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I’ve not written about this at length before, but not kept my views exactly secret either. Basically, what Marsh said.

Having said that, I think much of the anti-circumcision camp can sometimes get bogged down with slightly weaker arguments that they really don’t need to worry about. In particular, when they counter claims about the perils of foreskin ownership with ways in which this particular area of skin can be beneficial.

It doesn’t need to be useful, or to actively promote good health, or to have anything particularly wonderful going for it. All you have to do is point out that the default course of action is not to cut bits off other people.

In religious arguments, the burden of proof with regard to God is on the person making the positive claims about him. And in arguments where one side is saying “I think surgically removing a bit of this newborn child is a good thing to do”, it’s very much up to them to justify that.

For instance, don’t respond to studies saying that sex is better without a foreskin, by pointing to other studies which indicate the opposite. Well, if you have good reason to think that your studies really are the only sound ones, I guess you could do that. But you should primarily be asking why such a ridiculous argument is being made for slicing a chunk off your baby’s genitalia in the first place.

The implication is that a significant number of uncircumcised men aren’t enjoying their sex life as much as they could be, and are seething with frustration at this damnable yoke of a foreskin they’ve been cursed to carry around with them. And that this is such a huge problem for these poor men, that it’s worth taking a knife to every new-born boy’s junk pre-emptively so that it can be avoided.

This is a serious mishandling of priorities. Most of these men’s sexual experiences would benefit far more from an open and honest conversation with their partner, a little creativity and research, and maybe a shopping spree at Lovehoney, than from having had their foreskin removed years ago. And in those cases where the foreskin really is the problem, there are various medical or surgical interventions which can be employed down the line, once there’s actually a problem that requires it, and once they’re in a position to understand and consent to the proposed fate of their dangliest of bits.

Other arguments intended to justify and support this mass emasculation, in brief:

Tradition

Fuck off.

Seriously. If the best you can say for it is “We’ve been doing it for years”, isn’t it maybe time you stopped and asked why you’ve been doing it for years?

Lots of things are traditional. Some are good, some are bad. If it’s a good idea, it should stand up on its own merits. The sole fact that it’s an idea with tenacity has no predictive power either way.

As it happens, if circumcision wasn’t already a long-standing cultural tradition, and was a new thing that people were just starting to do now, my guess is that most people would be appalled by it, and far less impressed by the usual justifications offered.

Aesthetics

Fuck RIGHT off, you insensitive, superficial, thoughtless lacerater of children.

Religion

To quote a wise and handsome man:

Saying “because it’s my religion”, as a legal justification for something, or in any similar circumstances, should carry exactly equivalent weight to saying “because I really, really want to”.

In other words, nobody’s obliged to care if you consider something a religious obligation if it’s a flat-out terrible thing to do.

You’re welcome to exercise your own freedoms to the full extent of your capabilities, up to the point where they adversely affect other people. They can be religious, or not. Doesn’t matter. Knock yourself out. But beyond that point, you don’t get to snip off the tip of someone’s dick for the same reasons you don’t get to poke out their eye or hack off their clitoris, regardless of what you think God wants.

It’s superfluous

There is plenty of my body that’s technically superfluous. I’m not convinced my middle toe on either foot has ever done anything for me. Its neighbours on either side have the balance thing taken care of. But they’re not exactly in the way, and I’m rather glad they were left there when they weren’t causing any trouble, and I was allowed to decide what to do with them myself.

Health benefits

Here the evidence is murky at best. But however much the data might inch things onto the pro-circ side here, it’s not enough to merit such an intrusive and widespread intervention as some people suggest.

At least, not in the developed world it’s not. In Africa, where a good deal of research has been done, it does seem that HIV infections are being prevented by circumcisions, and that there is a significant percentage reduction in other infections.

In Uganda, for instance, circumcision might be an understandable route to take, and is certainly some way removed from being a monstrous act of barbarism. But the developed world has certain advantages we take for granted which Ugandans don’t have, such as widely available contraception and sexual health information.

There might be worthwhile benefits to circumcising 1.2 million American babies a year, if it was a given that they would all be having unsafe hetero intercourse and not looking after their sexual health in any other ways. This might be a fine opportunity for another jab at abstinence-only education, but I’ll hold back on that for once. Americans aren’t like that.

The health benefits of cleaving millions of babies’ penises are easily surpassed by those of educating them in basic cleanliness and sexual health later in life. It’s just not necessary.

Seriously, there should be a much higher bar than many people seem willing to set, before we start cavalierly perforating our children’s manhoods. Think of it this way: What percentage reduction in HIV transmission, in penile-vaginal sex, would justify female circumcision? How much infection would it have to prevent before you supported cutting off every clitoris at birth as a preventative measure?

Which I suppose I should touch on at least briefly before closing. This process involving the excision of the clitoris in young girls, which is alarmingly prevalent in parts of Africa, is utterly terrible. It is more deserving of the name “genital mutilation” than male circumcision (though I’m not getting into that semantic argument here), and is certainly more likely to cause problems and be resented by the victims later in life than removal of the foreskin. On an individual level, it seems safe to say that girls have it worse.

But it’s not a competition, and it doesn’t just have to be considered on an individual level. What concerns people about male circumcision is how widespread it is in developed countries like the United States, where it goes on all the time as if it were perfectly okay.

They’re both serious issues worth addressing. But only one is the primary subject of this particular blog post, and only one is something that many of your neighbours and work colleagues might boast proudly about doing to their own children.

The title of this post might seem a bit laboured, but I’m sure the spoonerism is as dear as clay.

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Wow.

Just…

The people who sell Miracle Mineral Solution claim that it can cure “AIDS, hepatitis A,B and C, malaria, herpes, TB, most cancer and many more of mankind’s worse diseases”.

The FDA, who regulate products with medical claims like this in the US, says it contains industrial strength bleach and should be immediately disposed of.

That was in a warning released on the 30th July. It’s now August 6th, and the site is still up. They’re still claiming to cure myriad ailments, through a miracle formula discovered in “clinical trials… conducted in a prison in the country of Malawi, East Africa”.

Yeah, so you could trust that impeccable evidence. Or maybe it could poison you.

Oh, and they tell you to stop taking HIV medication, because HIV “is not dangerous” and “does not cause AIDS”.

Which could also kill you.

This is not a case of a supplement adulterated with a prescription drug or containing trace amounts of heavy metals. This is an active scheme directed not only to driving the consumer to use a harmful product (and even inject it IV), but also encourages the discontinuation of beneficial prescription drugs.

Let me walk you through what to do from here.

1. Read the full story on the Science-Based Medicine blog.

2. Pick your jaw up off the floor.

3. Douse the smoke that may be emerging from your ears.

4. Do something to spread the word about the importance of science-based medicine. Write a blog about the scientific process. Tweet about the dangers of taking medical advice from celebrities, or “maverick” doctors with no traditional scientific backing to their improbable and expensive claims.

5. Consider making a complaint to the FTC, which can be done here. I’m not a US citizen, so I don’t know if I’m eligible to lodge anything with them officially, but I’ll have a go.

6. Have a look to see if you can find any alternative medical practitioners – homeopaths, chiropractors, acupuncturists, anything – who are being similarly critical of this organisation, and offering similar warnings that people should not stop taking their HIV drugs to drink some bleach because some maniacs on the internet said so.

I’d be fascinated to see if that last one’s fruitful at all. It’s a common criticism of the alternative medicine movement – one of many – that, even if their own treatments are theoretically harmless and largely benevolent, their complacency is damaging when it comes to being uncritical about more harmful medical claims. And so far, to the best of my awareness, it’s an entirely fair criticism. But if anyone wants to bring to my attention the efforts of anyone working in CAM to counter this kind of dangerous nonsense, I’d be happy to highlight it here.

It’d be heartening to see that they’re sometimes capable of that. And so far this is a really depressing story.

Edit: I did actually manage to wade through the FTC Complaint Assistant and make a complaint about this, and you probably can too. You can leave most of the fields blank, and answer “no” to most of the questions – it seems mainly geared around people who’ve had money conned out of them, or been contacted by someone dodgy, neither of which applies to me in this case. But it’s friendlier than most online forms in that it doesn’t object to you leaving as much blank as you want, and just filling in the pertinent bits – basically the name of the website in question, and what they’re doing wrong.

When it came to the final section, where you have a free space to describe the nature of the complaint, I put the following. Feel free to borrow as much or as little of this as you like if you want to say something too.

The claims currently made on the Miracle Mineral website (http://www.miraclemineral.org/) include its ability to cure AIDS, malaria, and “most cancer”. I suspect that this organisation is making serious medical claims that are not sufficiently supported by scientific evidence. They urge customers to consume orally, or even inject, a substance which the FDA recently warned “contains industrial strength bleach” and “can cause serious harm to health”.

They also encourage the discontinuation of beneficial prescription drugs, such as for the treatment of HIV.

More information can be found here: http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=6430

It seems terrifying that such a product can still be sold in the context of such outrageous claims, and I would urge that serious action is taken.

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– Deepak Chopra thinks he can cause earthquakes. Well, maybe. It could be that he just doesn’t quite understand what a joke is but thought he’d have a go at making one anyway. But it’s reflective of the amount of crap he usually talks that a lot of people genuinely aren’t sure whether he was serious when he tweeted: “Had a powerful meditation just now – caused an earthquake in Southern California”. It honestly sounds like the sort of thing he’d say.

– There are now more women in space than there ever have been before. Four female astronauts are currently in orbit around the planet. And they’re all pretty awesome. Hell, it’s enough sometimes to just remind ourselves that there are people in space. Like, right now. Humans did that. While being made of meat.

– You really should watch one of the greatest TED talks I’ve seen. And I’ve frittered away quite a lot of time watching TED talks. It’s not that long, and it’s about making policies to stop the spread of HIV based on what actually works. Profoundly eye-opening and insightful, though there are some pretty icky stories and descriptions of needles near the start, which made me cringe a little and might unnerve anyone sensitive to that kind of thing. Nothing visually graphic, probably NSFW for subject matter, but really important.

– And the latest edition of the Skeptics’ Circle is up, over at Divisible By Pi. Some great links to other fascinating articles, and couched in the most elaborately creative narrative since, well, probably my own slightly surreal attempt.

– Oh, and I’ve just sent an email to the Liberal Democrats’ candidate for my constituency, asking about his position on a number of important issues, inspired by the list of suggested questions up at the Skeptical Voter site. If and when I get a reply, I’ll go there to update his wiki page. Perhaps I should have got in touch with the sitting Conservative MP to ask him the same things, but his voting record in the House of Commons is such that he’s not likely to be able to say anything now to earn my support. If you’re in the UK and think there’s any way this general election thingy coming up might affect you, you could do worse than to check the Skeptical Voter site for ways to get involved, or follow them on Twitter for news updates.

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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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