Monthly Archives: September 2012

The obligatory First Post

I am a troubled blogger. I find myself overcome with ideas whilst out and about, or doing the dishes, swinging a kettlebell, or during some other activity that means I can’t possibly sit down and write. But naturally, as soon as I sit down at a keyboard, my brain empties. So you may have to simply take my word for it for now, dear Reader, that I intend this blog to be a home for some of my thoughts on science and quackery.  Let me expand.

In my day job, I am an information scientist.  More specifically, I specialise in medical information.  This means that day-to-day I read clinical trials of new drugs, and try to make judgements on whether there is any place in the modern NHS for them.  It’s rarely a straightforward decision.  Often trials will show that a new drug is about as good as an old one, and might have fewer side effects. So why not use it? Well, even really, really big trials generally only recruit maybe 20,000 people (and more usually somewhere in the region of 200-1000), and that’s just not enough. What if there’s a side effect that’s really rare but really serious?  What if 1 in 10,000 people will just drop dead instantly? Or what if there really are slightly fewer side effects, but the drug costs 5 times as much?  Is it enough if the old drug causes 1 in 10 people to get a headache, while the new drug reduces that to 1 in 20, but we can only afford to give it to half as many people?

If that all seems rather bewildering and bemusing that’s because, quite frankly, it is.  Very rarely there is a clear cut answer. More often I attempt to put the whole thing into some kind of context and allow the good people of our regional Medicines Management teams to make the best decisions they can. I do not envy them.

All of that was a rather rambling way for me to try and explain why evidence is important to me. Good quality, unbiased evidence is a rare and wonderful thing, and it is the only way we can reliably make sound, rational decisions about the world around us. Quackery is the very opposite of this; it relies on anecdote and emotion to sway us. Unfortunately, as human beings we are very, very susceptible to anecdote, and to all sorts of insidious things like confirmation bias. Often this is harmless, but in far too many instances it does very real harm.

I owe a thank you to the lovely Hayley, my companion on this little campaign for rational thinking, for accompanying me on this journey so far. She’s started a blog of her own at A Healthy Dose of Skepticism, and you’ll see from that that we’re on a very similar path.  Her first post also explains a little more about how we each got to this point, where reading about these issues is no longer enough but we must now add our voices to the hubbub. I suspect that, if you stick with me, you’ll be hearing plenty from her, too.

Given my professional background I rather expect this blog to have a strong leaning towards medical content; however, quackery and poor decision-making are rife in many arenas of life, so don’t be surprised if other things creep in too.  I will at least try to be interesting, or if all else fails, give you the occasional chuckle.