Thursday, July 3, 2008

The Coghill Challenge - Part 2

So I mentioned "The Cohgill Challege" a little while ago. It's hardly news - the challenge has been out there for years (since at least 1993 I hear) and attracted comment from various places. (Among them see a letter in the BMJ, some remarks in the Randi forums.)

Roger Coghill thinks exposure to ELF electric fields is dangerous at thresholds lower than many others claim. He thinks there's a big cover up, hence the challenge:
Place any human infant of less than three months age to sleep each night for at least eight hours in an ELF electric field of 100 Volts per metre for thirty days. My studies predict that child will die, or become so seriously ill that the test will have to be called off
. The NRPB and the power utilities' investigation levels by contrast predict there will be no adverse effect.
So this strikes many as very, very unethical. My mate Dave wrote to Coghill to ask him about it. He said (I've cut some sentences for brevity in some emails, but only ever quoted whole sentences verbatim):
It appears that you are encouraging people (by tempting them with a significant amount of money) to engage in behavior that you are very confident would harm a human infant. I have to say that this seems to me ethically dubious. Perhaps you could explain why it is morally defensible to challenge people to engage in behaviour while at the same time being confident that this behaviour would harm an innocent?
Coghill replied:
I disagree. The ICNIRP Guidelines argue that human exposure to ELF electric fields is safe below 5000 volts per metre. Actually this is a curious figure, being only half the occupational exposure guideline, when all their other EMF guidelines impose a fivefold safety factor. If the same fivefold safety factor had been exposed with the ELF electric field too – i.e. 2000V/m – then it would be exceeded under many UK powerlines, - very inconvenient for the power utilities.
He went on to say something about why he thought this, and concluded saying "If you have better ideas of how to bring about this change, please let me know."

This doesn't really address the ethical question at all, which Dave tried to point out. He said in a follow up email:
It appears to me that your challenge calls on others to do something that, given your reasons, you believe would harm another person, in particular a preverbal human infant who is unable to consent to the procedure.
I asked whether in your view it was ethical for you to challenge people to do something you believed would harm an innocent. This calls for something other than an indication of the fact that you believe that their doing the thing in question would harm the infant, or an indication of your reasons for having the belief in the first place.
Coghill's reply again didn't answer the question at all:
So what is your opinion of those who very well know there are hazards from exposure to weak electric fields and deliberately cover this up by misdirecting research, procrastinating the research process and obfuscating and suppressing the results of research already carried out? For that is exactly what the power utilities have done over the last two decades. I do not dare to count how many people have suffered serious ill health or died as a result, whereas my Challenge has never hurt anyone.
So Davie boy tried again:
Suppose for the purposes of argument that I concede that those you refer to do indeed know that there are hazards and cover this up.
That doesn't seem to give an answer to the question whether it is right for you to challenge people to do what you seriously believe would harm a non-consenting person.
Coghill yet again didn't answer the question, pointedly banging on about what had been conceded for the purposes of argument:
Sorry David, but if you keep avoiding my points I see no point in continuing the dialogue. I suggest we just agree to differ in our opinions of who is the villain in this issue.
Ever patient if by now somewhat irked, Dave pressed on:
I don't believe I was avoiding your points, nor did I suggest that anyone was a villain. I was prepared to concede for the purposes of argument that your convictions regarding human exposure to ELF electric fields were correct, and asked a specific question about the ethics of offering an inducement to harm, and possibly kill, a non-consenting human infant for the purposes of proving a point. Since I was prepared to concede that point, I don't see that I was avoiding anything. As far as I can tell you have no interest in responding to the ethical question.
Given your lack of interest, you are probably also not concerned that the parameters of your challenge violate every code of ethics I know of for research involving human subjects that has been recognised in any democracy for nearly 60 years, starting with the Nuremberg Code.
Coghill was irked by this point too:
Rubbish! No one is going to be taken in by your false pretensions to propriety: it is transparent that neither you nor the power utilities are interested in the actual issue, namely that ICNIRP guidelines do not protect the public from ill health, so instead you try to attack the messenger using false moral values. Take a deeper look at yourself and examine your real motives.
Except it's not rubbish at all. Here's the "Directives for Human Experimentation" or Nuremberg Code, with the bits that the Coghill Challenge fails marked (Reprinted from Trials of War Criminals before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals under Control Council Law No. 10, Vol. 2, pp. 181-182.. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1949.):

1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential. This means that the person involved should have legal capacity to give consent; should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching, or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion; and should have sufficient knowledge and comprehension of the elements of the subject matter involved as to enable him to make an understanding and enlightened decision. This latter element requires that before the acceptance of an affirmative decision by the experimental subject there should be made known to him the nature, duration, and purpose of the experiment; the method and means by which it is to be conducted; all inconveniences and hazards reasonable to be expected; and the effects upon his health or person which may possibly come from his participation in the experiment.
The duty and responsibility for ascertaining the quality of the consent rests upon each individual who initiates, directs or engages in the experiment. It is a personal duty and responsibility which may not be delegated to another with impunity.

FAIL! The challenge requires a preverbal infant. Hell, it doesn't even bother to ask for parental consent - any power worker who can get hold of a baby somehow is eligible for The Coghill Challenge.

2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.

FAIL! A trial with a single subject (and no control group) proves nothing, so giving no results fruitful or otherwise.

3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.

FAIL! The most obvious thing to do here is a rigorous animal trial (there are ethical considerations there too), but Coghill shows no evidence of being bothered, preferring to hype his silly challenge instead.

4. The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.

FAIL! Obviously.

5. No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.

FAIL! Coghill has just such a reason, even if his reasons are garbage.

6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.

FAIL! (Given fails on 1 through 5, this is practically guaranteed.)

7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.

FAIL! There are no preparations, no requirements for facilities, no oversight. As far as I can tell, you show up on Coghill's doorstep with a dead baby and get your cash.

8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment.

FAIL! Any bozo is eligible, as long as she or he works for a power utility.

9. During the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.

FAIL! (Guaranteed by the reasons for failing 1.)

10. During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill and careful judgment required of him that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject.

FAIL! There is no scientist in charge at all.

It's also pretty trivial to see that the Challenge fails current guidelines, for example those of the NIH pertaining to use of human subjects (especially here), or the Department of Health and Human Services.

Now it's possible that Roger the Dodger could try to argue that this isn't relevant because The Coghill Challenge isn't an experiment at all. That would be a lame defence, since he clearly thinks it would prove a point (which it wouldn't) and that it's an effective way of proving the point (which it isn't, given that only an ethically conducted animal trial would have a chance of making an impact on the research literature). But saying it's not an experiment won't help in another way. Even though it is clearly no more than a shameful PR stunt, it's still not OK to offer an incentive to kill babies as a PR stunt.

There's a lesson here. This quack isn't just bad at epistemology. He's resolutely unconcerned with the most basic ethical guidelines for the epistemic enterprise as well. Do you really reckon he'd reach for the cheque book if you showed up with a dead baby?


Michael Meadon said...

Really good stuff, Dr. Spurt... We must start paying more attention to SA bollocks and smacking the idiots who sprout it. SA needs some skeptical vioces...

Anonymous said...

Nicely done. It made me curious, although not enough to go find out, about what the deal is normally with consent for experiments involving preverbal infants.
-John M.

Doctor Spurt said...

Here's a news item that bears in what counts as ethics in proper science. The story is in Science - here's the url:

The article reports on the halting of a trial for a quack autism "therapy". The key text (for this thread):

"Putting children at risk of side effects is considered unethical if they are unlikely to receive any direct benefit from the drug."

Anonymous said...

Coghill's Challenge? Epic fail! Really good post Dr Spurt - cheers.

Doctor Spurt said...

Just noticed that my comment above should, of course, have said "that bears on" not "bears in"...

Doctor Spurt said...

Ben Goldacre has written up some of his attempt to get Coghill to hand over his data regarding a claim about cell phone masts and suicide rates, or say anything coherent about the basic concepts involved (like 'average'), to no avail except the production of bad excuses that demonstrate further epic fail at basic rules of science: