Monday, 4 November 2013

What doctors don't tell you - medical Macarthyism debunked

I can only assume that Lynne McTaggart is getting increasingly desperate. The article in The Times on Saturday has touched some raw nerves and she has resorted to some typical contrarian language, the language of conspiracy. The evil mastermind, Simon Singh and his nefarious organisation, Sense About Science, along with other shadowy organisations like the Nightingale Collaboration and those underground anarchists, known as skeptics, are destroying everything Lynne McTaggart has worked for years to build up. Except, of course, the evil and the shadowy organisations are not the ones I have listed and she has picked out.

McTaggart pours her latest bile out on her blog. It is not a nice piece of writing. For example:
The experts were three convenient rent-a-quotes (two from cancer charities) whose comments were solicited after the content of our current issue appears to have been misrepresented to them. It’s a cheap and nasty tactic in journalism usually resorted to when you don’t have a story.

Blimey, even cancer charities are in on this conspiracy.  Shame on them for wanting to save lives.  (Conflict of interest - my father has been helped by a number of cancer charities over the last seven years.)

It continues
From their answers, it seems evident that none of them have actually read the articles in question, or indeed have lodged complaints about WDDTY independently, but were led to believe that 

1) WDDTY thinks there’s a secret cure that cancer researchers have discovered but are concealing from the public 

2) WDDTY has said that homeopathy can cure cancer 

3) WDDTY urges its readers to just get vitamin C or homeopathy instead of drugs

Well, I must admit it is difficult not to take the opposite message to the one McTaggart gives. After all, the magazine is promoting alternative treatments. The advertising is distinctly alt med and the readership, judging by the comments on Facebook and McTaggart's blog are distinctly alt med minded. But let's give the benefit of the doubt and accept she is telling the truth here. It just doesn't look that way. The homeopathy beats cancer article, Like water for chemo, in the latest edition claims that the American National Cancer Institute is interested in the Banerji homeopathic method and reckons it warrants more investigation. As this link points out, the NCI isn't interested in alternative methods of treating cancer, which might be why it hasn't actually bothered to look any deeper. Not good for McTaggart, if she can't get that right. But there is so much else she gets plain wrong. For example, she says this:
Actually, as WDDTY has reported, after cherrypicking the very best clinical trials showing positive results, Australia’s leading oncologists found that chemotherapy’s contribution to five-year survival was only 2.3 per cent in Australia and 2.1 per cent in the US (Ann Oncol, 2013; doi: 10: 1093/annonc/mds636).
Well, the link doesn't work but when you search around you find the best fit is to this paper: Bias in reporting of end points of efficacy and toxicity in randomized, clinical trials for women with breast cancer. Try as I might, I just cannot spot the figures she quotes and even if I could, the authors of the paper note that the study is limited to breast cancer and cannot be said to be more generally true. Oh, and it is about bias in reporting and not actually about the effectiveness of chemotherapy. Or have I missed something? I think not. Is it me or does McTaggart get her sums mixed up:
There are two ways of expressing the same thing: as a relative risk, the drug has a 50 per cent rate of effectiveness – it’s reduced your risk from 4 to 2 – and that sounds attractive, but in absolute terms its effectiveness is just 2 per cent.
Surely rate of effectiveness is not a relative risk at all. If a drug is 50% effective, isn't it working in half the patients? In the end, McTaggart's bile is the result of this:
On Friday morning before the story ran, when Hannah Devlin, the co-author (with Tom Whipple) of the Times article interviewed us, I asked her, why are you doing this story again, to which she finally let slip, 'What do you expect? You wrote about us in your magazine.'

Now we only have her word for it and I suspect no self respecting journalist would say that, or would have only said that. My guess, for what it's worth, is that Devlin did not say that at all. And of she did I would expect the quote to continue "...and you misrepresented us". I am sure who I believe.

(edited to fix formatting problems)

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