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.