TV Review: Professor Regan’s Medicine Cabinet

Lesley Regan

Lesley Regan

I enjoyed watching Professor Regan’s Medicine Cabinet. It was well-packaged, reassuring, and came across as mostly authentic. Come to think of it, such claims are a bit like those made of some of the products examined in the programme

Professor Regan’s Medicine Cabinet went out on BBC2 [2100 BST, April 23rd 2009]. Lesley Regan (I learn) is a celebrity medic. Bit like a Joan Bakewell with (metaphoric) stethoscope. Just in case her own charisma is not enough, she is filmed doing lots of legitimizing things, like going to hushed libraries and making notes with a deeply expensive pen (surely not a product placement). Or consulting other well-polished authorities across well-polished table surfaces. Or explaning the checklist of criteria that serve as credentials for taking a medical document seriously in a scientific court.

On trial in the show were various pharmaceutical remedies. Yes, even up-market programmes have to put someone or something on trial. You don’t have to be posh to play this game, as Joanna Lumley might say, but it don’t ’arf ’elp.

Anyway, the case for blind peer reviews, double blind product studies, and statistical significance tests was well-made. If I have just the teeniest of concerns, it is that Professor Regan did not always keep up to the gold standard with the demonstrations she set up. Perhaps gold-standard double blind product testing was never going to be possible, but in which case a little disclaimer would have done no harm. This is the sort of thing researchers are expected to make even if their studies pass the other scientific criteria. Even the notorious initial publication sparking the MMR clinical disaster at least acknowledged that the study implied causality not proved it.

So when it came to evaluating homoeopathy Professor R was rather stuck. Current theories of physical chemistry deny the possibility that any such approach can have any possibility of working. On the other hand, supporters provided reports which suggested that something might be achieved by the methodology. Fortunately for scientific theory, a very well-qualified statistician was brought in to review the evidence and confirm that large scale studies did not demonstrate such statistically convincing results. That’s OK then. It’s a polite way of saying the small-scale studies were a bit dodgy, or maybe ‘outliers’. And just to add to the damaging evidence, we got some notion into how the placebo effect works, and how homeopathy might be no more than a placebo effect in action

I’m about as convinced that we really understand the phenomenon labeled the placebo effect as we understand the bundle of practices called as homeopathy. But perhaps that’s a positive result from watching the charming Professor Regan. She is helping me develop a healthy scientific skepticism about product claims. Even those of her own brand of TV product.

PS the rugby players sticking their hands into ice water were very watchable too, but the demonstration left me wishing we had a bit more explanation of why that sort of approach would not exactly get the results into the top medical journals. At least, I hope it wouldn’t. I assume the statistician had served his purpose and left before offering his views on study design and sample size.

It is all very tricky, trying to communicate scientific facts and working in the mass media.

Disclaimer

The author has consulted no authorities in research methods, medical statistics, or epistemology in preparing this review. All opinions are based solely on personal experience.

3 Responses to TV Review: Professor Regan’s Medicine Cabinet

  1. AJP says:

    Let’s be frank here the BBC broke pretty much every notion of impartiality with her attack on homeopathy. It was a hideously biased program broadcast on a hideously biased and out of touch broadcaster. The placebo effect works in all forms of medicine but homeopathy has had very successful veterinary trials across the world and was recently hugely successful in Cuba in what can only be described as a massively huge clinical trial with 2.4 million cubans given homeopathic prophalactic as a preventative against leptospirosis; a condition that causes havoc there every rainy season killing scores and infecting thousands. It has had a dramatic effect with only 10 infections and no deaths.

    I’m afraid Regan and judging by your comments yourself suffer from what nobel prize winning physicist Brian Josephson called ‘pathological disbelief’ when referring to homeopathy. With regard to Auntie Beeb the broadcaster is a shadow of it’s former self and deserves to be chastised at every opportunity.

  2. Tudor says:

    Thank you for your comment. Pathological disbelief. Yes, I like that. Confess guilty as charged. Has Brian ever talked also about pathological belief? My pathological disbelief within any discussion is aroused by appeals to ‘intellectual bodyguards’ (did you know seven out of ten nobel prize winners brush their teeth with a well-known brand of toothpaste?). By a curious coincidence I knew Brian Josephson slightly from schooldays, and I still have the score of a chess game we played I think at Cardiff High School somewhere to prove it . But that is about as relevant to the debate as is his Nobel prize in Physics.

  3. AJP says:

    True. However my point was there are more forward thinking progressive elements in the scientific community that accept homeopathy works. The treatment of Benveniste was a case in point. A sceptical scientist who dared to conclude through his experiments that water has a memory ans was subsequently ostracised by his peers and ridiculed by a ludicrous magician which ultimately led to his untimely death. It’s the Gallileo affect and the ton of bricks that descended on him resembled the salem witch trials. A more recent example would be Professor Steven Jones and his assertion the twin towers were brought down by military grade Thermite (Thermate). He was thrown out of his university for daring to question official events. Anyway experiments have proven liquid crystals maintain an ordered structure over macroscopic distances. Once this is accepted homeopathy cannot be refuted based purely on serial dillution.

    The power to debate is a wonderful human trait and should be encouraged. However the BBC has over the years had a big thing against homeopathy. That’s why they deleted all reference to it from their health pages a number of years ago. All their references to it are negative and they never give the therapy a right to reply. This professor Regan’s ridiculous little trial only proved the placebo effect works in everything. It didn’t disprove homeopathy; a therapy with 300 years of clinical proof, with an unenviable historical record in epidemics. It is under daily attack from the pharmaceutical company shills in the media and for any right thinking person with an ounch of humanity that should start ringing alarm bells. The medical mafia really don’t like the competition.

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