Archive for January, 2010

I’ve been lazy today, so have little of substance to say. But the latest Carnival of the Godless is up, and worth a read, so I can spare a moment to direct you there.

Also, you really need to see the latest video from Captain Disillusion. He’s always awesome anyway, and his latest long-awaited update is finally here. It’s split into five clips on YouTube, so make sure you catch it all. The stuff from The Amazing Meeting is hysterical, and he does a very cool debunking of that Derren Brown lottery prediction thing from a while back. Enjoy:

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Tragedy struck across the globe today, as members of a science-based internet cult known as 10:23 committed mass suicide, by taking overdoses of homeopathic medications.

The scheme had been orchestrated well in advance of the appointed time, with the group’s website showing a ticking clock for several weeks previously, counting down to the exact minute at which its members were instructed to swallow “an entire bottle” of the chosen remedy at once.

Over three hundred skeptical cultists are reported dead as a result.

“Dr” Manley Nacik, a homeopathic practitioner who has prescribed these alternative medications for over twenty years, was particularly saddened by this mass misjudgment, but said that perhaps now homeopathy would finally begin to find mainstream acceptance among the scientific community.

She also commented on reports that the 10:23 campaign members are, in fact, all alive and well, and were entirely unaffected by the consumption of a large number of homeopathic pills, except perhaps for a slight increase in blood-sugar levels.

“There may be some anecdotal evidence that, in fact, some of the skeptics who took part in this stunt are still alive,” she told reporters today, “but that’s all it is: anecdotal. Reports from friends and family of campaigners that they’ve been seen walking and talking as usual, and the blog posts and Twitter feeds of the skeptics’ themselves, or other members of the public who claim to have witnessed them in pubs countrywide shortly after the event, consist solely of individual eyewitness account and personal testimony. To draw any definite conclusions from such shoddy and unreliable data, and conclude that anybody is actually still alive just because they claim to be, is deeply unscientific and barely coherent.”

Fake medicine expert “Dr” Ana Dullman agreed, and stressed the importance of scientific rigour and drawing conclusions based only on the available evidence, in determining the fates of the campaign participants.

“There’s no solid evidence to suggest that anyone who took a homeopathic overdose this morning now has a metabolism statistically greater than that of a corpse,” he said. “Whereas there are already double-blind, peer-reviewed trials being published in respected academic journals indicating strongly that everyone who overdosed on homeopathy is definitely dead.”

When pressed for details, “Dr” Dullman suggested that interested parties seek confirmation of the results of these trials in the “American Journal of Mumbletymumble” and “The New *cough*cough* Times”.

Meanwhile, regular updates are appearing on the 10:23 event website itself, including numerous photos and videos purporting to depict the overdosers in a state of inexplicable continued good health.

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In precisely 12 hours from the time this post should go up, several hundred people in groups around the UK will each pop a whole bottle of pills bought from a high street chemist.

The 10:23 event is nearly upon us.

Okay, fine, homeopaths are saying that you wouldn’t expect anything to happen in reaction to an overdose like this, because of some even weirder mechanism than the already bizarre way homeopathy is supposed to work.

Sure, whatever, they’re not doing a double-blinded placebo-controlled randomised clinical trial.

That’s not the point.

The campaigners have never claimed to be doing a scientific experiment here. What they’re doing is addressing the fact that many people don’t have sufficient information to make a reasonable, critical judgment of some of the remedies on offer on pharmacy shelves. Remedies with no proven benefits, and no active ingredients. A lot of people really don’t know what homeopathy is, and think it’s probably something herbal, or natural, or organic, or free of any of those nasty pharmaceutical chemicals. And, well, they’re kinda right on that last point. A standard homeopathic solution is free of all chemicals. At least, those that aren’t found naturally in any clean water.

So yes, it’s a stunt. It’s about grabbing attention, and making some noise through the media. And it’s working pretty well. There have been articles recently in the Telegraph, Independent, Guardian, Mail, and Times, and many more.

Now, this might sound like something that the skeptical movement has often criticised quacks and pseudo-scientists for in the past. And, well, it’s not far off. One of the hallmarks of pseudoscience is doing “science by press conference”, where discoveries or products are announced through an attention-grabbing media event, rather than going through the usual scientific channels of hypothesis testing, peer review, and all the rest. When someone gets a big media circus going to hype their promised free energy device, say, but hasn’t yet got the scientifically published evidence to back up what they’re claiming about it, they’re often taken to task by the same sort of people engaging in the 10:23 campaign tomorrow.

The difference is that that criticism is generally levelled at corporations or pseudo-scientists with a particular (often financial) incentive, who use glitzy spectacle and encourage people to roll up to witness their amazing breakthrough thingumabob instead of testing the thing and proving that they have a point before they start taking people’s money. The 10:23 campaign, on the other hand, is being organised by a group of concerned amateurs, with no financial incentive to do what they’re doing (and holy FSM am I ever tired of the phrase “pharma shill” from idiotic overuse by now), who are organising a big media event to supplement the science that’s already been done, not to replace it entirely.

There is no plausible way that homeopathy could be more effective than placebo. The proposed mechanism is completely at odds with just about everything else we think we know about how chemistry works. Repeated tests of homeopathy do not confirm that the knowledge accumulated from centuries of research across many different disciplines needs to be thrown out the window.

There’s nothing in it.

And despite what some of its detractors (and some perhaps poorly worded news headlines) are saying, the 10:23 campaign isn’t trying to prove this; it’s only trying to bring to people’s attention what’s already proven to science’s satisfaction.

A couple of days ago someone started a fun hashtag game on Twitter, coming up with new #homeopathyslogans. I’ll leave you with a few I came up with.

Homeopathy: Because water’s complicated enough.
Homeopathy: Safer than mainstream medicine, back when they used leeches and hacksaws.
Homeopathy: Do you love anyone enough to give them your last placebo?
Homeopathy: Does exactly what it says on a blank, unlabelled tin.
Homeopathy: It’s probably quantum.
Homeopathy: The theory with the hole.

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It’s been over 11 years since Andrew Wakefield first published his paper in the Lancet that kicked off the whole media MMR hoax. So I’m not entirely sure why there’s still news coming out now about the whole palaver. But evidently the General Medical Council has just recently been investigating him for serious professional misconduct.

As I understand it, they’ve not formally ruled on the misconduct issue yet, but as far as their “finding of fact” goes, Wakefield doesn’t come off well. Accusations of doing “shoddy, litigation- and profit-driven pseudoscience”, being “misleading and irresponsible”, and having “changed and misreported results in his research” are flying thick and fast. We’re also being reminded of the conflicts of interest he failed to declare, such as the patent that he’d applied for on an alternate MMR vaccine (thus giving him a strong financial stake in seeing the current one fall out of favour).

I’m skimping on the full details and assuming that you’ll be at least partially familiar with the backstory here. If I were really going to go into detail about the MMR hoax, it’d merit a Skeptictionary entry of itself, and maybe someday it will, but I wanted to get a brief comment done tonight. For background info, this extract from Bad Science, the utterly indispensable book by Ben Goldacre, is pretty much all you need.

(Edit: Ben Goldacre just posted a new piece about Andrew Wakefield, also worth a look.)

Also, Steve Novella has a great summary, and a graph showing the upsurge of measles cases as MMR vaccine uptake slipped. Podblack Cat has links to where the mainstream media are covering the news about the GMC investigation. And jdc325 reminds us not to let the media themselves off the hook, for uncritically bellowing at the entire country about pretty much whatever they thought would be most effective in getting people to buy their newspapers, and mongering fear at the expense of journalistic integrity with disastrous results.

Speaking of the media, the Daily Mail had a poll on their site attached to their article on this earlier today, asking its readers if they thought the MMR jab was safe. They’ve since taken it down, possibly because somebody realised that Daily Mail readers’ opinions on an empirical subject solidly established by scientific fact doesn’t fucking matter. When I voted, the response percentages were 56/44 in favour of “Yes”.

Head. Meet desk. At velocity.

In lighter news, the 129th Skeptics’ Circle is up over at The SkeptVet Blog. It’s a really fun round-up of some great posts, so go have a look.

And in even lighter news, here’s a snapshot of what my inbox looked like earlier this evening. It’s amazing what coming up with a few jokes to pass the time at work and being retweeted by Dave Gorman or Marcus Brigstocke will do…

Even allowing for a few of them being spam-bots (who names their kid The Car Disco?), that’s not a bad day’s work. Go on. Follow the herd.

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Discover Chiropractic.

That is all.

No, really. Nothing else today. Just a quick plug for the above very worthwhile new site by Zeno. I’ll go write something for an upcoming Skeptictionary article to make up for being dull the last couple of days.

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Give us yer spleen!

Just a quickie today. My organ donor card turned up recently, so if you’re ever in the market for some replacement squishy bits, you know where to come. Alternatively, you can sign up as well to the organ donor register if you’re in the UK, or possibly OrganDonor.gov for our fellows across the pond. Or, y’know, somewhere else if you’re from somewhere else.

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Remember that guy from a couple of days ago, who was disqualified from the Shorty Awards because of all those blatantly phony accounts that had “voted” for him?

He’s gone and had second and third helpings of a big ol’ bowl of crazy.

The very existence of people with a natural tendency to doubt unlikely claims has angered Mike Adams into such a lather that he’s posted another furious piece about those damnable “skeptics”. Specifically, he’s listed a selection of things they believe, and invited his audience to join in his ridicule.

Reading this list, it seems that Mike Adams is either clinically moronic, delusional to the point of borderline psychosis, a fictional character being played as some sort of really annoying performance art, or just a liar. For whatever reason, he’s talking utter bullshit.

His very first point:

Skeptics believe that ALL vaccines are safe and effective (even if they’ve never been tested),

Okay, let me stop you right there. I’ve been immersing myself in the skeptical community for several years now, and engaging actively in it for more than the two years I’ve kept this blog, and I have never heard this belief being expressed, by anyone. Even if there are some loons out there with this kind of bizarre fundamentalism toward vaccines, it is categorically not the standard skeptical view. It’s such a fringe idea, if it exists at all, that I’ve never heard of it.

I’m not going to quote any more of this crap. It never gets any smarter than that. He’s already been thoroughly and awesomely fisked by both Orac and Steve Novella, and the line-by-line dissection that I might have done if my day was about three hours longer has been adeptly handled by someone who I’m pretty sure is not Summer Glau, whatever they may say.

But because I’m feeling sarcastic, here’s some information you might be interested in. I “did a little research” myself, and I bring you a list which I promise will be just as informative and well-researched as Mike Adams’ own run-down, and which will cite just as many sources.

What “Mike Adams” really believes about vaccines, medicine, consciousness, and the universe

– Mike Adams believes that ALL skeptics eat babies. He knows the only reason they don’t blog about their Sunday dinners more often is because they’re hiding the truth and don’t want to scare any more delicious babies away.

– Mike Adams believes that ALL medicines approved or endorsed by anyone with an actual medical degree will interfere with the body’s natural ability to ride unicorns over rainbows.

– Mike Adams does not believe that the bodies of living organisms are composed of cells. He thinks that microscopes are orchestrating a conspiracy against him, and every biologist of the last 150 years is in on it with them.

– Mike Adams believes that ALL chemicals want to give his grandmother cat-AIDS. When he sees any potentially consumable object with a chemical composition based on ANY of the elements of the periodic table, he will destroy it by any means necessary. He is currently researching ways in which food may be sourced from entirely new forms of non-chemical matter.

– Mike Adams is so very hungry.

That’ll do.

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This is depressing on two counts. It’s a dismal reminder of the way some people still think, and it has me agreeing with the majority of Daily Mail commenters.

Basically, a guy punched a guy in the face a couple of times, for no particularly mitigating reason that I can discern. He pleaded guilty to assault, and was sentenced to six months in jail. The newsworthy part is that Cherie Booth, the wife of that bloke who started a war that one time, decided to suspend the sentence for two years. This means (I’m moderately sure I’m getting this right) that so long as he stays out of trouble for the next couple of years on probation, he won’t actually go to jail.

There’s obviously a lot I don’t know about the particulars of the case, as well as our legal system in general, and so I’m willing to accept that maybe a suspended sentence and 200 hours of community service isn’t horrendously over-lenient for this first-time offence. But if there’s no better reason for keeping this guy out of prison than the one Cherie gave, maybe I should be coming down harsher on him. The complete quote from the Mail:

I am going to suspend this sentence for the period of two years based on the fact you are a religious person and have not been in trouble before.

You caused a mild fracture to the jaw of a member of the public standing in a queue at Lloyds Bank.

You are a religious man and you know this is not acceptable behaviour.

It’s just pathetic the way being religious is still so strongly equated with having a strong sense of morals in some people’s minds. I’m not going to patronise you by naming some of the fucked-up shit religious people have done throughout history, and I shouldn’t have to highlight the good that the non-religious do either.

I’m an atheist, and I’m quite capable of figuring out that it’s not okay to break someone’s jaw even when I’m not in a queue at the bank. That guy did break someone’s jaw, so I question the certainty with which you declare that he really understands the moral indefensibility of the act.

Also, “this is not acceptable behaviour”? You sound like Supernanny. Except you wouldn’t see Supernanny suspending some kid’s five-minute stretch on the naughty step because of their imaginary friend.

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We’ve been winning all over the place lately. A brief review:

The guy who sold those completely bullshit “bomb detectors” to security forces in Iraq has been arrested on suspicion of fraud. The guy took some bits of plastic, told people it was a jumped-up dowsing rod that could find explosives, and made millions. I really hope they get the twat hard for this. The things sold for $8000 each, and are worse than useless. Someone in Iraq who thinks they’ve got a reliable explosive detector to help them avoid danger has a serious chance of getting fucking killed. Randi’s not happy either.

Hat-tip to the @BadAstronomer for that one, who also reports on those rifle scopes with Bible quotes engraved which were being used by the American military. Short version: they’re going to stop doing that. I’m sure somebody somewhere is outraged by this decision, but I’m not going to go and find out about them just so that they can piss me off.

Two homeopathy websites have been ordered to stop making shit up. No surprises in descriptions like “misleading”, “unverified” and “abused the trust or exploited the lack of knowledge of consumers”.

And the alternative medicine nut who was winning the voting in something called a Shorty award for Twitter users, ahead of much more worthy candidates, has been removed from the ballot (after he’d already fallen behind the fab Dr Rachie). You can vote for people in these awards by tweeting about it, but it was noticed that many of the people voting for “HealthRanger” didn’t seem to have much else to say. They appeared to be very new to this Twitter business, too. Maybe they were enticed there by the chance to vote in this important election, but didn’t find much to hold their attention beyond that. Or maybe they were dummy accounts created to rig the voting. Yeah, that fits.

He’s thrown a pretty hilarious strop over it, as well as threatening to sue, and declared that the whole award system has been “wholly discredited”.

Incidentally, products being advertised on the same page in which he makes this complaint include:

– an “all-natural intestinal cleanser” called Oxy-Powder
colloidal silver
biomagnetic therapy
– something “100% guaranteed” to cure your diabetes in a month (seriously, how the fuck is this kind of thing legal?)
– and something which “Pres Reagan used successfully” which you should use to “Protect your loved ones now!” We’re not told what Reagan used it for, what constituted a “success”, or what we should be protecting our loved ones from, but hey, it’s on a 2-for-1 offer! (These mysteries don’t really become any more clear if you click through, but the layout and colouring of the site just scream CON, as well as making my eyes hurt.

Which may bring some context to his notion of what it takes to “wholly discredit” an idea.

I’m in a weird mood today. Tea then bed.

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At the same time as it’s being ridiculed as a pointless stunt, the 10:23 campaign has prompted an entire backlash website of its own, at 1023homeopathy.org.uk.

It’s not a very good website.

One post in particular caught my eye today, thanks to @giagia and @Crispian_Jago, among the many others who’ve kept my Twitter feed busy lately with more #ten23 news and gossip than I know what to do with. I know I’ve been railing on homeopathy a lot lately, but I’m not bored of it yet, and this is my blog, so you’ll have to play along.

Possibly the thing that most annoys me about the anti-campaign blog is the poor quality of the writing. In their description of the 10:23 event:

They are going to “prove” that there is nothing in homeopathy by “taking a whole bottle of homeopathic pills” (very scientific eh).

See, they’re not even trying to make that parenthetical syntactically coherent. But another contender for the most annoying thing about this blog might be the quality of the research. First of all, on the issue of whether there is literally “nothing in” homeopathy, it’s simply a mathematical fact that no active ingredient remains in a typical homeopathically diluted solution – even homeopaths don’t deny this.

But the phrase “nothing in it” can also be taken idiomatically, as an assertion that there’s no value to it, because it doesn’t work. And although this is something that the 10:23 campaign uses in their slogan, and claims to be true, they’ve never said that the group overdose event is going to prove this fact.

I assume this blogger put “prove” in quotes like that because he thinks it implies sarcasm, because he’s certainly not actually quoting the campaign’s own statements about their aim. What the campaign actually says is:

At 10:23am on January 30th, more than three hundred homeopathy sceptics nationwide will be taking part in a mass homeopathic ‘overdose’ in protest at Boots’ continued endorsement and sale of homeopathic remedies, and to raise public awareness about the fact that homeopathic remedies have nothing in them.

“Raising awareness” has always been what it’s about, which is why it’s so funny when detractors accuse it of being a publicity stunt. Yeah, no shit. We know homeopathy is bunk because of science. This campaign is not doing science. It’s doing something noticeable to try and get people to understand the science that’s already been done.

From the woo-blog:

This will once and for all prove there is nothing in homeopathic remedies…or is it?

I know I’ve already argued against this point, I just love how the rhetorical question at the end completely fails to match up with the rest of the sentence… or did I?

Anyway, it then goes on to explain why the 10:23 campaign is so ill-conceived. Apparently those pesky skeptics who think they’re “proving” all sorts of things (they may not have ever claimed it, but you can tell they’re thinking it) would see how wrong-headed they are if they took the time to understand how homeopathy works.

Homeopathic remedies will only have an effect if you are susceptible to them… If you are not susceptible to it, the remedy will not act upon you. This is a basic principle of homeopathy, and what makes it so individualised to the person…

Homeopaths talk a lot about this, that their alternative treatments are specifically tailored to the individual patient, something that mainstream medicine apparently never does. But the focus of the campaign, as mentioned earlier, is that the pharmacy chain Boots currently mass-markets generic homeopathic treatments on their shelves, which anyone can just go in and pick up. They aren’t individually tailored at all. So surely this blogger should be entirely with the 10:23 campaign on this point? At the very least, he’s failed to respond to what they’re trying to do.

Taking one remedy at a time is the same as taking a whole bottle (with potencies beyond 12C). Of course the denialists know this point, and that’s why they know they will be safe in taking the whole bottle as it is the same as taking one pill.

They do know they’ll be safe, but not for the reason you think.

This was actually new to me before I started reading the counter-attacks to 10:23. Apparently taking just one pill has an identical effect to taking a whole bottle (with certain potencies), because they both equate to taking one dose. But doesn’t that mean that you could get the same effect from taking less than one pill? Couldn’t you chop up the pills into smaller fragments before taking them, thus giving yourself many times more doses than you paid for? There’s just as much active ingredient in one flake from a pill as there is in the whole bottle, after all, so one bottle full of pills could last for ages.

I can’t make any sense of this. I’m not aware of any actual medicines that work this way. You don’t see over-the-counter painkillers with labels saying “Hey, take as much as you want, it’s the same as taking just one.” Why would this be true for homeopathy? Well, it’s their magic, let them make it up however they want to. But it’s clear that they’ve just had to find some way of rationalising the fact that it’s apparently impossible to overdose on their sugar pills.

Oh, there is actually an answer to the question of why it would work this way: apparently “this is what homeopaths have found”. Hmm. They’ve found that whether people take one pill, or a whole bottle, the outcome is the same. I think I’m seeing a different obvious explanation than they did.

Also, this still misses the point that it’s a publicity stunt. The 10:23 campaigners are not doing a scientific test here. Those have been done, and you guys lost. Repeatedly. You can’t now complain that they’re doing the attention-grabbing gimmick wrong.

I won’t go through the whole next section of bullshit with a fine-tooth comb, but it’s a typically wacky explanation of what homeopaths call “provings”. You might expect these “provings” to actually prove something, but don’t hold your breath.

In a “proving”, you give a homeopathic treatment to somebody in good health, and watch to see what symptoms they become ill with. Seriously. This is how they decide what disease a homeopathic treatment will cure – give it to someone healthy, and see what disease it looks like they get.

Guys. The universe does not work like this. Magic works like this, and to the best of our knowledge the universe is not fucking magic.

This is also something you don’t see much of in science-based medicine. See, actual doctors have a different way of deciding whether a treatment cures a disease, which involves giving the treatment to people with the disease and seeing if they get better. It’s a radical notion, but goshdarnit if there isn’t some actual sense to it.

Oh god, am I still ranting? Surely that’s quite enough of me.

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