Stuff that occurs to me

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

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

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

Science in London: The 2018/19 scientific society talks in London blog post

Wednesday, 30 October 2019

A burst of newspaper articles critical of homeopathy

tl;dr Thanks to efforts from the Good Thinking Society and skeptical activists homeopathy is in the news again, this time it's further criticism of the decision to accredit the Society of Homeopaths' register.
If you've enjoyed the recent burst of articles in the news that have been critical of homeopathy you might like to know that the Good Thinking Society are the people to thank for this. They are currently crowdfunding funds to support a Judicial Review against the decision to accredit the Society of Homeopaths. If you're able to, you can donate here.

The latest crop (and a bumper crop it has been!) of stories relates to the decision made by the Professional Standards Authority (PSA) to re-accredit the Society of Homeopaths (SoH) for 2019-2020 despite concerns that some of their members claim to treat autism and others offer 'alternatives' to vacination. Their re-accreditation is up again for renewal and anyone was able to share their thoughts about whether they should be re-accredited (I shared mine) as long as they submitted their thoughts by 22 October 2019. The SoH first received PSA accreditation in 2014.
  • Going forward - quite a few people think the PSA should not re-accredit the SoH from Jan 2020 and have written to ask them not to do this
  • Retrospectively - The Good Thinking Society (GTS) would additionally like a ruling on the PSA's previous re-accreditation of the SoH (2019-2020). They have been given permission to proceed with a Judicial Review to look into that decision, and to see if it can be rescinded. You can help with the costs of the judicial review too, with a donation.
The GTS have caused this latest splurge of newspaper articles because they asked the head of NHS England (Simon Stevens) to write to the PSA and share his thoughts about SoH accreditation - and he did, and it has caused quite a stir. I'll remember this next time I see homeopathy advocates saying that skeptics have no influence ;)

1. Daily Mail
NHS chief Simon Stevens blasts homeopathy as 'dangerous' and blames the industry for fuelling antivaxx myths
27 October, 22:01
They broke this story with a front-page which is itself a lovely surprise.

2. The Times (article)
NHS chief wants homeopathy to lose official stamp of approval
28 October, 00:01

3. The Times (editorial)
The Times view on calls to revoke accreditation of homeopathic practitioners: Bad Medicine
Homeopaths can cause great harm and deserve to be stripped of their accreditation
28 October, 00:01

4. The Guardian
Head of NHS voices 'serious concerns' about homeopathy
28 October, 07:51

5. BBC
Health bosses' 'serious concerns' over homeopathy
28 October, 10:57 (based on link's first appearance on Twitter)

6. The Independent
NHS bosses bid to blacklist ‘bogus’ homeopathy amid fears of anti-vaccine misinformation
28 October, ~12.31pm (based on the article's author's tweet)

The story has also spread into specialist news stories including The BMJ (Homeopathy should have professional accreditation revoked, NHS leaders urge, 29 October) and the Pharmaceutical Journal (NHS England expresses concern over accreditation of homeopaths, 29 October) and Google News lists plenty of other places where it's been published.

With activism there are always two things - the meat* and the marinade. The meat is the big-change stuff like policy changes, regulatory action and so on whereas the marinade relates to the background in which opinion towards a topic changes. Both support each other.

With homeopathy it's become very clear that in the last few years there have been an increasing number of negatively-framed newspaper articles on the topic, a notable comparison with articles in previous years which were often rather fawning towards homeopathy and other alternative medicines.

It feels like it might have reached a bit of a peak this week with a front cover on the Daily Mail (which is finally pivoting towards encouraging parents to vaccinate) criticising homeopathy.

Apparently there may be some more stories in the pipeline on homeoprophylaxis though possibly Brexit and election news have taken over for now. Anyway I've written a Wikipedia article on Homeoprophylaxis just in case.

Three days after news of Simon Stevens' letter to the PSA broke the SoH had not issued any response - no news story on their blog, no tweet or Facebook post and they've either declined to comment to the authors of these articles or not replied as far as I can tell.

Inexplicably the British Homeopathic Association published a short piece bemoaning the latest crop of news articles but much of it is mistaken or incomplete so I'm not sure that helps much.
*or meat substitute for veggies or vegans!

Tuesday, 22 October 2019

My submission to the Professional Standards Authority asking them to rethink their accreditation of the Society of Homeopaths

This is what I sent to the Professional Standards Authority today about their re-accreditation of the Society of Homeopaths. If this doesn't mean much then you may want to skip to the end and read the 'background explanation' first.

This submission was one of a few sent in by skeptics (scientists, doctors, bloggers) as part of the PSA's open invitation to 'Share Your Experience' (of whatever register they're currently considering). This opportunity is available for a few weeks whenever an accredited register indicates that it would like to be considered for re-accreditation. 

This relates to the next round of re-accreditation, note that the Good Thinking Society have been given permission to have a Judicial Review of the PSA's earlier decision to re-accredit them last year, in light of significant concerns about autism treatments and advice on vaccination etc.

A. Letter to the PSA
B. Background explanation

A. Letter to the PSA

Dear Accreditation team

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the ‘Share your experience’ consultation regarding the Society of Homeopaths and its interest in having its register re-accredited.

My direct experience of the Society is that everyone I’ve communicated with there has been courteous so I have no complaints about any personnel. I have been frustrated with the slow pace of getting websites I complained about changed(1) (though they have mostly been changed) however my wider experience of the Society in terms of its public statements and responses has been more frustrating. I am also unhappy that members are still offering CEASE therapy, regardless of any claims made about it.

1. Lay homeopaths are not healthcare professionals
Taking the second clause first - “We help to protect the public through our work with organisations that register and regulate people working in health and social care.”

Homeopaths are not qualified to give health advice and cannot meaningfully diagnose or treat any condition. This alone could have excluded the SoH’s register from accreditation by the PSA in the first place.

Homeopaths’ training seems to be based on a fundamental misunderstanding of health, physiology or pathology (and frequently chemistry and physics too) and they are not always giving good or sensible advice.

Given the concerns that CEASE is harmful to and discriminates against autistic children (and that marketing compliance would not necessarily stop the ‘treatment’ from being offered) I am surprised that accreditation has been continued. I do not think the Society of Homeopaths should be re-accredited.

2. CEASE is problematic whether or not it’s mention in marketing
Autism is not curable and implying (through the use of the acronym, the full version, or other text) that it can be cured, eliminated or otherwise lessened through supplements and homeopathy is cruel to autistic people and to the parents of autistic kids.
The treatment itself is potentially harmful; the source material (though I have not seen the current training manuals) have recommended very high doses of vitamin supplements, against NHS advice, and seems to celebrate diarrhoea as a way of ‘detoxing’. This is nonsense. The CEASE therapy website (to which several SoH members still link (2)) recommends odd dietary restrictions and a baffling avoidance of microwaves.
The concept of CEASE is linked to anti-vaccination sentiment with an inherent suggestion that vaccines are one of several ‘toxins’ that can lead to a toxic imprint which might be reversed by giving homeopathic “anti-toxins” based on vaccines such as MMR, this promotes the wrongheaded notion that there is any link between MMR and autism.
Even with full marketing compliance SoH members could still be offering CEASE. The treatment isn’t a treatment for autism, it’s not been properly tested and is potentially harmful. It’s also not clear how anyone offering Skype consultations is able to properly assess a child. Anyone offering CEASE to an autistic child is acting against the child and the family’s best interests. By comparison people are no longer permitted to offer ‘gay conversion therapy’.

3. The SoH’s responses around CEASE have not been helpful
The SoH’s 2016 Annual Review highlighted CEASE as something that was “noted as (a) popular CPD topic among our membership” instead of stating that it should not be on the market.
Their position statement on CEASE says that it is “acceptable” for members to market CEASE therapy but that they should not imply a complete cure as that “would be unethical and in breach of the Code of Ethics” - rather than simply “not possible”.
Members were slow to amend their websites after I complained about the websites of five RSHoms offering CEASE. Changes took several months though change did happen.(1)

4. Their responses to criticisms of homeopathy are also not helpful
• The SoH’s response to the ASA sending a compliance letter to UK homeopaths in September 2016 was to “seek legal advice on the legitimacy of the ASA and the actions it is taking pursuing homeopaths”, though they did follow legal advice not to pursue that further.
• Rather than sanctioning a member for spending half an hour talking about homeopathy and vaccines (homeoprophylaxis) to what turned out to be a newspaper reporter the Society complained about the journalist to IPSO. Their position statement on homeoprophylaxis starts out strongly but ends disappointingly by suggesting there may be something in it.
• News that the Good Thinking Society intended to request a judicial review into your decision to re-accredit the SoH was described as “whipping up hysteria.”

5. Accrediting the SoH does not protect the public
We help to protect the public through our work with organisations that register and regulate people working in health and social care” - I would argue that the public are not protected by accrediting the SoH’s register of members. What is the benefit of recommending that people “only choose practitioners who are regulated or on an Accredited Register” when those practitioners are likely to be offering unwise advice about vaccinations or non- and potentially harmful treatments like CEASE?

6. Comments on menopause are also likely to be misleading
A separate statement from the SoH on menopausal symptoms shows that women are not
being given good advice either. I think this advice is likely to be misleading (and may well be at odds with ASA / CAP recommendations).

Homeopathic remedies which can help to ease the symptoms of menopause are being highlighted to help women who are currently unable to get their hands on HRT” - this is from a news story in Sep 2019 in which I suspect the evidence offered is unlikely to satisfy the ASA. Surely no-one should be implying that homeopathy can help symptoms of menopause. (The compliance letter sent to homeopaths in the UK in Sep 2016 said “homeopaths may not currently make either direct or implied claims to treat medical conditions”).

7. Footnotes
(1) Website marketing claims took a long time to be amended
I wrote to the SoH on 9 November 2017 with details of five of their (then) members about problematic claims on their websites. I blogged about this a month later - I did not expect many changes to have been made by then but in several cases it took more than six months for changes to be made (it seemed to happen between June and July 2018). One homeopath is no longer a member (as of December 2017) and the websites of the remaining four are much improved, for example removing the link to the cease-therapy dot com website or not writing out the acronym in full.

(2) Examples of homeopaths currently linking to the ‘cease-therapy dot com’ website
Linking to this website is a problem because misleading claims are plentiful there but are not being said ‘directly’ by the homeopath, nor is the website within the UK’s jurisdiction.

[I have redacted from this post the names of the homeopaths and the links to their websites]

B. Background explanation
The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) regulates the regulators in healthcare. As an example they oversee the General Medical Council (GMC) and the GMC regulates doctors by keeping a register of members, setting standards, checking that doctors' education is up to scratch (and revalidating their learning) and by investigating complaints made about doctors. The GMC's operation is also regulated by the law (specifically by the Medical Act 1983).

The PSA also provides a similar scheme for organisations "that register health and social care practitioners who are not regulated by law" and this is where the Society of Homeopaths comes into the equation. They also keep a register of homeopaths, set standards, require a minimum of study and investigate complaints about homeopaths. Because of this their register of members (who can use the term RSHom to indicate that they are registered members of the Society) was accredited by the PSA in 2014 and has been re-accredited every year since.

In 2017 several skeptics expressed concern to the PSA that a number of their members were offering CEASE therapy to families with autistic kids and implying that it could help them (some of them made stronger claims). The PSA took action and in their re-accreditation asked the SoH to address this, adding conditions to their re-accreditation in 2018. The PSA considered at the next round of re-accreditation that the SoH had satisfied these requirements - however members are still offering CEASE and continuing to make misleading statements about autism and vaccination. Many of them give harmful advice around vaccination and some of them have even implied to potential customers that such a thing as a homeopathic alternative to vaccination exists (it does not).

Accreditation by the PSA does not mean that it thinks homeopathy works - they don't consider the efficacy of any particular treatment, only that the organisation registered keeps records of members. This is probably fine where an organisation is providing a valuable service but perhaps less so where an organisation has some of its members offering harmful autism treatments.

Wednesday, 16 October 2019

The London Institute of Mathematical Sciences is harshing my mellow - spam newsletter

Late last year "LIMS" the London Institute of Mathematical Sciences added me to a list to receive their newsletter.

At the bottom of the newsletter there was a link to change my subscription or unsubscribe. I'd never subscribed (nor heard of them, their website was unfamiliar) and wondered why on earth I'd been added. It is always possible that I've mistakenly signed up to something and can't initially assume that someone else is at fault.

While technically clicking unsubscribe should remove me, I'd argue (admittedly pedantically but for heaven's sake this is a maths organisation and you'd think they would appreciate the precision of my logical argument) by definition I cannot unsubscribe if I've never subscribed. So I asked how / why I'd been added. Below is a summary of the redacted communications which I'm adding here in case others google to find out why they've been added to LIMS' newsletter / mailing list.

My email address should never have been added to a mailing list / newsletter without my permission, so clicking 'unsubscribe' wouldn't have uncovered how that error was made in the first place. Sadly, as you'll see, none of the other efforts I've made have managed to unsubscribe me either. A friend has advised that I contact the ICO though I'm sure they'd say "Oh for heaven's sake just click Unsubscribe" ;)

LIMS joined Twitter (@London_Inst) this month, and sent me another newsletter to tell me. Hence this post.

1. 25 November 2018 (they first emailed me on 23rd Nov)
Subject: Re: The London Institute becomes an Independent Research Organization, and other news
Date: Sun, 25 Nov 2018 21:56:44 +0000
From: Me
To: London Institute

Hi - can you clarify when I signed up to receive this? I'm not familiar with your website but the option to Unsubscribe suggests that I must have subscribed at some point.


2. My second reply following up, on 29 November 2018
Subject: Re: The London Institute becomes an Independent Research Organization, and other news
Date: Thu, 29 Nov 2018 12:12:58 +0000
From: Me
To: London Institute

Just wondering what the status of this enquiry is, thanks, Jo

3. My third reply on 29 November 2018

Subject: Re: The London Institute becomes an Independent Research Organization, and other news
Date: Thu, 29 Nov 2018 15:28:14 +0000
From: Me
To: [Redacted]

Thanks [Redacted] - I don't think I've been to a talk there and the website wasn't familiar to me. I am just always wary of finding myself subscribed to things as it seems to happen a lot with an academic email address (mine, I mean).

Best wishes,

On 29/11/2018 15:23, [Redacted] wrote:
Dear Jo,

I have sent an email around the Institute to see whom you are connected to/know and take it from there. I assume you would remember if you came to a talk here?

Best wishes


4. My fourth reply following up on 10 Dec

Subject: Re: The London Institute becomes an Independent Research Organization, and other news
Date: Mon, 10 Dec 2018 17:09:56 +0000
From: Me
To: [Redacted]

Hi [Redacted]

Any news on this?


5. My fifth reply, to a new message

Subject: Re: Happy Christmas from the London Institute
Date: Tue, 11 Dec 2018 17:39:10 +0000
From: Me
To: London Institute

What is going on here? Who signed me up for this? If I signed myself up (I genuinely don't remember) when did I do that? I've randomly started receiving messages from you in late November having never knowingly communicated with you before. Why?


6. Their reply reassuring me that they'd asked for my details to be taken off their database - this was in response to #4

Subject: Re: The London Institute becomes an Independent Research Organization, and other news
Date: Fri, 14 Dec 2018 11:29:30 +0000
From: Redacted
To: Me

Dear Jo,

I am afraid I have no finite answers on this but have requested that you are removed from the database so you will receive no further updates or seminar notices from the London Institute.

Kind regards


Didn't work ;)
Everything went quiet until April 2019

7. My sixth reply to a new newsletter

Subject: Re: London Institute in Times Higher Education and other news
Date: Fri, 5 Apr 2019 16:04:59 +0100
From: Me
To: London Institute

How is it that my email address is still on your mailing list despite assurances in December 2018 that it would be removed (see attached)? I had never knowingly heard of LIMS before your first email to me in November 2018 and still have no idea how or why my address was added in the first place.


8. Six months after that we begin again...

Subject: Re: Follow our new Twitter account and see our range of research projects
Date: Wed, 16 Oct 2019 19:03:52 +0100
From: Me
To: London Institute

Why am I receiving this?


Friday, 11 October 2019

That time I tried a 'recipe box' and wasn't very good at it

While deleting old emails I found one I sent to my boss four years ago (12 Oct 2015) bemoaning the fun / misery of trying a recipe box where they send you all the bits and bobs and you make a delicious and healthy meal. It turned out to be a bit of a faff. At one point the recipe called for taking a small pot of hazelnuts, rubbing off the skin, then chopping them. I've never chopped a hazelnut before in my life, I just eat them as they are (or buy machine-chipped ones which is a better strategy and I'll be sticking to that in future). The hazelnuts were just pinging everywhere (I think I tried the old squashing them with the knife laid flat, as you do with garlic - don't think it worked). Gosh it was so miserable, haha.

"The [recipe] box wasn't an unqualified success. I'm actually really crap at cooking and although I followed the instructions closely I went off-piste a couple of times and things ended a lot more wetly than planned. There was a bit where I was supposed to roast the aubergine (success), let it cool (less successful) then peel the skin off with my bare hands. Alas the cooling didn't really happen and I ended up soaking them in cold water to try and reduce the temperature. This was my first mistake.

Also my rice was not in need of 'fluffing up'. Sadly mine was in need of draining. My kitchen is swimming in liquid.

And the main bit of the meal was way too spicy, there was no warning about how spicy it was.

I might have a little cry and eat some Ambrosia pudding. White, bland, stodge. Next time it will be pie and chips."

Haha, poor me.