Jul 31 2009

Beware the spinal trap

I have reproduced the article below as part of Sense About Science campaign to Keep Libel Laws Out of Science. As a human rights activist I am well aware of the problems libel laws present for the work I am involved in, particularly when it involves private companies. It is vitally important that we have a society where people can critique scientific claims and subject them to scrutiny – that’s how science works. So please read about the campaign and sign the petition.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ‘99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Jul 29 2009

Women and Open Source. Again

Sorry for doing women and open source software AGAIN (also here). But the principles are important people!

Anyway, here’s a presentation from a female developer on some women-friendly projects. There’s also some good tips on including women in your projects. The main one I’d like to pick out is:

Call people on their crap.
If someone’s being an asshole, call them on their crap. How do you tell if someone’s being an asshole? Well, if there’s a naked woman on the projector screen, that’s a good sign.

Let them know that their behaviour is making people feel unwelcome, and that you don’t like it.

Pay attention.
Pay attention to your own behaviour and the behaviour of others. This is possibly the hardest piece of advice I’m going to give. You’re not used to noticing this stuff. 80% of you haven’t noticed the sexism in our [OSS] community.

As men, you are able to glide through life ignoring these things. If you are white, and straight, and speak English, and are university educated, there are a bunch of other things you’ve been able to ignore so far, too. I’m asking you to try not to ignore them. Keep your eyes and ears open and be aware of how things feel to people who don’t share your privilege.

Just saying.

Jul 29 2009

In celebration of hair

[hairy and proud, Frida Kahlo]

Yes, the Daily Mail is at it again. A woman off the telly, went outside, in public, with possibly some hair on her lip (also possibly a shadow). Luckily, the Mail informs us that her young son “didn’t seem to mind his mother’s moustachioed look”. That’s nice.

Female hair really seems to be one of the last taboos and causes all kinds of kerfuffle when celebrity women go outside, in public, without being suitably plucked, shaved, waxed, sugared and electrolysed. I know women who shave their forearms. Forearms!

What I find disturbing about this is that bodily hair is a sign of pubescence and womanhood in women and there seems to be some very unhealthy drivers for making women look pre-pubescent. I find having hair sexy and womanly, and a micro act of resistance.

Plus, and I’m willing to concede that this is just me, I would love to know what it felt like to have a beard. I can imagine stroking it and twiddling it. Although I couldn’t be arsed with shaving every day so on balance I’m pleased I can’t grow one (and am unlikely to gain that talent even in later life as I’m not from a hirsute family).

It’s time for hairy women to reclaim the mantel of Frida Kahlo and refuse to be bullied into expensive, painful and unnecessary treatments (particularly by the Daily Mail). If it feels more comfortable fine, but if not you should still be allowed out in public.

Jul 25 2009

New Daily Mail Scientist

[Daily Mail ad run in the Metro. Yes, in 2009]

This may well be a foolhardy adventure, a titanic battle, an Icarian endeavour, I cannot help myself but carefully and scientifically dissect another Daily Mail article. After I’m long dead I hope that the fossilised remains of my blog will be found so that others will know that there was resistance to this cancerous newspaper.

I’ll address most paragraphs in turn.

Fathers DO matter: Scientists claim they play crucial role in child’s development

In a world where advances in cloning and genetics are threatening to make men redundant, scientists finally have some reassuring news.

No dipshit, it’s only in your paper that claims like this are made.

A study has shown that fathers play a crucial in family life – and that without a dad present in the crucial first stage of life, offspring grow up to be less sociable.

Let’s pick out the crucial words in this sentence: “father”, “family life”, “dad”. We all know what those words refer to don’t we. Yes, humans.

Although the findings come from a study of animals, it adds to the growing evidence that fathers influence the way children develop.

Right, so in fact a study HASN’T shown anything about “fathers” or “family life”. And given the variety of parenting models in the animal kingdom you are going to have to show applicability (who thinks they will?…)

Previous studies have shown that girls reach puberty younger, become sexually active earlier and are more likely to get pregnant in their teens if their father are absent when they were young, New Scientist magazine says.

I will address these ‘previous studies’ at the end and the problems with them. I will also take the New Scientist out the back for a damn good thrashing.

Other work has suggested that sons of missing dads have lower self-esteem later in life.

Other work? What like that paper I wrote with my own shit through the motion of wiping my arse? Obviously no need to reference, it is accepted wisdom.

The latest study looked for biological changes in laboratory mice when they were raised without fathers.

Here we go. Paragraph 6 and we find out you’re talking about mice. Five paragraphs on vague conjecture with a clue that this is a completely rehashed article from the New Scientist and we culminate in fucking lab mice.

A team at McGill University, Canada, used a strain of mice which, like people, are usually monogamous and tend to rear their young pups together.

A strain of mice, which like people, live in cages in laboratories, have tails and run around on wheels all day.

They removed the fathers from some of the mouse pups three days after birth until they were weaned at 30 to 40 days old.

The scientists, led by Dr Gabriella Gobbi, then analysed the behaviour and brain cells of the pups – and compared them to mice brought up with both parents.

Brain cells in the ‘single parent’ mice had a muted response to the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin, a feel-good chemical released in the brain during sex or moments of intimacy.

‘Cuddle hormone’ is a technical term I’ll have you know. And given that the Daily Mail are anthropomorphising these mice to an alarming degree, does them talking about them having sex make this article paedophilic?

That meant they were less likely to feel positive when in the company of others. The fatherless mice were also more anti-social.

They found that they were feeling less positive through a survey where the mice were asked to rate their positivity on a scale of cheese to incontinence on a first date. Indeed fatherless mice are more likely to be Goths.

‘Usually if you put two animals in the same cage they investigate and touch each other, but when we put to animals deprived of a father together they ignored each other,’ said Dr Gobbi.

Maybe its because the offspring of divorce parents have less expectations of long-term relationships and decide not to get involved in an intimate relationship that will inevitably end in heart-break and despondency. Oh, wait a minute, they’re FUCKING MICE.

The scientists are unsure whether the same biological changes take place in human children raised without a father – and whether the findings are applicable to people.

But we’ll keep the headline and everything we’ve written up until this point because no one is really going to read this far and what can science tell us about the moral decline of Britain anyway.

In the strain of mice used in the experiment, the fathers lick and groom the young pups more than the mothers do. Because grooming affects the development of pups, it could be the lack of physical contact that cause the changes in the brain, the researchers say.

It seems that mice feminism has also gone to far and these mothers aren’t even looking after their children properly. OK, this paragraph does seem to entirely undermine the preceding drivel showing that mice parenting does seem to differ from human parenting somewhat, but apart from that the similarities are uncanny.

The finding follows another study which showed that men experience a huge surge in oxytocin after a child is born.

Let’s just randomly chuck this study in. Totally unconnected, but shit who cares?

Dr Ruth Feldman of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel tested oxytocin levels of 80 couples before a child was born and six months afterwards. She found that levels of the feel-good chemical rose in mothers and fathers after the arrival of a child.

‘Feel-good chemical’ is another technical term, keep up.

The chemical affected the parents in different ways.

Banal sentence of the entire article. Congratulations.

Mothers with the highest levels spent much longer gazing at their children, stroking and kissing them and speaking in a “sing song” voice, she found.

i.e. become insufferable to be around.

Dads with the highest levels played more with their child than fathers with the lowest levels.

‘Fathers and mothers contribute in a very specific and different way,’ she told the magazine.

She believes fathers may be ‘biologically programmed’ to help raise children.

This is a very very bizarre statement.

Right so let’s look at the studies the Daily Mail randomly chose to cite and how they arbitrary chose to report them. Sadly this Daily Mail article is a pretty much direct rehash of the New Scientist article it refers to. New ‘Scientist’ Fail.

I’ve been warned before that the New Scientist can be sexist, but this is the first time I’ve come across such a biased and unscientific article.

I have blogged here about the studies looking at early female pubescence and absent fathers when Oliver “bad-parenting-causes-schizophrenia” James tried to peddle his social-conservatism as caring liberal. (In summary; “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that”).

There are a number of social determinants that affect girls becoming sexually active earlier and teen pregnancy. Education, access to information, aspirations, abuse, gender inequality, coercion, poverty – can all play a role and interact with each other.

The two studies referred to directly in the article are by Dr Gabriella Gobbi of McGill University Health Centre and Dr Ruth Feldman of Bar-Ilan Universit, were both unpublished studies from Conference Posters presented at the World Congress of Biological Psychiatry and the Society for Research in Child Development Biennial Meeting, respectively. Dr Gobbi’s: The fatherless brain: Impact of paternal deprivation in Peromyscus californicus on social behaviour and on Oxytocin, NMDA and monaminergic synapses in the prefrontal cortex, poster, WCBP (pdf of programme). Dr Feldman‘s: Maternal and Paternal Bonding in the Postpartum: Hormones, Parenting Behavior, and Mental Representations.

I therefore doubt very much that the article reflects what these researchers will have concluded in their studies. Even if they themselves did make these giant leaps, the work is unpublished and there has not been an opportunity to peer-review.

Reporting ideology rather than science is what the Daily Mail does. Which is why I am more annoyed with the New Scientist for this crappy article. Of course the Mail was going to pick it up and use it as more evidence to espouse its socially conservative and judgmental propaganda. But for a scientific publication to use a study in mice to comment on human social interaction, is willfully ignorant.

Jul 20 2009

Nerds leave Fortress of Solitude for Playboy Mansion

My recent lack of posting is due to going to Latitude Festival over the weekend. Which was terribly lovely. But I got back to an emailed link to this story from Double X on the biography of Facebook founders Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin.

Apparently, their lack of ability in the getting-laid department inspired the origins of Facebook and their (unofficial) biography seems to chart their success through the anonymous women they shagged.

I’ve blogged before about nerd sexism (here and here), but I do have sympathy with the article’s assertion that “sexism 2.0 is uglier than its early versions”. Call it pop-psychology, but the misogyny within the geek-tech community seems to be driven by former rejection. Girls wouldn’t kiss the geeks at school and now that they’re billionaires they will wreak their revenge on women by objectifying them and spending their time developing rape-simulation games (great article on rape in games here).

This isn’t a new form of sexism however, its the same-old same-old reaction by some to women not being constantly sexually available to men. As one male friend suggested to me; “Well, if those teenage girls would just snog the geeky boys at school…” Forgetting that a) teenage boys are repulsive and b) girls really shouldn’t have to put out just so that boys don’t go on to ‘rape’ female characters in Second Life.

Rather than male techies having a long hard look at themselves and seeing how they may be contributing to oppressive practices, they bemoan the fact that the banning of Rapelay has led to a decline of “erotic games”.

Although this might all stem from the same sexism that pervades our society, what makes it worse is that the men involved are often anti-authority, leftish, progressives (I have a link for this, bear with me). As I’ve said before – we expect more from you, don’t let the abused become the abuser. Plus the undermining of women in tech, whether web company founders or a faceless Victoria Secret model, seems to come at a confluence of a sustained backlash to the feminist analysis of objectification and a desensitisation to sexual violence against women (in society at large as well as in games).

Nerdy men need to be aspiring to more than the Playboy Mansion. You’re not going to find a Starbuck there.

Thanks to Liz. And sorry I’ve been a bit too techie recently. Will get back to health and medicine.

Jul 12 2009

OW! F***, B*****ks, C***y, M*****F*****! I stubbed my toe.

This post was inspired by a Twitter conversation with @EvidenceMatters about pain and swearing. Apparently, swearing can increase pain tolerance, increase heart rate and decrease perceived pain (when subjects put their hand in icy water) compared with not swearing. I guess it is the linguistic equivalent of rubbing the elbow you just banged. But the study did say specifically that this was only true for men. What about women?

I went on the hunt for a study into female responses to pain and swearing. None. And yet I came across a whole plethora of linguistic, gender studies, organisational psychology, even politeness research (?) studies into gender differences in swearing.

Now, you may have noticed, I’m a big fan of swearing. I think it’s an important linguistic tactic. Plus, it is both big and clever. I love the fact that Armando Iannucci sends the scripts of The Thick of It to a ‘swear man’ who put more swearing into it.

However, if readers of this blog are true to form, you should be rather alarmed by my swearing and indeed think that this signifies my lack of morality. Of course, if you think that you can get tae fuck.

Culture and expectations tend to mitigate against women’s use of obscenity. Swearing is seen as an aggressive and masculine thing to do and therefore sweary women are seen as transgressing gender norms. Indeed, studies show that women are judged more harshly for swearing than men (de Klerk 1992, 1997).

Swearing is also associated with lower socioeconomic groupings and/or working-class culture. A study by Elizabeth Gordon, found that in addition to the expected judgments of lower social status, female ‘non-standard speakers’ were additionally perceived to be of lower moral standing, on the basis of their vernacular usage (slang as well as swearing). So not only am I a gobshite, I’m a filthy, loose gobshite.

I admit to using swearing in a consciously gendered way. Just for shits and giggles. Calling men bitches, women wankers and requesting people suck my dick is part of my one-woman crusade to break down the gendered distribution of swear words. This isn’t unrealistic as apparently “terms like bitch and sow, were first used of males (or of both sexes) and only later applied exclusively to women”.

So could it be that the cultural norms that restrict women’s potty mouths could be doing them out of pain-relief? If you’re a woman and frequently find yourself frustrated, banging your legs on corners of tables or burning yourself with your cigarette – let out a screaming ‘fuck’. It’ll do you good on so many levels.

And on a positive note, girls swear as much as boys on MySpace – progress of sorts!

Jul 11 2009

Next ‘I’m a Celebrity’ to be set in Whitehall

[Then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith with the necessary celebrities launch a consultation]

It is a bad sign of the health of evidence-based policy making when the Government employs an academic on the basis of their IMDB profile. Almost as embarrassing as Gordon Brown phoning Simon Cowell to find out how Susan Boyle is doing, back in March the Home Office employed Dr Linda Papadopoulos to carry out a study into the sexualisation of girls in British society.

Now I’m not saying Dr Linda (as she likes to be known) is a bad person, I just don’t think she is the right person to be advising the government on this aspect of social policy. The research into violence against women in the UK is extensive leading to an understanding of the ‘continuum of violence against women and girls’ and policy outcomes such as the integrated strategy on violence against women (which exists in Scotland and is currently being consulted on in England).

This isn’t Dr Linda’s specialism. She seems in fact, far more comfortable as the resident psychologist on Big Brother, a regular on The Wright Stuff and Celebrity Fit Club and a general rent-a-quote ‘Celebrity Psychiatrist’ (sic) on CNN, Sky News, Channel 5 news, ITN news and BBC breakfast. She has also written such weighty tomes as ‘The Man Manual’ and ‘What Men Say, What Women Hear’.

Dr Linda also has a range of skincare products which include ‘smart nutrients’ which can “boost memory, reduce stress and even help cognitive ability”. These are moisturisers. But the range is called ΨDerma [Psy-Derma]. Geddit? She’s a PSY-chologist who’s peddling moisturiser which makes them like, er, psychological moisturisers.

The range includes:

  • Cleansing Thoughts Foaming Cleanser – ‘Foaming cleanser & detoxifier to wash away the stress of the day’
  • Intensive Therapy Facial Serum – ‘Profound stress relief serum for unhappy skin’ (£30 for 15ml)

Now as I said, I don’t think Dr Linda is a bad person and a lot of her advice about women needing to boost their self esteem and not be body-obsessed is all well and good. What I do have a problem with is the Government’s use of pop-psychologists to advise on social policy and Dr Linda’s use of women’s self-esteem issues to sell over-priced moisturiser to them on the basis that it will in itself help deal with stress and anxiety.

Dr Linda is getting dangerously close to misusing her ‘Dr’ title. And its not good clinical practice to speculate on the psychology of anyone on TV. As the fabulous Dr Petra Boynton said at a recent talk: “I wouldn’t comment on a celebrity’s mental state if they were my patient as that would be unethical and I wouldn’t comment if they weren’t my patient as I would have no idea what I was talking about.”

Wise words. I would also add: psychologists should think deeply about giving academic legitimacy to the exploitation of or intrusion into any individual’s mental health issues for TV.

Thanks to Heather for drawing this to my attention.

Jul 8 2009

Let’s all laugh at working class women

[Diana Mitford Mosley, mother of Max Mosley. And not a working class woman]

This has really torn me. Yes I hate fascists. Yes I think they are ignorant and want to laugh at their stupidity. But Vice Magazine – which is a pile of shite – taking a dig at female members of the BNP filled me with rage.

I was uncomfortable about the article but what affirmed my position was the comments which were invariably from men referring to the women as “stupid cunts” and “ugly chavs”.

But why do they need to objectify women to get their point across? The BNP are ignorant, bigoted, anti-intellectual propagandists that feed on poverty and marginalisation. So why focus on the women and highlight how ugly, working class and stupid they are? Ah yes, its an easy target.

But for fuck’s sake, its the BNP! Its like beating a disabled, piss-covered gerbil to death. Momentarily rewarding but does it really achieve anything? Other than laughing at how stupid women can be, women who are not in the hieracrhy of the party and who did not just get elected to the European Parliament…

Jul 7 2009

I Twitter. I Twat. I Will Tweet.

Interesting article from Double X, an American women’s Web magazine, on studies into male and female use of social networking. Apparently men on Twitter have 15% more followers than women and both women and men are more likely to follow men.

The original study from Harvard Business School had some other interesting findings. Such as:

  • More women than men use Twitter
  • Men have more reciprocated relationships (i.e. follow backs)
  • Both men and women tweet at the same rate
  • Men are more likely to follow a man than a woman, and so are women but not by as much
  • The top 10% of users account for 90% of tweets

These results are quite different from other forms of social networking media where activity tends to be more women-focused and men are more likely to follow the content of women they do and do not know. The Study hypothesises that this is because of the different way that Twitter is used and that it lacks photo-sharing (interesting…).

The finding that Twitter is used in very different ways to other social networking sites certainly seems to ring true. I use Facebook and Twitter very differently; Twitter more like a web-log such as MetaFilter and I have a much stricter criteria for who I’m ‘friends’ with on Facebook and have a private profile there but not on Twitter.

The article suggests people do a gender audit of who they follow. Meh, I follow about 500 ‘people’ but after taking a quick sample, I do indeed follow more men than women but nearly as many gender-neutral as men (News sites, green and human rights orgs, etc). This is *probably* because I follow a lot of nerds, techies, politicians and comedians all of which have a male over-representation. Right, I’m off to have a following cull and find more women to follow!

Oh, and if you want to follow me on Twitter: @naomimc

Jul 6 2009

CIA combine ill-treatment and pimping

There is a fascinating history of mad, bad and deeply unethical medical and scientific research. From experiments in Nazi Germany to the Tuskegee study in the USA where African American men were left untreated for syphilis so that the progression of the disease could be monitored. The study was only halted in 1972.

I just came across Operation Midnight Climax, which back in the 1950s used prostitutes on the CIA’s payroll to lure ‘clients’ back to a location where they were covertly given a range of substances including LSD so that the effects could be studied on non-consenting subjects. This was part of Project MKULTRA, the CIA’s mind control and chemical interrogation research programme.

Unfortunately, this kind of stuff does fuel the (more loony) conspiracy theorists and prove many of their theories right. Its also important to question the ethics of the individuals involved in this including the scientists and medical doctors. It being a State-run programme should not absolve them of their responsibilities. Of course this isn’t a thing of the past as doctors and scientists have been involved in the torture or ill-treatment of ‘enemy combatants’ in Guantanamo Bay and elsewhere.

But also, what of the women? Where are their voices in this? Their sexual exploitation was being done by the US Government. Just as ‘Comfort Women‘ were being shipped to ‘service’ soldiers by the Japanese Government during WWII and countless other examples of State sanctioned sexual exploitation of women.

The disclosures have rightly exposed this deeply unethical covert research. But how about some justice for the women used in this way by the CIA. I’m a little concerned that they’ll just get glamourised for TV….