Monday, 25 May 2009

Musings on feminism

Am I a feminist?

If I earnt a lot of money, and I was in a relationship with someone whom I loved very dearly and they loved me and we agreed to be life partners in some kind of ritualised ceremony in which I'd wear an awesome big dress, would I be happy to support him if he wanted to quit his or her job to become a rock star? If I really loved him or her, and they already showed some promise, and if they agreed to do the washing up, then probably.

What if I was in a relationship with someone who earnt a lot of money and we loved each other and agreed to tie the knot and I'd get an even awesomer dress. Would I be happy to quit my job so that they can support me financially while I take over the world with my incredible music (providing I did the washing up, of course)? Definitely. Who wouldn't?

What if I was in a loving relationship with someone whose career was so important to him (or her) that they needed me to stay at home and keep things running? I'd have to bear children, hoover up, mend curtains, have dinner on the table by 7, organise his or her social life and all the other things that domestic goddesses do.

Surely the whole point of feminism is that it's our right to choose?

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Part 2 - Edzard Ernst is a Professor of Complementary Medicine: And Sounds Like A Mysoginist (but isn't actually one)

At the start of the talk on the 20th May 2009, Professor Edzard Ernst gave us an anecdote about a homeopath he had encountered at a dinner party. As a side point, he added that homeopaths were "typically" women, but didn't really quantify this. As a woman, I was slightly taken aback, and I wondered if my chromosomes would make me susceptible to a bit of woo in the future.

"There was something that you mentioned quite early on in your talk and it was about a dinner party you had gone to, and a lady who had approached you... and you implied that most advocates of homeopathy are women. And I was just wondering if you had any theories as to why that might be?"

"Oh dear...I'd like to talk about science but that question you asked has swept under my feet [sic]! Well, why is it women? All the surveys, virtually all, not just in Britain, in America, Germany. All surveys show that the typical user of complementary medicine (more specifically homeopathy) but complementary medicine is... I call it “The Four F's” - Around forty, female, fertile... and I was going to say “fucking mad” "

He didn't really answer my question and it got me thinking. I waited until my hangover had subsided before doing a litle bit of research. Dishearteningly, Professor Edzard Ernst seems to be right. Am I destined to become an advocate of complementary medicine? I'm over halfway to “around forty”, I'm female. Luckily for me, I use contraception and I'm neither fucking or mad. With a little bit of luck, I should be safe.

Just a quick detour before I continue: I'm a bit new to this blogging business, and I wasn't sure how to present my findings. I'm a big fan of graphs, and I could definitely use a few of them here, but technical difficulties ensure that, once again, I rely on my clever and appropriate use of wit and charm to dazzle you blind.

Back to the issue at hand. I say this with much aplomb Professor Ernst, I think you'll find it's a bit more complicated than that. Essentially, he's right, but I don't think it's advisable to describe those you may be trying to convert as "fucking mad". In one study I looked at, patients were asked to tick boxes showing reasons for using complementary medicines.

45% cited "unpleasant side effects of conventional treatment"
43% had said they had "tried a conventional medical treatment and it didn't work"
33% reported that "a doctor had recommended a complementary or alternative medicine to them"

This study doesn't take into account the efficaciousness of different types of alternative therapies (it puts massage and chiropractic in the same band) and it also doesn't go into the details of the particular ailments treated.

A couple of months ago, I was the victim of a terrible toothache. It was fucking horrible. The left side of my face had swollen up, I couldn't eat or drink or smile or jape. I went to visit my lovely dentist, she prescribed me a three day course of antibiotics. The first day, my face still hurt, except I had a bit of a reaction to the pills. One of the side effects was that my lips swelled up. They swelled up so much that they burst open at the top and bottom. If you have seen my amazing youtube videos, you may notice that I am wearing very dark lipstick, this is to cover the scars two days later. I was in so much pain that day that if someone, anyone, in a perceived position of authority (like my Grandad, or my mum) had said to me "Swollen lips, eh? You should rub some stinging nettles on it" I can't honestly say that I wouldn't have given it a go. The point I'm trying to make is that when you're in a lot of pain, and someone recommends something to you, and it doesn't sound like it'll do you any permanent harm, perhaps you'd go for it.

If you have time, do check out this link to this study, it's fascinating. It is only concerned with female sufferers of depression, so it fits the "fucking mad" hypothesis fairly well. It also discusses loads of other interesting issues that I don't have space to write here. My favourite is that those who perceive themselves to be ill are more likely to take up the use of complemetary and alternative therapies. I can imagine going to my doctor because I've put on a bit of weight, and she says to me "You're not ill, you muppet. You need to stop eating Jelly Belly Jelly Beans at 3am" I might get a second opinion. Everyone eats Jelly Belly Jelly Beans at 3am, and not everyone is putting on weight. The logic is infallible.

I looked at several articles online (this one, this one, this one, and this one)and they all kind of say the same things regarding reasons for people in general to seek alternative treatments, and the kinds of people likely to be more vigorous in their acceptance of it.

To end this post, I'd like to finish with this study into why women wouldn't necessarily tell their doctors that they were seeking complementary or alternative therapies. One of the main reasons is that biomedical doctors are not that bothered about it, or in some cases actively derogatory, and they may have been intimidated by this. If Ben Goldacre was my GP, and I'd gone to see him because I was going through a pretty tough time and wanted some pills, I'd probably not bother mentioning that I'd paid £45 to reconnect with my angels, as I'd imagine he'd either laugh at me, or raise those damn sexy eyebrows in a patronising and scary way. Heaven forbid I may find them sexy no more.

On a serious note though, this is potentially dangerous, as they may be taking things that contradict the effectivenes of proper medicine, or they may actually be doing harm. How do we know that angels aren't right proper bastards?

My hoi-poloi opinion is that there needs to be an easy-access information services (why not call it "teh internets"?) for all people about complementary and alternative medicine as well as a more diplomatic approach to women who may be taken in by pseudoscience. Whilst there are excellent, useful, user-friendly websites one can visit, there is also a lot of bullshit, and sadly not everyone is able to differentiate the two.

If we go back to the original answer that Professor Ernst gave me, he's not wrong. Statistically, it is women in their forties who are more likely to get into CAM, they are often fertile, and in the small number of examples I looked at, they are fucking mad - not because they're weird and don't brush their hair, and wear hippyish clothing, but because they've reached a point where they want more options. Unfortunately, pseudoscience gives people false hope and one can only hope for a massive drive to weed out the really good alternative therapies (so that they can become a part of mainstream medicine) from the quacks.

Just in case I have depressed you a bit, please enjoy this video to lift your spirits :-)

In Praise of James Rampton

I was down't pub, as I so often am, getting merry, and chatting up old friends, when the lead singer of Ten Foot Nun walked past me. He's an amiable chap. He said hello, and then stopped for a chat.
"Hello, how are you? I'm Carmen by the way, James' friend"

"Yeah I remember, I'm sorry I couldn't make it to your gig... I'm Jon. We've actually met quite a few times"

"Oh that's alright, I actually totally forgot about the gig"

"In that case, I don't feel sorry at all!" (We laughed)

"How did you know about my gig?"

"James told me, he always lets us know when you're doing a gig... I've seen you play quite a lot... sorry I stole your bassist"

"You didn't steal him, he left" (We laughed a bit more)

How nice was that? Not only did the lead singer of (arguably) the best band band in Croydon know who I was (I so often assume lead singers of bands to be arses - Jon, you're a very nice man), but my ex-bassist has been singing my praises! I thought I'd write a blog to return the favour.

James Rampton is a man with a deliciously low self esteem. None of us can figure out why, as he is the most musically gifted and well dressed person I know. You can download his solo album for free here. It's really very good, I highly recommend it. He is also a very good friend of mine, a great ally when I'm feeling down, and cocks things up just as much as I do, much to the amusement of us all. He's been a fan of my music for a very long time - I actually met him mid-gig at the Black Sheep Bar when I was 18. He walked up to the stage with his bass and asked if he could play the next song with me, despite never hearing it. At the time I assumed I must have sounded so bad that he'd try and drown out my caterwauling with his bass, but it turns out he rather liked my music. Aww, bless.

Anyway, I have a terrible hangover and don't remember much of last night, but I do remember thinking "Oooh, I must write something nice about James when I'm a bit less drunk".

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Part 1 - Edzard Ernst is a Professor of Complementary Medicine: And quite a character

On Wednesday 20th May 2009, I attended another talk at the Penderel's Oak pub in Holborn, this time given by Professor Edzard Ernst. A fascinating man, not least because of his incredible moustache. I have always been envious of men with facial hair.

Professor Ernst was introduced by my favourite soft-handed physicist, award winning broadcaster, and proponent of an awesome haircut – Simon Singh. He spoke briefly about the libel case (for the benefit of those who were not present on Monday, you poor things missed out on some prime schmoozing!). Something happened when he passed the mic over though... for the first 10 minutes or so, the talk was continuously interrupted by technical problems. Could it be the work of homeopaths, dousing the speakers in ionised water? Who knows. The talk did eventually resume, but at a very soft level.

He finally began by giving us a bit of his background, most of which can be found here, and then launched into a proper introduction by giving us some really interesting things to think about, which, for the benefit of those who weren't there, I shall put into bullet points:

-Doctors coming out of medical school are generally impressed by everything they do. Shit scared, but impressed.
-Homeopaths tend not to kill their patients as much as conventional doctors, because usually, their patients aren't really ill.
-There is an assumption across complimentary and conventional medicine that recovery is a direct result of treatment, and no one really seems to question this.

That last point seems to be particularly important, as there are several reasons why someone would recover from an ailment:

-Natural history of the disease – sometimes, things just get better. As Brian Cox knows only too well.
-Regression to the mean (if ever you meet Ben Goldacre, ask him what this is and try and get someone to film his answer)
-Patients may be seeking treatment elsewhere or self medicating without the practitioner's knowledge. An example of this is my frequent use of quinine, ingested in a diluted solution with alcohol and a twist of lime, commonly known as a “Gin and Tonic”. I have found this to be an incredibly effective treatment for many symptoms including social ineptitude, singing off-key, and for the thinning of mascara.
-Placebo effect – more research needs to be done into this. I once gave my little cousin some apple juice in a whiskey glass and told her it was bad for her, don't tell your mum, and she spent that whole Christmas stumbling about the house like grandma.
-Social desirability (being friendly to your patients)

After a quick show-of-hands for what Professor Ernst should talk about for 10 minutes, he went with “My most fascinating trial” obviously, because he sort of hammed it up a bit. His findings were published in The Lancet (under the heading “Scrutinising the Alternatives”) and The New Scientist (under the heading “From Magic to Medicine”). He focussed on the main branches of complementary therapies at the time: homeopathy, herbal medicine, spiritual healing, and acupuncture. Chiropractic was not on his list, curiously.

I was very suprised to be told that at the time this trial was implemented, there were 14,000 spiritual healers in the UK, and 20,000 GPs. That's a bit scary to me.

The goal of the trial was to find out if spiritual healing was better than a placebo. They brought in 5 actors, who were taught how not to heal – it was simple and yet so genius. Instead of concentrating on healing thoughts, they had to count backwards from 1000 in steps of 7, which takes full concentration. I haven't even bothered to try it, because I'd much rather have this last glass of wine before bed.

My suprise at the number of healers was soon diminished, as it turns out that these “actors” were healers themselves! Everyone has healing powers. Isn't that handy? Who-da-thunk-it?

To cut a long story short, the actors and the control group (of an empty room with a cassette recording of someone breathing) were more successful than the spiritual healers.

One patient in a wheelchair at the start of the trial was walking about fit as a fiddle just a few weeks later, which ultimately led to the demise of Professor Ernst's reputation.

In the Q&A afterwards, Crispian asked how the test subjects reacted when they found out which groups they were in, and Profesor Ernst divulged that very few of them wanted to know.

What I want to know, is why are people so ready to believe these quacks? What is it that is so appealing to them? And why do many of them wear hippyish clothes?

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Simon Singh Has Very Soft Hands

Yesterday evening I attended a talk given by some eminent speakers regarding this. Simon Singh is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association because he loves Bill and Ted just as much as the rest of us (please note that this is an internet-cache copy of the offending article. The original article has since been removed from the Guardian website*). The exact phrase, I believe, is "happily promotes bogus treatments", which Justice Eady seems to think is asserting that Singh meant they knowingly and evilly promote treatments that do not work. Even though he didn't mean that. Now he has to prove it, which is difficult as that wasn't what he meant when he said it. An equivalent would be saying to a friend:
"Wow, that dress looks great on you"
"How dare you tell me I look fat"
"Well... you do... but that's not what I said".

I'll be honest, he's a bit of an idol of mine. After seeing his programmes on TV and reading articles and books he has written, I am saving to do a BSc in Maths and Physics (just as soon as I finish my recording studio - photo's to come soon). I was more than chuffed when I got to meet him at a debate on alternative medicine at KCL a few weeks ago. Like a blushing schoolgirl, I shook his hand and told him how much of an inspiration he is to me. He seemed like such a friendly chap, although his parting words to me were "Good luck with your A-Levels"... Elisa had to put it all into perspective for me and now it has become a mildly amusing in-joke (to the point where I asked him to write it in my Physics For Dummies book, much to the amusement of Dave Gorman and Elisa, who was standing right behind me to remind me how embarrassing I was).

The thing that really sticks out to me, is that I am rather fond of free speech, and this case doesn't seek to defend the honour of a reputable cure (for if that were so, surely the BCA could have just knocked together a compendium of all the research into chiropractic efficacy. Maybe they could put it in some kind of receptacle, like a folder or a DVD, hand it in to Singh et al... and then blow a raspberry?), instead they seem to be attempting to stifle one of his (and our) basic human rights - the right to freedom of expresion.

Perhaps I am not looking hard enough, but there seems to be no literature commenting on this case from the other side of the argument. Why aren't there any blogs asserting definitive proof that chiropractic works, with a list of references, and a handy comments box, where I can write something like "Golly! Is that true? I had no idea. Yeah you're right, Simon Singh is an arse!" - please do let me know if you find one.

*I have neglected to obtain permission from Svetlana to link to this, but if any objections are raised, I will happily promote an alternative link.