Good News, Mostly

How about some good news? Yeah, I know it’s a bit out of character for me, and I’m sure I’ll be back to my usual curmudgeonly self soon. Until then, enjoy the sunshine (but hope for rain).

Did you hear that Philips found a way to get kids to enjoy brushing their teeth? According to Gizmodo, the app that comes with the Sonicare for Kids toothbrush proved so popular that children not only brushed their teeth willingly, they actually brushed them more than the minimum recommended amount.

I still think that gamification is overused and often counterproductive, causing “players” to get wrapped up in the acquisition of points or banners at the expense of the actual work they originally set out to perform. But in this case, it seems that Philips used the technique well and tied the reward directly to the action. Nice job!

That said, it’s not entirely good news. The app proved so popular that kids resisted going to bed so they could keep playing with the app. Philips had to quickly turn around an update that would encourage players to go to sleep. That does make me wonder: most dentists recommend brushing after every meal. Does the app take the time of day into account, and encourage kids to go to school after breakfast? What about on weekends?

But I’m trying to be positive here, so I won’t get bogged down in the details. Kudos to Philips for actually making kids brush their teeth. I’m tempted to pick up one of their toothbrushes and see if it encourages me not to skimp on brushing.

Moving on.

Ars reports that the Food and Drug Administration is reconsidering how it regulates homeopathic “remedies” and the Federal Trade Commission (which is responsible for prosecuting fraudulent business activities) will be holding hearings next week on “Homeopathic Medicine & Advertising”. (The well-known and respected Science-Based Medicine blog has more details than Ars provides.)

Before I talk about the downside–and, regrettably, there’s some bad news here too–let me summarize why this is good news:

Homeopathic “remedies” do not work. If you already understand why they do nothing, feel free to skip ahead a couple of paragraphs.

Homeopathy is based on two “laws” that have no scientific foundation whatsoever. These are the “Law of Similars” and the “Law of Infinitesimals”. The first states that you can cure a disease with a substance that causes the same symptoms in people who don’t have the disease: cure an upset stomach by eating something that makes you throw up. The second says that the less of the curative substance you take, the stronger it is, so the strongest “medicine” has no active ingredients. Bitten by a snake? Have some more venom. But not very much, or it won’t work. Better yet, have some water that was mixed with a tiny dab of venom. Even better, mix that tiny drop of venom into an Olympic-sized swimming pool of water, and then mix in ten more pools of water. Now you’re getting close to homeopathic doses.

If you think this sounds familiar, maybe you’re thinking of the well-known principles of magic: the laws of similarity and contagion. These are the principles behind voodoo dolls, for example. A voodoo doll supposedly works because it looks like the intended victim (similarity) and is made with the victim’s hair, fingernails, or clothing (contagion). One wonders why conservative Christians aren’t threatening to burn homeopaths for witchcraft. But I digress.

So the good news is that the FTC is considering cracking down on producers of homeopathic “remedies” who can’t prove their claims that the quack nostrums actually do something. With no effective FDA monitoring of manufacturers’ claims, and no effective FTC monitoring of advertising, homeopathic “remedies” fill the shelves of drugstores, pharmacies, and (arguably worst of all) pet stores. The trash pushes out medicines that can actually cure diseases, and millions of people spend billions of dollars on “cures” that do nothing.

To my mind, that makes the prospect of FDA and FTC regulation not just good news, but great news.

So what’s the bad news?

As the Science-Based Medicine post linked above points out, the panelists at the FTC’s hearing are heavily skewed toward the homeopathic industry. The list is dominated by professors from schools that teach homeopathy, executives and lawyers from companies that sell homeopathic “remedies”, and advertising consultants who have previously testified against changes to the FDA’s practices.

That could mean next week will be a lot of sound and fury with no practical results. On the brighter side, that’s a good description for much of what governments do. I suppose that means the real good news is that the FTC’s hearings can’t make the situation any worse.