An Interview with the “Numerical Hygiene” Guy

Susan Gerbic

William M. London is a professor of public health at Cal State LA, the editor of Quackwatch’s free emailed newsletter Consumer Health Digest, Consumer Health online columnist for Skeptical Inquirer, and a Committee for Skeptical Inquiry consultant. He will be leading Workshop 2B on “Numerical Hygiene” at CSICon 2018 on Thursday, October 26.

Susan Gerbic: “Numerical Hygiene” is an interesting title for a workshop. What does it mean, Bill?

Bill London: The title is inspired by a saying attributed to Michael Gregg that I found on a list of “Quotable Epidemiology Quotes”: “We are always dealing with dirty data. The trick is do it with a clean mind.” I think the quotation can serve as a good elevator pitch for healthy skepticism. It takes know-how, effort, practice, and openness to scrutiny by others in order to keep our minds clean enough in order to draw sound conclusions from the data we encounter.

Since hygiene has been defined as: “conditions or practices conducive to maintaining health and preventing disease, especially through cleanliness,” I thought “Numerical Hygiene” would work as a title for a workshop that addresses the challenge of keeping a clean mind in order to be able to draw sound conclusions from quantitative data about health topics.

Gerbic: Thanks for clarifying the connection between numerical hygiene and skepticism. So what can you tell me about the workshop?

London: I must emphasize that you don’t need to be a math whiz and you don’t need formal training in statistics to have some fun and learn from the workshop. The workshop will include data interpretation tasks that I regularly assign in my undergraduate public health courses for students to work on with their classmates in small groups. I provide the groups with what I call “vignettes” in the form of descriptive statistics, tables, or graphs in combination with a brief narrative. Then I ask each group to see if they can make sense out of the data. Over the years, most of my students have had difficulty drawing sound conclusions about most of the vignettes, but I think follow-up class discussions help students to develop their quantitative reasoning and critical thinking skills.

To start off the “Numerical Hygiene” workshop, I’ll lead attendees in a brief icebreaker activity that will assign participants to small groups and then provide an opportunity for group members to get acquainted with each other. The icebreaker has both a silly side and a serious side to it, so I think it will be fun. (If I tell you now what it involves, I’ll spoil the activity.) I think the icebreaker is important to help group members to get comfortable working with and supporting each other through the data interpretation tasks that follow it. I think it’s a nice way to establish the workshop—and the rest of CSICon—as a combined social and educational event.

I expect that participants will do most of the talking during the workshop. My main role will be to facilitate interaction within and among the groups and also to try to illuminate some issues raised by the vignettes.

I imagine that some workshop participants will run into difficulties with some of the vignettes. But just like most of my students, they’ll gain some insights from the experience.

I also imagine that some participants will come to the workshop with all the insights needed to make sound interpretations of the data I’ll provide. But I think even the most insightful participants are likely to benefit from discussions of the difficulties people have in making sense of quantitative data and how to help people overcome those difficulties.

If some workshop participants get tempted to share the vignettes and insights about them with others after the workshop, I’d be delighted! And it would be great if the workshop inspires some participants to develop their own numerical hygiene vignettes. What happens in my Vegas workshop need not stay in Vegas!

Gerbic: Very interesting, Bill! Your description of the workshop reminds me of the Skeptic’s Toolbox in Eugene, Oregon, and the group work we did there. Didn’t we first meet at one of those?

London: Yes, we met at the 2012 Skeptic’s Toolbox. I remember it well. You were honored at that event with the “In the Trenches Award” for your activism.

The small-group case study project at that event is similar to what I have planned for “Numerical Hygiene” in that both involve making sense out of data. But each of the assigned cases to evaluate at Skeptic’s Toolbox had many more details to scrutinize than the various smaller “data vignettes” I’ll assign to groups to discuss within the scheduled two-hour time block. 

Gerbic: I’d like to know more about the work you do with Consumer Health Digest. What can you tell me about it?

London: Stephen Barrett, M.D. (who, like you, is a CSI fellow) launched the email newsletter Consumer Health Digest in 2001 as a service of the now defunct member-supported (and always inadequately funded) National Council Against Health Fraud, Inc. (NCAHF).

NCAHF was a nonprofit tax-exempt voluntary health and educational agency focused on combating health fraud, misinformation, and quackery as public health problems. It was founded based on principles of consumer protection and the scientific process. Throughout its history, which dates back before online communications became commonplace, NCAHF offered printed newsletters six times per year sent by snail mail to members who paid annual dues. It continued to do so even as email and web access became commonplace.

In 2000, I became NCAHF’s president, with editing responsibility for the printed newsletter, and Dr. Barrett became NCAHF’s vice president. Barrett thought NCAHF should take advantage of the opportunity to communicate electronically to reach an audience beyond just NCAHF members and the journalists on NCAHF’s mailing list. He also thought that we needed to communicate with our readers much more frequently than six times per year.

So he launched NCAHF’s website and started editing Consumer Health Digest as a weekly, emailed news digest with a focus on summarizing health-related scientific reports, legislative developments, enforcement actions, other news items, website evaluations, recommended and non-recommended books, research tips, and other information relevant to consumer protection and consumer decision-making. Each issue is about as long as a typical newspaper op-ed piece and generally includes three to five news items.

Consumer health encompasses all aspects of the marketplace related to the purchase of health products and services. Positively, it involves the facts and understanding that enable people to make wise choices. Negatively, it means avoiding unwise decisions based on deception, misinformation, or other factors.

Barrett also envisioned Consumer Health Digest as a means of providing ongoing updates to readers of the college textbook Consumer Health: A Guide to Intelligent Decisions. At the time, the most recent edition of the book (the sixth) had been published in 1997. Barrett was the lead author and I was one of his coauthors. Since then, three more editions of the book have been published.

In February 2002, I took on fact checking and copyediting responsibilities for each issue of Consumer Health Digest, while Barrett did the writing. Eventually, I started suggesting items to include in the newsletter. Starting this year, Barrett and I flipped our editing roles.

We currently have more than 10,500 subscribers who receive the newsletter for free via email. All issues of the newsletter going back to 2001 are archived on the NCAHF website, which Barrett maintains along with twenty-three other consumer health websites in his Quackwatch network. (An online archive of issues of NCAHF Newsletter from 1989 through 2002 is also available.)

Gerbic: That background is new to me. What kinds of health issues have you written about in Consumer Health Digest?

London: Here are nine of the item headlines this year that I think would be especially interesting to CSICon registrants:

  • Homeopathic autism treatment scrutinized
  • Recommendations from “The Dr. Oz Show” and “The Doctors” criticized
  • Non-evidence-based beliefs common among chiropractic students in Australia
  • “Master herbalist and iridologist” charged in diabetic boy’s death
  • Naturopath sentenced for life-threatening diet advice
  • Pharmacist and assistant sentenced in massive drug compounding fraud
  • “Tijuana Tumor Terminator” Geronimo Rubio scrutinized
  • Discredited, alarmist HPV vaccine study retracted
  • Facilitated communication practitioner sentenced

Gerbic: Those are interesting headlines! And so is the world of skeptical inquiry! You and I have been involved in this scientific skepticism world for a bunch of years now. It’s getting to the point that we are going to become the “old guard.” How did you get involved with skepticism?

London: Here’s the story of how I became a consultant to the Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal. (CSICOP’s name was shortened to CSI, the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, in 2006).

My special interest area during my doctoral studies in the early 1980s was alcoholism. It became clear to me then that many mainstream teachings about alcoholism were not based on good evidence. Paul Kurtz, the founder and chair of CSICOP and the Council on Democratic and Secular Humanism, which published Free Inquiry magazine, had similar concerns. (CODESH’s name was eventually shortened to the Council for Secular Humanism.)

In 1985, the year I completed my doctoral program requirements, Free Inquiry published an article by James Christopher on “Sobriety without Superstition,” which suggested, quite reasonably I thought, that alcoholism recovery could be achieved without turning one’s life over to a “higher power,” contrary to Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) philosophy and professional treatment programs based on the teachings of A.A. Christopher then started a secular self-help alternative to A.A., initially called Secular Sobriety Groups. Following the advice of Kurtz, these groups were promoted as S.O.S. groups (Secular Organizations for Sobriety, or Save Our Selves). Under Kurtz’s leadership, CODESH nurtured and supported the development of S.O.S.

In 1988, while I was an assistant professor of health education at Kent State University, I prepared a questionnaire for S.O.S. members to report about their recovery experiences. With Christopher’s help, I was able to collect responses to questionnaires from attendees at three S.O.S. meetings in 1988 and 1990. I saw in the responses suggestive—though far from impressive—evidence that S.O.S. was a viable recovery alternative (especially given that it was already clear that A.A. and A.A.-based professional treatment programs are often ineffective in promoting alcoholism recovery).

Thus in 1990, Tom Flynn, invited me to come to Buffalo to be interviewed on camera about S.O.S. for an Inquiry Media Productions videotape. During my visit, I had the opportunity to have a long talk with Kurtz about secular humanism, skepticism, S.O.S., philosopher Herbert Fingarette’s brief 1988 book Heavy Drinking: The Myth of Alcoholism as a Disease, my experience teaching a consumer health course, and how, in 1988, I organized a conference on quackery that led to the creation of the Ohio Council Against Health Fraud, Inc. (a state division of NCAHF) with me as founding president and editor of the OCAHF Newsletter. During our conversation, Kurtz invited me to be a CSICOP consultant and I gladly accepted.

Gerbic: I always like finding out how people get involved with organized skepticism. I know you’re familiar with the work of many skeptic activists. We have an amazing list of speakers for this year’s CSICon. It’s always great, but we have a lot of new names, lots of people I haven’t met yet. Anyone in particular you are especially looking forward to hearing? I know for me, there are always surprises, topics I didn’t think I would find interesting that turn out to be extremely interesting. 

London: I won’t be surprised if some of the points I plan to make at my workshop will be very similar to points that at least one or two of the speakers will make during their talks. (But, for now, let’s not name names and let’s save the points for the conference).

I plan to hear all the talks. I’m especially interested in speakers I haven’t heard before. In keeping with the quantitative theme of my workshop, here’s an answer to your question in quantitative terms: At previous conferences, I’ve heard eighteen of the thirty-three scheduled speakers (other than me). I already have thirteen books in my personal collection signed by authors on the speaker roster. I am planning to bring at least six more books with me and look for opportunities during CSICon to request that the authors sign them.

Since attendees at my workshop will spend much of the time working in small groups, I might get a few minutes to sneak out of my workshop to take a quick peak at the concurrent workshop “The Investigators” presented by Joe Nickell and Kenny Biddle. I’m in awe of their investigative expertise and how they solve mysteries. I see that their workshop will get into their philosophy of investigation and their investigative strategies. From your interview with Biddle and what I’ve learned from their writings, I guess that the kind of data analysis they will mostly discuss will be qualitative (e.g., photographic), which provides CSICon Thursday attendees a nice option in contrast to the quantitative focus of my workshop.

Beyond the talks, it will be great just to be among hundreds of people gathered together because of their interest in skeptical inquiry. It will be refreshing just to have conversations with people who can relate to my strong aversion to woo! CSICon attendees are likely to have diverse viewpoints on many issues, but we’re also likely to have common ground in our attitudes toward truth seeking and in our appreciation of how challenging it can be to distinguish fact from fiction. I look forward to CSICon largely because of the opportunities it provides for social networking and inspiration for activism.

Gerbic: Wonderful, Bill. This will be a blast! Thanks for the reminder about getting books signed. Don’t overpack; make sure there is plenty of room for the signed books you will be bringing back. And if you have books at home that are unsigned, you might want to bring them along, or if they are hardcovers, just bring the dust jacket to save space for more books.

Susan Gerbic

Affectionately called the Wikipediatrician, Susan Gerbic is the cofounder of Monterey County Skeptics and a self-proclaimed skeptical junkie. Susan is also founder of the Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia (GSoW) project. She is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, and writes for her column, Guerilla Skepticism, often. You can contact her through her website.