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BOOTS AGAIN

Reader Rob Smith of the UK, Technical Director of the North East Regional e-Science Centre, tells us that Boots Pharmacy – see www.randi.org/jr/200509/090905these.html#1 – is back touting quackery. This time it’s even sillier than the last trip they took to Woo-Woo Land. Rob writes:

…some recent TV ads in the UK are touting the Silent Knight Ring – a product that claims to prevent snoring. There is some relatively comical pseudoscience explaining why this is so on their site: www.silentknightring.com/index.php?page=index

Notice that their homepage proudly announces that the product is now available at Boots.

I took exception to this because in the UK, Boots is an institution.  It is the “standard” or canonical drug store.  It has been in business forever.  A lot of people trust the brand.  A quick search showed up some other “alternative” products offered by Boots so I sent them an email. 

Of course, perhaps because I was enraged at the time, or through perfectly ordinary stupidity, I made the mistake of contacting them through a webform, so I don't have my original message (duh).  Here is their reply, however:

Thank you for contacting us about your disappointment in Boots stocking the Silent Knight alternative snoring solution. I have contacted the healthcare team on your behalf and below is the response I received.

Boots is the major healthcare retailer in the UK, and in addition to marketing and dispensing licensed medicines and medical devices, we are pleased to offer a range of alternative healthcare products. Boots takes pride in offering choice to the consumer, and it would be inappropriate for us to deny consumer access to alternative products and therapies, if this is what they want. The key is in ensuring that any claims made for these products are appropriate. This means either ensuring that data is available to support the claims, or making sure that the claims are reasonable (well established and accepted in the market place for the same or similar products). Many of these products carry very weak claims, or none at all. All new products marketed by Boots are reviewed by technical/regulatory experts to ensure legal and ethical compliance. There are many products which fail to gain a listing in Boots due to inappropriate labeling and/or claims.

We make no apology for marketing alternative healthcare products, and we will continue to do so for as long as our customers wish to buy them.

For some reason this didn't seem satisfying to me, so I replied:

Thank you for your reply.  I'm afraid it was what I expected and seems somewhat disingenuous.  The overall message seems to be that you don't care about the health of your customers, providing you can sell them something. 

From the text of the reply it seems that you are happy to deliberately sell people remedies that don't work providing the companies that produce them don't make very strong claims that they do work - or if lots of other companies have previously conned people into buying these products.  For someone in a position of influence as "the major healthcare retailer in the UK," this seems dishonest.

In the case of the Silent Knight ring, the claims seem pretty strong to me.  From the Silent Knight website:

"Stop snoring NOW with this one-off purchase simply worn on the little finger. Silent Knight Ring is the most natural and effective solution you can use to put a stop to snoring. Research found that it cut out snoring completely in over 60 per cent of users, reducing it considerably in the remainder. The raised part on the inside of Silent Knight Ring acts, when correctly positioned, on one of the meridian lines in the little finger of the snorer. It uses age-old principals [sic] of Acupressure, specifically the principle of Tuina (pronounced 'twee nah') which is a form of Oriental bodywork used in China. It's a combination of massage, acupressure, and other forms of body manipulation.”

“You might have heard of Reflexology, where pressure is applied to the hands, feet, and even ears to treat a variety of conditions. Tuina is a form of reflexology that has a history pre-dating ANY conventional western medicine by thousands of years.”

“To make Silent Knight Ring work for you all you have to do is put it on about an hour before you go to bed, correctly position the Acupressure Stimulator (full instructions are included) and give the ring one gentle squeeze to apply pressure – that's it! Tuina and Silent Knight Ring are working together for you to cut out your problem snoring completely!"

And of course, there is all the anecdotal evidence in the “testimonials” section. This certainly seems to be making strong claims that the product is effective.  Perhaps you could point me to the data you have investigated that show this claim is justified?  Or will you fall back on your defense that as long as the product is “well established and accepted in the market place” (whatever that means – it sounds like a universal get-out clause to me) then evidence that it actually works is not required?

Randi comments:  The description by the Silent Knight manufacturers is just so inane, so juvenile, and so unsupported, that we have to be amazed that anyone would read it without laughing. But – and I’m sure our correspondent would agree – the fact that Boots ignores the obvious quackery and continues to offer this product to their trusting customers, is far more alarming. We have to ask: just who are these “technical/regulatory experts” Boots claims to have on staff to evaluate these matters? Are they just plain stupid, or purposely evil? Rob Smith continues his letter to Boots:

I also note that you talk about requiring “data” to support claims and not evidence.  There is a world of difference between the two.  In the case of remedies, particularly those sold as remedies to the general public, the only acceptable evidence is generated by properly controlled double-blinded tests.  “Data” can mean literally anything – anecdotes, made up stuff – anything that someone chooses to record.  Insisting on “data” to support your marketing of these products is meaningless.  Well...the [representative of the company making the product] said it works, so I hereby abdicate any responsibility.

You said: "We make no apology for marketing alternative healthcare products, and we will continue to do so for as long as our customers wish to buy them."

The reason these products are considered “alternative” is that there is no evidence to suggest they work.  Otherwise they would be mainstream. As a pharmacist, Boots should know as well as anyone what difficulties conventional medicines face before they are allowed to be sold.  In particular, they must be demonstrated to be effective and they must be demonstrated to be safe (both insofar as dictated by pretty stringent rules). 

I don't believe you would sell pharmaceutical remedies that didn't pass these tests, so I'd be interested to know how you feel justified in selling “alternative” remedies that don't even take the tests, never mind pass them. I repeat my suspicion that you deliberately sell “remedies” that you know are ineffective – or at best that you don't know are effective.  You charge vulnerable people not inconsiderable sums of money for the privilege of buying apparently ineffective remedies that you seem to imply are effective.  You do so without evidence and use weasel words to justify it.

I wish you would adopt a less selfish policy that paid more attention to the plight of the customers you aim to help.

I can't imagine that Boots will take this seriously.  It is a shame and it is shameful.  Using a well-earned reputation to deliberately increase the chances of conning people is still quite unexpected in the UK, naïve as we often are.

I'll let you know if Boots replies.

Rob, the whole explanation has been offered by Boots in their response: “…we will continue [marketing alternative healthcare products] for as long as our customers wish to buy them.”  This would indicate not only that Boots just doesn’t give a damn about the health or safety of their customers, nor about the efficacy of the products they sell, so long as the money is coming in, but that even if they are shown that it’s quackery – and it most certainly is – Boots will continue to sell the product because it’s profitable. One has to wonder if Boots has heard about opium, crack cocaine, and methamphetamines: I’m sure there are customers out there who “wish to buy them,” so if Boots could legally do so, Boots would satisfy that demand, right? That’s what they’re saying…!

And Rob Smith will let us know if Boots cares to respond to his comments. I rather think not… 




PEAR REVISITED

Mark Chu-Carroll, a chap who describes himself as:

…a Computer Scientist working as a researcher in a corporate lab. My professional interests run towards how to build programming languages and tools that allow groups of people to work together to build large software systems.

has come to our attention. First, I suggest that you refer to any archived references to the PEAR [Princeton Engineering Anomalies Research] activities from this web page, such as www.randi.org/jr/072905beenthere.html. Mark offers a cogent explanation for this subject, on which I have been challenged repeatedly, with “How do you explain this, Mr. Randi?” attacks.
I don’t have any problem seeing the situation at PEAR, but Mark handles it from a position of expertise that I am happy to publish. An excerpt from his comments:

…I started discussing the PEAR survey  paper. As a quick reminder, PEAR is a group at Princeton University that is studying "the interaction of human consciousness with sensitive physical devices, systems, and processes common to contemporary engineering practice." There's not a huge amount to say about the rest of it, but there are a few good points worth taking the time to discuss.

Overall, the problem with PEAR's publications as a whole is that they've gathered a huge amount of data, which contains no statistically significant anomalies of any kind. But they keep trying to show how various properties of their data, despite being statistically insignificant, show anomalous features. This is a totally meaningless thing to do: any set of data, if you slice and dice it enough, will contain subsets that have apparently anomalous features; the whole point of statistical significance is that it's a way of measuring whether or not apparent trends in the data are strong enough to be considered as more than just random patterning or noise.

Section 3C is typical. Here's what they say in the introduction to the section:

Any structural details of the trial count distributions that compound to the observed anomalous mean shifts may hold useful implications for modeling such correlations. While no statistically significant departures of the variance, skew, kurtosis, or higher moments from the appropriate chance values appear in the overall data, regular patterns of certain finer scale features can be discerned.

This is an incredibly damning statement. Translated into simple English: there is nothing statistically significant in this data to indicate anything other than randomness. But by taking carefully selected subsets, we can discover interesting patterns.

Let me give an extreme example of what this means, in practice. If I take a set of data containing random numbers, and I slice it so that it contains only multiples of two and three, then I'll find that my data contains a subset which has an anomalously high proportion of even numbers. Is it a meaningful anomaly? Only in the sense that I selected the subset with the property that interested me – I created the anomaly by my data selection – the "anomaly" is a property of my selection process, not of the underlying data.

Section 3D is more of exactly the same thing:

Given the correlation of operator intentions with the anomalous mean shifts, it is reasonable to search the data for operator-specific features that might establish some pattern of individual operator contributions to the overall results. Unfortunately, quantitative statistical assessment of these is complicated by the unavoidably wide disparity among the operator database sizes, and by the small signal-to-noise ratio of the raw data, leaving graphical and analytical representations of the distribution of individual operator effects only marginally enlightening.

This is interesting for a couple of reasons. First – this is the most direct admission thus far in the paper of how thoroughly invalid their data is. They're combining results from significantly different experimental protocols: some of the testers have done significantly more experiments with the apparatus than others; but the results are intermixed as if it were all consistent data.

Second, they're openly admitting that the data is invalid, and that any conclusions drawn from it are pretty much meaningless because of the problems in the data – but they're going to proceed to draw conclusions anyway, even though in their best assessment, the results can be only "marginally enlightening". (And even that is a ridiculous overstatement. "Meaningless" is the correct term.)

Section four starts with another thoroughly amusing statement:

Possible secondary correlations of effect sizes with a host of technical, psychological, and environmental factors, e.g. the type of random source; the distance of the operator from the machine; operator gender; two or more operators attempting the task together; feedback modes; the rate of bit generation; the number of bits sampled per trial; the number of trials comprising a run or series; the volitional/instructed protocol options; the degree of operator experience; and others have been explored to various extents within the course of these experiments, and in many other related studies not discussed here. Very briefly, qualitative inspection of these data, along with a comprehensive analysis of variance, indicates that most of these factors do not consistently alter the character or scale of the combined operator effects from those outlined above, although some may be important in certain individual operator performance patterns.

De-obfuscated, that translates to: "Pretty much every property of the experiment has been varied in all sorts of ways; the results of the experiment have been shown to be statistically insignificant; and then when we tried to piece out single factors as influencing the results, we couldn't find anything statistically significant."

One last quote, and I'll be done with PEAR once and for all. PEAR has been frequently criticized by, among others, James Randi (aka the Amazing Randi) for the bogosity of their experiments. One of the recurring criticisms is, quite appropriately, the replicability of the experiment: that is, can they reproduce these kinds of supposedly anomalous results in a controlled trial set up and observed by someone outside of PEAR?

Here's their response:

From time to time, the experiments reported here have been assessed, both formally and informally, by a number of critical observers, who have generally agreed that the equipment, protocols, and data processing are sound. Frequently, however, the caveat is added that such results must be “replicated” before they can be fully accepted, with the replication criteria variously defined to require strict preservation of all technical and procedural details, or to allow more flexible similarities in equipment and protocols. It is our opinion that for experiments of this sort, involving as they clearly do substantial psychological factors and therefore both individual and collective statistical behaviors, to require that any given operator, on any given day, should produce identical results, or that any given operator group should quantitatively replicate the results of any other, is clearly unreasonable. Rather more apt would be such criteria as might be applied to controlled experiments in human creativity, perception, learning, or athletic achievement, where broad statistical ranges of individual and collective performance must be anticipated, and results therefore interpreted in statistically generic terms.

We can't reproduce our results, because that would be unfair.

Of course, people have done carefully controlled trials of perception, learning, and athletic achievement, with reproducible results. (I don't know of any in creativity, but that's because I don't know of any definition of "creativity" that's sufficiently quantifiable to be measured.) But hey, PEAR doesn't let that stand in their way. It's just unreasonable to ask them to be able to reproduce them.

Here, from a highly qualified authority, is a rebuttal to the PEAR claims that should stand thorough scrutiny. Getting Brenda Dunne to respond to this might be a Sisyphean task that someone would care to undertake…?




MEDICINE IN ALBERTA “ADVANCES”

A reader in Canada tells us that an Alberta hospital – Stollery Children's Hospital in Edmonton – ever vigilant to offer patients the latest in woo-woo medicine, has teamed up a pediatrician, a naturopath, a Chinese herbalist, an acupuncturist and a massage therapist in a new program to provide advice to the parents of ailing children and “give information on proven and safe alternative therapies.”

Dr. Sunia Vohra is the pediatrician on the team. She explained her point of view:  "It was very unfulfilling to have an answer of 'I don't know and I'm not sure.'" Well, Doctor, at risk of telling you what you should already know as an M.D., modern medicine often has to say just that, rather than coming up with definitive, cut-and-dried, tidy answers – which “alternative” practitioners delight in supplying. Any science is a search for answers, an organized attempt to arrive at a statement that appears to represent a fact – and that must be subject to challenge and possible falsification. The “vibrations,” “chi,” “orgone,” “subluxations,” “energy blocks,” “chakras," and “earth rays” that alternative medicine offers, are colorful but imaginary notions. They sound satisfying and definitive, but are only a means of keeping patients comforted – while the real causes, though sometimes not well understood, are ignored.

As regular readers will know, I’m currently involved in recovering from a double cardiac bypass procedure. I died.  I was resuscitated, and was operated on without the use of any sort of quackery. That was real science at work, tried and proven before I surrendered to the morphine sulfate that spared me so much discomfort. There was nothing “alternative” about the procedures I underwent; no incantations, appeals to deities, waving of hands, strange-shaped roots or talismans were involved. That was hard, vigorous, disciplined, science at work. No one promised me life; the statistics were very much in my favor, but there were no certainties at all. I accepted the opportunity of putting myself into the system, knowing that no doctor is perfect, no procedure foolproof, and no outcome certain. I’m listening to the real scientists who currently put me through all sorts of stunts on fiendish exercise machines – and that is working very well for me.




SPECIAL RULES FOR PSEUDOSCIENCE

Reader Doug Fraser, a science teacher in Ontario, Canada, reminds us that the British Medical Association journal, the Lancet, published a crushing rebuke of homeopathy last August. See http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/health/4183916.stm. But, says Doug, the very best part of that report – which many missed – was the response from an un-named spokesperson for the Society of Homeopaths. In a statement that could not possibly better reflect the misguided nature of pseudoscience, it read:

It has been established beyond doubt and accepted by many researchers, that the placebo-controlled randomized controlled trial is not a fitting research tool with which to test homeopathy.

This is ridiculous. It says that the very basis of proper, established, proven, scientific evaluation of data is wrong. This comes as a huge surprise to every other scientist on Earth. Comments Mr. Fraser:

So now we get the straight goods from the homeopaths – the mathematics of random numbers doesn't work for them, researcher and patient bias must be maintained, and when someone is given a homeopathic remedy it won't work if someone "down the street" ingests a fake pill. To be living in a Shirley MacLaine universe must be horribly dim. 

Agreed. But homeopathy has always demanded special rules by which it wants to be evaluated. I think that a better phrasing of the Society of Homeopaths’ statement would be:

It has been established beyond doubt and accepted by many researchers, that when proper placebo-controlled randomized controlled trials of homeopathy are carried out, the results indicate that homeopathy is useless. Thus, we conclude that proper scientific standards are not fitting research tools with which to test homeopathy.

Okay?




THE LOWDOWN ON HI-FI

From reader Aaron Drabbitt in Victoria, BC, Canada, a confession and some sound advice…

I recently sent an email to somebody who was asking my advice about upgrading their audio system. I don't think they were expecting my response:

Let me preface that being an audiophile is as much about "faith" and psychology, as it is about electronics and acoustics. I have run the gamut from crazy audiophile fundamentalist, to my current status as audiophile atheist...over a period of around 27 years. I've studied electronic engineering at BCIT, and I even ran a small business for a while designing custom systems and custom loudspeakers for rich people.

It comes down to this: You'll hear what you want to hear. If you spend $2000 on a new AV amplifier, then you'll hear $2000 worth of improvements, even though I could probably double blind a test where you'd never tell the difference. I've heard all the arguments of why double blind tests aren't any good....but the truth is that all a double blind test does is remove the psychological bias. It takes the "religion" out of audio reproduction.

This brings me to bi-wiring and bi-amping. Don't bother. It really doesn't make a difference that is in proportion to the cost of doing it.

I believe that if more people spent half as much treating the acoustics of their listening space as they do on upgrading their equipment they'd be much happier for it. Acoustics is extremely important, and accounts for 75% of the THX program, it'll make a far bigger difference to the sound of your system than any change in amplifier.

There's more magic, pseudoscience and fraud in the audio industry than there is in a homeopathic chiropractor's office....

If you are on a budget, and want great sound, I would start by learning everything you can about acoustics, and how to improve the acoustics of your listening space. Spend some money there. Then once you've done all you can to eliminate standing waves, and spurious reflections, start analyzing your system for weaknesses that will cause the most obvious improvement if changed. That will probably be the speakers. The last thing I would even contemplate would be interconnect wire, and speaker wire. (tip: the best speaker wire is Cat5 network cable, twist all the "white" wires together, and all the "colored" wires together. Then add more and more cables as the length required increases. You can braid them together to make one cable too).

Hope that helps some!

Thank you, Aaron. As readers will know, I’ve battled with those at Stereophile Magazine who endorse all sorts of crackpot products and show no sign of discriminating between blatantly obvious scams and doubtful claims. Efforts to get them to be involved in proper double-blind tests – with the JREF million-dollar prize available for a positive result! – have made them run for the woods precipitously.

Just think of that for a moment, folks. We are offering a prize of a million dollars, legally and irrevocably committed to that end, if Stereophile Magazine – or any of the other agencies or promoters who tout such nonsense – would simply agree to a simple, appropriate, definitive test of their beliefs and/or claims! A million dollars! How plain can that get? To me, it appears that there can be only one reason for such reluctance: those who make and/or support such claims know that they’re wrong, that they cannot support their claims, that the product or service they offer is a scam and without merit – yet they continue to offer this swindle to their clients, knowing that it’s a fake. I cannot think of any alternative.

I was amused to read in Stereophile their criticism of me and the JREF million-dollar prize, an article which was concerned mainly with the fact that I had legally changed my name to suit my showbusiness needs. I cannot imagine a better reason for turning down the prize…. See www.stereophile.com/artdudleylistening/1104listening/index1.html and do a search for “Randi.”




 “CSI” COMES THROUGH

Reader John Banghart, of The Center for Internet Security, comments:

I just finished reading the latest commentary and in particular, the piece on the Numb3rs TV program.  I haven't watched that one, but I do watch CSI.  Last week or the week before, they ran an episode that included a psychic who saw visions of her own death and supposedly led an investigator to the location of a buried corpse.

One of the CSI's was a believer, but another wasn't.  By the end of program, it became clear that these psychic phenomenon were the result of coincidence and the power of suggestion, a point made crystal clear in the last scene of the show.  I was very happy to see them take that route, because they could have very easily gone the other way.

Given that CSI is one of the most popular shows on television in the US, I thought you might want to note their firm grasp on reality in your next commentary.  Their attitude seems to be an ever diminishing one.

If you are interested, here is a link to the detailed episode description: www.cbs.com/primetime/csi/episodes/619/




MUSLIMS IN ORBIT

Next year, we’re told, Malaysia will be sending a Muslim astronaut into space via the Russian space program. This poses several tricky problems for the Malaysian government's efforts to promote what it calls “Islam Hadhari,” or civilized Islam. This variation encourages Muslims to embrace education, science and technology. About equality for women and such other basics, we’re not told…

Consider the busy day of an astronaut, and know that a Muslim on board the space station will be confounded by the fact that he experiences more than a dozen sunrises and sunsets within each 24 hours, each event requiring that an appropriate prayer be offered. He’ll be very busy. And, since Muslims always wash before they pray, and water is a precious substance in space, attempting to wash up is also expensive and impractical, especially in weightlessness, where the water will be distributed all over the place.

Even before facing those difficulties, facing Mecca – essential for prayer – will be pretty tough in zero-gravity, and may lead to catastrophic spinning of the devotee as he tries to keep pointing toward a rapidly-moving target below.

As reader Andrew Williams comments, “It appears that Muslims might have to evolve in their views regarding life in space. Unfortunately, evolution runs against the grain in most religions.”

Progress has its penalties…




GARY’S BACK

Reader Dominic in the UK tells us:

Gary Schwartz is making his presence felt in the UK. We get a free paper on our public transport system. The paper (The Metro) has an interview with Dr Schwartz. You can read it online here: www.metro.co.uk/weird/article.html?in_article_id=12145&in_page_id=2

The best bit is the following where he explains good science:

Schwartz claims his research has followed what he calls “the secret to good science: replication and extension.” The theory being that you replicate the previous experiment, then add another level. This technique has seen the team's research go from simple examples of one-on-one mediumship to what are now called “multicentred, double blind and double deceased paradigm” experiments. Each one takes place in two different centres, there are two mediums and two sitters who have never met each other and each deceased person the medium alleges to contact has to bring another deceased person with them for verification. The readings are then scored for accuracy.

He verifies the experiment with another dead person? That is so stupid that I am not sure whether I should laugh or cry.

Dominic, this is yet another example of how a scientist, unable to find significance in his data, changes the protocol – usually by complicating it – until the results appear to indicate something. In his “multicentred, double blind and double deceased paradigm” floundering, Schwartz has so many ways to go that he’s sure to find something that can be published. He thinks this is how science is done.

See above, “PEAR REVISITED” for a similar situation….




THE AWESOME POWER OF PRAYER

A note on a news service on April 24 told us that 17 years ago that day, in 1989, the president of Bangladesh pleaded with his citizens to pray for the end to a two-month drought. The prayers were perhaps answered forty minutes later, when huge rainstorms and two tornadoes swept through rural Bangladesh. Over 500 people died and thousands were left homeless.

Remember the old saying: Be careful what you pray for; you may get it.




AND IN CONCLUSION…

We had our usual last-Wednesday-of-the-month open house here at the JREF, and that signaled the fact that we’re “back in business.” That’s a good feeling indeed. Dr. Hal Bidlack will now be joining us for the “Amaz!ng Adventure: Escape From the Bermuda Triangle” (see www.randi.org/amazingmeeting/cruise/cruise.html), and the expected array of interesting speakers is shaping up for the next Amaz!ng Meeting – number 5.

Life is good….