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.
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.