Spot The Difference?

November 21st, 2005 by Ben Goldacre in bad science, bbc, homeopathy, media | 108 Comments »

Here’s an interesting exercise. For once, the actual academic paper behind a news story is available for free online…

Which means you can see for yourself whether the media are representing it fairly, in realt time, as it grows…

The study basically asks people how happy they are after having some homeopathy. The first thing that strikes you about their methods is that there is no control group to compare with, so it’s quite possible that everyone is just getting better naturally, at the same speed that they would have anyway.

This is particularly likely in view of the fact that they have chosen some rather self limiting or cyclical conditions: the symptoms of the menopause, for example, for most people, will get better over time by themselves. It’s a bit like congatulating yourself for showing that bruises heal, or night follows day.

What’s also interesting here is how some knowledge of stats has bled through into the mainstream, but only certain ideas. So, for example, people have latched onto the notion that bigger studies sometimes have greater power to detect a difference between two groups, but also now seem to think that this is the be-all-and-end-all of critical appraisal, and the most important feature of any study. Hence the size of the study is emphasised in the press release for this paper.

Anyway, lots of nerdy stuff to chew on, I’m looking forward to seeing what the rest of the press makes of this study.

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108 Responses

  1. Michael Harman said,

    November 28, 2005 at 2:09 pm

    Re ADH’s comment, point taken. But I think we’re talking mainly about homeopathy here, not surgery. Is there difficulty in double-blinding giving out prescriptions of homeopathic concoctions?

  2. BSM said,

    November 28, 2005 at 2:20 pm

    “No kidding: they were the most suggestible group within a highly suggestible cohort.”

    If you define homeopathy as the effect of doing exactly nothing then everything about it makes a lot more sense. It’s only if you have to keep coming up with cover stories for all its problems and difficulties that problems arise.

    Intermittently I feel sorry for homeopaths as well as angry with them. They can spend entire careers and their whole intellectual life defined by a giant lie. On a human level and outside the rough and tumble of debate I think that is terribly sad.

  3. BSM said,

    November 28, 2005 at 3:25 pm

    ” Is there difficulty in double-blinding giving out prescriptions of homeopathic concoctions?”

    The only problem is getting homeopaths to co-operate with well-controlled studies, which prove homeopathy to be a crock, hence their need for PR stunts like Spence’s.

  4. kabeach2001 said,

    November 28, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Is it right that he law is going to be changed to allow practising homeopaths to marry? DISGUSTING!!

  5. A medical Customer!! said,

    December 3, 2005 at 12:30 am

    Hay I love it……. all the times I have ever been to a Doctor…….especially for a prolongued issue…….. I dont recall ever having any follow up…… Infact I have a skin problem which I developed in London 3 years ago…now I live outside the UK… I finally got it resolved after visiting a Doctor here…. with a follow up “request” from the Doctor, six months later……………. well well well….never had any follow up from a Brit Doc (I believe thats how the media refers to the medical profession these days)

    My view of the UK medical….er…..profession….is noth much higher than….Doctor’s views of sharlatans…..

    I even got offered Antibiotics for a cold by a UK Doctor….. now I know you all slave endlessly under the NHS…until you get a lucrative jobe elsewhere…….providing antibiotics to a reasonably healthy person with a cold….probably means me paying for the perscription and me paying more tax for a service which has a highly educated but often ineffective service…….

    But then you had to pay more for the letters behind your names and could be earning as much as someone who splashed out 65 bucks for an AANC dip with a Channel 4 contract!

    I write this just to remind you all that as a patient…no not a purveyor of Penta water…or cocaine filled condoms…but a simple lowly patient.

    I respect your imperic knowledge, but cringe at your superiority….


  6. Jack said,

    March 7, 2006 at 1:22 pm

    My asthma and eczema both got better, with time, without any homeopathy, before I was 16. Can I put myself forward as a volunteer for the control group? It shouldn’t be that hard, I live in Bristol (where the study took place) after all?

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