Stuff that occurs to me

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

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

Contact: @JoBrodie

Science in London: The 2015 scientific society talks in London blog post

Sunday, 17 April 2016

UK researchers might be gagged from lobbying - I have a cunning plan

There are moves afoot that may prevent scientists, and indeed any academic researchers, (who receive funding from the UK Government) from being able to lobby the Government, with evidence from research that the Government has funded - which seems pretty daft and problematic. This may have originated with benign (your mileage may vary) intentions while trying to address a different 'problem' (again, YMMV) and began with this announcement, on 6 February 2016 -

Organisations receiving government grants will be banned from using these taxpayer funds to lobby government and Parliament Press Release from Cabinet Office

The announcement clarifies the intended audience...
"The Institute of Economic Affairs has undertaken extensive research on so-called ‘sock puppets’, exposing the practice of taxpayers’ money given to pressure groups being diverted to fund lobbying rather than the good causes or public services.

A new clause to be inserted into all new and renewed grant agreements will make sure that taxpayer funds are spent on improving people’s lives and good causes, rather than lobbying for new regulation or using taxpayers’ money to lobby for more government funding."

...and although it doesn't mention research institutions or universities specifically, their omission means they may be automatically subsumed into this edict unless there's an exemption put in place.

Here's what the text that's to be inserted into grant applications will say
"The following costs are not Eligible Expenditure: Payments that support activity intended to influence or attempt to influence Parliament, government or political parties, or attempting to influence the awarding or renewal of contracts and grants, or attempting to influence legislative or regulatory action." (emphasis added).
The more detailed document Implementation Guidance for Departments on Anti-Lobbying Clause(Q&A format) makes several mentions of the option for Ministers to make exemptions, see in particular answers to Qs 4, 7, 8 and 9.

My cunning plan(s)
1) Sign this petition
Please sign this petition which asks the Government to consider declawing this new policy by explicitly including an exemption for academic research.
Exempt grants for academic research from new 'anti-lobbying' regulation

2) Raise money that can be used to lobby
While I'm sure some lobbying doesn't need to cost anything there are nearly always hidden costs (taking time off work, printing off materials etc). Hopefully it won't come to this if (1) works but I also think (3) might be better anyway, but note that the press release also says that...
"It will not prevent organisations from using their own privately-raised funds to campaign as they see fit."

3) Lobby the Government yourself
A great deal of academic output is increasingly widely available to anyone with access to a computer. People can download PDFs of published papers and can use them (along with other resources) to make sense of complex information, and act on it if they wish. People with health conditions are good examples of types of people that are motivated to learn more about a topic that affects them, and to learn how to get to grips with academic literature. Having an Open Access culture - in which published research articles are freely available rather than costing $30 per paper - will (hopefully) only increase that.

Obviously there are journalists, science writers and bloggers who can help people make sense of a complex topic too.

This was my cunning plan, in two tweets.







Friday, 8 April 2016

Homeopathy clinging to NHS by its fingertips, not far to fall

Every year the UK Government's Department of Health publishes (through the Health and Social Care Information Centre, HSCIC) the latest figures for money spent on prescriptions in the NHS in England. This is known as prescription cost analysis data and this year it was published on 7 April.


The data include the number of prescription items and the cost of those items. In many cases, and partiularly in the case of long term conditions like diabetes, numbers of prescription items tend to increase each year.

But not for homeopathy prescription items (which, anachronistically, are still permitted on the NHS where doctors (presumably?) want to give patients 'a pill' without actually giving them a pill)...

The graphs below (prepared by the Nightingale Collaboration) show the number of homeopathy items prescribed and the overall costs associated with prescribing them. As you can see homeopathy is plummeting on the NHS and has been for some time. That's quite a ski slope there.

The peak number of prescribed items was in 1996 at about 170,000 items. By 2005 this had roughly halved to about 80,000 and, rather dramatically, had halved again two years later in 2007. In 2015 the number dips below 10,000 items, to 8,894.

Graphs made by and stolen from Nightingale Collaboration, click to enlarge
With fewer items being prescribed overall costs are dropping too though the relative cost per item has doubled in 20 years (the cost per item was £4.97 in 1995 and in 2015 was £10.60, thus allowing me to make the joke that homeopathy is most certainly not cost-effective* on the NHS).

You can find a summary of the original data on page 381 of this 711 page PDF ;)

Click to enlarge image.

It's World Homeopathy Awareness week from 10 to 16 April 2016 but it looks like the UK at least is wise to the nonsense of homeopathy. If you plan to share one homeopathy-related article during the week please make it the Nightingale Collaboration's careful analysis of homeopathy's plummetous drop on the NHS which you can find and enjoy here - Homeopathy on the NHS: at death's door http://www.nightingale-collaboration.org/news/183-homeopathy-on-the-nhs-at-death-s-door.html

*technically cost-effectiveness-ness for drugs would weigh the effectiveness of the medication (for homeopathy that's zero) against the cost (anything other than free is a waste of money) but here I am mean-spiritedly demonstrating that even compared against itself it's useless. Ha!

Version for homeopaths
Well done homeopaths! You started the year with zero prescribed homeopathic items and ended it with nearly 9,000 - a massive increase, great work everyone :) 




Monday, 4 April 2016

Open air cinema screenings - London 2016

Woohoo it's time for the annual Open Air Cinema Screenings in London post. The text below actually lives in a Storify story and has been embedded here. I'll update the original Storify post so feel free to embed it into your own blog post so that more people know about open air film options in London. Think of it as creative commons.

Saturday, 26 March 2016

Maternal death in Australia - was homeopathy to blame? Perhaps not.

Earlier this evening I was challenged on Twitter about a tweet I'd made in response to a series of tweets about the death (which happened in 2012) of a young mother and which has recently been reported in the Australian press. Others were also challenged about tweets they'd made.


The mother's death occurred shortly after giving birth and resulted from massive blood loss from a tear that seems to have been missed. There were a series of events that combined to slow down an appropriate emergency response which came too late, and the mother died. The detailed coroner's report is here. I found that no amount of using Ctrl+F to 'find' words on a page worked on my computer (not sure why) so I've read the 86 page document.

Some of the press articles present the story as a homeopath midwife failing to call an ambulance (even after the mother begged for one), and giving the mother a homeopathic remedy instead of doing something useful. There has also been the implication that, being of a homeopathic mindset, the midwife eschewed real medical interventions in favour of homeopathy, and gave bad advice. Naturally there has been much amazement and horror among the skeptic / medical community that there has been another homeopathy-related death.

I, and others, were challenged to find mention of homeopathy in that coroner's report and here's what I found, on page 70 of 86.





But is it homeopathy?
Two remedies are mentioned here - (i) Arnica and (ii) Rescue Remedy. Only the latter is listed as being a 'homeopathic Bach flower remedy' though in fact I think that may be mistaken. Bach flower products (in the UK they are no longer allowed to call them medicines and are now classed as a foodstuff) would not be considered homeopathic: neither in the way they are prepared (they are not diluted beyond the point of reasonableness) nor in the underlying philosophy of 'like treating like' - but see note on flower remedies below. I do not know how they are prepared in Australia however, but assume it's the same product. That leaves Arnica and it's not clear from the report whether the remedy used was a homeopathic one that contains no or negligible amounts of actual Arnica plant material or a herbal preparation that does contain measurable plant material.

Though note...


So from the information I can access I think it is difficult to know whether homeopathy was directly involved in the treatment of this young woman, or indirectly as a (speculative) ideological barrier to real treatment. It is possible that it was not involved at all.


 From page 77 of 86 - of course this bias doesn't prove that the midwife was a fan of homeopathy or that any beliefs about homeopathy caused her to deliberately avoid hospitals.


I've also done a fairly extensive search of what I believe to be the midwife's Twitter feed (unconfirmed) and can find only a single reference to homeopathy from a few years ago (I checked the terms homeopathy homOeopathy and the -path endings) - of course it is possible that any homeopathy-mentioning tweets have since been deleted. A search on google didn't bring anything up that confirmed that she was a homeopath, or had administered homeopathy in her usual practice - beyond the news reports implying that she did. I don't know where the news reports got their information (they may have interviewed people and got more information than is available to me via Google or the coroner's report).

So at this stage I do not know from the available information if it is true that the midwife was a homeopath or user of homeopathy - or if she was ideologically opposed to getting prompt medical treatment. In other words I don't know if this post is a mea culpa or a 'dangerous homeopathy fan strikes again'. Clearly, as this isn't the only death she's been linked to, I'm not sure she should be doing too much midwifery.

But it is possible that homeopathy has been unfairly maligned in the reporting of this story. Homeopathy is most decidedly unmitigated twaddle but we skeptics can't blame it for everything

Note on flower remedies
"Flower remedies are produced by dropping fresh flowers into water; this yields the “mother tincture” to which brandy is subsequently added as a preservative. Thus they do not contain pharmacologically relevant amounts of constituents of the flowers they originate from. Flower remedies thus have similarities to homeopathic medicines, yet there are clear distinctions between the two systems. According to proponents of flower remedies, their mode of action does not depend on molecular or pharmacological mechanisms but on the subtle “energy” that is transmitted from the flowers to this remedy. This “energy” has so far defied quantification, and critics therefore argue that flower remedies are pure placebos."
Bach flower remedies: a systematic review of randomised clinical trials (2010) Edzard Ernst, Swiss Medical Weekly 

Further reading
Why birth is a feminist issue (December 2013) - written by the midwife in question

News articles about this case
Coroner says Caroline Lovell died after midwife Gaye Demanuele let her 'bleed out' in birthing pool (24 March 2016) The Age
"Around this time, Ms Demanuele gave Ms Lovell a homeopathic "rescue remedy" for anxiety despite her body shutting down due to massive blood loss." - is it homeopathic?

Coroner recommends criminal action be considered against home birth death midwife Gaye Demanuele (24 March 2016) Geelong Advertiser  
"“We are aware of another home birth, in mid 2011, when a woman begged for Ms Demanuele to call an ambulance. Demanuele refused. The baby died."

Mother of two died in a birthing pool after her midwife would only offer a homeopathic 'rescue remedy' as she 'bled out' while begging for an ambulance (24 March 2016) Daily Mail
"Despite Ms Lowell being in an extremely distressed state, Ms Demanuele would only give her a homeopathic 'rescue remedy' in spite of the massive blood loss causing her body to shutdown." - same question as above, were either of the two remedies given homeopathic.





Monday, 21 March 2016

Questions I have about iPads or tablets - do you know the answers?

I am thinking of getting my dad a tablet to play with (he's an elderly but technologically competent nerd, though is a bit puzzled by touchscreens).

My main enthusiasm for the idea of these devices (I don't have one myself but have an iPhone) is the instancy with which they can be switched on and used, no waiting for it to boot up (unless you do a hard shut down) and the fact that he'd be able to send and receive emails with it as well.

My mental model of tablets is that they're basically identical to my iPhone except that they can't make telephone calls (other than Skype of course) and are useless outside the home unless they have a 3G or similar connection.

With my level of understanding established these are my questions about them, but if I've missed a question I should have asked please suggest it, along with an answer if possible.

  • Is it only iPads that have 3G or 4G capability, not generic £79 tablets from Argos? Are they all, pretty much by definition, wifi-enabled? I suppose if it's something that doesn't have to be useless if taken outside the home then that might be a plus so I would consider 3G if available.
    • If we get a 3G-ready one is it possible to do it as a pay-as-you-go thing rather than a contract thing, and what's the 'distance' between payments. Eg if he wants to use it outside the house in May and then not again until August is that possible or does he have to pay even if unused. I suppose what I want is the equivalent of the 'dongle' device that I can buy for £30 and plug into a USB port on my laptop and 'get internet' for £5/day but months can go by without me using it, at no extra cost. I just pay for what I use. 
  • Presumably the fact that it can't make telephone calls (bit awkward to hold to the ear though increasingly I see people holding their phones in what I think is an unnatural way anyway) is offset by the fact that they can do Skype via voice-over-internet-protocol (VOIP) or whatever technology they're currently using?
  • How easy is the touchscreen and on-screen keyboard to use, particularly for older arthritic fingers and eyesight that's not terrible but not awfully keen. Apple seem very good at making products that are easily usable by a variety of folk but are cheaper generic tablets also perfectly adequate at letting you change the size of the text etc? 
  • I assume the wifi connection will let him use the internet, get email, watch YouTube videos and general stuff that he also gets on his regular computer.
  • If he can't get to grips with the on-screen keyboard how easy is it it to attach an external keyboard?
  • Do iPads (or any tablet) have USB ports?
  • He'd be able to take a photograph of something and email it to me wouldn't he? Some iPads have two cameras. To be honest I was a bit surprised to find that my iPhone has two cameras.
  • Can he download apps like Kindle and stuff from the app store? Presumably he can't get the App Store from Apple on a non-Apple product but what are the apps like on generic tablets?
  • I can't imagine he'd fill it with stuff so I assume the lower 16GB is sufficient but happy to hear otherwise. 
  • I think I'd probably go for a large thing, I really like the iPad version 1 or 2, quite like the mini but I prefer the bigger screen (though a slightly smaller one might be easier for him to handle).
Thanks :)