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Taonga genome websites as on-line hubs for NZ species Grant Jacobs Jul 26

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I’d like to add a few words to Peter Deardon’s call for a 100 Taonga Genomes project to sequence the genomes of iconic New Zealand species.

One aspect of genome projects, at least well-supported ones, is that websites developed to present them, these can serve as focal hubs for information about those species, that are more than ‘just’ the genome sequence itself, drawing together other work on the particular species, and closely related species. These hubs could in principle also be extended to public engagement.

Most of the major genome projects have databases that can be queried about the genome, the genes with it, what is known about those those, with links to the biological activities they are involved in. Other work that in any way relates to the genetics, biochemistry, or molecular biology of the species can be linked to the data.

As just one example of many, FlyBase is the home of all things Dropsophila – fruit flies have long been study animals for geneticists. We might not aspire to something on quite their scale! — FlyBase stores an enormous amount of data; it’s one of the bigger resources internationally — but we could develop something more suited to local interests.

We might, for example, draw in genetics work related to conservation efforts, developmental biologists understanding how wings grow, heritage knowledge about the species, and so on.

There is scope to also allow members of the public see something of what is being done. It’s one of the things I find striking about the genome projects to date: despite the enormous amounts of public funds devoted to them, there are relatively few public-friendly ways to look at genome research. The database resources openly available to all, and anyone can visit these, but they’re designed for scientists. It’s worth considering if there are opportunities for better public engagement.*

A related possibility might be opportunities for teachers and their classes, for example.

A number of New Zealand scientists are drawing up a draft proposal for the 100 Taonga Genomes concept Peter has suggested. I’m currently coordinating the draft document: if you’re a researcher with an interest in this, please feel free to contact me.

Footnotes

* The raw data is quite technical, which might provide challenges, but I think it’s worth thinking about.


Some genome-related articles on Code for life:

Kumara are transgenic

Metagenomics-finding organisms from their genomes

Boney lumps, linkage analysis and whole genome sequencing

Autism genetics, how do you copy?

Is a genome enough? (Not Just DNA #1)

What does a chromosome look like? (Not Just DNA #2)

Epigenetics and 3-D gene structure

Consider this rare beast, the scientist-communicator Grant Jacobs Jun 10

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Imagine, if you will, a research institute or group with enough ‘critical mass’ of work around a particular area of science.[1] Now imagine one[2] of the scientists within the institute being assigned a part-time role as a science communicator, with the remainder of their time doing research work within the institute. A 60:40 science and science-communication role, say.

What might this bring to the institute? What are the obstacles?

A related role is found in a few international research institutes who aim to hire science communicators with a doctorate in the field of the institute, presumably expecting this will help them tackle the science beyond a superficial understanding.[3]

hannah-sci-and-scicomm-2sHave a working scientist do this and you have a scientist-communicator: an inter-disciplinarian, blending the technical knowledge of the researcher with the skills of the communicator.

They would communicate developments in the field the institute covers, not just what is happening within the institute.[4] Aside from avoiding the ‘sell’ of press releases, the audience can relate the science of the institute to what else in happening in that field. It’d also help establish the institute as a port of call for information on that field.

Why might institutes have roles like these?

I can’t put evidence to these suggestions, but let me offer some possible reasons.

Audiences appreciate scientists that engage with them directly. Media can quote a researcher, or offer a sound-bite, but it’s not the same as the scientist writing or speaking straight to them. They won’t be a member of a media team, but one of the scientific staff.

In the NSC-CoRE meeting, Peter Griffin pointed to demise of investigative journalist in NZ & opportunities it presents for science communication. See also,  A lesson for science communicators in CampbellLive demise.

In the NSC-CoRE meeting, Peter Griffin pointed to demise of investigative journalist in NZ & opportunities it presents for science communication. See also, A lesson for science communicators in CampbellLive demise.

Few media companies today support specialists. Scientists in a communication role might take ownership of part of this issue. (This isn’t competing against (all) journalists head-to-head.[5])

You could argue that people best keep sharp by actively doing research, that if they only write about science they eventually lose the edge they helps them see the subtler issues that can bring interesting (and accurate) nuance to a presentation. (Remembering the setting here helps: this is for a focused institute communicating their science, not a broad-ranging institute who is, essentially, trying to promote themselves or ‘fly the brand flag’. Their communications will include some with more depth than most.)

They can assist their colleagues in their (perhaps one-off) science communication efforts. They’re not ‘the media people across the campus’, they’re fellow scientists that work alongside them, present seminars, attend the same meetings. They might explain or assist with social media use,[6] or run the institute blog network, pass on media presentation tips, direct people to resources.

They’re better able to relate the long back story research involves, which is absence in most accounts in the popular media.

These scientist-communicators might serve as the initial go-to person for media or other parties wanting information on topics related to what the institute tackles.

There are weaknesses to the idea of scientist-communicator roles, of course.

Vic-sci-and-scicomm-1sCommunication skills are a craft that takes time to develop, and needs practice. To my mind that much will come—there are plenty of examples of successful scientist-communicators at that level—but over and above this is an understanding of the media industry and networking with it.

Scientist-communicators could lean on the larger institution’s press office here. Their staff have this base, and the contacts. These complement one-another; by contrast press offices will lack the background for more the focused communication efforts being targeted.

It’s been widely commented that many scientists treat science communication as a distraction from ‘the true calling’. Shaun Hendy’s thoughts on the Going Public meeting writes on this,

Communicating with the public, whether through the media or otherwise, is often seen as a less than serious pursuit for scientists – something best left for the twilight of one’s career, or to be attempted in the lead up to that crucial funding round. Time on twitter is time away from the lab, a trade-off that no true scientist – god forbid, one early in their career – should be prepared to make. And when an articulate young scientist upstages us in the media, it can ruffle our greying feathers.

Similar concerns are expressed very widely, even by now well-known ‘popular science’ proponents like Oliver Sacks.

One way to help encourage science communication by scientists might be to point to the specialist science communicators found in the top-end research institutes. That top-end institutes hire specialist science communicators should be indicative of their value, you would hope. There’s still a ‘they’re not scientists’ element (or excuse) to tackle, however.

Interdisciplinary skills, such as these roles would involve, are often touted as valuable.

What if we could make this currently rare beast more common and accepted?

Feel free to share any further thoughts you have in the comments below.

Footnotes

1. For some undefined amount of ‘enough’… but I trust you get my meaning!

I wrote this piece with research institutes or groups that have enough ‘critical mass’ of work around a reasonably specific area of science in mind. For New Zealand these might include the CoREs (Centres of Research Excellence) and National Science Challenge groups who were at a meeting in Wellington discussing science outreach earlier this week. Another example might be something like Genetics Otago.

2. Science communication will not be for all researchers. Outside of talking about their own work, obliging researchers to yet another role isn’t likely to appeal to everyone. Hosting a scientist-communicator role might mitigate this.

3. I’m taking this from job advertisements I’ve seen; I have no idea what qualifications their applicants had.

4. For communicating newly-published science embargoes may present a challenge, as currently these are usually ‘journalist only’. This is a topic in it’s own right and a distraction from the main points of this article – hence being relegated to this footnote. I may tackle this in another article.

5. A point that seems to have been made at the World Conference for Science Journalists in Seoul, South Korea.

6. For a survey of NZ academic institutions use of social media, there is the Science Media Centre’s inaugural Social Media Snapshot report. Fellow sciblogger, Ken Perrott’s has also offered a few thoughts on the survey and it’s results. Those interested in twitter might like to check out the eBook, Tweet this book, whose author spoke at the NSC-CoREs meeting in Wellington.


Other articles on Code for life:

Scientists can’t write?

Three kinds of knowledge about science and journalism

Media reporting of subsequent findings

Hyperbole from university press offices

Scientists on TV: referees of evidence or expert’s opinion?

XMRV prompts media thought: ask for the ’state of play’

Science journalism–critical analysis, not debate

Communicating controversial science in context

Luminous Moments Grant Jacobs May 11

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Paul Callaghan is well-known to many New Zealanders as a scientist and science communicator. His little book, Luminous Moments, published posthumously, is well worth while reading.

It contains “some of his more personal speeches and essays”, seven in all, apparently edited from his hospital bed. The book is put together and prefaced by a foreword by Paul’s daughter, Catherine.

It is a little book. Aside from Catherine Callaghan’s introduction, there are 73 small pages. The book is approximately 11cm by 18cm. It’s small size will suit a cozy hour or two, or perhaps to take on a weekend tramp or short cycle trip. I’d like to think New Zealanders wanting a physical copy will find one at major libraries. (It’s also available as an e-book.)

Paul has sketches out his topics briefly, in telling fashion.

The book touches on him growing up, developing as young scientist, his scientific work, pseudo-science, his cancer and surgery, fatherhood, closing with parting wisdom. It could be read by from mid-teens onward.

There’s thoughts about science and scientists -

“All of us who do science are different personality types. But we all labour under the same discipline.” (later: “We have to face facts, and face regular failure.”)

As someone who writes about science, his brief comparison of scientists and writers interested -

“And, of course, we scientists are all writers,” … “Most scientists long to indulge in metaphor, leaping to speak of ‘colour charge’ … or refer to the origin of the universe as ‘the big bang’.”

“For creative writers, the struggle is usually lonely and peculiarly personal. For scientists, we mostly work in teams, … even if as theorists we calculate alone, we are motivated to find accordance with our experimental colleagues. Science is an intensely social activity.”

There’s so much I could ruminate on here, including my experiences in different settings.

One chapter is a transcribed interview with well-known radio journalist Kim Hill covering pseudo-science. Kim stands in for supporters of pseudo-science, challenging Paul who notes the characteristics of pseudo science and the issues with it. (He judges pseudo-science to be characterised by putting claims direct to media [rather than peer-review], being based on anecdotal evidence/examples, invoking conspiracies as suppresses their views, and that claims made are frequently at margins of detectability.) This chapter contains a nice account of nine year old Emily’s experimental study on therapeutic touch. He doesn’t object to faith healers, on the grounds that they offer what they do straight-forwardly.*

He mentions of the use of trials and statistics in biology. Although not said, this relates to his own trial of high-dose vitamin C as a remedy -

“By the way, in my own scientific profession of physics, we seldom do statistics. Unlike the infinite variability of biology, and human patients in particular, atoms are atoms.” This leads to Rutherford’s famous quote about statistics to the effect that if an experiment needed statistics, it was poorly done. “He [Rutherford] was referring to physics. But in biology n=1 simply won’t do. In drug trials, hundreds or even thousands of patients are the norm.” He continues, offering a concise summary of the key issues.

The book closes with four stories, with parted wisdom. I’ll leave these for readers to discover, bar part of one for any (younger) scientist or student readers looking forward: “See the opportunities in new directions.”

Footnotes

* In a tangentially related way, one issue with groups offering ‘alternative’ science or medical advice is that they ought to be straight-forward about the aims of their group to those looking to join, but those I’ve seen often aren’t.

The book

Luminous Moments

Paul Callaghan, foreward by Catherine Callaghan.

Published by BWB Texts as an e-book in 2013; paperback in 2014. ISBN for paperback edition: 9781927277492


Some other book reviews at Code for life:

Mad on Radium

A Geek Nation reviewed

Lab lit: for bookworms who like the science to be plausible

Science-y reading

Explore ancient science books on-line

More science in literature done right

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science

Kumara are transgenic Grant Jacobs Apr 21

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Like some genetically-engineered plants are.

Kumara have a long history in New Zealand, being brought here by early Polynesian settlers and are well-known to Kiwis.[1]

They’re a crop that has been cultivated in South America for about 8,000 years that have been spread to other parts of the world.[1]

Research just published show that they are transgenic plants, plants with genes from other species in them.

While doing other research, the scientists found clues that there might be genes from bacteria that are able to transfer genes to plants in the sweet potatoes (locally, kumara) they were working on.

In the research published they checked this closely and found indeed there were, and that these genes were a feature of cultivated sweet potato. They’re not found in wild species, suggesting that ancient sweet potato growers selected them because the transgenic potatoes made a better crop.

As noted in the ‘significance’ statement for the research paper,

One of the T-DNAs is apparently present in all cultivated sweet potato clones, but not in the crop’s closely related wild relatives, suggesting the T-DNA provided a trait or traits that were selected for during domestication.

This research is a useful reminder that ‘natural’ foods can be transgenic, just as some non-crop species are. (Crop foods aren’t really ‘natural’ in the way wild plants are as we human have cultivated them for so long.)

It’s also a useful reminder that what makes a crop safe is not how it got the genes it has, but the effect of the genes they have however they got them. (Same too for any environmental effects.)

It’s also be a reminder that transgenic plants can be a better crop, just as the ancient potato growers must have seen these to be to select them and grow them.

A particular concern of those opposing (some) crop GMOs is that they contain genes from other species, that they’re transgenic.

Humans have been eating sweet potato for a long time. Turns out that they’re transgenic. It’s not that they’re transgenic that might make a plant ‘unsafe’.

It’s important not to focus to tightly how a plant got it’s genes, but look at what that plant is. This is a key recommendation for further discussion of genetically-engineered crops.[2]

Species are not tidy idealised things. Genetic change includes alteration of our genes (mutations)[3] and, occasionally, a bit of mixing with other species (so-called horizontal gene transfer).

Horizontal transfer of genes is found in many species. It’s more often found in bacteria because they have a mechanism that lets them swop genes amongst themselves, but as researchers study the genomes of other species examples are found there too.

Treating a species as genetically sacrosanct makes species out to be ‘whiter than white’.[4] In reality genomes are usually pretty messy when you look closer. Peter Dearden gives a nice example in later parts of How to Avoid DNA: Bdelloid rotifers are genetically very messy, their genomes have all sorts of stuff in them. That might seem an unfair extreme example, but even we have stuff in us—our genomes have copies of ancient viruses imbedded in them and they’re not just ‘junk’ either. We’ve co-opted some those viral genes and those genes are vital to us. (A topic I must get back to, endogenous retroviruses or ERVs are fascinating things, an important part of us primates and a great story. But some other time, sorry.)

Reference

The genome of cultivated sweet potato contains Agrobacterium T-DNAs with expressed genes: An example of a naturally transgenic food crop

Tina Kyndta, Dora Quispea, Hong Zhaic, Robert Jarretd, Marc Ghislainb, Qingchang Liuc, Godelieve Gheysena, and Jan F. Kreuzeb.

Direct link

DOI link (broken at the time of writing – any complaints about that to PNAS, not me!)

Footnotes

If anyone is interested in me breaking down the paper, telling you more about what they did, let me know. These bacteria have a ‘natural’ gene transfer system, one that has been used to transfer some genes into plants. It’s a story with long roots (no pun intended!), but an interesting story.

This story is one of many examples of where access to embargoes would be good, something I hope to write about some other time.

1. I’m writing including those overseas in mind. Several NZ studies are amongst those exploring the origins of kumara. I hope readers can forgive me for not digging out the latest on this work for this post – my focus is on the transgenic aspect, after all, not the origins of the plant.

2. One I’ll have more to say on, as I’ve yet to complete my coverage of this report.

3. I’m keeping that very simple. There are many ways our genes can change – not just so-called point mutagenesis but also ways new genes can be made  from existing ones. As one example, new genes can form by patching together bits of two (or more) genes in the same genome. (Recombination forming recombinant genes – some of these are classically associated with genetic diseases, including some types of cancer.) Another is duplicating gene, so that a second copy if present, with one copy slowly differing and taking on a new function. (Duplication and divergence.)

4. I’m tempted to suggest that is almost like a creationist argument, but we can leave the popular philosophy aside here.


Other articles in Code for life:

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee on GMO legislation

Better discussion of GMOs in NZ needed and the Food Matters Aotearoa lineup

Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part one

GMOs and the plants we eat: neither are “natural”

Food and genetic modification: better informed policy and legislation wanted

Doggie ERVs

Calls to remove homeopathic remedies from pharmacies Grant Jacobs Mar 17

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Or: Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies redux

A little over five years ago I wrote suggesting New Zealand pharmacies should not be selling homeopathic remedies.

Over the past few days there have been renewed calls for pharmacies to stop carrying these junk remedies following an Australian survey of the evidence. One call has come from fellow sciblogger, Mark Hanna—see Ethical Pharmacy Practice 3: Running Out of Excuses. However it’s not so much that pharmacies are running out of excuses as that they never had any: it’s not realistic that a soundly-trained pharmacists do not know that these remedies are worthless. Furthermore, their regulations oblige them not to sell worthless remedies.

Another call has come from the NZ Pharmacy Today magazine blog,[1] who write -

Ethically, pharmacists should only be selling health products for which there is credible evidence of efficacy, and they are moving towards being more like primary health centres, so there’s a strong argument for pharmacies not selling homeopathic remedies.

In the past, when Pharmacy Today reporters have phoned around on the issue, many pharmacists have said they stock homeopathic products because patients want them and will buy them elsewhere if they don’t sell them.

We know GPs will prescribe placebo treatments because patients want to take something and there’s credible evidence for the effectiveness of placebos.

However, I feel pharmacies need to reconsider their stance in the light of this report, which is comprehensive and reliable, and consider not selling homeopathic products – as part of their move towards becoming health centres, plus towards being respected members of the primary healthcare team.

It’s excellent to see this coming from within the industry, but having followed this topic over several years now I’m left with some thoughts.

Firstly, as Mark points out, it’s not a case that “pharmacists ‘should’ only be selling health products for which there is credible evidence of efficacy” (alterations mine, emboldened) but that they are obliged[2]  to—but choose not to. Their ethical guidelines state -

[PHARMACISTS] MUST:… Only purchase, supply or promote any medicine, complementary therapy, herbal remedy or other healthcare product where there is no reason to doubt its quality or safety and when there is credible evidence of efficacy.

Darcy Cowan wrote more on the regulatory issues in 2010 and earlier articles from Mark no doubt cover similar ground.

Secondly, the argument that ‘other businesses sell junk remedies therefore we shall’ is unsound. One of the key points about the ethical regulations for pharmacies is that customers should be able to walk into a store and have an expectation that the remedies within the store are basically sound. If other businesses elect to be unsound, that’s poor health practice, but no justification to do likewise. On the face of it, it would seem that the profit motive is ruling over sound and ethical practice.[3]

Thirdly, that some GPs subscribe placebos should have no standing in this. There is some arguments for GPs to prescribe placebo remedies in some cases; others would argue that education is a better response in most cases. Either way—and just my opinion—it seems to me that GPs prescribing homeopathic remedies encourages people to think these have real remedial effects. I don’t work within the industry, but I am sure are ways of offering placebos that avoid using off-the-shelf commercial products. One might be that patients only get placebo ‘treatments’ via prescription.[4]

There is no valid, ethical, reason for customers to buy a placebo themselves: they’d be aiming to buy a remedy, but in fact buy something that does nothing. It’s the sort of thing that consumer protection is intended for. Bear in mind here that pharmacists are obliged[2] to tell someone the nature of the remedy if they ask. Imagine responding ‘well, that stuff, it does nothing, we just sell it’.

(I tried asking about homeopathic remedies as a small, anecdotal, experiment a few years ago. Some salespeople sung praises of how the remedy treated whatever it was—clearly unaware that the remedy was worthless, something I believe they’re obliged[2] to know. Some pharmacists mumbled vague things: it seemed clear to me that they knew the remedies were, at best, ‘controversial’, but felt too awkward to say so plainly.)

Fourthly, Pharmacy Today encourages that “pharmacies need to reconsider their stance in the light of this report”. While this is an excellent idea, and one I thoroughly support, I suspect the underlying driver isn’t the report, but media presence on the topic. There is a long trail of evidence over many years showing that homeopathic remedies are not effective for anything.

You’d wish a professional body would track evidence reports on things they sell and respond on their own initiative, rather only responding under pressure. Reports showing that homeopathy has no effect beyond a placebo effect have been published for years. So why now? I’m skeptical that it’s the physical proximity of this report being from ‘just over the ditch’. One difference would be local media coverage showing up the embarrassing state of affairs in our pharmacies. The word ‘local’ being key.

There were similar calls to drop homeopathy in Australia April last year. Mark Hanna has listed some earlier studies. I’ve covered some of these previously, in particular the House of Commons Science and Technology Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy report. There are more surveys still. As just one example there’s a meta-study published in 2007 in the highly-regarded medical journal, Lancet. The author, Ben Goldacre, has also presented this work on-line. It opens,

Five large meta-analyses of homoeopathy trials have been done. All have had the same result: after excluding methodologically inadequate trials and accounting for publication bias, homoeopathy produced no statistically significant benefit over placebo.

The studies “large meta-analyses” referred to range from the 1990s to the mid 2000s. There have been reports and letters in the New Zealand Medical Journal. Looking wider, the Australian survey drew from 176 primary studies and 58 systemic studies. It’s not credible that these were ‘missed’.

The Australian study that prompted the latest round of interest drew this statement,

Based on the assessment of the evidence of effectiveness of homeopathy, NHMRC concludes that there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective.

Homeopathy should not be used to treat health conditions that are chronic, serious, or could become serious. People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner.* Those who use homeopathy should tell their health practitioner and should keep taking any prescribed treatments.

The National Health and Medical Research Council expects that the Australian public will be offered treatments and therapies based on the best available evidence.

Why were the relevant professional bodies not onto this evidence sooner?

(Currently this is striking me as a bit of a theme with those claiming to have the interest of the public on a topic in mind. I find the similar lack of response House of Common Science and Technology report on GMO legislation[5] disconcerting, too. You’d think those with genuine interests in these topics would take up the advice these reports, but we’re not seeing responses despite the clear relevance of both reports to New Zealand and the strong advice they offer.)

In fact, you don’t even really need these studies: a simple understanding of basic chemistry and how these remedies are claimed to work is enough to realise homeopathy is essentially water with a nice story. (Remember while you’re reading this that pharmacists are supposed to be trained in basic chemistry.[6])

There’s the incorrect idea that like-cures-like concept, that idea a small part of the thing that causes the illness, or causes symptoms shared with the illness, will cure it.

There’s the nonsensical dilutions. Homeopathic remedies are made by taking an ingredient, which is ‘potentiated’ by diluting it; the higher the dilution, the stronger ‘potential’ the mixture is claimed to have. This is contrary to the basic idea of dosage: usually a greatly reduced dosage means the ‘remedy’ will have little effect. Each dilution step is followed by succussion - shaking. The ingredients are most often quite exotic – things we might expect to see in an ancient remedy from before the time of sound medicine.

Take some substance, dilute it 100, so it’s 1% of the solution. Now take that and dilute it 100-fold again. Then take that and dilute it 100-fold again. If the dilution is to be 30C, this is done 30 times one after the other. Obviously you have essentially nothing of the original substance in the final solution.

This was originally premised on the idea of ever-smaller substances, something that even in the day of homeopathy founder, Hahnemann, was being to be known as wrong—that there were atoms. Atoms don’t break down to smaller atoms, they are the smallest unit.

In the same way you can’t make ever-increasingly small dilutions—at some point you’ll remove the last molecule of the substance from the solution and have none of the original active ingredient.

There’s some homeopaths appealing to ‘spiritual healing’ notions or odd claims about quantum physics being involved. (I’m not making that up.)

These are trivially known as unsound today and any reasonable pharmacist should, surely, say ‘That’s bunk’.

There’s the shifting defense, a sign of clinging to a belief rather than recognise it as wrong-headed. Homeopaths recognised that the infinite dilution argument conflicted with the laws of physics many years ago. In response, they shifted to the argument to that ‘water has a memory’, that—somehow—water ‘recalls’ what was in it. This, too, is nonsense. This illustrates the ‘nice story’ aspect to the pitch for homeopathy: that when one story fails, another is held up. More recently this has shifted again, to evoking quantum physics as a defense.

Ben Goldacre has noted that the ‘success’ of homeopathy in Hahnemann’s day was not due to effectiveness of the ‘remedy’, but that it caused less harm that (most of) the alternatives of the day.

Some may feel these remedies do no harm, but ineffective treatments can allow an illness or disease to progress, making them harder to treat later. At an extreme patients with treatable illnesses might suffer unnecessarily (possibly even die in the case of serious illnesses).

Homeopathy is not the same as herbal remedies. This seems a common confusion among consumers seeking out these remedies. Herbal remedies, with all the faults they can have, at least have some active ingredients.

You might think that such remedies would be limited to trivial illnesses, in particular ones that would be expected to come right over time. In practice you’ll find homeopathic remedies from these right through to homeopaths treating very serious illness, like Claire Bleakley homeopath and head of GE Free NZ (formerly RAGE: revolt against genetic engineering) treating cancer patients.

There may well be those who believe in homeopathy, but organisations whose products and practices are supposed to be based on evidenced practices should not be selling or offering it and should respond to evidence reports when they arise.

Footnotes

1. Thanks to Mark Hanna for pointing this out.

2. You might quibble about the meaning of ‘obliged’ here, I’m not going to. The moral issue is enough for me, the legal aspects simply add weight to an already morally dubious position.

3. A winkle to this might be how the stock being offered for sale is chosen. It’s possible that pharmacies being chains or franchises are ‘obliged’ to carry the stock that their parent companies supply. I’m not familiar with this. If this is an issue, this needs attending to.

4. Perhaps that this would also leave a traceable record of prescribing a placebo is also useful?

5. This is off-topic here, but for the curious I’ll be offering more on this soon: one longer piece covering the full report and, hopefully, a more informal piece pulling out the arguments for those less keen on formal reports!

6. Salespeople may not have a background in chemistry, but they’re still obliged to be accurate in describing the products.


Some of the articles on Homeopathy in Code for life:

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

Homeopathy in NZ pharmacies revisited: Wartoff and more

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Homeopathy – practical remedies to address it?

Homeopathy and farming; let’s do better, media

Supporting homeopathy for Ebola loses natural health brief but more needed

Message to Otago Daily Times: homeopath is not a sound career option*

Undiluted humour: If Homeopathy Beats Science

Homeopath, Ebola and New Zealand – a follow-up Grant Jacobs Nov 23

5 Comments

About three weeks ago I wrote in a comment following a post about a New Zealand member of Parliament supporting homeopathy to treat Ebola:

Also, it would be interesting to see if governments (internationally) will step up and condemn these homeopaths that aim to push their remedies on Ebola patients, in a similar way that governments condemn those that join Islamic militant groups or do similar counterproductive activities. I suspect they’ll simply say nothing despite the obvious trouble this may cause. (See the Guardian article for some background on this. The Homeopathy Without Borders group also took some members to Haiti after the earthquake, aiming the treat cholera…)

I’m learning belatedly and second-hand (or third-hand…) that the World Health Organisation has blocked homeopaths from offering their remedies in Liberia. These look to be members of another homeopathy group, the Liga Medicorum Homeopathica Internationalis.

The writer of that blog is an oncologist writing under a pseudonym. (As he points out himself from time to time, it’s not hard to find out who he is.) He takes his lead from a Daily Mail piece that, to be very polite, gives the homeopathy group too much leeway and in his article he expresses shame that some of these homeopaths were physicians.

Those interested should read ‘Orac’s take on this; I would only end up repeating points he’s already made. (It’s also not as long as some of his missives!)

The Daily Mail is often known to the science communication community as the Daily Fail for it’s habit of regularly producing articles with spectacularly wrong science.* For example, in that article they quote this straight-out false claim by Dr Lindemann (Marenostrum private natural therapies clinic, Calle Fontanella, Barcelona), but make no effort to check or challenge it -

‘There is not yet one specific medicine widely available for the treatment of Ebola but there are homeopathic remedies that have been proven successful in treating other epidemics such as cholera.’

Simply not true. (Similarly you’ll see a reference to research on “various epidemics including Yellow fever”.)

Read the rest of this entry »

Good governance, democracy and investment in science Grant Jacobs Aug 28

1 Comment

From what others have written here at sciblogs most readers will know that we have elections on in New Zealand soon.

While reading the newspaper last weekend I encountered an opinion piece by political commenter Colin James that includes commentary on investing in science that readers might be interested in.

His essay opens by talking about democracy,* governance and good longer-term policy, and closes on the same topic. Sandwiched in between, the central portion of the essay offers strong investment in science as an example of properly supporting longer-term policy that is good for the nation as opposed to short-term electioneering,

Good government has both short-term and long-term perspectives. Durable, long-term policies are the pillars of government. Longer-lived governments maintain those pillars (Bill English is this lot’s main maintenance man). But election campaigners often divert into the short term.

So the campaign will pay little attention to investment in science.

Ministers in recent governments of all stripes have kept scientists on short rations. The Key government has spent more energy restructuring institutions than money for good science.

Comments welcome, of course. What do you think is good science policy?

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Gene editing and GMOs in NZ, part two – is the law out of date? Grant Jacobs Jun 02

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(If you’re not a biologist, you may prefer to start with part one. There’s also a third part.)

Are the GMO-related clauses of the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms (HSNO) Act 1996 out of date? Perhaps it’s time to start working on a replacement.

Recently a legal ruling in New Zealand overturned a previous opinion that using gene editing to create variants would not create genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). The key documents are gathered at the EPA website page for that query.

In part one, I offered a non-scientist’s introduction to what is intended with the type work being considered. I’ve since spent more time browsing the Act and the ruling than is healthy for someone who is not a lawyer. Here I’d like to offer some initial thoughts from this reading.

The HSNO Act (1996) also deals with hazardous chemicals. For simplicity, when I write ‘the Act’ below, I mean the portion of the Act referring to GMOs not the whole HSNO Act.

In a nutshell

The court noted difficulties in interpreting the Act. The court was very polite and modest about the difficulties it encountered: my reading suggests these difficulties run deeper and indicate the Act is not up to it’s task.

My opinion is that Act is out of date in fundamental ways. It will also expire on one of it’s founding premises at some time. Thus it would seem an opportune time to work towards what would follow the current Act. (To my reading the Act is time-limited, in that it uses a premise that once a class of techniques have stood the test of time organisms made using them are exempted from consideration; in time the techniques that create GMOs themselves will have stood this ‘test of time’ and be exempted, closing the Act. Consistent with this, a replacement for the Act would not be GMO-specific, but sit within food safety in general.)

On the ruling

Given the problems with the Act the court ruling noted, I was left wondering if a call to make no ruling could not have been made. I believe the issues run deeper than those noted in the ruling (see below).

I found the approach that the advisory experts were used was unexpected. This will reflect my not being familiar with law practices, but it left me wondering if this was the best way to resolve interpretation of an Act. In addition, I feel more comfortable with advisory experts drawn from overseas and independently of the parties involved.

On the Act

The process to add new techniques to those that are considered exempt from GMO status seems (to this non-lawyer) to be ill-defined and problematic. There appears to be no explicit provision in the Act for new techniques that will arise. (The current ruling was caught out on this.) It feels as if a constructive mechanism to add new techniques is needed.

The Act was written at a time when testing if a technique created unexpected genetic changes was challenging and seems to reflect this in it’s design. This has changed, and will continue to change. My feeling is that this leaves the Act out of date in a fundamental way.

One premise in drafting the current Act is that organisms derived from classes of techniques that have stood the test of time are considered acceptable. This means makes Act is self-limiting in time: once GMOs have been around a suitable length of time the techniques that make GMOs as a class must also be considered acceptable. Given GMOs have been around approximately 20 years now, it would seem prudent to start work towards a more appropriate longer-term solution fitting them within food safety in general rather than as a special case.

Finally, and to be fairly brutal about it, parts of the argument used in the Act look ill-formed, possibly even fallacious. This is not helped by that it’s not clear precisely what the argument is, as it’s not made explicit; the court noted similar difficulties. Perhaps symptomatically, some labels and terms are not used in a self-consistent way (to this reader), confusing different positions and at odds with what they might ordinarily mean.

Other commentary

The New Zealand Science Media Centre has gathered some expert commentary on the court ruling,

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Sir Joseph Bank’s journal and account of New Zealand Grant Jacobs May 25

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Readers interested in historic scientific voyages and New Zealand history might like to know that Sir Joseph Bank’s journals of 25 August 1768 — 12 July 1771 aboard the HMS Endeavour under the command of Lieutenant James Cook are available on line from the University of Sydney Australia Digital Collections website.

This voyage observed the Transit of Venus (3 June 1769) and undertook geographical and natural history observation (including a search for the southern continent). According to the notes the natural history observation aspect to the voyage was an innovation “inspired, financed and directed by the 25 year old Joseph Banks.”

These journals include accounts of several islands, including a long account of New Zealand from their circumnavigation in 1770.

You can view the journal either as a web page or a PDF file. I find the latter more readable, but I wish they’d put the many-pages long series contents as an appendix rather than before to the body text. After reading the introduction, skip to page 26!

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Homeopathy Awareness Week: how do you approve a course for something known not to work? Grant Jacobs Apr 15

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Homeopathy[1] uses solutions diluted until the active ingredients are no longer present—water basically[2]—to treat illnesses.[3]

Poison-ivy-homeopathic-remedyThe premise of homeopathy is so absurd, it opens itself to parody.[4]

More seriously, homeopathy has been examined and found to be ineffective with several formal reports saying so. Fellow blogger Siouxsie mentions one such report from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council. Similarly, the British House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s report Evidence Check 2: Homeopathy gave a very firm “no” to homeopathy.

Coming forward and saying that homeopathy is ‘bunk’ isn’t a new development. Homeopathy has long been considered worthless. Take for example Oliver Holmes’ words this vectorial speech to medical students in 1871:[5]

  Some of you will probably be more or less troubled by the pretensions of that parody of mediaeval theology which finds its dogma of hereditary depravity in the doctrine of psora [homeopathy], its miracle of transubstantiation in the mystery of its triturations and dilutions, its church in the people who have mistaken their century, and its priests in those who have mistaken their calling. You can do little with persons who are disposed to accept these curious medical superstitions. The saturation-point of individual minds with reference to evidence, and especially medical evidence, differs, and must always continue to differ, very widely. There are those whose minds are satisfied with the decillionth dilution of a scientific proof. No wonder they believe in the efficacy of a similar attenuation of bryony or pulsatilla. You have no fulcrum you can rest upon to lift an error out of such minds as these, often highly endowed with knowledge and talent, sometimes with genius, but commonly richer in the imaginative than the observing and reasoning faculties.

[Oliver Wendell Holmes, Medical Essays. From The Young Practitioner, A Valedictory Address delivered to the Graduating Class of the Bellevue Hospital College, March 2, 1871.]

Modern statements that homeopathy is no better than placebo offerings are backed by studies. You might think that this would lead to no standards bodies approving courses teaching it.

However, in New Zealand the NZ Qualifications Authority (NZQA) approves courses in homeopathy.[6]

A question, then. How do you approve a course in something that is known not to work? Known not to have therapeutic value beyond a placebo effect.

If you search the NZQA website for ‘homeopathy’ you’ll be offered five pages among them listing courses and institutes that they have approved. As one example, they approved a ‘Certificate in Acute Prescribing with Homeopathy’. You don’t have to be a medical practitioner to realise ‘acute prescribing’ of homeopathic remedies makes little sense.

Elsewhere I have argued that homeopathic remedies should not be present in pharmacies. Should courses in homeopathy not be formally approved by NZQA?

You’re welcome to offer your thoughts in the comments below.

My feeling is that veneers of respectability and soundness ought to not to be given to practices like this as it may give consumers the misleading impression that the treatments ‘must’ have some merit if a formal accrediting agency has put their weight behind the courses teaching it.

Footnotes

Thanks to Alison Campbell for bringing the NZQA approval of homeopathy courses to my attention.

1. Or homoeopathy, but I prefer the simpler and more common form. (I confess, also, that for a while I found myself occasionally mistyping homeopathetic.)

2. Some seem to use alcohol as the solvent, in which case you might just as well take a nip of your favourite (strong) alcoholic drink.

3. The mixtures are, apparently, shaken between each serial dilution. My recollection is that this originated from a variant of his remedy that Samuel Hahnemann, the ‘inventor’ of homeopathy, introduced to help sell his remedy where a strong brand of Christianity appealed to faith healing. This variant was to whack the mixture against a bible after each dilution so that the power of the good book might enter the remedy. (Or so the sales pitch went.) The (few!) homeopath websites I have viewed made no mention of a bible but do mention shaking the mixture.

4. There are many other examples; this one isn’t by any means the best but I hope it gives readers the general idea.

5. I like the allusion to Archimedes, although I suppose you could say it really wants ‘nor a lever long enough’ added to it, rather than (just) the size of the fulcrum.

6. We could also look at other things NZQA approve such as courses in such as naturopathy and so on, but let’s stick to homeopathy for now. They have a section ‘Complementary Therapies’.


Other articles on homeopathy on Code for Life:

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Homeopathy – practical remedies to address it?

Homeopathic remedies in NZ pharmacies

Undiluted humour: If Homeopathy Beats Science

Message to Otago Daily Times: homeopath is not a sound career option*

Homeopathy and farming; let’s do better, media

Homeopathy check-up: Not in the health system, disclaimers on labels

Medical DIY…

Homeopathy in NZ pharmacies revisited: Wartoff and more

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