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Facebook, Twitter, Mashable, purchasing decisions and some dreadful statistics

Social media news website Mashable announced yesterday that Facebook and Twitter [are] making a major impact on purchasing decisions. A blog for Econsultancy, a social media marketing website, were even more specific: People who follow brands in social media are much more likely to shop with them in the real world (this was toned down somewhat from the original “twice as likely”). And what’s more, they had some lovely statistics to prove it. These came from a study by Chadwick Martin Bailey and iModerate Research Technologies. Or rather, they came straight out of the press release. Quite how these data actually support the grandiose headline statements is beyond me.

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The HIV/AIDS vaccination you might have seen on the news, and the dangers of fixed statistical significance

Updated Sunday 27th September 2009 with links to further analysis. Updated again Saturday 10th October 2009 with Science Magazine’s take on the study.

You may have noticed in the news recently, some triumphant headlines concerning the “success” of an HIV vaccination trial which took place in Thailand over the last seven years. Vaccine heralds new dawn in the fight against Aids, proclaims the Independent, beginning the article with the words: “The scientific naysayers who claimed a vaccine against HIV would never be possible have received their comeuppance.” Aids vaccine found to cut risk of infection declared the Times. HIV breakthrough as scientists discover new vaccine to prevent infection exclaimed the Guardian. The Sun also weighed in with their typical measured and timid approach. First vaccine for AIDS developed, they unambiguously declared.

Out in Morocco (my current location), the news was relayed to me on my hotel room TV by Al-Jazeera, TV5, and DW-TV. So do we really have such a massive breakthrough? Do the claims stack up?

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97.3% of all “97.3% of all statistics are made up on the spot” quips are tired old clichés

Note: I began writing this entry some time ago and didn’t manage to get round to finishing it – until now. So although the Times article in question is a little out of date, I still feel that the point is worth making.

Another newspaper column appears to have joined with Ben Goldacre’s Guardian column in the worthy cause of systematically and entertainingly (but not overly patronisingly) critiquing some of the dodgy survey data, statistical analyses and scientific reporting found in mainstream newspapers and magazines. In principle, this is what I regard as ostensibly A Good Thing. Long may this practice be spread further into more national newspapers, hopefully covering a much broader audience.

David Aaronovitch’s latest column in the Times covers dodgy data on a variety of issues: firstly the Turin shroud, then on perceptions of aggressive children (AKA da yoof of today), and finally a “thin-air” estimate of the number of sex workers active in the UK that the originator never intended to be definitive, which has become exactly that by being bandied about the media with reckless abandon. It’s really good stuff. Brief, concise, solid critique – entertaining, and never sounding like a crazy conspiracy theorist. I approve. However, one observation that gives me cause for concern is the feedback from readers. Allow me to explain.

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Laetrile will relieve you of your money, not your cancer

In this post, I will be discussing the misguided notion that laetrile (aka amygdalin or, misleadingly, “vitamin B17”) acts as an effective therapy against cancer, with particular attention to the website “World Without Cancer“. This is not because it’s been in the news recently, but because of this site’s “Google positioning”, so to speak: googling “nontoxic.org.uk” brings up the World Without Cancer website as one of the top results. Hence, I see it as something of a duty to use this position wisely, and to demonstrate why some of the wild (yet at first glance convincing) claims made on the site are unjustified. It is also the first post on this blog in which I attempt to address the thorny issue of religion, where I feel my opinions are very different to a large proportion of the pseudoscience-debunking blogging community.

First of all, however, the World Without Cancer site.

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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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