Friday, 11 March 2005

Treating Fox mange with mumbo jumbo

A couple of years ago, the Mammal Society, once the leading organisation for the scientific study of mammals in the UK actively promoted the homeopathic treatment of wild mammals. All members of the Society were sent a leaflet advocating using homeopathic doses of arsenic at a dilution of 30c which (according to information on the very informative website) could require several billion litres of water to effect such a dilution.

The Mammal Society claimed that "a few drops of the homeopathic treatment are placed on something sweet, such as a jam sandwich, which is scattered around the garden. A full course of treatment will take around three weeks, although an improvement can usually be seen in a few days." How they know it is the dilute water and not the jam sandwich (or anything else) that effects the cure was not made clear.

The then Chairman of the Mammal Society claimed that "This particular treatment has been tested extensively by the Fox Project and the National Fox Welfare Society and all the data that have been collected show that it works. It certainly seems to be at least as good as Ivermectin, but has none of the associated problems, and is a treatment that can be used by members of the public without the need for veterinarian intervention. So if all the data suggest that it works, I think it is perfectly reasonable to suggest that people try it if they have no other treatment they can use."

Finding out the basis of these claims is nigh on impossible, and the Mammal Society seemed reluctant to even discuss them, let alone provide data alleged to have been collected. Among the few pieces of quantifiable data available, are the costs recorded on the web site:
"In the year 2000 the society sent out in excess of £18,295 worth of treatment free of charge. This homeopathic treatment of Arsenicum alb & Sulphur 30c helped over 3,659 foxes. Already in the last six months of 2001 we have sent out in excess of £9,120.00."

When one member of the Mammal Society queried the Society's position, the Chairman (Professor Stephen Harris, of the Department of Zoology, Bristol University) wrote:
"I am inundated with e-mails that waste my time and I had rather viewed the correspondence on mange and homeopathic treatments as falling into that category. Hence I have not exactly rushed to respond to the request for hard data since part of the aim of the current study is to collect just such data." In fact as the earlier quotes demonstrate, Professor Harris is actively supporting this "research", despite the fact that the manner in which the so-called study is being conducted, does not appear to be able to collect any hard data -- only anecdotal information, mostly from untrained sources. It's the sort of 'data' most reputable scientists would run a mile from.

Keeping an open mind is certainly important, but what next? Cynics within the Mammal Society have suggested some possible lines of future research for Professor Harris and his Bristol team. They could investigate the influence of zodiac signs on the breeding cycle of rams (Aires spp.), bulls (Taurus spp) and goats (Capra spp.). They could use dowsing to trace mole runs and other subterranean mammal runs. And Feng Shui might be very helpful as a tool for improving catch rates in mouse traps. Or perhaps Bristol University might carry out a study on food combining as practiced by competing populations of bank voles (Clethrionomys) and wood mice (Apodemus). The possibilities are endless, and have about an equal scientific basis. Most scientists would agree that letting people practice alternative medicine, is a human right akin to the freedom of worship. But like religion, the fact that it has virtually nothing to do with science is self evident. But then some scientists presumably must pray to get the research results they want. Keeping an open mind is one thing, but as it has been said on many occasions, not so open the brain falls out.

Monday, 7 March 2005

Ripping off Charities with awards?

A few weeks ago, inside a newsletter sent to charities, I found a leaflet promoting the HR Excellence Awards 2005. Superficially it might seem that giving an award for an organisation doing something well is a good thing. But think about it. There can only be one winner, and that winner will probably be a subjective decision by a group of judges with their own particular biases and interests. And then the winner will be able to trumpet all over their literature that they are the best, the winners. Thereby implying that the others in their field are not as good, or are even somehow inferior. I am far from convinced this is the best way of encouraging excellence in the charitable world. Particularly when you realise that in order to enter, you have to pay a fee of £295 plus VAT. And if you are in a shortlist, no doubt you will be expected to book a table at the Dorchester, at an additional cost, to be present at the awards ceremony. So caveat emptor when you see a charity has won this or that award, find out who they were competing with, and how much they spent on entering, and how much was spent on going to the awards ceremony. Do you really want to support a charity that not only spends hard earned money on patting itself on the back, but presumably spends a lot of time filling in forms, and going to awards ceremonies?