Cork Skeptics

Promoting Reason, Science & Critical Thinking in Cork City & Beyond

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Our June Talk by Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski

Science and Pseudoscience in the Treatment of Special Educational Needs

Friday 17th June at Blackrock Castle Observatory, Cork

Some children experience significant difficulties in aspects of their psychological development, making it hard for them to achieve their full potential inside the mainstream school curriculum. Those developmental difficulties can be elusive—hard to diagnose or even define precisely—and hard to treat. Naturally, there is no shortage of those who claim to have found the solution—wonderfully simple and effective— and who try to sell it to (often desperate) parents, teachers, psychologists or speech therapists. What these consumers need is the ability to critically evaluate the therapeutic products that are being marketed to them.

In this talk, Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski of the UCC Applied Psychology department will offer a brief overview of special educational needs—their symptoms and causes—as currently understood by the mainstream scientific community. The talk will cover subjects such as dyslexia, dyscalculia, dyspraxia, ADHD and autism. He will then suggest some rules of thumb that will allow us to evaluate the competing therapeutic proposals, helping to differentiate those that are plausible from those that are almost certainly a waste of time.

The boundaries between evidence-based therapy and its dubious alternatives can be fuzzy. Even bona fide scientists are often guilty of over-selling the genuine remedies they offer. Dr. Szczerbinski will discuss the effectiveness of widely known therapies, such as Educational Kinesiology and Brain Gym as part of the talk, questioning how effective they are in reality.

About The Speaker: Dr. Marcin Szczerbinski is a psychologist, a graduate of the Jagiellonian University, Kraków, and University College London. He has taught psychology and research methods at the University of Sheffield, before moving to the UCC earlier this year. He researches developmental dyslexia, among other things.

Venue & Time: This talk will begin at 8.00pm on Friday 17th June, in Blackrock Castle Observatory. Everyone is welcome and the talk is free to attend. Please see our Skeptics In The Castle page for directions to the Castle.

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Herbal Medicines – AVAAZ have got it dead wrong

On the 28th of April, AVAAZ, a very prominent campaigning group on the Internet, launched a petition to stop the EU from implementing a new directive concerning the distribution and sale of herbal medicines.

The directive has been implemented following long-standing concerns over the side-effects of certain herbal medicines, and a desire to provide more protection to the consumer. The directive came into force in 2004, with the marketing of non-licenced products permitted up to the 1st of May this year.

The legislation is quite watered down. It is not an outright ban. It does not apply to herbal products that have been around for more than 30 years. Products sold after consultation with a herbalist are exempted. Products already on sale can remain on the shelf until their expiry date. Crucially, the directive only covers product safety, not efficacy. No evidence from clinical trials needs to be presented, only evidence that the products are safe for use. This is a long way from the standards expected for medicinal products and would be more akin to the large number of directives setting out standards and proper codes of practice for food safety.

Opposition to the directive boils down to a reluctance within the traditional medicine / herbal medicine industry to have any standards imposed on them whatsoever. It’s an odd thing, therefore, that AVAAZ have taken such a hysterical position on the issue. Using the fallacious argument that people “have a right to choose among all remedies and medicines that can keep ourselves and our families healthy”, they have argued for a “massive outcry” against the EU’s “draconian measures”. As of time of writing they have succeeded in getting over 700,000 signatures on their website.

AVAAZ often gets it right. They campaigned relentlessly (and successfully) for the commuting of Sakineh Ashtiani’s death sentence by stoning at the hands of the Iranian Government. They have highlighted the plight of gay people in Africa. They have launched efforts to expose government corruption. All good stuff. Nevertheless, on a matter of basic health safety, citing the welfare of herbalists over the consumer, they have got it dead wrong.

For more information on the directive, check out Sinead’s blog entry.

* Image via US Army Korea – IMCOM (CC Licensed)


Chiropractic: Woo or Something More?

Last month, a few fellow skeptics and I visited the Mind, Body and Spirit festival in Cork City Hall. It was quite an experience. There were shamans, psychics, angel healers, Scientologists, magic crystal sellers and prayer cults to mention a few. All flavours of the weird and wooful, along with plenty of people ready to part with large portions of their earnings to hear their dubious wisdom. It’s a bit like a visit to an expensive version of Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, without the magic. Enough subject matter to keep us going for a year, without a doubt. I daresay we might talk about this further in future posts.

Nested in the middle of the exhibition were a number of chiropractic booths. They were professionally laid out and populated by friendly people who were eager to help any people who came along. Chiropractic is described as “a primary health-care profession that specialises in the diagnosis, treatment and overall management of conditions that are due to problems with the joints, ligaments, tendons and nerves, especially related to the spine”. That sounds medical. So, what was it doing in the midst of shamans, faith healers and angel channellers?

Chiropractic operates somewhat on the fringes of medicine. Some of its claims are pseudoscientific, such as the assertion by its founder that subluxations, or displacements in the vertebra, are responsible for 95% of all diseases. This is easy enough to refute, given that this statement seems to contradict all known studies into pathology, and to be fair, it may not accurately represent the philosophy of all modern chiropractic practitioners. Nevertheless many chiropractors have made health claims that extend outside their field of study (e.g. infant colic), and this has resulted in unwanted media focus and significant damage to the profession’s reputation. In a famous case in 2008, the British Chiropractic Association sued the writer Simon Singh for declaring such treatments “bogus” in a newspaper (they withdrew the claim in 2010 when Singh won right of appeal). In addition, the evidence produced by the BCA to support their main claims was shown to be scientifically questionable. There remains a significant burden of proof on chiropractors to demonstrate that many of their treatments work above what might be expected from normal healing processes.

Nevertheless, back pain is real. It’s a grinding, soul destroying problem afflicting a large percentage of people in the community at any time. It can often take a long time to resolve, even with the best medical treatment. There is certainly a case to be made for qualified caregivers to assist people through recovery using a variety of techniques such as advice, counseling, exercise, relaxation and massage, in addition to the normal medical pain management solutions. A visit to someone who will take the time to listen and give sensible suggestions on lifestyle changes to accelerate the healing process is unlikely to be detrimental.

It is probably the case that most chiropractors take the problems of their patients very seriously.  It is also probably the case that an earnest chiropractor will look beyond the nonsense of subluxations and into the realm of hard medical facts when seeing ways to provide pain management solutions to clients. If chiropractors are seeking a “total solution” to patient wellbeing, then it would seem remiss not to include medical treatment in their toolkit of methods used to help patients. Many patients report improvements after visits to chiropractors, whether this be real or perceived. Indeed, many people who go to chiropractors defend them quite vigorously. The bottom line is that there appears to be a strong need in the community for such care, even if it is debatable how effective this care may be.

If professional caregivers are available to help people get through a period of back pain, if the patient is properly informed and if science is central to the treatment process, I’m not sure if this is something I would have much of a disagreement with. The issues I would have is with supposed remedies that are not backed up by any form of objective study, where treatments are being used that have little or no plausibility or evidence of efficacy, where the healthcare is spilling over into fields that have nothing to do with back-pain, where some practices involved are needlessly harmful, or where practitioners are trying their best to blacken scientific and medical knowledge in order to make patients more dependent on their own treatments or other alternative treatments. These issues are at the centre of many objections by skeptics.

This brings me back to my opening question. Where do chiropractors want to see themselves? If they truly see themselves as important primary care givers, then why maintain the attachment to pseudoscience? Why attend conferences with psychics, angel channelers and faith healers? Is it a marketing or a branding thing? Are such associations beneficial? Do chiropractors prefer to remain in the medical twilight zone, or do they wish to be seen as proper adjunct health-care professionals meeting what is certainly a need in the community?

Your comments are most welcome.