Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

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Thursday, February 11, 2010

Recent Sceptic Victories

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, February 11, 2010 | Category: |

I just wanted to highlight some recent sceptical victories that have been covered in the press - just in case you missed them.
  • Almost everyone should now know about The Lancet deciding to retract Andrew Wakefield's MMR scare paper (reports here and here, Lancet press release here).  Wakefield's paper tried to show that vaccinations cause autism and he has been at the forefront of the vaccination-autism conspiracy for some time.  I hope that this disempowers the conspiracy theorists, even though Jim Carrey's girlfriend has been funny to watch (though still receiving my sympathy for having an autistic child). 
  • On the autism front, and providing additional evidence that the vaccination conspiracy is wrong, is a report by the WSJ on  research trying to understand autism's rise.  The researchers comment briefly on the vaccination conspiracy arguing that if vaccinations did anything then there would be greater statistical regularity about the distribution of cases.  To explain, if kids in Cape Town and Johannesburg are all vaccinated with the same stuff and at the same rate, and if vaccinations cause autism, then the kids should manifest autism at the same rate.  This doesn't happen, even though kids are vaccinated at roughly the same rates, or with statistically similar patterns in different areas (see graphic).  Therefore the claim that vaccinations cause autism is wrong (again).  The article documents several of the fascinating conclusions that people are drawing about the diagnosis rates, everything from education levels predicting higher rates (that is parents with higher education are more likely to identify autism and get it diagnosed), but others say that the patterns are due to unobservables that they can't currently measure (this is a professional way of sayng 'We still don't know.' more power to them).  Either way, vaccinations stay out of it.
  • The mass overdose of homeopathy was entertaining. Hadley Freeman reports on her experiences, or lack of them really, when she 'overdosed'.  Simon Singh is interviewed here. Guardian report here. So, what's the idea behind this? If homeopathy does anything, then taking substantially more than the recommended dose should result in some effect.  Typically with medicine it isn't advisable to take more than the recommended dose as the dose is tuned to meet the needs of the symptom.  If you take more than the dose, then the medication can be poisonous. No one disputes this.  But, homeopaths claim that you have to have been prescribed a homeopathic treatment for it to work (sorry?), or you have to take it for a sufficient period of time.  Therefore, they argue, the overdoes would be ineffectual because you need to have been told to take the stuff by a homeopath (somehow instilling it with power?), or take it repeatedly for a long time.  Now, 'how the taking over a long time' makes something work I don't know, but then their theory of an overdoes should mean that if people took more than they were meant to (having been prescribed it) for a longer period of time than they were meant to, then something would happen? I'll keep that in mind next time I think about taking sleeping pills - it won't matter if I knock back them back over a period of half an hour then if the laws of homeopathy (see 'titration', and a for group discussion) apply - if I haven't been prescribed the pills and the intensity doesn't matter, I should be fine the next morning. Also note, I understand that homeopaths believe that taking a more dilute solution is more powerful, by this reasoning, if I took my dinner, mushed it all up, combined it with water (which supposedly has a memory), diluted it again and again, making sure to shake it of course, and then drank it (assuming the dinner was prescribed to me by a registered homeopath) I would gain more nutritional benefits. No, no, no.  Yes, I might get homeopaths annoyed with me, but they seriously need to realise that the benefits from homeopathy are basically no different from a placebo, or may arise from the fact that patients feel better because the homeopath spoke to them for longer than a GP normally does.

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