenous system and correct joint problems”. Blimey,and its only a bit of tape. In fact, unlike rigid tapes, that can be used to, say, hold an ankle in position, Kinesio tape is super thin and flexible. I struggle to imagine how it can have any benefit at all, given that. One might as well take a black sharpie and draw black lines on the shoulder. It would cost less.

I am here to learn, though, and the manufacturers to educate.  Here’s what they say it can do.

• Re-educate the neuromuscular system
• Reduce pain
• Enhance performance
• Prevent injury
• Promote good circulation and healing

And how does it do all that? Well, it:

• Creates a lifting effect which improves circulation and relieves pain
• Tension on tape has the ability to relax or stimulate muscles

Got that? Nah, me neither. As explanations go, it’s a bit scant. Supposedly, the tape lifts the skin, and then all these wonderful benefits follow from said lifting action.

Actually, at this point, I’m even unclear as to how it can lift anything. It’s tape, it is stuck directly to the skin, and it just sits there. Is it an antigravity tape?  That would lift the skin. Maybe they mean that it lifts the skin when you have to take it off, but before that, one has to wear the tape for the suggested 3 to 4 days and look like a bit of a tit. What the tape does do, if it is stretched before applying to the skin, is provide “a constant pulling (shear) force to the skin over which it is applied.” Fine, but I’d want a wee bit more proof before believing it can therefore ‘re-educate the neuromuscular system’.

Kinesio tape doesn’t have any clinical study evidence for all these marvellous benefits, at least according to to one physical therapist who regularly uses it. He goes on to give this far from ringing endorsement: “I mean it works for some people and it doesn’t work for others. I’ve put it on patients and they’ve felt an immediate difference. I’ve put it on patients and they haven’t felt a single thing.” In other words, some people fall for it, and some people don’t.

But even if it doesn’t have good clinical evidence, it does have some sterling celebrity endorsements, including Lance Armstrong. Lets give him the last word. In his book ‘Every Second Counts’, he described Kinesio tape as “a special hot-pink athletic tape that came from Japan and seemed to have magical powers.”‘

There you go. Magical.

Summary

It isn’t a surprise that athletes turn to chiropractors. It’s probably fair to say that most people are unaware of the dangers of chiropractic, but athletes also have a particular vulnerability to chiropractors, and that is an all too common tendency for magical thinking and superstition. For all the athletes out there willing to try anything, no matter how silly, for an edge, there are plenty of charlatans willing to sell them something, be it a magical tape or the promise of unblocked nerves from a neck adjustment. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, had this to say.

“I began visiting a chiropractor not because I needed one but because I had read that energy flows through the spinal cord and can get blocked at various places. I discovered that the more I got adjusted, the more I needed to get adjusted because my neck and back kept going “out”. This went on for a couple of years until I finally quite going altogether, and I’ve never needed a chiropractor since.

All told, I raced as a professional ultra-marathon cyclist for ten years, all the while trying anything and everything (except drugs and steroids) that might improve my performance. As the Race Across America got bigger – it was featured for many years of ABC’s Wide World of Sports – I had many offers to try all sorts of things, which I usually did. From this ten-year experiment with a subject pool of one, I drew two conclusions: nothing increased performance, alleviated pain, or enhanced well-being other than long hours in the saddle, dedication to a consistent training schedule, and a balanced diet; and it pays to be skeptical.”