Online Insights on FIVEaa Sunday April 07 2013

April 7, 2013

This month we investigate journalism, give space a feminine touch, ask whether Google has become god, and we take our medicine, the informed way!

A spoonful of science helps the medicine go down

A head free of lice
Thanks to proper treatment, a happy head has returned, post lice

I feel like a real parent now that we have dealt with our first round of head lice.

The little mites were a kind gift from childcare and sent us off to the chemist to find a cure.

What I found, shocked me.

Pharmacies these days have become dressed up snake oil outlets, putting products with bright, shiny packaging, inflated price tags and only anecdotal ‘proof’ out front and centre, while relegating proper medicine (the stuff with repeatable, reliable evidence to back up claims of efficacy) to single facings on obscure shelves.

Something is really rotten in the state of pharmacies and health care in Australia!

Enter Australian Prescriber.

Australian Prescriber is an independent review of drugs and therapeutics, published every couple of months. It was started by the Commonwealth Department of Health in 1975 and is now funded by the National Prescribing Service (now NPS MedicineWise) in 2002.

What I like most about Australian Prescriber is that it accepts no advertising, which means it can freely comment on controversial issues with impartiality.

I discovered it during my head lice treatment research.

Luckily, one of the skeptics podcasts I listen to, Skeptics with a K, covered some of the outrageous alternative scams surrounding head lice a little while ago, including a rainbow-coloured unicorn badge for sale in the UK for 20 pounds and sold as a head lice deterrent!

As I looked for details on treatments with efficacy, I found the Australian Prescriber page on head lice and quickly learned that of all the treatments for sale, only topical permethrin is efficacious for head lice.

It also said that clinical experience and information on the ovicidal properties of maldison suggests that further randomised controlled clinical trials are necessary to assess the efficacy of this alternative and cheaper insecticide.

And it notes, in regards the major range of products on display in pharmacies, that reports supporting mechanical methods are anecdotal.

It does note that permethrin resistance is rife in the UK, and it seems that James Cook University has studied one case of such resistance here in Australia.

What I appreciated most was that it gave me sound guidance to dodge the glitzy ‘woo’ that dominates the shelves of our chemists these days.

Australian Prescriber also has a search option, so you can type in the medicine or condition you want to research and get access to a well laid out report on backgound, context, studies and suggestions. For example:

  • Aspirin – links to articles about internal bleeding risks for people drinking alcohol
  • Antioxident supplements – great article on Vitamins C and E and how just dosing up on vitamins has no real proof of efficacy and threatens possible risks
  • Bipolar – an article assessing the effectiveness of current treatments in which Lithium is singled out and the most efficacious drug at the moment

I hope you find Australian Prescriber useful and, as they say on the site, use this to complement your visits to your doctor, NOT replace those visits!

Space Kate

The Sun thanks to NASA
The Sun, as it was on the day of writing this article, thanks to the NASA Space Weather App

My daughters love Dora the Explorer but there is a woman in England I wouldn’t mind them emulating – Space Kate.

Space Kate is actually a British journalist with a degree in genetics, who has a lifelong passion for space and is working as a science communicator.

She blasted into the blogosphere recently when Lynx (also known as Axe) Deodorant launched a competition in which the prize was to be trained up to go into space.

Her heart leapt at the thought and then plummeted back to Earth when she discovered there was a distinct bias for men only.

This made her angry, so she wrote a scathing blog post entitled, Hey Lynx Apollo! Women are astronauts too.

Her main point is that even though Lynx is seemingly aimed at under-confident teenage boys, they have no right to be sexist in their competitions.

After some support and activism in social media, Lynx has confirmed the competition is open to all and in countries around the world where it had explicitly made it only open to men, competition rules are being changed to be inclusive.

She still believes most women will be weeded out of the ‘space academy’ that the first rounds of contestants get to participate in, where a host of physical challenges could easily be set to tailor a desired outcome. But at least the door is open for now.

By the way, here is the Lynx/Axe ad for reference:

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Kate’s Lynx story is interesting but her whole site is a useful resource if you have more than a passing interest in space.

Not only are there useful ‘links’ (how ironic) to NASA, the ESA and the UK Space Agencies, but she has most recently reviewed a cluster of free space apps for Android and iPhone devices.

Three I have downloaded from Kate’s review are:

  • NASA Space Weather Analysis – this one really is for the weather boffins but like Kate I love the fact that I can have a fresh, closeup picture of the sun on my phone; it is humbling to be reminded that this epicentre of explosions sustains life on Earth
  • Hypersonic Inflatable Aerodynamic Decelerator) – this is a game in which you get trained to land a spacecraft returning to Earth after being docked to the International Space Station. You operate the various devices to control your return to Earth. It is harder than it might seem and very enjoyable
  • Angry Birds Space – developed with NASA, this take on the popular game has the birds still trying to propel objects at pigs BUT gravity is different. Free for Android

Take a look at Kate’s site if you want to keep up to date with things to do with space.

Is Google god?

Is Google god?
Is Google god? (Image via The Church Of Google)

With Easter just passed, a link came by me asking whether Google is the new god. It seemed like an appropriate season for such questions so I dived in and found a religion parody site that gave me a chortle or two.

It was back in 2008 when I last referenced the other great religious satire site, The Flying Spaghetti Monster, and this Google as god site is certainly in a similar vein.

There are a number of pages but let’s start with a few of the ‘proofs’ that Google is god:

  • PROOF #1 Google is the closest thing to an Omniscient (all-knowing) entity in existence, which can be scientifically verified.
  • PROOF #2 Google is everywhere at once (Omnipresent). Google is virtually everywhere on earth at the same time.
  • PROOF #6 Google remembers all. Google caches WebPages regularly and stores them on its massive servers. In fact, by uploading your thoughts and opinions to the internet, you will forever live on in Google’s cache, even after you die, in a sort of “Google Afterlife”.
  • PROOF #8 According to Google trends, the term “Google” is searched for more than the terms “God”, “Jesus”, “Allah”, “Buddha”, “Christianity”, “Islam”, “Buddhism” and “Judaism” combined. God is thought to be an entity in which we mortals can turn to when in a time of need. Google clearly fulfils this to a much larger degree than traditional “gods”.

Even the Judeo-Christian ten commandments get a reworking, including the first commandment:

  • Thou shalt have no other Search Engine before me, neither Yahoo nor Lycos, AltaVista nor Metacrawler. Thou shalt worship only me, and come to Google only for answers.

There is a strong, tongue-in-cheek feel to the site and some parts are pretty childish, but I’m sure it sparks some serious discussions, even hate mail. Take this example from the Common Arguments page:

Google is MAN MADE and therefore cannot be God! Thanks for pointing out the obvious. We completely agree with you! The Christian god, Islamic god and Hindu gods are also man made concepts. They exist only in the imagination of believers. We consider the belief in invisible beings to be much more illogical than the belief in Google (as a God).

No matter where you sit on the religious spectrum, it is always refreshing to have your beliefs looked at from a different angle, even satirised, because it helps you arrive at new positions of deeper conviction or a new outlook.

Maybe The Church of Google will be such a site for you, if not, you could always google for “religious and philosophical forums” and wander through the 6.3 million results available.

Churnalism: you know you’re reading it

Bickering at night causes Bad PR
Bickering at night costs us lost sleep, and stories like this cost us good journalism (Image Daily Express)

If you ever find yourself frustrated by the flaky nature of predictable, tedious news you read in your newspaper, then The Bad PR Blog will remind you that YOU are the sane one.

Admittedly, this is a UK-based website with a focus on local journalism there but given the same man seems to own most of our newspapers, there is much to be learned from this site.

In essence, Michael Marshall, the man behind the site, works on the premise that you ‘can’t believe what you read in the papers’ – and his blog proves that point.

Day after day, Marsh (as he is known) highlights example after example where whole stories in the daily press have been taken word for word from press releases.

On its own, this practice is not the complete end of the world, especially if the releases cover important, helpful news and insights.

However, Marsh’s complaint is that the overwhelming majority of these stories are passed off as journalism (reporters put their name to the PR companies’ work, not giving readers a clear opportunity to weigh up what is being offered to them) and are based on surveys that are utter shite.

This practice is referred to as Churnalism, where journalists simply churn through press releases as their own original work, maybe changing a word here and there or adding a local twist. Marsh uses a UK-based tool at that lets him copy text from a published news story to reveal the original PR source along with the percentage of text that has been copied directly. Until we get one in Australia, we must rely on that magnificent program, Media Watch, to draw attention to the worst examples.

The dangerous part of this is that we readers are tricked into thinking that some clear-minded, objective journalist has done research, discovered insights and boldly made them public for the common good.

Instead, the trust and respect that newspapers had earned from us in the past is being exploited by pr companies and miserly newspaper barons who just want content filling their pages so they can sell ads, without caring about the quality or source of such content.

We really are being played for fools.

Marsh highlights how bad it is in the UK, but as a former journalist, I am keenly aware of how terrible it is down under too.

But back to the UK, here are some examples from the Bad PR Blog that can help get you reading and listening to news with more critical thinking sensitivities:

  • “Cleaning can be such a bore!” says cleaning company – surprisingly, the Rug Doctor press release found that carpets were the most neglected areas for cleaning in homes, harbouring lots of nasties that will hurt us unless we deep clean carpets regularly (with their machines)
  • “Sleeping in the same bed as someone can be exhausting!” says hotel firm (that has just launched newer, bigger beds – the Travelodge release highlights fidgetting in bed is the greatest cause of lack of sleep so that is why their new beds are wider
  • “If you don’t wash those dishes you’ll die alone!” says cleaning firm (promoting the use of hiring maids to do your cleaning) – the Molly Maid press release claimed two thirds of Britons would shelve a second date with someone happy to live in filth

While these stories are British, I hope you’ll enjoy having your jaw drop as you read each incredulous piece of gutter press and marvel at what it seems many of us are happy to pay for in our newspapers.