Thursday, 13 February 2014

You’ve Never Had It So Good

Are people now softer than they used to be? Was the older generation a bunch of toughies who quietly got on with whatever life threw at them? Humans are resilient and adaptable. We wouldn't still be here if we weren't. No generation has all the Moral Fibre.

With all the reporting about the floods and bad weather, some people have been saying that we’ve become a bunch of Walter the Softies, we should suck it up and get on with it, Spirit of the Blitz and all that. It’s a recurring theme, this is just the latest incarnation of it.

There is no way to make a meaningful comparison between the generations. Old people did without central heating, washing machines and other conveniences that make our lives easier. They got through the twentieth century wars. We have never had to cope with these conditions so there is no way of knowing how we'd respond.

What's more, they never knew any different. If you forced their living conditions on us we would not have their experience since birth so could not be able to cope instantly. A bit like if you put an urbanite down in the jungle and expected them to survive.

TV programmes where people have to live for a month like Victorians or whatever are rubbish because Victorians learnt from birth how to keep food with no fridge and entertain themselves in the evenings (hey everyone, let’s gather round the piano and have a séance while coughing our lungs up from consumption).

A lot of people in ye olden days died young from disease, poverty, poor sanitation, failed harvests, childbirth etc etc so they weren't exactly made of iron. Do the ones who survived really want us to go back to those conditions to see who would be tough enough to make it? Or do they think that we should all shut up and be grateful that food isn’t rationed? Check out the number of food banks and stop moaning that you have to wait longer for your pensioners bus pass and hitch a lift on a horse and cart like they did when you were a kiddie then, granddad.

When I was little we had no central heating, no phone and a beast of a washing machine that must have been a nightmare for my mum. People with more money probably had better stuff and easier living but does that make me tougher than them? I hate being cold. I’d have the central heating up high from October to April if I could afford it and didn’t care about global warming. Was my mum softer than her mum because she didn’t have to wash everything by hand and put it through the mangle?

The last time there were major floods, and during the war, there were only radio and newspapers. There may have been sensationalism to sell papers but there was a lot less of it and it was far from immediate. There were major floods in 1928, 1952 and 1953. In the last one, over 300 people drowned. In the Bristol Channel Floods of 1607 at least 2000 people died. At these times, most people had no idea if others were whinging or getting on with it.

There were no TV crews sticking a camera in someone's face in 1928 asking them how they felt and encouraging them to be devastated or angry to liven up the programme with some 'human interest' bollocks. During the war, it was all stiff upper lip, plucky little Brits and other propaganda to maintain morale. There are always whingers and copers but with social media, 24 hour TV news and so on, we are force-fed tragedy and adversity as entertainment. There’s a lot less news in someone just getting on with it than in some old lady whose cat has been drowned and whose photos of her wedding to her recently dead husband have been destroyed. Or: ‘So tell me, how do you feel about your drowned baby?’

Although there are many advantages to having more information, there is also the downside that we are being selectively fed factoids and told how to feel about them. For some reason, the floods in Northern Ireland have not made it onto mainstream news, for example. There is political capital to be made out of domestic disasters for all parts of the political spectrum, too.

As a sidenote, some are saying that if you’re dumb enough or rich enough to live in a flood plain, what do you expect? This is ignorance based on the smugness of people living somewhere not flooded and the assumption that if they were flooded, they would cope just fine. It’s the same mindset as the generational sneering.

I’m getting to the age where I could look at young people and say ‘you’ve got it easy’ and go into a Four Yorkshiremen routine. Are young people soft and lazy, do they have a sense of entitlement and need to be taught to have ‘character’ at school as some MPs are now saying?

Maybe. There is no metric to tell us. Perhaps all teens and twenty somethings are a bunch of jessies and I’m not as tough as my gran was with her outside loo and no hot running water and she was not as tough as my great gran with her twelve kids (who would probably have welcomed easily accessible contraception). If younger people are feeble, whose fault is that? Who brought them up that way?

The first half of the twentieth century was apparently some Golden Age of Character and Resilience, the yardstick against which we are all now being measured. But no doubt the ancestors of our grand and great grandparents would look at them and say ‘You think you had it hard? Try coping with the Black Death or living through 1816, you feeble poltroons’.

If the Tories get their way, we will all soon be living in the world of our great grandparents with no functioning NHS or welfare state. Let’s see who whines and who copes then. And by coping, I don’t mean ‘be rich enough not to care’.

Thursday, 9 January 2014

Collagen Con

Yet another example of ‘If something seems too good to be true, it probably is’, also known as ‘Always look a gift horse in the mouth’.

After Christmas, a lot of us make a resolution to lose weight and get fit. Some of us prefer to cheat and get the effect without the effort. One way to look better without exercise, diet or buying a corset is to improve the way our skin looks. We’re all supposed to want healthier, clearer and, of course, younger-looking skin.

Boots is selling two products it claims will increase collagen. This is the company that sells homeopathic ‘remedies’ so can we trust them that these products will have any effect?

The short answer is NO.

What is collagen?
Collagen makes up about a third of the protein in the body; it’s in bones, muscles, and organ tissues. In the skin, it acts a bit like scaffolding; along with keratin and elastin, it gives skin strength, elasticity and structure.

As we get older, the body makes less collagen. Women’s bodies naturally make less than men’s and lose it at a rate of about 1% per year. Women have naturally lost almost half of skin collagen by the time they’re 50.

What are Boots selling?
Two products in particular are being widely advertised. They are Pure Gold Collagen and Active Gold Collagen. Both cost £35.99 for ten bottles. The recommended dose is ‘drink 1 bottle per day for 4 weeks, preferably 8 weeks or longer for greater benefits’. Eight weeks’ worth would cost over £200 and there is no indication that this would be enough to solve the problem forever or whether it needs to be taken indefinitely.

What are they claiming?
The claim for both Pure Gold and Active Gold is that they are ‘based on a formula specifically developed to offer a unique combination of collagen and supplements for good absorption and bioavailability.’
The other ingredients are slightly different in each but both also contain zinc, copper, vitamin C, vitamin E, vitamin B6 and biotin.

Bioavailability means the quantity or fraction that is absorbed and can be used by the body.

Does it work?
It occurred to me that the body might not absorb collagen taken in this way. I asked Alastair Duncan, Principle Dietician at Guys and St Thomas' Hospital in London what he thought. He replied ‘The collagen in the supplement will not work - it is a protein, and will be digested into amino acids which we'd get from everyday food. That leaves the vitamins and minerals - they might help in someone with an unbalanced diet, but you could buy these for a few pence’.

Are skin creams any more effective?
Boots also sell various skin products that claim to help with collagen loss, like this one or this one for pregnant women. Might they work any better? Not according to this doctor, who writes ‘Most collagen molecules applied to the skin in lotion, cream or gel forms are far too large to be absorbed into the dermis - they merely lie on the surface and get washed or rubbed off. There are some companies that are selling micronized collagen which are meant to be small enough to be absorbed into the skin, but it is unlikely these micro molecules would be in any form useable by skin cells. It is also highly likely that any collagen that actually manages to penetrate the skin would be challenged by the body's immune system as a foreign body.’

Does it matter?
Although anti-ageing and skin products are now being targeted at men, it is still principally women who are the core market being touted the elixir of youth. As the population ages, this market is expanding. Boots is a trusted brand so people expect anything they buy there to work.

If anyone is prepared to waste £200 to look younger, then isn’t it a case of caveat emptor? There’s no evidence the products do any harm and they’re not being forced on children as some parents do with ‘alternative’ medicine.

Boots are exploiting a niche in the market. It’s what companies do if they want to make profits for the shareholders. They’re not charities. No one forces a fish to swallow the baited hook. Fishermen could put a little tag on the lure saying ‘Warning: may contain hooks’ but the fish would still bite because they can’t read. In the same way, most customers can’t read between the lines and apply a bit of science to work out that they’re being hooked on an expensive product that will do nothing for them.

As ever, the only things that helps protect skin and slow down ageing are tediously predictable: avoid sunlight and smoking, eat a healthy diet with plenty of fresh fruit and veg, exercise regularly. Unless Boots is planning to develop a sideline as a greengrocer, the only anti-ageing product they should be selling with a clear conscience is sunblock.

Friday, 13 September 2013

La Rentrée à l'Ecole: Back To School - French Style

France shows us how it should be done

France is secular, which means total separation of Church and State. On September 9, the French Government launched its Secular School Charter to reaffirm secular values in the context of education.

I’ve translated the fifteen articles – it’s been a while since I did any translation so there may be a few inelegant phrasings, but it’s accurate in sense. Clarity is not always the main objective of official French syntax. The term laïque is not identical with secular but it’s the closest we have in English.

As the new school year starts, the Charter shows how very far the UK is from any kind of secularism in a system where one in three state-funded schools are religious schools. These schools are paid for by all of us through our tax. In many schools, teachers can teach/preach according to the ‘ethos’ of the school and employers can legally discriminate against teachers whose lifestyles do not conform to that ethos, either in who they employ or who they promote. They can also select which pupils they accept; this is allegedly to give parents choice but effectively discriminates against parents who are not of the ‘right’ religion, or not religious enough, and who may have to send their children to schools far away. In many of these schools, there is compulsory worship. Schools of other religions exist and are allowed to impose their own ethos.

Homophobia, creationism and inadequate, moralistic sex education are permitted.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams said ‘A church school is a church’. Even though they claim to welcome everyone, these publicly-funded schools are the churches’ main way of recruiting the next generation – something they desperately need to do as church attendance falls year on year and as poll after poll shows that an increasing number of us are indifferent to religion.

All young people should be free to make up their own minds what they do or don’t believe and should be fully equipped to live in society, not just within their religion. They should be given full access to unbiased facts and taught that any idea can be – and should be – questioned.


Articles 3, 6, 11, 12 and 13 are the most relevant for comparison with UK schools. All bold is mine.

1 France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It assures equality for all citizens before the law throughout the whole of its territories. It respects all beliefs.

2. The secular Republic institutes the separation of religions from the State. The State is neutral with regard to religious or spiritual convictions. There is no State religion.

3. Secularism guarantees freedom of conscience for all. Everyone is free to believe or not believe. It permits free expression of convictions within the limits of respect for others and public order.

4. Secularism permits the exercise of citizenship, reconciling individual liberty with the equality and fraternity of everyone in the public interest.

5. The Republic ensures respect for all of its principles in its educational institutions.

6. Secularism in schools offers all students the conditions to develop their personalities, exercise their free will and learn how to be citizens. It protects them from all proselytizing and all pressure that would prevent them from making their own choices.

7. Secularism ensures students have access to a common and shared culture.

8. Secularism permits students freedom of expression within the operational limits of the school, and the limits of respecting republican values and pluralism of belief.

9. Secularism implies the rejection of all violence and discrimination, guarantees equality between girls and boys and is based on a culture of respect and understanding for others.

10. All staff must teach pupils the meaning and value of secularism along with the other fundamental principles of the Republic. They will monitor their application in the educational framework. They must tell parents about this charter.

11. Staff have a strict duty to be neutral: they must not reveal their political or religious beliefs while doing their jobs.

12. Learning is secular. In principle, no subject is excluded from scientific and academic questioning. This is to ensure that students are exposed objectively to the diversity of world views, and to the full scope of fact-based knowledge. No pupil may invoke a religious or political belief to challenge a teacher’s right to deal with a subject on the curriculum.

13. No one may use their religion as an excuse for refusing to obey the rules of schools in the Republic.

14 Internal rules of public educational institutions about ways of living in different spaces defer to secularism. Pupils are forbidden from wearing symbols or clothes that show they belong to a particular religion.

15. Pupils contribute through their thoughts and actions to making secularism live in the heart of their academic institution.

The UK government is keen to open more religious schools. The French model will not be adopted here any time soon. For many children in this country, back to school means back to discrimination, propaganda and publicly-funded God.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Too Smart For God?

A new meta-analysis has found that intelligent people are less likely to be religious – if you believe the media coverage.

What often happens when research is published is that journalists read the press release or, at best, the abstract (summary) of the research paper. This is partly because of tight deadlines and partly because many journals charge for access to the full paper ($25 in this case). Then people who have a particular axe to grind jump on the results and get either outraged or smug, depending on the findings.

A meta-analysis is a study of studies. It looks at all the research done on a particular subject to collate and analyse the results. In this case, it covers studies done between 1928 and 2012.

The abstract begins: ‘A meta-analysis of 63 studies showed a significant negative association between intelligence and religiosity’. However, the abstract is not the whole story. The discussion at the end of a paper is where the caveats are found and give the full picture.

The paper is long and complex. These are just some of the caveats that need to be taken into consideration before any intelligent atheists start patting themselves on the back.

The percentage of males taking part in any survey or study had a significant effect on the findings. The more men there were, the stronger the finding that intelligence makes people less religious but the less representative it is of the population as a whole.

Education levels were not found to correlate with belief levels although college students were more likely to be or become non-believers.

No studies from outside the English-speaking world were included in the meta-analysis. The authors conclude that ‘Clearly the present results are limited to Western societies’ and that any negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity ‘may also be limited to the American Protestant population’ (my bold).

Without comprehensive and culture-appropriate studies of countries where the main religion is Hinduism, Judaism, Islam and so on, no definite global conclusion can be drawn. In some of these countries, cultural factors may affect the results. It may be socially difficult to be a non-believer in some parts of the West (particularly if you want to be a Head of State) but it's not life-threatening. In some countries, the intelligent position may well be to at least profess belief, even in a survey.

The researchers also acknowledge that measures of intelligence used in the West are not appropriate for all other cultures, particularly in the Third World. There's another reason to be cautious in evaluating any findings. While the ability to increase IQ test scores can be learnt, intelligence is an innate characteristic - but not a value-neutral one. There is almost always a value-judgement implicit (or sometimes explicit) when intelligence levels are identified. As with height in many cultures, more intelligent often means superior, better, more worthy.

Some of the papers analysed had flawed methodology when it came to measures of global intelligence. For example, one included this graph which appears to show that the average IQ in some countries is under 65. There are also some outliers that appear to indicate fewer atheists in 'more intelligent' countries.

The meta-analysis also proposes various reasons why more intelligent people are less religious but admits that these are speculative and may well not apply in, for example, Scandinavian countries where there are higher percentages of non-believers.

Some of the reasons it proposes are that intelligent people are non-conformist, better able to resist cognitive bias and are more analytical. However, a poll in the Guardian (currently) shows that 74% of people agree with the finding but unless they’ve all read the research, this reaction is more likely to be based on wishful thinking and self-affirmation than on reason and analysis. The result may also show that Guardian readers are highly conformist with each other.

I’m not an apologist for religion, I’m an atheist and a secularist. It’s really important that those of us who claim to stand for reason don’t fall into lazy thinking, that we don’t let the media lead us by the nose into knee-jerk reactions that make us look as eager to believe anything that confirms our personal biases as any religious fundamentalist.

It's also important to remember that correlations don't apply to everyone. There will always be outliers - highly intelligent people who do believe and less intelligent ones who don't. A correlation is not one-size-fits-all. And it is not necessarily an indicator of causation.

Even if there turns out to be a global correlation between intelligence and belief – what then?

There’s the obvious point-and-laugh satisfaction for certain atheists but what do the rest of us do with this information? If belief is tied to intelligence then it could be harder to overcome or modify its negative effects on societies and individuals, to ensure equal rights than if it were closely linked to culture or education. The idea of religion as a virus that can be cured through debate or education fails. And, significantly, the people (men) in charge of religions are not stupid.

The last line of the paper is ‘Obviously, these conclusions are a topic for future research’. In other words, don't put out the bunting just yet.

The main problem here is that ‘It looks like there's a correlation between intelligence and religious belief among American Christians but we’re not sure about the rest of the world’ doesn’t make a very good headline.

Monday, 8 July 2013

The End of Civilization As We Know It: 3

Martin Robbins is fed up with Susan Greenfield telling us that the Internet is destroying our brains, society and everything her generation holds dear. But you don’t need to be under 30 to be sick of her carping. Susan Greenfield is 62. I’m not. I’m quite some way off from 62 but I am old enough to remember the world before the interweb. It was not better.

A while ago I wrote about the scare stories of Greenfield and her ilk and about how they are nothing new – here and here. Now Greenfield has written a novel based on her doom and gloom scenario.

Martin has reviewed her sci-fi novel here and outlined everything that’s wrong with her very unscientific theories, as regularly expounded in the Daily Mail where, as he says, ‘she routinely accuses technology of turning the latest generation of teens and twenty-somethings into feeble mouth-breathers who'd sacrifice their physical, mental and sexual health for a hearty broadband connection’.

He also says: ‘I’m sick and tired of watching middle-aged, middle-class reactionaries direct torrents of thoughtless abuse at my generation. Her book is little more than a catalogue of absurd prejudices directed by a 62-year-old at a generation she seems pig-headedly uninterested in engaging with, refusing to read blogs or look at Facebook’.

Susan Greenfield characterizes all young people as a doomed generation which, by implication, means the generation and society she grew up in were better.

What follows is anecdotal evidence, but then her ideas are no more scientific.

I’m on Twitter and Facebook. I’ve been an active member of forums and chat rooms discussing everything from science to Sephardic Jews to Buffy with people I’ve never met, forming the evil transient relationships instead of being outdoors playing with a stick and a hoop. Most of the people who read my blog are total strangers to me (and in some cases, I hope we never meet). Does that make me a traitor to my generation? Am I rotting my brain, betraying my upbringing and destroying society?

I grew up in a small village in the West Country. The 60s didn’t arrive there until about 1972 so it was a world Greenfield would easily recognise. The only way to learn anything outside of school was to go to the nearest town when my dad felt like driving there, and go to the library (once they finally got around to building one). I’d wander around, hoping to happen on a book that might teach me something about the world.

I read a lot of books but had no way of knowing if what was in them was right or even up to date. I did my homework and studied hard because I knew the only way out of the village was to go to university. I chose one pretty much at random because I had no way of doing any research. When I got there, I was very unprepared for city life. I was a yokel with strict religious parents who knew nothing about anything to do with adult life. If that kind of isolation wasn’t infantilizing, I don’t know what is.

Adults in the village did go out of their houses to meet other people in the real world. They went to church or to the pub. There was fuck-all for teenagers to do apart from drinking cider (illegally) or getting pregnant. For some years, the nearest town was said to have the highest birth rate in Europe. The local cider would turn you into a drooling moron faster than any social network.

I’d like to have interacted more with real people in real time. My dad taught at the nearest comprehensive so a lot of the local boys avoided me.

My secondary school was a long way from the village so most of my friends were inaccessible outside of school as the bus service was rudimentary. One of them didn’t have a phone. If we wanted to communicate or meet up in the holidays, we had to write a letter. I enjoyed writing but it made for slow, slow conversations.

We didn’t go on holiday abroad and everyone in the village was white, Church of England or Methodist so the only way to experience other cultures or other people’s lives was to get a pen-pal. More letters and even slower communication.

In the 60s, my mum’s sister lived in America; she had to book a trunk call to talk to her, which we could only afford to do a couple of times a year – once we got a phone.

We watched the BBC news but my parents never discussed what was happening in the world apart from tutting and telling me to think of the starving children in Biafra if I didn’t eat everything on my plate. I didn’t know where Biafra was. I didn’t know what an aubergine was until I left home.

Everyone in the village knew everyone else’s business. Gossip and tutting were the main social interactions. I was mocked for having short hair, so you can imagine what it was like if you were gay or otherwise non-conventional. You had no way of finding other people like you or even knowing they existed, let alone communicating with them. It was bloody miserable. If I’d had the Internet, I’d have been a lot happier, better informed and better connected. It would have been a lifeline, as it is now for many young people. I’d have known I wasn’t a freak – or at least not alone. And I could have posted pictures of my cat eating my dad’s hair.

Yes, you can spend too long online. You can spend too long doing lots of things that aren’t good for you. If younger people are doomed because of social networks and the rest, then who is to blame? Susan Greenfield’s generation. If your kids are zombies, it’s your fault. You are crap parents and role models.

Unlike Susan Greenfield, I do interact with the young people. I like them. They help me do stuff on the internet and don't laugh at me. We even have conversations and sometimes we touch each other.

As for the end of all things civilized, I’d say that the Tory government is doing its best to destroy everything that was good about the society I grew up in. You don’t speak for me, Susan Greenfield, or any of the people I know over thirty. Or over fifty. Or sixty. Don’t make young people hate us all. I’d like to tell you to shove your classist, patronizing and unscientific ideas where the sun don’t shine – which probably means I have no empathy because the internet ate it.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

The ASA Versus Homeopathy

The Advertising Standards Authority has produced a tough and comprehensive ruling about adverts for homeopathy, largely due to the number of complaints it has received about them.

It’s a long document, which you can read in full here. The gist of it is this: ‘We told the Society of Homeopaths not to discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought, including offering specific advice on or treatment for such conditions. We also told them not to make health claims for homeopathy unless they held sufficiently robust evidence of efficacy.’

One of its main concerns is that vulnerable people are being targeted; the web site for the Society of Homeopaths talks about conditions for which conventional medicine doesn’t help, for example. It’s not targeting people who are well but those who are already suffering and sometimes desperate, offering them hope, claiming that homeopathy ‘can be considered in almost any ill health’.

These may seem like weasel words – ‘can be considered’ seems vague enough to be a get out of jail free card – but more detailed claims are made.

The ASA was also concerned that there was no evidence that ‘treatment would be conducted under the supervision of a suitably qualified health professional’. In other words, homeopaths are not ‘qualified health professionals’.

The website claims that ‘There is a growing body of research evidence suggesting that treatment by a homeopath is clinically effective, cost effective and safe. … Currently, there is sufficient research evidence to support the use of homeopathic treatment for the following medical conditions: Allergies and upper respiratory tract infections, Ankle sprain, Bronchitis, Childhood diarrhoea, Chronic fatigue, Ear infections, Fibromyalgia, Hay fever, Influenza, Osteoarthritis, Premenstrual syndrome, Rheumatic diseases, Sinusitis, Vertigo’.

The ASA’s third main concern was about this evidence, that it does not in fact prove that homeopathy works any better than a placebo. The body of the ruling focuses on this aspect and looks at claims made for evidence in treating specific illnesses.

The ASA also looked at the Society's Twitter page, specifically: 'Antidepressant prescriptions up by 43 per cent. For more holistic healthcare which doesn’t rely on drugs try #homeopathy' and linked to the Society's website.

The ASA’s challenge was that
1. ad (a) could discourage essential treatment for depression, a medical condition for which medical supervision should be sought, and misleadingly implied that homeopathic remedies could alleviate symptoms of depression;
2. ad (b) could discourage essential treatment for conditions for which medical supervision should be sought; and
3. the claims in ad (b) that homeopathy could treat the following medical conditions were misleading and could not be substantiated. (my bold)

Regarding the claim about depression, the ASA ruled that
‘We considered that the reference to antidepressant prescriptions and the invitation to “try” homeopathy meant the ad was targeted at consumers with a pre-existing diagnosis of depression, particularly those who had been prescribed antidepressants. We considered the average consumer targeted by the ad was therefore particularly vulnerable.’ (my bold)

This is not a case of caveat emptor. Vulnerable people do not generally have the time, resources or sometimes the ability to do thorough research for themselves. If people read the small print then very many companies would lose their customers - beauty products and financial products in particular rely on people not looking at the small print. But buying a moisturizer that claims to prevent ageing is not in the same league as buying an alleged treatment for a serious medical condition. There has to be solid evidence.

The ASA underlines that ‘the CAP Code required health claims to be backed by evidence, which would be assessed on the basis of the available scientific knowledge. … We considered that listing medical conditions in this way meant consumers would expect the advertisers to hold robust scientific evidence to support the use of homeopathy for the listed conditions.’ (my bold)

The ASA then looks at the evidence. It cites the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee investigation of 2009–10 into the government’s policies on the provision of homeopathy through the NHS and the licensing of homeopathic products by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority.

The Committee concluded that homeopathic products ‘were not efficacious because they produced effects no better than those of a placebo treatment. They went on to state that they did not believe further research into homeopathy was warranted because sufficient testing had already taken place and evidence showed that it was not efficacious’.

This is pretty clear – it doesn’t work and it will never work no matter how many trials are done.

The ASA then went further and got their own expert to look at research provided by the Society of Homeopaths to ‘prove’ their claims for the various conditions listed on the web site. Homeopaths often claim that testing by non-homeopaths is unfair, biased or fails to take into account the way homeopathy works. But this was evidence they provided themselves.

The ASA found that their expert's ‘overall opinion of the evidence presented by the Society of Homeopaths, and the general body of published scientific and clinical data, was that it was not convincing in terms of efficacy and it was unlikely to be generally accepted by the scientific community.’

In every case, the ‘evidence’ was either flawed, insufficient or unscientific.

Again – it doesn’t work.

For every treatment for a specific condition listed on the web site, the ASA ruled that ‘We therefore concluded the claim was misleading and had not been substantiated’.

This restrained language means the evidence is no evidence at all, homeopaths must not make claims they can’t back up and they must stop targeting vulnerable people.

This is not the end of homeopathy. The web site will no doubt change its wording, making it vaguer, more shifty. Homeopathy is big business and businesses never go under without a fight. There is always a loophole and there are always vulnerable people to make money out of.

The ASA is doing its best to close the loopholes but it can’t tackle claims without complaints. This is why it’s important to keep reporting dodgy adverts and web sites to them. The Nightingale Collaboration has a good guide on how to complain.

The ruling is a victory but the battle continues.

Friday, 14 June 2013

Fun With Diatoms

I’ve been enjoying diatoms this week so I thought I’d share.

As a non-scientist, sometimes my attention is caught by something because it looks interesting or strange. In this case, the many many varied forms of the diatoms caught my eye. I admit, my first reaction was aesthetic – which is a fancy way of saying they look great. My second thought was – I wonder if I could crochet some. Then I started looking into them. Sometimes scientific enquiry can be led by a superficial attraction or a childlike curiosity. That’s my excuse, anyway.

This is what I have learnt:

Diatoms have been around since the early Jurassic period, around two hundred million years. There are more than 200 genera of them and an estimated 100,000 extant species. They’re not in the big league of beetles (around four times as many) but that’s still pretty impressive.

They are single-celled plants, a form of algae that lives in both fresh and salt water, and they exist in fossil form too. Most of them are microscopic but some can reach a mighty two millimeters.

The name comes from the fact that the cell is in two halves, from the Ancient Greek διά (dia: through) and τέμνειν (temnein: to cut) - cut in half.

Their single cell wall is made of silica (hydrated silicon dioxide) and is called a frustule, a word which I am enjoying saying to myself when no one is around. Most are non-motile (they don’t move by their own power). Some float around on their own and some form colonies.

You might think that something that old, small and basic would be some sort of blob, of interest to only the most niche of scientists.

Next time you swim in the sea, a river or a lake, think about the fact that you're surrounded by them.

They don't just look great, diatoms are one of the most important components of marine phytoplankton and therefore form the basis of the whole marine food chain. They fulfil both of William Morris's criteria: beautiful and useful.

They’re also immensely useful to us for monitoring environmental conditions and water quality.

But, most of all, their variety and their shape is amazing. I’m glad I took the time to look them up and learn something but, for me, it will always be their appearance that is the most attractive thing about them. Does that make me forever a hopeless non-scientist? Maybe it doesn't matter if my route to knowledge is along a path strewn with pretty or weird things.

Here are a few more. Enjoy. And no, I haven't crocheted any. Yet.