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Ben Goldacre has a new book out. You can read the foreword, and also watch a TED talk he gave on the subject which is the book’s focus: the systematic distortion of evidence and profit-driven manipulation of reality by the pharmaceutical industry and numerous related groups and individuals.

I’m really looking forward to reading it once I’ve got through some more of my intimidating literary backlog. I’m expecting to be appalled, judging by what I’ve learned about this general clusterfuck so far. Much about modern medical science has been integral to one of the greatest forces for good in human history, but Big Pharma clearly has its Orwellian nightmare side too.

Here’s one thing I’m interested to see: What do the alternative medicine fans think of all this?

Bad Science did, after all, rip the world of fake unmedicine to shreds with a blistering effectiveness rarely matched elsewhere. I can assure you from personal experience that simply blogging about it occasionally is enough to get you labelled as a bought-and-sold shill by some sections of the alt-med crowd, so you can imagine the kind of things he got accused of for writing a popular book and newspaper column about it.

If you listen to the extremists, practically everyone who’s ever dared question the value of drinking bleach to cure AIDS is obviously in the pay of greedy corporate propagandists trying to keep the populace in check (wake up, sheeple!) – so where does Ben Goldacre fit into that model? You can imagine the confusion:

He says our wonderful homeopathy is worthless bollocks… but he’s written and is eagerly promoting an entire book denouncing the pharmaceutical industry’s profit-driven distortions of medicine. Which is what we do! I don’t understand. Was there a clerical error somewhere in the Big Pharma finance department and his cheques stopped getting sent?

It seems rare that an alt-med advocate will credit their opponents with enough intellectual honesty to be expressing the views they do for any reason other than monetary gain (although, to be fair, this may be something of a two-way street). I wonder if the publication of this new book will persuade anyone that people like Ben Goldacre often spend so much time rebutting alternative medicine because they really think that, and that they can see the problems with Big Pharma for what they are as well.

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Ben Goldacre’s got a fab example of misleading statistics, and the ways in which you can learn to think about things to avoid jumping to a wrong conclusion.

Look at his first nerdy table of data on that article. All they’ve done is take a bunch of people who drink alcohol, and a bunch who don’t, and counted how many from each group ended up with lung cancer. It turns out that the drinkers are more likely to get lung cancer than the non-drinkers.

The obvious conclusion – and (spoiler alert) the wrong one – is that drinking alcohol somehow puts you at greater risk of developing lung cancer. You might conclude, from that table, that if you currently drink alcohol, you can reduce your risk of developing cancer by no longer drinking alcohol, thus moving yourself to the safer “non-drinkers” group.

This is actually a fine example of the Bad Science mantra, and Ben makes an important point which many non-nerds might not naturally appreciate about statistics: the need to control for other variables.

If drinking doesn’t give you cancer, then why do drinkers get more cancer? The other two tables offer a beautiful explanation. Of all the drinkers and non-drinkers originally counted, try asking them another question: whether or not they smoke cigarettes. What you get when you do that is the next two tables.

If you just look at the smokers, then the chances of a drinker and a non-drinker getting lung cancer are almost exactly the same. If you look only at the non-drinkers, ditto. In other words, once you know whether someone smokes cigarettes, whether or not they drink makes no difference to their odds of getting lung cancer.

Which is a long way away from the obvious conclusion we were tempted to draw from the first set of data.

What we did here was to control for another variable – namely smoking – before drawing sweeping conclusions from the data. When we give smokers and non-smokers their own separate tables, it means that smoking cigarettes isn’t unfairly weighing the data we’ve already got any more. It becomes clear that drinkers aren’t simply more likely to get cancer; they’re more likely to be smokers.

And although Ben’s right to point out the importance of controlling for other variables like this, what interests me is the reminder of the importance of Bayesian probability.

In particular, the thing to remember is that the probability of an event is a measure of your uncertainty, and not something inherent in the event itself.

For instance, if that first table is all the data you have, then all you know is that drinkers are more at risk of cancer than non-drinkers. If you were to estimate somebody’s odds of getting lung cancer, and the only thing you knew about them is that they’re a drinker, the best you could do is to place it at 16% – the amount of drinkers who developed lung cancer in the study.

If you later acquire the extra data in the second tables, and find out that the individual you’re interested in is not a smoker, then suddenly you can re-adjust your estimate, and give them about a 3% chance of getting lung cancer. They haven’t done anything differently; nothing about their situation has changed for them to suddenly appear much more healthy. You’ve just learned more about them.

And it’s still not true that their odds of developing cancer are exactly 3% in any objective sense. Maybe tomorrow you’ll learn something about their age, or gender, or family history, and adjust your estimate again based on the new data. Maybe you don’t know that a doctor actually diagnosed them with lung cancer yesterday. This, obviously, makes a huge difference to their odds of having lung cancer – but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re in a low-risk group, and a 3% estimate is the best you can do based on your current knowledge.

In conclusion: stats are hard, listen to maths geeks (or become one yourself) before panicking about the latest tabloid healthscare.

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Sounds like a lost Enid Blyton manuscript, doesn’t it? No, okay, maybe not. But it’s still a great story.

Some background first.

Gillian McKeith is a health guru of sorts, best known in the UK for presenting a wildly successful series of shows where she tells fat people to stop eating so much.

The most notorious part of the show (and the only thing some people find worth remembering about her) was the way she drew sweeping conclusions about her subjects’ dietary habits by examining their excrement.

Despite how trivial this may make her sound, she’s a major phenomenon of the alternative medicine movement in her own right. People really pay attention to this woman, and the breadth of topics on her official website makes it clear just how many pies she’s got her grubby, faecally tainted fingers in. (Is it too late to warn you to finish eating before you read this?)

Ben Goldacre, in his book Bad Science, devoted a chapter to Ms McKeith and related issues of medical importance. As well as highlighting her apparent confusion on certain points of basic science (eating high-chlorophyll greenery like spinach will not “oxygenate your blood”), he also examines the issue of Ms McKeith’s PhD, which she has used to justify referring to herself as “Dr”.

Her PhD is in “holistic nutrition”, and was obtained via a distance-learning programme from a non-accredited (meaning that it’s not formally recognised as having any real educational value) American college. On this basis, she had referred to herself as “Dr Gillian McKeith” on much of her output, but following a decision by the Advertising Standards Authority, she doesn’t do that any more.

That’s the background. Here’s the news.

On Wednesday, a lady named Rachel E. Moody tweeted her excitement about reading Bad Science, and almost being up to the chapter on – in her words – “Gillian McKeith. (not Phd)”.

The next day, in response to this, Rachel received four tweets sent her way, from the Twitter account @gillianmckeith. Rachel recounted the tweets in full here, and they’ve also been stored on FreezePage. Among other things, the operator of the @gillianmckeith account accuses Rachel of “anti-American bigotry”, and seems to assume that the sole problem she has with Ms McKeith’s doctorate is its Stateside origin.

It doesn’t seem that hard to understand the difference between actual qualifications from accredited universities, which allow you to do things like provide healthcare, and “diploma mills” not recognised by the Department of Education, which imply no level of expertise. That’s the problem people have with her PhD, not simply that it’s from America. But then, I wouldn’t even think that an enema would be a good cure for “pimples on the forehead”, so what do I know? (That’s one of Gillian’s. Bad Science, page 120.)

Anyway, more relevant than all that was this comment:

Miss Anti-American: How sad a life to enjoy reading lies about another by an ass who makes money from pharmaceutical giants

Now, calling Ben Goldacre an ass is perfectly legally defensible, and from someone like Gillian McKeith I imagine he’d wear such a label as a badge of honour. But calling the contents of his book “lies” is far less innocuous. That’s a direct and unequivocal accusation of dishonesty – rather more so, in fact, than the remark which lumped Simon Singh with a libel suit that took two years to go away.

So this was when people started to take notice.

And by “take notice”, I mean they used it as an excuse to take the piss out of Gillian McKeith all over Twitter.

And by “they”, I mean “we”.

There was nothing much to it at first. It was something that prompted people to remember who Gillian McKeith is and why she’s a terrible person, and it can be fun to bitch nostalgically about old enemies. I think #gillianmckeithhasnophd was a trending topic at one point. Dr Ben Goldacre (whose PhD medical qualifications actually means something) asked her to retract her potentially libellous description of his book as “lies”, though there was never any suggestion of taking her to court over it. (We’re all tired of that kind of approach, from either side.)

And then a little bit later, @gillianmckeith’s Twitter feed looked like this.

The tweets direct at Rachel are gone. And there’s a sudden burst of excuses and justifications regarding Ms McKeith’s qualifications.

The two most noticeable things about this are: a) she’s started talking about herself in the third person, and b) she’s still carrying on the “anti-American” angle, apparently under the impression that her detractors must have a problem with Alabama or America, rather than with tacky diploma mills.

In response, we took the piss some more.

But then it got really fun.

The reason I linked to an image file there, rather than her Twitter feed itself, is because those tweets aren’t there any more. They vanished suddenly sometime this afternoon. As I write this, there are only two tweets visible from @gillianmckeith in the past few days. The first of these asks:

Do you actually believe this is real twitter site for the GM?

Ooh. However it turned out now, this was clearly going to be rather exciting.

Was it a spoof account, a parody, set up by some nobody trying to hijack some unearned internet fame? The account wasn’t verified by Twitter themselves, but it didn’t look to me the way fake or parody accounts tend to look. Her feed seemed mostly to consist of mundane personal tweets, the odd spot of self-promotion, and sharing or re-tweeting of links to the kind of health news you’d expect Gillian McKeith to share. She didn’t seem to be celebrity-baiting, or eagerly evangelising and vying for an audience, in the way I’ve often seen parodists do before. It seemed too low-key to be a hoax.

But if it was a genuine account, and she was now seemingly attempting to deny any connection between the Twitter account and Ms McKeith herself… then what the hell was going on?

It gets better.

If you go to Ms McKeith’s website, you won’t find any mentions of her Twitter account on the main page. But if you look in the source code, there’s a link to the very Twitter account in question, commented out. Here’s what that looks like.

(A quick aside for non-HTML geeks: When writing computer code, for a game or a website or whatever, most coding languages will let you insert “comments” into the code. These are short sections which you don’t want to actually do anything – the words won’t appear on the screen, the computer just ignores them. But it can be handy to describe what’s going on in the code, especially if it’s complex and if someone else might want to work on it later, or if you plan on coming back to it in the future, and you want to make sure it’s clear what all the lines of technical computer language are about. In the code for Ms McKeith’s website, there’s a Twitter link to @gillianmckeith, but it’s in the middle of a comment, so it’s not appearing on the page itself. This looks as if the link used to be on the page, but was then made inactive, without being totally deleted.)

Oh, and rather more conclusively, her last newsletter still has the link to her Twitter account.

It’s definitely her account. Gillian McKeith, or someone responsible for her web presence, made a desperate and futile attempt to backtrack after she said some stupid things, and much hilarity ensued.

Fun though this whole debacle has been, it’s not especially damning. The primary thing it showcases is simply a general failure to comprehend how the internet works. But it also rather strongly implies that the evidence regarding the claims she made is not on her side, seeing as she declined to present any and instead seems to have tried covering the whole thing up. And that’s worth noting. If I must be reminded of Gillian McKeith’s existence again, I’d much rather it be because she’s making a complete idiot out of herself.

Spreading the kudos and hat-tips:

ZenBuffy’s round-up was quicker and blunter than mine. It’s good to see BoingBoing firmly on the right side of this one. And I’ll update this post with links to forthcoming pieces by Jack of Kent and Dr Ben Goldacre when they’re available – those Twitter feeds are among the main hubs of gossip on this story, as those two have been at the fore of discussing it. Also, you can read a lengthy dissection of The Awful Poo Lady’s activities by Dr Ben here. Oh, and Tom Chivers at the Telegraph has a nice summary of all this too.

[Edit 14/07/10: Jack of Kent is already on the case. I completely agree with everything he says, and will borrow a couple of his lines here:

No defamatory meaning is implied by any of the above, and none should be inferred.

It is possible that Ms McKeith herself is blissfully unaware of what happened and will be horrified at what was done by those with contol over both her website and twitter account.]

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I hope I’m not too late with this.

I was only just alerted to this post by Simon Perry, encouraging UK residents to write to their MP, asking them to get involved in the debate in parliament tomorrow on libel reform. He’s provided a suggested form letter to send; I’ve personalised mine, as shown below. He’s also given a link to this site called WriteToThem, which is designed to make it fantastically easy to write letters to your elected officials, even for incredibly lazy people like me who tend to get quickly put off this kind of thing when I realise it’s likely to involve effort on my part.

If you’re in the UK, this is really worth doing. You don’t need to have a clue who your MP is – I didn’t until half an hour ago – just put your postcode in, and it’ll give you a form with their details where you can say what you want and send it off. Feel free to use as much of mine as you like, though personalising it at least a bit may make it more likely to get noticed.

Hopefully we may hear something useful during the day tomorrow about what happens in the debate, if it moves in any interesting directions. I’ll be Twittering about it as and when I hear anything.


Dear Bob Neill,

Tomorrow there is a debate in parliament on the subject of libel reform.

You may have received a few messages about this already, as there has been a growing campaign in recent months to publicise the matter, and I was inspired to send this message myself based on a campaigner’s suggestion to send on a copy of his form letter to whoever my MP might be. But, as someone who tends to be somewhat cynical about politics (or at least British politics), and about my own chances of being able to effect any significant change, even I’m feeling motivated by this issue to send a personal message, and hope that I’ll find reason to get more involved in our political system in the future, and see it with more generous optimism.

Popular science writer Simon Singh is currently being sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association. In an article in the Guardian, he discussed the history of chiropractic therapy, pointed out (accurately) that there is “not a jot” of evidence supporting its effectiveness in treating certain conditions, and pointed out that the BCA currently “happily promotes” these “bogus treatments”.

The treatments to which he referred *are* bogus, in that no good controlled clinical trials have shown them to have any effect beyond that of a placebo. The BCA *does* promote them, and they certainly don’t seem to be *un*happy about it. Simon’s criticism seems to be an important and valid part of the public discussion of science-based medicine. The BCA sued him personally for libel, and declined the right of reply they were offered by the Guardian, where they could have publicly put forward their own view and presented any evidence they believe supports their position.

A couple of weeks ago, the front page of the Sunday Express proclaimed that the cervical cancer vaccine was “as deadly as the cancer”. This scare-mongering article entirely misrepresented the views of the scientists quoted, and was far, far more misleading, damaging to the public understanding of medicine, and dangerous to people’s lives and livelihoods, than what Simon Singh’s article said. But nobody’s around to sue the Sunday Express on behalf of reality.

The way English libel laws currently exist, undesirable opinions or dissenting views can so easily be suppressed by the act of simply threatening a lawsuit. It is up to the defendant to prove their innocence in such cases, and the amount this can cost in time and money can be utterly crippling, even if you did nothing wrong and win the case. Medical doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre was recently involved in a libel battle following his criticism of a vitamin salesman, who claimed that anti-retroviral drugs were ineffective in treating AIDS and offered his vitamins as an alternative. Goldacre won the case, his criticism of Matthias Rath’s appalling dishonesty was entirely justified, the scientific facts always supported him entirely, and he was clearly acting in the public interest in trying to counter pseudo-scientific nonsense and help stop snake oil merchants from taking advantage of dying people who need real medicine. He won, and they still came out of it £150,000 poorer.

Given the dismal outcome likely even in the case of an outright victory, many important articles and papers simply aren’t being published due to this fear. Obviously libel laws of some form have a place, but the way it stands now, the English libel system is uniquely repressive, and is becoming a global embarrassment. Our ability to do useful science, and evaluate what medical treatments are of any use in helping people, depends on the kind of debate which our libel laws are presently stifling.

As someone who has been a constituent here for several years, I’m asking you to please help push this issue forward, and help get some laws in place which aren’t so catastrophically detrimental to free expression in this country.

Yours,

James Norriss

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A little background first, for those unfamiliar with what exactly is going on here.

The James Randi Educational Foundation is an organisation based out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, with the intent of promoting critical thinking among the public, and trying to disseminate reliable information on subjects where credulity and irrationality abound. In January 2003, they held the first ever Amaz!ng Meeting, where 150 people gathered in Fort Lauderdale to hear a selection of prominent scientists and skeptics give lectures, and mingle with like-minded folk over several days.

The next year, it moved to Las Vegas, where it’s been an ever-growing annual event ever since. It’s expanded to include several Amaz!ng Adventures also, and this past weekend I was one of 600 attendees at the first international meeting, in London. Various awesome people spoke, lectured, mingled, answered questions, sang, danced, and fumbled comically with a number of technological hurdles.

So, the people I experienced over the weekend were as follows:

  1. Richard Wiseman compèred the whole thing, introducing each new speaker, keeping the crowd entertained with some jokes and semi-serious magic tricks while the next bit was being got ready, and covering whenever a technical hitch threatened to derail things. He did a fabulous job of being charming and (giving the illusion of) being in control throughout.
  2. Brian Cox, physicist and Supreme Allied Commander of CERN. Well, okay, he just works there. He spoke about the CERN lab, the Large Hadron Collider, and why he really believes that this kind of science is important and worth investing in. There were some great collider pics, including some of the damage caused when they broke it last year, and a more comprehensive explanation of just what went wrong than I’d heard at the time. There was also a lot of background info about particle physics, to explain exactly what it is they’re trying to do there. I’m a physics geek already, I’ve read books about string theory and quarks and extra dimensions of space-time, but I still felt like I learnt something new about the Standard Model. He’s a terrific speaker, with a real knack for making these potentially mind-mangling topics accessible and fascinating.
  3. Jon Ronson is hilarious and wonderful. In many ways, he might seem at first glance like a somewhat unlikely orator; he looks like a classic nerd, tends to hold his arms against himself a little awkwardly, and has an occasional head-nodding tic. But in actual fact, he has great stage presence and tells a hell of a story. He really knows how to make his encounters with crazy people sound touching, human, and very funny, both in print and in person, and provided some of the biggest laughs of the weekend.
  4. Simon Singh spoke about his ongoing libel case, giving some more background than we’d heard before and some interesting updates. He was also given an award by the JREF, for Outstanding Contribution To The Services Of Being A Fucking Hero. Or something like that. Seriously, I think the importance and bravery of what he’s doing, fighting for the right to speak openly and critically about scientific matters and standing as a figurehead for the campaign to change this country’s insane libel laws, is going to be looked back on with awe and amazement in years to come. He also broke the news that he and his wife are expecting their first child next year.
  5. James Randi, the man himself, who couldn’t attend the conference himself due to health issues, but appeared via a live video link-up, looking in good spirits and on fine form. He fielded some questions, and the computer equipment seemed to require mercifully little wrangling to make it happen.
  6. Ariane Sherine was an absolute delight to see in person. She seemed a little nervous at first, but not to a degree you could fault her for, given how much less often she’s done this than everyone else on the bill, and how effortlessly she was chatting with her audience within a few minutes. She told the story of the Atheist Bus Campaign, with some brilliant visual aids and musical montages. Hopeless geek crush #43729 blooms still.
  7. Mil Millington happened to be attending, and was recognisable by his hair. I love the guy’s writing, but he actually looked a little… Walter Kovacs-y. Yeah.
  8. Ben Goldacre was his usual awesome self. The bizarre details of the media’s approach to the MRSA thing in particular continues to blow my mind. I should write about that properly someday.
  9. Robin Ince hosted a comedy evening on Saturday. He chatted about Carl Sagan and Richard Feynman, as he ever does, but you could tell how thrilled he was at playing to a crowd who’ll respond with applause to names like that. The usual suspects were there: Josie Long, Christina Martin, Philip Jeays, and so forth. At times it felt pretty similar to the Night of 400 Billion Stars earlier in the year, but mostly they’re all such good company that this didn’t count against it at all.
  10. Adam Savage spoke about Mythbusters, which was fun. I’ve never really seen the show properly, but the clips I’ve been pointed to on the internet I’ve always enjoyed, and he was great to watch and listen to here. (I’ve skipped over the two acts before him on Sunday morning, because I gave myself a lie-in and didn’t get there until the start of Adam’s set. I’ve never been a huge George Hrab fan, and Glenn Hill’s name didn’t mean anything to me. He’s actually the son of one of the girls who took the Cottingley Fairies pictures, and in retrospect I would’ve quite liked to hear from him.)
  11. Tim Minchin. Holy fucking shit, Tim Minchin. Unbelievable. Highlight of the whole weekend. I mean, I knew the guy was good, but wow. He wasn’t there for long, but it was an incredible set. The awesomeness of Storm is barely diminished by the fact that I know it by heart, and the brief preview of the animated version being made looks like it’ll be fantastic when it’s finished. He did a couple of numbers I’d never heard before, which were musically brilliant and genuinely hilarious in equal measure. And his song about Christmas is perfect. Goddamn, that man is something special.
  12. Phil Plait, President of the JREF, spoke about skepticism in general, and his particular field of astronomy in particular. Much of it was a sort of preview of his latest book, Death From The Skies!, of which I picked up a copy in the foyer (along with a couple by Jon Ronson, and Bruce Hood’s Supersense).
  13. Heather and Colm, the only two people with whom I really managed any socialising. (If either of you happen to find this, say hi. I’m sorry we got separated before I could find out where to stalk you on Twitter.) I decided not to aim too high, in terms of personal expectations for social interaction. Everyone seemed nice and friendly and talkative, and I’m sure the random interruptions I would’ve loved to make to introduce myself would have been welcomed, but I’m not going to berate myself for not having the nerve to go up to any famous people off of the internet. I did fine, for me.

I guess that’s as good a link as any to some more general rumination. I’m not sure exactly what I was expecting as regards the format of the evening, but from what I understand of the Vegas meetings, they’re generally in a pretty open-plan space, often with different things going on in different areas at the same time, and with various bars and other areas where it’s easy to gather and congregate when nothing big’s happening. TAM London was somewhat smaller in scale, and felt rather more regimented. Superb though all the presentations were, we did all just file in and out of the one auditorium together, and there wasn’t much going on in between except a general milling about. There were a few stalls downstairs, but nothing really conducive to natural socialisation.

In fact, Jon Ronson’s just twittered a link to this review, which makes a number of good points. I didn’t feel that everyone was being quite as isolated and monastic as it apparently seemed to Luke; I thought it was mostly just me. And I’m not sure to what extent it’s up to the organisers to get the socially awkward nerd demographic talking to people they’ve never met before, or how much it’s something we’ll just have to figure out by ourselves. But a bit more infrastructure in between the talks might be something to aim for next time. And I agree that somewhere to sit for the bangers and mash dinner would definitely have been nice, and possibly more conducive to conversation.

Anyway, that’s what I did with my weekend. I may not have been as socially interactive as some, but it got me out of the house, and I hope I’ll be able to attend an even bigger and better show next year.

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I think it was the 8 Lessons and Carols for Godless People show in December that finally persuaded me to read Ben Goldacre‘s book Bad Science. You should unequivocally read it yourself too, by the way, whoever and wherever you are. It will teach you many useful ways to watch out for complete bullshit in the media, and to evaluate the usefulness and validity of scientific studies for yourself. The only thing that bugged me just a little was that, after I’d bought my copy, I heard that the next edition (to be released in the new year) would include a new chapter, which he’d spoken about at the Godless People show, but which he couldn’t officially write until he’d finished being sued by the guy it was about. It ceased to bug me once I actually started reading the book, though, and I decided I might just pick up a copy of the new edition when it was available, and pass the old one on to someone who might appreciate it.

Well, the new edition of the book is here. And the new chapter is in it – but it’s also been reprinted, in its entirety, for free, on Ben’s blog. It’s released under a Creative Commons license, which means that distributing copies to everyone you know is wholeheartedly encouraged. It’s a brilliantly told and profoundly unsettling story about nutritionism in South Africa, and the effects that a few campaigners for “multi-vitamins” are having on the HIV epidemic there, and on the efforts made by health workers trying to get useful medication to millions of dying people. The Jenny McCarthy body count ain’t got nothin’ on these guys.

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(It must have escaped from the zoo.)

Even though it’s my day off, a few things inconveniently insisted on happening, so I’d better talk about them very briefly.

– Because of the way atheists have been dominating all forms of public discourse lately, finally some theists are having the courage to stand up for themselves and “respond” to the Atheist Bus Campaign ads by launching some Christian messages of their own. Good to see them finally engaging in the discussion, and not feeling like they need to keep quiet about their beliefs, like they’ve tended to for the past couple of millennia of not really bothering anybody. Obviously they have every right to put these ads where they want, as the British Humanist Association freely admits, but it’s hard not to see it as an incredibly touchy and douchetacular reaction to the shock of an opposing view being expressed.

– Members of Obama’s transition team met with the Secular Coalition of America. One Christian organisation’s response: “Clearly the administration is planning to push the radical left’s vision of a completely secular United States down the throats of ordinary Americans”. Huh. So, because some of his people met some members of a group once, President Obama must want to enforce that group’s ideas over the entire country. So… when Obama himself turns up and speaks at length at the National Prayer Breakfast, a decidedly non-secular event… what orifice is he planning to push that vision into?

– Ben Goldacre’s being sued again. His own website is down at the moment, probably because this has become quite a big deal today and likely overwhelmed a server or two. Some woman was ranting on her radio show about the horrors of vaccinations and repeatedly getting everything wrong, as Orac and Phil explain much better than I could even if I wasn’t this tired. I haven’t done enough research to be fluent in all the facts on this yet, but even I can tell she doesn’t have a clue. Dr. Ben took her to task for promoting unscientific nonsense and dangerous scare tactics on the national airwaves, and quoted a lengthy transcript of what she said, and is now facing legal problems. The audio of the show is up on WikiLeaks, and a work-in-progress transcript is over here. Hopefully Ben will be back online soon; meanwhile, Jeni hasn’t given up her impassioned defence of emotion and instinct over information and understanding.

I’m not thrilled with the shape of all this moaning of mine, but it’s a lot more words than I thought I’d get done tonight.

Edit 7/2/09: I don’t know who Patrick Holford is, but the people keeping an eye on him over at Holford Watch have a rather fabulous round-up of the blogosphere’s reaction to that woman Jeni Barnett and the fracas with Ben Goldacre (whose site has recovered now). They also have a collection of rebuttals to some of the tired and groundless arguments she put forward during the show.

(Edited again: This is typical of my attention span. I finished reading Ben’s book a matter of days ago, and it has a whole chapter about Patrick Holford. I’m sure I was paying attention at the time.)

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