February 2009
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The Brazilian National Health Surveillance Agency has been suckered by dodgy statistics

This post has been updated with an addendum.

I didn’t dream it after all.

Anvisa (Agência Nacional de Vigilância Sanitária, or the National Health Surveillance Agency), have approved the use of a homeopathic medicine to treat sufferers of dengue fever in Brazil. So says this story from Estadao (rough translation here), as well as this earlier news bulletin from Paraguayan agency La Nacion (rough translation here). The latter report claims that a study has shown the remedy to “reduce the number of cases of dengue by 80%”. The scientist quoted in the report is a chap by the name of Renan Marino.

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Did I dream this?

A couple of nights ago, I heard a brief mention on a BBC World Service news bulletin that the Brazilian government had approved the use of homeopathic medicine for treating Dengue fever. It made me sit bolt upright in bed in disbelief.

Unfortunately, that was the extent of the story. Out of the [...]

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The Jeni Barnett MMR transcript – actually in full!

A number of blogs have already posted links to the full transcript of the segment of the Jeni Barnett show discussing MMR. However, I’ve just noticed that most are incomplete – missing one of the parts. The whole show is covered, mind you – there’s no surreptitious omissions – but most of the sets of links posted on the blogs are missing one or other of the parts.

There are, in fact, seven parts (not six):

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More on the MMR “debate”

For a few days, despite my total disbelief and dismay at the content and tone of her radio rant show and the heavy-handed legal response that followed, I at least had to give credit to Jeni Barnett for allowing the debate surrounding the MMR vaccine scare to continue via the comments on her own blog.

Too good to be true, unfortunately. Yesterday afternoon I sent a comment in to the site where there were over 150 comments already posted. All of them have disappeared. In fact, the post itself, and a second one written in response to the initial stages of the debate that started on the first, together with the comments from that page, now doesn’t appear on the homepage of Jeni’s website. I don’t know the reasons why (they may be perfectly legit from a legal point of view), but for now at least, the debate that Jeni so badly wanted has been stopped – by Jeni herself.

Fortunately, by the power of web-cache, the first 121 comments from the first post, together with the first 81 comments from the second, have been retrieved and posted unabridged on the Quackometer website. It’s a shame the debate was curtailed, but it makes for interesting reading.

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Many Many Rants… and not much evidence

[Edit: I've just spotted that I wrote "pro-" where in fact I meant "anti-". Whoops. The substantive argument is still the same.]

My article on World Without Cancer will have to wait. There’s a far more pressing issue.

A few days ago Ben Goldacre posted the audio from a rather biased pro-MMR anti-MMR-vaccine radio phone-in “debate” hosted by Jeni Barnett on LBC Radio. In it, Jeni stated that she’d not had her children vaccinated, and invited people to phone in, presumably for an informed, balanced debate. The debate she chaired, however, was anything but.

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Just checkin’ out the neighbourhood

So I was just googling “nontoxic.org.uk” to see what else was around. This blog hasn’t appeared yet. This, however, is one of the top results. Some material for tomorrow’s entry, methinks.

On the one hand it’s initially rather scary. Simply through the domain name, I’ve plunged myself right among the type of pseudo-science [...]

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First post – a lesson in confounding variables…

I decided I would start writing this blog to highlight some of the misuses of statistical data found in journalistic articles, and give some ideas as to how to spot them. While I don’t have as much experience as other writers such as the Bad Science columnist Ben Goldacre and numerous other blogs (whose links will gradually begin appearing on this site in due course), I feel inspired enough by reading his book and enraged enough at the consequences and the symptoms of poor statistics use in the mainstream media that I want to join in and add my voice to the cause.

I have two major topics of interest:

  1. Public health (my professional interest – I’m currently doing a PhD on the social causes of differences in life expectancy)
  2. Free and open source software (a hobby of mine – though something I feel particularly strongly about).

I have noticed a number of parallels between the two subjects, in terms of the misuse of data to mislead the general public, along with a rather alarming problem in a wider societal inability to critically assess what numbers actually mean, and what they can tell us. Arguments are frequently made on the basis that “the numbers say it all” or “the stats speak for themselves”. This is infrequently (quite possibly, never) the case. I believe that this has come about from the generally held belief that anything to do with numbers involves lots of complicated maths that the average man on the street couldn’t possibly understand, but are somehow magically authoritative. This is, again, usually not the case.

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