Monday, 27 December 2010

Toward bullshit-free organic farming.

Why is it that compassion for animals and pseudo-scientific hippy bullshit seem to go hand in hand so often? Well one possibility is that the Soil Association, who set and certify against the standards farms have to meet to put "Organic" on their produce, discourage "allopathy" and encourage homeopathic "remedies" as an alternative. Even DEFRA have seemingly bought into this idiocy and encourage homeopathy for organic farms.

I've decided I'd like to do something about it, and I think the first step is to try to find out where this requirement comes from. To that end, I've written an email to the press office* at the Soil Association.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I write to you as a consumer and meat-eater who is strongly concerned about the welfare of farmed animals. While I applaud much of the work of the Soil Association, and admire the ideals of the organic standard with respect to reduced pesticides, greater freedoms for animals etc, there is one area that troubles me strongly. Homeopathic treatments have no plausible scientific method of operation and have been demonstrated not to work time and time again. There is no properly controlled evidence from studies that cannot be biased by the opinions of the investigators that demonstrate its efficacy beyond the placebo (and yes animals are susceptible to placebo by proxy). The current state of the best scientific evidence available indicates that homeopathic remedies are worthless. I put it to you that using worthless "remedies" on animals is not compassion, it is neglect. Where an ineffective intervention is given in place of effective one animals suffer needlessly, whether it is given as treatment for an existing condition or as prophylaxis against a potential one. In addition to this, the cost of these ineffective medicines must of course contribute to higher price of organic produce, which is a significant barrier to adoption by some consumers. Of course you may say that they are cheaper than conventional medicines in some respects (although I suspect vets fees are similar), but since homeopathic preparations do nothing it would be cheaper and no less neglectful to give no treatment at all. 
I buy all organic produce where possible, but as a result of the discovery that you and the organic standards endorse the useless practice of homeopathy, I am having to strongly reconsider and may simply buy free-range where possible. I think that on-balance this may be more ethical, since at least there is a greater likelihood of these animals receiving adequate care.
I would like to know where this policy originates, and urge you to reconsider it. I would begin by reviewing the results of the recent government panel on homeopathy, which adequately sums up the best evidence available, and concludes that it is nothing more than a placebo and that sufficient testing has been performed to confirm this such that no more research need be undertaken to confirm it.
Please could you put me in touch with the best person with whom I should communicate on this matter, in the hope that I can convince them to have this policy changed, or at the very least understand why it is present. 

We'll see if I get anything back.

*They don't seem to have an address on their site where consumers can express their concerns or ask questions. If anyone knows of one, I'd love to hear from you.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Homeopathy: treats the disease, not just the symptoms like conventional medicine.

Short answer:
  • No it doesn't, it doesn't treat anything
  • The whole endeavour of homeopathy is based around only looking at symptoms, and not in determining the real cause of the disease.
  • this is based on a complete misunderstanding of the way genuine medicine actually works
A little more:

This is a most interesting claim and it's based on three main incorrect assumptions:
  1. That homeopathy works at all.
  2. That homeopathy is concerned with anything other than symptoms
  3. That conventional medicine only treats symptoms.
Claim 1 will be dealt with in a later post so we won't talk about it here, except to remind readers that there is no good quality, repeatable evidence from properly conducted trials to show that homeopathy is effective for anything, so we'll focus on 2 and 3.
Homeopathy was invented in a time when it was not understood that many diseases are caused by microbes, and therefore it has absolutely nothing to say about this. It's entire foundation is based on the "like cures like" principle that essentially says "substances cause symptom X can cure all diseases that also have symptoms like X." For example one of the indications of Arsen Album (That's arsenic to you and me) is purported to be for mouth ulcers, because if drink arsenic your mouth understandably becomes rather ulcerated. There are a number of causes (bacterial, viral, fungal etc.) of mouth ulcers, and homeopathy is silent on all of these, because it claims that all that is needed to select the correct treatment is a description of the symptoms, and the cause is irrelevant (Or perhaps some mythical "miasm"). Some go on to claim that what is happening is that the remedy is somehow activating the bodies own defences against the cause, but I have dealt with that already in another post.
When it comes to conventional medicine (often referred to as "Allopathy" by quacks and their adherents) the example is often given that a decongestant merely masks the symptoms of a cold, and therefore all of genuine medicine deals only with symptoms and not looking for the cause of the symptoms. This example is a ridiculous strawman argument, and the whole idea is just plain wrong. Antibiotics treat the microbes that are the root causes of disease, as do antivirals and antiretrovirals; vaccines prevent the root causes of disease; radiotherapy and chemotherapy eliminate the cancers that are the cause of distress; other treatments correct chemical imbalances that cause a variety of disorders. The accusation that genuine medicine does not consider causes is quite simply false. Of course there are medicines that seek to alleviate symptoms while the disease is otherwise treated, or while it resolves itself, or where there is no known cure, but it is an outright lie to suggest that all medicines are such.
The charge that conventional medicine sees patients as simply a collection of symptoms while homeopathy sees the whole patient and their condition is one that is designed to appeal to the emotion of the sufferer and make them feel cared for; it is not only wrong but is also more accurately levelled at homeopaths themselves. Homeopaths make this claim but cannot in any way substantiate it, while their whole methodology is based around the study of symptoms without any concern for the actual cause.

    Monday, 26 July 2010

    Government Policy on Homeopathy is...

    My summary of the report
    • Yes we know homeopathy is worthless bullshit, but some people don't know or don't believe it's bullshit, so we'll let individual regions' trusts decide whether they want to spend public money on it. 
    • We promise to tell people it doesn't work though, but we'll still buy it for them with your money if they still want it after we've told them. 
    • It's too difficult to find out how much we're currently spending on it, so we won't bother. 
    • We'll continue to allow people to put indications on remedies, because it's better to have something rather than nothing on the label (even if that something is wrong), because at least then we can regulate how they are made. 
    • It's OK to lie to people about how these pills can cure minor self-limiting illnesses, and that probably won't lead to people thinking it works for Malaria or AIDS.
    Fucking moronic cowards.

    Please read the sci-tech evidence check report, if you haven't already.

    Sunday, 11 July 2010

    Homeopathy: it's natural.

    Short answer:
    • No it isn't - it's extremely artificial and contrived.
    • Even if it were, something being "natural" is no guarantee of either effectiveness or harmlessness.
    A little more:
    As with the claim that homeopathy is an ancient tradition, I suspect the reason some make this assertion is due to a confusion of homeopathy with herbalism. It's important to remember that homeopathy is not herbalism; herbalists can at least genuinely claim that their treatments are "natural", for what it's worth, and unlike homeopathy many of them even have active ingredients.
    All kinds of ingredients are used at the start of the homeopathic process, many of which may be considered natural, but the process of dilution and succussion is anything but. For a full description of the manufacturing process and it's origins, see my earlier post. And in any case, the idea that because something meets some arbitrary definition of "natural" does not necessarily mean it will work, or that it's somehow more in tune with your body and hence safer than any lab produced chemical. Go eat a handful of nightshade berries or fly agaric if you don't believe me1. This fallacy this particular claim falls under is the Appeal to Nature.
    The only other things that could be meant by this claim of naturalness is that the remedy somehow stirs the body's natural defences into action, and I have dealt with that claim here.

    1 Do not do this under any circumstances.

    Homeopathy: Activates the body's own natural healing processes.

    Short answer:
    • No it doesn't - there is no biologically plausible method for this to occur, and there is no credible evidence for it having ever occurred.
    A little more:
    This little number is often explained as operating a little like a vaccine; e.g. the remedy somehow tells the immune system "look for things that cause symptoms like this" and that stirs it into action. Of course this a completely false analogy, and it wouldn't work even if the analogy were valid.
    Vaccines work by introducing a harmless form of an actual microbe into the body. The immune system produces antibodies against that microbe and this enables it to be prepared for invasion of the genuine microbe (or ones very like it) should it encounter it at a later date.
    Homeopathic remedies with "potencies" beyond 12c do not contain anything other than water, and even below that the content is negligible. There is nothing present for the immune system to learn from. Even if there were still some of the original preparation present, this would not stir the immune system into life when encountering a genuine illness-inducing microbe. Most of the the "mother tinctures" for those homeopathic remedies that are used for microbial diseases bear no structural relationship to the actual cause of the malady, and thus immune system will not recognise the real thing when it arrives. Additionally remedies are rarely prescribed as preventatives (with the exception of "nosodes" like the one idiotically prescribed for malarial prophylaxis), there are usually given when the disease is already present and the immune system is already fighting the disease, and has no need of such activation.
    Add to this the fact that homeopathic remedies are also prescribed for disorders where the immune system has little or no involvement (like anxiety or type-2 diabetes), and for auto-immune related disorders (coeliac disease, rheumatoid arthritis) where the problem is that the immune system perceives part of the sufferer's own body as an enemy, and all that is left is a supernatural explanation for homeopathy's supposed mechanism of action. Some would attempt to counter these arguments by saying the immune system thing is just an illustrative analogy. They are then hard pressed to described any plausible actual mechanism by which their claims may be substantiated. Homeopaths' talk of vital forces and miasmas is just medieval thinking, and this whole argument of activating the body's own natural defences is simply superficially plausible nonsense.

    Saturday, 10 July 2010

    Homeopathy: it worked for me! (or someone else of my acquaintance)

    Short answer:
    • No it didn't - You got better on your own, or as a result of some other intervention.
    A little more:
    I'm afraid you have fallen for the fallacy known somewhat ostentatiously as "Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc" (after this therefore because of this) or "false cause". It was not the homeopathic remedy that effected your cure. It is likely that your ailment was of a trivial nature such as a cold, flu, headache, bruise, mouth ulcer or somesuch. These things go away on their own. It is also possible that your ailment is one of a cyclical nature, that has periods when it is severe, and intervals where it is less so. If you took the remedy during a bad stretch, a moderate period is sure to follow, and you will attribute the improvement to homeopathy. Homeopaths even have a get out clause for when you take their remedy and the affliction has not yet reached its peak; they call this a healing crisis, claiming the action of your body, triggered by the remedy to fight the disease temporarily causes symptoms to appear worse, before they get better. This ensures that whether your symptoms increase or decrease, you still think it was the remedy that did it, when in actual fact it was simply the natural course of the ailment.
    Perhaps you have benefited from the placebo effect, where you feel better simply for believing you have been given a treatment and the attention you received from an apparently qualified physician.
    If the disease you recovered from was more serious, then perhaps you were also receiving conventional treatment but were frustrated with the speed of results, or believed it has failed, and so took a homeopathic remedy, and you subsequently recovered. It was the conventional treatment that worked, you just hadn't waited long enough. If you weren't receiving any other treatment, then you were very lucky; sometimes seemingly miraculous recoveries occur by purely natural, if hidden or inexplicable means.
    If you still think homeopathy cured you, try to think how you would tell the difference between a natural self-effected cure, or one brought on by the remedy your homeopath gave you?
    If you were using homeopathy as prophylaxis, say for malaria, then you were unknowingly exposing yourself to risk while completely unprotected, and were simply lucky.

    Homeopathy: it's an ancient practice/it's been in use for hundreds/thousands of years!

    Short answer: 
    • It's not an ancient practice, it was invented by a failed German Physician in 1796, only just over 200 years ago.
    • So what? People in the past were wrong about a lot of things.
    A little more:
    The ancient practice argument would be invalid if it were true, but also is just plain wrong. Here's my full post on the history of homeopathy. I suspect the reason that some people attribute homeopathy with a much longer history is that they mistakenly equate it with herbalism, which is a whole different kettle of bullshit, but that parts of which might have at least some basis in truth.
    The fallacy at work here is The Appeal to Tradition. To paraphrase Tim Minchin, just because ideas are tenacious it doesn't mean that they're worthy. Our predecessors were wrong about a great many things for a very long time: the earth is at the centre of the universe; powdered tiger penis will make you virile; the universe is only 8000 years old; fires, floods, earthquakes and volcanoes are the acts of angry gods or spirits. The longevity of an idea or practice gives no credence to its veracity. Samuel Hahnemann, the inventor of homeopathy, quit medicine largely because he saw that the practice of bloodletting was killing more than it saved, and bloodletting had been standard practice for nearly every illness for around 2000 years. Among his faults Sam clearly did not count susceptibility to the this particular error of reasoning.  The fact is that homeopathy was never properly proven to work in the fist place; the many people since then who have believed homeopathy helped them or others were just as deluded as modern practitioners/patients, and their opinions should not influence us now.

    A new approach to homeopathy.

    No it's nothing radical, it's just that my articles were getting a bit long (I've got about 6 unfinished ones here all with pages of text) and it wouldn't have been the punchy answers I wanted. The answers to the homeopathic drivel were getting lost in all the explanation and required interpretation. Plus I spent Ages writing an article about what makes a good clinical trial and then the NHS go and publish one before I get around to finalising it. Mine was funnier ;) and had more about bias, but theirs is more authoritative.
    So what I've decided to do is a series of punchy little articles each of which starts with a common homeopathic canard (no not the duck they use to make oscillococcinum), then a short response, and then a slightly longer response and some background info.
    Hopefully, with an index, it should prove to be a slightly better resource.

    Thursday, 3 June 2010

    Homeopathy 101.

    This is Part II of a run of posts about homeopathy. Here's Part I, which is really just an intro and will become an index to the other posts as they become available. This post is a primer in the history and theory of homeopathy, which I will try to without too much criticism. The debunking will follow in subsequent posts.

    One common claim of those who endorse homeopathy, although rarely by practitioners, is that it has been in use for thousands of years and therefore must be effective. There are two things wrong with this statement: the first is that it is a shining example of the Appeal to Tradition, a logical fallacy exemplified by the fact that is plainly possible (née likely) for our ancestors to be wrong about many things for a very long time; longevity is no guarantee of veracity. The other objection is that not only would the claim be invalid if the statement were true, but also that it is just plain false. Homeopathy is not part of some ancient tradition or folk-wisdom; it was invented in Germany in 1796.
    Samuel Hahnemann (1755-1843), a German physician, became understandably disillusioned with the state of 18th century medicine; claiming, quite rightly, that it often did more harm than good. Double-blinded, randomised, controlled (placebo or otherwise) trials would not come into standard use for many years yet, so no reliable mechanism of testing treatments was available; the germ-theory of disease was not yet completely synthesised and its budding principles were not accepted by most. Medicines with unknown effects were often administered to patients with unknown diseases with little idea of the consequences. Bleeding, the practice of draining people's blood, was still the favoured technique for many conditions; this frequently killed patients who would otherwise have survived without intervention, and accelerated the demise of many others. Early medicine was so fraught with problems that it caused Hahnemann to retire from practice to focus on writing and translation. He later explained why thus:
    My sense of duty would not easily allow me to treat the unknown pathological state of my suffering brethren with these unknown medicines. The thought of becoming in this way a murderer or malefactor towards the life of my fellow human beings was most terrible to me, so terrible and disturbing that I wholly gave up my practice in the first years of my married life and occupied myself solely with chemistry and writing.
    I think this passage illustrates to some degree that the scorn heaped upon poor old Sam is unjust; he was clearly a man who wanted to help but rightly felt that medicine did not have the tools to enable him to do so. He also obviously had an eye for when he was harming more than helping.

    Some while after his retirement from medicine, while translating William Cullen's Materia Medica into German, Hahnemann encountered a claim that cinchona bark, from which the anti-malarial quinine was later isolated, worked against malarial fevers due to astringent properties acting as a "tonic to the stomach"; a claim of which he was sceptical1, and during his investigations decided to experiment on himself. Shortly after taking his first dose he experienced symptoms that he described as "ordinarily characteristic of intermittent fever", and repeated doses had a similar effect. This lead him to the following reasoning: If a substance that can relieve a disorder causes the symptoms of that disorder in a healthy person, then it is also true that other substances that causes symptoms in a healthy person, will cure diseases that have similar symptoms2. Our Sam calls this principle Similia Similibus Curentur (like cures like), while modern homeopaths sometimes refer to the "law of similars". He writes:  
    The curative power of medicines, therefore, depends on their symptoms, similar to the disease but superior to it in strength, so that each individual case of disease is most surely, radically, rapidly and permanently annihilated and removed only by a medicine capable of producing (in the human system) in the most similar and complete manner the totality of its symptoms, which at the same time are stronger than the disease.
    Calling his new system of treatment "homeopathy", from the Greek for "Similar Feeling", or "Similar Disease" he then embarked on a series of experiments he called "Provings", so named from "Prüfung", the German for "Test". These experiments consisted of taking groups of healthy individuals and administering a substance purported to have some effect on the body of a period of time and recording any symptoms suffered by the subjects.
    There is no other possible way of correctly ascertaining the characteristic action of medicines on human health, no single surer, more natural way, than administering individual medicines experimentally to healthy people in moderate doses...3
    The symptoms experienced by these subjects were meticulously noted and studied after the experiments to determine what the substance would purportedly cure. In this manner, Hahnemann assembled his own Materia Medica, laying the foundation for those still in use by homeopaths today.
    When administering his new found cures to patients, he discovered that some suffered from complications and unpleasant side effects from the remedies. He found that diluting the base remedy ameliorated the side effects, and eliminated them after sufficient dilution had occurred. Remarkably, the more dilute the solution, the faster the patient's recovery. This lead him to another principle of homeopathy: that dilution actually makes the curative powers of the base substance grow; that it is, somewhat counter-intuitively made more potent by the dilution process. This is often referred to as the "law of infinitesimals". The process followed is to drop 1 part of the active ingredient (or mother-tincture) into either 10 or 100 parts of water, and then take 1 part of the resultant solution and put that in 10 or 100 parts of water, repeating until the desired potency is reached. The nomenclature for the potencies is 1X for 1 part in 10, or 1C for 1 part in 100. 2C does not mean 2 parts per 100, but rather 1 part in 100 in 100 or 1 in 10,000. Today remedies are commonly between 10C (1 part in 100,000,000,000,000,000,000) and 30C ( 1 part in 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000), although mother-tinctures and potencies up to 1000C (such as carcinosin, a nosode4 made from cancerous cells and purported to cure cancer5) are available. Modern science has taught us that at dilution beyond 12C there virtually no chance of their being a single molecule of the mother tincture in a litre of water, at 30C to have a reasonable chance of getting a single molecule you would need a sphere of water the same diameter as the distance from here to the sun, and at 100C you would need around twelve times more molecules  of water than there are atoms in the entire observable universe to expect to see a single one of the original substance with any certainty. Homeopaths tell us that these absurdly large numbers are irrelevant, and that the water somehow retains a "memory" of the original substance, or that the physical structure or arrangement of the H2O is altered by the presence of the substance, and it is this memory that can effect cures to diseases. This memory is ostensibly aided by another principle of homeopathy that we shall come to next.
    At some point during the formulation of the principle of dilution, Hahnemann hit on the idea of "succussion". Succussion is a process whereby the bottle containing the solution is struck firmly a number of times on a firm but elastic body which, Hahnemann said, increased the potency of the remedies. Some have suggested that he hit upon this idea after transporting some of his remedies on horseback, and later found these remedies to be of greater effectiveness. This is hotly disputed amongst homeopaths, and there is nothing directly referring to the discovery in his writings. We do however know two things that are pertinent to this. The first is that the "elastic surface" against which Hahnemann struck his phials of solution was a pad made of leather and stuffed with horsehair, which he  had specially commissioned from a saddler. The second is that his writings cautioned against taking remedies on long journeys because the remedy "receives an enormous number of additional succussions during the transport, and they are so highly potentized during a long journey, that on their arrival they are scarcely fit for use"[ref]. Whatever the origin, modern homeopaths claim that the succussion is integral to transferring the potency of the original ingredient to the water; that the knocking causes the water to somehow pick-up or resonate with the energy6 of the solute; this memory remains, and in fact strengthens, long after there ceases to be even the tiniest part of the solute remaining in the solvent. Hahnemann even claimed that after a period of rest, a remedy could be shaken to reinvigorate its powers. Luckily, when the remedy is in pill form, no amount of extra transport succussion will render the the remedies any more unfit for use than they were when they left the factory.

    What's that? Pill form you say? Yes, although Hahnemann did make solid matter into remedies by grinding them down with lactose, this is rare today. Many modern homeopathic remedies come in the form of vials of "pillules". Pillules are tiny balls of sugar, onto which has been dropped some water from the diluted remedy, which are then allowed to dry out. I haven't actually heard any homeopaths explain how this is meant to work. Presumably the sugar retains the memory of the memory of water? Whatever the mechanism of action, it is apparently imperative for the effectiveness of the pillules that they do not come into contact with the hands, as the acids or other impurities on the skin are alleged to inhibit the remedy.

    Hahnemann's theory of diesease, is that disorders are caused by something called Miasms, which are often described as a "peculiar morbid derangement of vital force". He also claims that allopathy7 fails because it treats only the symptoms of the disease, while failing to address the miasms that are the root cause. Homeopathic remedies however are believed to go deeper and address these miasms directly. It is this belief that causes many homeopaths today to continue using phrases like "it treats the disease not just the symptoms".

    And that's just about it. More than any non-homeopath ever needs to know about the principles and practice of homeopathy except for one small thing: it just doesn't work. And it's mechanism of action is implausible. OK two things. Oh and there is no scientific evidence for any of its principles. OK three things. And there is no good evidence that it is effective against any disorder. OK, among the things any non-homeopath ever needs to know are such diverse elements as: it's worthless, unbelievable and has no scientific evidence for it's principles or its efficacy8. Subsequent posts will give more detail on all of the above, in case the stupidity of it all isn't quite obvious to the reader at first glance.

    1 Incidentally, Samuel was wise to be sceptical; the proposed mechanism of action was implausible, and other treatments with similar properties did not show similar effects. the question of how quinine does what it does is still not fully resolved, however we do now have significant empirical evidence of it's effectiveness, although other more effective drugs are now available.

    2 We will deal with the logic of this reasoning in a later post.

    3 It's getting harder not to take the piss. Again these claims, which are made based on what may superficially appear similar to clinical trials, will be addressed later.

    4 A remedy prepared from diseased tissue or other matter (blood, faeces, urine, etc.) which homeopaths tell us have an action much like a vaccine but without any of the associated risks.

    5 A claim which, by the way, it is illegal to make in the UK. Which I think this lady may fall foul of were someone to report her for directing people to her website not moments after claiming homeopathy can cure cancer. Also note that she claims she has 2000 years of evidence for homeopathy.

    6 AAARRRRGH!!!!

    7 From the greek for "other feeling" or "other disease", this is Hahnemann's term for 18th/19th century mainstream medicine, which still persists today as a derogatory term for evidence-based medicine 

    8This doesn't really work does it? I'm now starting to think I should have gone with the "What has homeopathy ever done for us?" instead of the "main weapons of the homeopathic inquisition are..." Oh well it's too late now ;)

    Monday, 31 May 2010


    There's been a lot of talk in the media this year about homeopathy; most of it negative, despite the BBC's efforts to spin it back the other way in the interests of their holy grail/poison chalice of "balance". This year we've had the 1023 homeopathic "overdose" events (a public demonstration to wake the general population up to the fact that homeopathy is not like herbal medicine, but in fact has nothing in it); the publication of the Parliamentary Select Committee's Evidence Check on Homeopathy (There is no credible evidence for its efficacy or effectiveness, and the NHS should cease funding it), and a parliamentary Early Day Motion in response to it (by a crackpot MP who claimed £500 in expenses for astrology software, and thinks the government should fund research into "Medical Astrology" among other bullshit); a statement by the members of the British Medical Association that "Homeopathy is witchcraft"; the Pharmaceutical Society of Northern Ireland stating that "there is no scientific or clinical evidence base for the efficacy of homeopathic products, beyond a placebo effect", among other reports.

    When Dr Simon Singh came to speak on alternative medicines at Skeptics in the Pub Brighton (blatant plug) recently, a few of the same old invalid and disproven arguments1 for homeopathy came up during Q&A: "How come it works on animals?", "Even if it is only placebo, where's the harm?" etc. These issues, and others, come up again and again, so I thought I'd try to definitively answer all of them in a series of blog posts2. These posts are intended to be a useful resource for directing people to when they speak in defence of homeopathy so I'm going to try to keep the scorn to a minimum to avoid alienating people. We'll see how I get on :-/

    These posts will address many of the claims commonly made by homeopathic practitioners and supporters, including:
    • It's an ancient tradition (and therefore must work)
    • It's natural (and therefore is better for you)
    • It's holistic (and therefore fuck knows what?)
    • It treats the person and not the disease.
    • It worked for me!
    • Like cures like.
    • Dilution (and succussion) increase the potency of a medicine
    • Not all homeopathic remedies are in such high dilutions
    • It works a bit like a vaccine (but without the potential for side-effects)
    • It encourages the body to cure itself.
    • Sometimes it makes you get a bit worse before you get better (the "Healing Crisis")
    • Illnesses are caused by "Miasms" (disturbances in one's "vital force")
    • Water has memory (and that memory is effective at treating disease)
    • There are clinical trials demonstrating its efficacy
    • Clinical trials are an inappropriate mechanism for testing the efficacy of these "remedies" 
    • It works on babies and animals.
    • Lots of other countries use it.  
    • It doesn't do any harm.
    • It's cost effective (even if it is just a placebo)
    • It's offering patients a "choice" (even if it is just a placebo)
    • Critics of Homeopathy are in the pay of Big Pharma.
    • Conventional medicine is evil.
    ...and many more. Also on the way we'll talk about why clinical trials are set up the way they are and the nature of the placebo effect etc.

    By way of an intro, the next post will be a primer in the history and practice of homeopathy, with as little criticism as I can manage of homeopathy itself, although I may take some swipes at some of the idiocy that attends it. We'll see if I've ground my teeth away to nothing by the end of it, thereby possibly making them more effective ;-). In subsequent posts I'll pull apart the fallacious reasoning and dodgy thinking that went into its invention, and continue to perpetuate this massive embarrassment to the medical profession.

    1 Ben Goldacre calls these "Zombie Arguments" because they "survive, immortal and resistant to all refutation, because they do not live or die by the normal standards of mortal arguments." or in other words no matter how many times you kill them, they just will not fucking die.

    2 Actually, originally it was going to be one post, but it quickly became clear that a single post with all the detail I want to put in would be somewhat unwieldy.

    Friday, 21 May 2010

    Desirism - A worked example?

    Prompted by this idiocy, I started pondering about the issue of abortion and I thought maybe a worked example how desirism might help us make moral decisions would be greatly aid my comprehension of it.

    With that in mind, would it be possible to explain how we might decide:

    • Whether to abort a foetus when the life of the mother is threatened?
    • At what age it might be ethical to do so if the foetus was not threatening the life of the mother.?

    Sunday, 9 May 2010

    Desirism - an interlude.

    Martin's most recent post "Letters to a lapsed Pagan III" in response to my "Desirism II" has been up a little while.
     Apologies for the delay in response but I'm busy with lots of other stuff, and still cogitating on what Martin is telling me. I've also been reading some more of Sam Harris' output on morality (this article among them) and trying to work out why it is I agree with almost everything Harris says, and find myself resisting, and even struggling to understand, some of the things Martin says. I suspect some considerable confirmation bias is involved. :-/
    When my brain has sorted itself out enough to ask more questions, I'll post again.

    Friday, 7 May 2010

    What Caroline Lucas' blog said.

    The following article went missing from Caroline Lucas' blog in Feb, and when asked she denied all knowledge of it. It's also now expired from Google's cache, but luckily I took a copy first. Although the Greens as a party have a little change of heart over alternative medicines, it's worth remembering what their leader, who as of this morning is the MP for Brighton Pavilion, believes (or at least professed to believe last year).

    Complementary therapies - Greens ahead of the game on health (again)

    31 May 2009
    It was interesting to see last week the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence - commonly known as NICE - recommending patients with persistent back pain be offered complementary therapies on the NHS.
    Going against the grain, the watchdog took a brave decision in endorsing acupuncture, massages and other exercises for treating this common condition.
    When you consider that some £1.5 million is spent each year on treating back pain, and that this initiative could actually save money - by reducing reliance on other techniques - I believe it makes complete sense.
    Whilst the best treatment programmes probably dip into both conventional and alternative medicine (reliance on alternative alone would probably be unwise) the Green Party has been way ahead of the game for years in advocating this greater integration of complementary and alternative medicines into NHS services.
    Here in Brighton we are lucky to be served by an excellent network of complementary and alternative medicine practicioners.
    The Green Party would fully integrate their services and expertise into NHS treatment plans, not only improving patient choices but helping to boost this important sector of the local economy.
    Complementary and alternative medicine may be written off by drug companies and other sceptics as "mumbo jumbo" medicine, but recent evidence strongly contradicts such claims.
    A little reported year-long pilot scheme in Northern Ireland recently found complementary and alternative medicine offers significant health improvements to NHS patients.
    After receiving a range of such treatments on referral from their GP, 81% of patients reported an improvement in physical health and 79% in mental health.
    The majority, 84%, directly linked improvements in their health and wellbeing to the alternative treatments they had received. 94% said they would recommend it to others with a similar condition.
    Therapies offered included acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, homeopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy administered by local practitioners.
    The scheme was the brainchild of the excellent social enterprise Get Well UK ( ) which campaigns to improve access to complementary therapy on the public health service.
    The study backs up our own findings: people we talk to time and again say they want to be offered complimentary medicines, either on their own or in combination with other treatments. They want the choice.
    But choice is not something easily associated with Labour's current record on health.
    They're selling hospitals and health care services to private companies which actually costs tax payers more money, and reduces the ability of clinical staff to provide good health care.
    The supposed promotion of choice offered by this ill-lanned sell off does little to ensure that efficient - and effective - health care is provided locally and actually limits the options available to many people.
    The reversal of this healthcare privatisation is a key priority for the Green Party - and a major focus of our current manifesto pledge ( )
    We want to give people their choice back.

    Sunday, 25 April 2010

    Desirism II

    Martin's second post in our discussion on desirism, in which he tries to explain desirism to me further is up.

    I think it's becoming a little clearer to me, but one of the problems with me trying to get my head around all this stuff is that I lack a succinct definition that I can begin to ask questions about. There is so much information in your posts that I struggle to see the wood for trees and can't pick out the crux of what it is all about. So I think I'd like to take you up on your offer of a short description of the basic principles or desirism. A single paragraph or around five bullets, would be sufficient I think. Try to imagine what the opening intro paragraph of a Wikipedia article about it might say. If you wish to further embellish or offer definitions after that, that's fine, but I'm looking for concise here; a rock on which I can anchor my flailing thoughts about the topic.

    I do have a few questions though, from what has already been said:
    1. Since Desirism is sometimes called Desire Utilitarianism, does it agree that it is the outcome of an action that is important when determining its moral status and that an increase in the wellbeing, or reduction of suffering of sentient creatures, is the goal of moral actions?
      • Does Desirim dictate that there is a right thing to do in any given situation, regardless of the culture in which it is taken? Are there, as Sam Harris contends, "many peaks on the moral landscape", or is there one rule for all?
      • Are there grades of right and wrong rather than a binary decision?
      • Does Desirism resolve the ought-is problem, or does it have nothing to say about this and just work from the principle that we ought to be moral and only concern itself with the "how" rather than the "why"? 
      Sorry to throw the ball back into your court so strongly, but since the object of this discussion is for me to understand your position, I feel it is justified.

      Thursday, 22 April 2010

      If it ducks like a quack...

      When I was starting up the Brighton Skeptics in the Pub, I invited MEP, Brighton MP candidate and Green Party leader Caroline Lucas to come and speak in defence of the party's ludicrous health policies. These policies included a glowing endorsement of all alternative medicines, and the promise to ensure that, in particular, homeopathy and herbal medicine would not be subjected to same regulation and evidential claims as other medicines.
      Here's a few choice bits:
      HE300 Health services must be effective, efficient, comprehensive, accountable and equally available to all. Effective health services will deploy a broad range of interventions, operative at many levels: pharmaceuticals, surgery, psychological therapies, complementary and alternative medicine, and community and social interventions will be used where appropriate. All services will be available without charge at the time of need. 
      HE317 When assessing the degree of control required over the availability of medicines, a balance must be reached between the right of the individual to freedom of choice, and the duty of society to protect the individual from the consequences of unwise choices. We are concerned to protect users from unanticipated adverse effects of novel pharmaceutical compounds, some of which may not be evident until the drug has been in use for many years. The Green Party proposes the founding of a regulatory agency with responsibility for natural medicines, including nutritional supplements, medicinal plants and herbal remedies, essential oils and homeopathic remedies. This agency should be founded on the principles of:
      1. Freedom of information and full labelling of ingredients.
      2. High standards of safety in production methods.
      3. No animal testing.
      4. Strong encouragement towards organic production.
      5. A ban on GM ingredients.
      However when the drugs have been in use for many generations, as with many natural medicines, the need for statutory control is diminished. Measures will therefore be taken to protect the availability of established herbal and homeopathic remedies, subject to basic safeguards.
      There's also some rubbish about amalgam fillings being evil, but we won't go into that here.

      Lucas has also personally endorsed CAM on her blog. Again, in case google's cache expires, here's some choice pieces.
      ....the best treatment programmes probably dip into both conventional and alternative medicine (reliance on alternative alone would probably be unwise) the Green Party has been way ahead of the game for years in advocating this greater integration of complementary and alternative medicines into NHS services.
      Here in Brighton we are lucky to be served by an excellent network of complementary and alternative medicine practicioners.(sic)
      The Green Party would fully integrate their services and expertise into NHS treatment plans, not only improving patient choices but helping to boost this important sector of the local economy.
      Complementary and alternative medicine may be written off by drug companies and other sceptics as "mumbo jumbo" medicine, but recent evidence strongly contradicts such claims.
      Therapies offered included acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, homeopathy, reflexology and aromatherapy administered by local practitioners. 
      Leaving aside the truth or falsehood of these claims for a moment, except to say that there is no good evidence that most of the mentioned treatments are good for much at all, what is most interesting is that all these references are now expunged from the websites they were once on. The party as a whole seems to have had a bit of an about-face on the topic, as is evidenced by this post by a pro-evidence green party blogger. They have abandoned the idea that anything will be exempt from regulation, and that any treatments are above needing to have evidence for their efficacy. Now of course we know what some people regard as sufficient evidence (fuck-all in many cases) so while this is encouraging, it doesn't exactly fill me with confidence. You see, I and a few of my sceptical friends, have strong sympathies with the Green Party's ethos, just not with certain specific policies. The problem really is that if they can't be trusted to seek out genuine evidence in the arena of medicine, it doesn't bode well for their ability to find proper scientific solutions to climate-change. I for one don't want to be betting the future of life on this planet on Chakras, chanting and dream-catchers.
      However, this just wasn't concrete enough for me. I wanted some statement from the party, not just a quiet removal of some idiotic statements. I need something that says "The Green Party, due to an examination of the evidence, have abandoned their goals of promoting and integrating alternative medicine except where it can be proven to work in properly controlled trials conducted with the rigour expected in the field of evidence-based medicine" so I wrote to Dr Lucas again:

      Hi Dr Lucas MEP,

      You may remember that some months ago I invited you to speak on the  topic of the green party's policies on alternative "medicine" at the newly formed Brighton "Skeptics in the Pub" meeting. I notice that all traces of these leanings have been expunged from your blog, the  website and stated policies? Does this mark a change in the direction on this topic for the party? Or merely that you no longer wish to publicise these goals in light of the recent negative publicity toward Homeopathy and Chiropractic?  If this is a genuine change in direction, and you could provide me with a statement to this effect, I would be more than happy to spread  it around the "Skeptical" community, which I suspect may gain you a  significant number of votes, my own among them.

      I fully expected to be ignored, as I had been the first time, so much to my surprise after 5 days I received this:

      Dear Tim,

      Thank you for your email. The offices here are exceptionally busy, so this  reply is simply to acknowledge receipt of your message and let you know that a full response will be sent as soon as possible.

      Kind regards,

      Cath Miller
      Constituency Coordinator and Researcher
      Office of Dr Caroline Lucas
      Green Party MEP for SE England
       Blimey, maybe I'd got her all wrong? Then, only 3 days later:

      Dear Tim,

      Thank you for your email, which Caroline has asked me to respond to on her  behalf.

      Neither she nor I quite understand what you mean when you state that all mention of alternative medicine and therapies have been removed from Caroline's website. Her blog on the MEP site was suspended recently for practical reasons but all past entries are available via the search option. Also, the only changes to the Green Party's policy website will be those that reflect the result of conference votes by members. I can tell you that our General Election manifesto contains a commitment to ensure that complementary medicines that are cost-effective and have been shown to work are made available on the NHS. Our supporting policy documents say that appropriate methods of assessment will be developed for both synthetic pharmaceuticals and natural medicines, involving practitioners expert in their respective uses. We want to make sure this process is driven by clinical need rather than either political or commercial influence and will also regulate all alternative healthcare practitioners.
      I hope that helps and thank you again for getting in touch.

      Kind regards,

      Cath Miller
      Constituency Coordinator and Researcher
      Office of Dr Caroline Lucas
      Green Party MEP for SE England
       So, we're left with a few possibilities; either:
      1. Dr Lucas and her coordinator do not know that the blog article in question has been removed from her website, or that the quack policies have gone.
      2. She is aware of the above and wants to cover it up, and was unaware that we could still read it on Google cache.
      I don't really like either of these options. My trepidation is further compounded by the fact that their new policy says this:

      H326 The safety and regulation of medicines will be controlled by a single agency. This agency will ensure that medicines meet minimum safety standards, provide clear labelling of both ingredients and side-effects. The agency will cover existing synthetic medicines as well as those considered as natural or alternative medicines.

      HE327 We shall improve the protection provided under the law to users of medicines. Prescribed and over-the-counter medicines will be monitored more rigorously with regard to both efficacy and toxicity. Appropriate methods of assessment will be developed for both synthetic pharmaceuticals and natural medicines, involving practitioners expert in their respective uses. Assessment will not be dependent on commercial interest in production. All information gathered during the process of assessment and licensing shall be publicly available.
      It is abundantly obvious that even "expert" CAM practitioners are in no position to judge the efficacy of their "remedies" or "therapies", since they believe that they work at all. This doesn't look like an about face; it looks like a cover-up.

      Tuesday, 20 April 2010

      WTF is Morality?

      Matin's reply to my "WTF is desirism" is up here.

      There's few terms I'm unfamiliar with in there and a ton of references, so I may be some time reading before I do another post on this topic.

      Saturday, 17 April 2010

      WTF is desirism?

      A little while ago on Facebook, fellow skeptic Martin Freedman posted a link to a quiz that was meant to tell you how "consistent" your moral philosophy is, based on a handful of trolleyology questions. We both came out as 100% consistent for different reasons. I killed the one man to save the many every time (note that the transplant dilemma was not one of the questions asked), as Martin pointed out "like a good utilitarian should", but mentioned that he himself did not as he favoured a philosophy called "Desirism" I hadn't heard the term before, and Wikipedia was no help. Martin helpfully provided references but most of if seemed to be to be too detailed or not pitched at the right level for me, so I struggled to get my head around the concepts.
      After a round of comments on one of Martin's posts defending desirism from an attacker we decided that we'd have a public exchange about it, so that he could explain it to me, and perhaps in the process explain it to others.

      Firstly we thought, by way of introduction, we should explain why we are interested in ethics and morality. Perhaps least importantly, and as should be obvious from my other posts, I utterly reject the idea that what is moral is dictated by some Deity and that it is handed down to us in a holy book, which may need interpretation by a priesthood. For hundreds of years the morality espoused by the big three Abrahamic religions has lagged behind that of the general population. Those books may have been relevant in their time, though I'm not even convinced of that, but they are an anachronism now. As Bertrand Russell said "the moral objection [to religion] is that religious precepts date from a time when men were more cruel than they are and therefore tend to perpetuate inhumanities which the moral conscience of the age would otherwise outgrow." Even now, most of the major religions count homophobia and misogyny among their many faults, though they perceive them as virtues, not to mention the one that seems to think condom use and abortion are worse sins than child-rape and its subsequent cover-up.

      So with religion out of the equation what do we have left? How do we make moral decisions? Some religious persons will tell you that without a god there is no reason for atheists to be good. Well, it appears that natural selection has built at least a rudimentary grasp of morality into us. Compassion and empathy of a sort manifest at a very young age, and are also present in some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. These tendencies are strongly influenced by society as we grow, but the building blocks of our morality are apparently innate. The problem here is that the rules that evolution has given us were "designed" by that blind watchmaker to cope with the tribal life of early hominids, and have not kept pace well with the acceleration of change in the way we live our lives that has happened over the last ten thousand years or so. Rules of thumb that helped us propagate our genes by giving aid to those who are likely to share them do not scale up well to the global economy; they barely scale up to the complex nature of our own local social interactions. How can we tell if banning burkhas is a bad thing? If homophobic B&B owners have the right to refuse services to homosexuals? If starting a war against an oppressive and mass-murdering regime in a foreign country is the right thing to do? Our intuition, borne of evolution and coloured by our culture, no longer serves us well. How do we know if our instincts are "right"? Especially since many other people's instincts are different? Just because something is some way in human-nature, does not mean that this is how things ought to be, that is the naturalistic fallacy at work. Just how do we resolve these dilemmas?

      I've read a little of what various philosophers and other thinkers have to say on the subject of morality, and currently favour a variety of modified utilitarianism. Utilitarianism asserts that the moral worth of an action is determined by its utility, which is to say how much the results of that action increase the sum of happiness among all sentient beings.
      My reason for adopting a utilitarian view essentially goes something like this:
      • I know that I can suffer.
      • I assume that others are also capable of suffering (it certainly appears that they are).
      • The (apparent) suffering of others causes me suffering. 
      • I would prefer that others do not inflict suffering on me.
      • Others are less likely to inflict suffering on me, or on others who may subsequently inflict suffering on me, if I do not do so to them.
      • It therefore works in my favour, and everyone else's, for me to try to minimise the suffering of as many others as possible.
      In summary, it makes me feel good to be good, and what constitutes "good" is minimising suffering, and thereby maximising the pleasure/happiness/wellbeing of as many sentient beings as possible. It's a bit more complicated than that, but that gets the main point across. Some, particularly the religious, might say that this a selfish way of looking at morality, and to an extent they may be right, but Darwin and Dawkins have taught us that selfishness is in the root of our morality, in reciprocal altruism (you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours) and kin-selection (advanced-nepotism). And in any case, someone who is only good because of the promise of eternity in paradise or threat of eternity in torment is in no position to criticise.

      This still leaves me with a problem. How do I, in a world where the information available to me is often incomplete and imperfect, and all the results of my actions cannot be accurately predicted, decide which actions will minimise the suffering for the most sentient beings? Well, largely, like most people, I wing it. I make decisions based on the best information I have; if I don't think I have enough I seek more until I either have all that's available or I think I have enough, or the effort I would have to expend to get more goes beyond what I'm prepared to invest. I guess you could call it "guided intuition". Several people have tried to propose mathematical models for calculating or approximating the balance of  suffering/happiness, but they are all so far (IMHO) flawed.

      So then I hear of Desirism, apparently also sometimes called "Desire Utilitarianism" which, if I've understood it correctly, seems to want to offer an answer to this problem by approximating a method of minimising suffering and maximising wellbeing, with a rule of thumb that says we should foster behaviours that will, in most situations, fulfil the desires of the maximum number of people. Therefore we don't have to do complicated maths or reasoning every time we want to make a decision, we just have to do it for a set of given hypothetical situations, and then run our life by those rules, re-evaluating them as new evidence comes along.

      I have my doubts about it, which may simply be down to my lack of grasp of the theory, but before I express them, I'll hand over to Martin to tell me what Desirism is in his own words.

      Thursday, 4 March 2010

      Letter to Celia re: EDM 908

      David Tredinnick MP, he of the appeal to fund research into Medical Astrology (I shit you not) has created Early Day Motion 908 in which he calls on MPs to offer their support for homeopathy against the recent parliamentary select committee report that called for its withdrawal.
      My MP signed it, so I wrote her a little letter. I encourage you to do similar if your MP's name should appear on the list.

      Dear Ms Barlow MP,
      I am writing to express my disappointment that you have signed this early day motion in support of homeopathy.

      I believe a quick dissection of the EDM is in order.

      EDM: That this House expresses concern at the conclusions of the Science and Technology Committee's Report, Evidence Check on Homeopathy; notes that the Committee took only oral evidence from a limited number of witnesses, including known critics of homeopathy Tracy Brown, the Managing Director of Sense About Science, and journalist Dr Ben Goldacre, who have no expertise in the subject;

      Response: This is untrue. Ben Goldacre is a medical doctor who works for the NHS and is fully conversant with what is required for medicines to be considered effective, and Tracy Brown heads the Sense About Science organisation and has considerable knowledge of the legislation in this area and the science surrounding the issue. It should be noted that one does not need to be an expert in the behaviour of fairies to know that fairies do not exist; the absence of evidence for fairies should be enough. Additionally, evidence was heard from many other parties including representatives of pro-homeopathy groups such as the head of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital, and a representative from the association of homeopathic manufacturers, all of  whom failed to offer any credible evidence. The Society of Homeopaths were not asked to give verbal evidence because the written report they submitted did not contain any written evidence, merely an appeal that homeopathy should not be subject to the same evidential criteria as conventional medicine. Additionally professor Edzard Ernst, formerly a practitioner of homeopathic "medicine" and a current professor of complementary medicine, presented his evidence that demonstrates conclusively that homeopathy has no effect beyond the placebo.

      EDM: believes that evidence should have been heard from primary care trusts that commission homeopathy, doctors who use it in a primary care setting, and other relevant organisations, such as the Society of Homeopaths, to provide balance;

      Response: Evidence was taken from the only PCT to have investigated this area. West Kent determined that there was little or no evidence to support its funding and has therefore withdrawn it. Additionally, anecdotal evidence from anyone, including doctors, is no substitute for properly controlled trials which the homeopaths have completely failed to produce. Even ten-thousand people claiming to have cured people with it would be insufficient. "The plural of anecdote is not data."

      EDM: observes that the Committee did not consider evidence from abroad from countries such as France and Germany, where provision of homeopathy is far more widespread than in the UK, or from India, where it is part of the health service;

      Response: that France, Germany and India have failed to adequately investigate the evidence for homeopathy, or failed to act appropriately on said evidence is neither here nor there. If genuine evidence was available from any country, the homeopaths surely would have provided it in their written submissions?

      EDM: regrets that the Committee ignored the 74 randomised controlled trials comparing homeopathy with placebo, of which 63 showed homeopathic treatments were effective, and that the Committee recommends no further research;

      Response: This is quite simply untrue. Meta analysis and systematic review of ALL of the studies available were considered. The data shows that studies that are methodologically flawed (improperly blinded or randomised etc.) do tend to show some effect for homeopathy, but those that are properly controlled show none beyond the placebo. There is a clear correlation between properly methodologically conducted trials and the inefficacy of homeopathy. Given the extent of the evidence against it, further research in this area would be a waste of public money.

      EDM: further notes that 206 hon. Members signed Early Day Motion No. 1240 in support of NHS homeopathic hospitals in Session 2006-07;

      Response: That 206 MPs were hoodwinked 4 years ago, before the evidence was presented, should have no bearing here.

      EDM: and calls on the Government to maintain its policy of allowing decision-making on individual clinical interventions, including homeopathy, to remain in the hands of local NHS service providers and practitioners who are best placed to know their community's needs.

      Response: The evidence is in; homeopathy does not work, it's continued provision must be viewed as either ignorance or deception. Local NHS services should not need to conduct these investigations themselves at further cost to the nation. It is high time this quackery was removed from the NHS list of services, if not banned altogether. Much is made of patient "Choice" on the NHS, however an uninformed choice is no choice at all. In order to provide adequate choice, patients must be informed of the inefficacy of homeopathy before they are offered it. Since homeopathy "works" by placebo only, this would negate any point providing such a service. Either homeopathy works (it doesn't) or it can be knowingly provided as a placebo, thus lying to patients, or it should be removed. Homeopaths are steeped in pseudo-science and unproven principles (like-cures-like, dilution and succussion increases potency, etc.) and are therefore inadequately equipped to deliver evidence-based medical care. If placebo treatments must be offered on the NHS for certain conditions that do not respond well to conventional treatments, and in opposition to the principle of informed choice, they should at least be done so knowingly by persons medically trained. This would at least ensure that conditions requiring genuine medical care do not go untreated. It would also allow the placebos to be prescribed in a way that does not give undue credibility to unsatisfactorily regulated quacks who discourage patients from seeking genuine medical care when it is required, as many homeopaths have been shown to do. Of course most persons medically trained would view it as a violation of their ethics to practice the deception required prescribe placebos to their patients. Some doctors it seems, while unable to prescribe placebo themselves, are happy to refer patients to homeopaths who will unwittingly do their dirty work for them. In my opinion this should not be allowed to continue.

      It should also be noted that the proposer of the EDM, David Tredinnick, recently expressed his opinion in the house that funding should be given to "medical astrology". If that wasn't enough to ring alarm-bells about his ability to form cogent opinions on the topic of medicine, I don't know what is. In my opinion it ought to be enough to have him removed from his position on grounds of insanity.

      I call on you to withdraw your support for this motion. If the brief summary I have given here is insufficient to convince you, I am happy elaborate further. I would recommend reading "Trick or Treatment" by professor Edzard Ernst and Simon Singh. Dr Singh will be speaking in Brighton on July 11th at a meeting of the local "Skeptics in the Pub" group on the topic of alternative medicine. This event is sold out, but if you wish to attend please let me know and I will arrange it.

      Yours Sincerely,
      Mr T. McGregor BSc (hons) CEng MBCS CITP

      P.S. on previous occasions I have written asking you to give your support to early day motions and you have indicated that were unable to do so due to your role in government. I assume this situation has now changed?

      Sunday, 14 February 2010

      And on the 7th day, he blogged.

      It's late, so I'm only doing three today.

      3. Of course the religious have a clearer moral code than secularists.
      Like fuck! It might be clearer, but clearer != better. A.C Grayling annihilates Cherie Blair and her apologists.

      2. Traditional Chinese Herbal Medicine Kills
      Woman's treatment for spots causes kidney failure and cancer. But apparently herbal medicine can't hurt you, becuase it's "natural"

      1. Anne Widdicombe talks shite about the 10 commandments.
      This program is so embarrassing I almost can't believe she allowed it to go on the air. When I watched it, they showed an advert for solutions to erectile dysfunction before the program. After 45 minutes looking at that harridan, I ordered some.
      The Heresiarch pulls it apart

      Sunday, 7 February 2010

      The week in bullshit?

      Brooker's already got "The Week in Bullshit" as a regular slot on his show, so I need a new name. Anyone got any ideas? "Weekly wank-round?" Also need theme music. So everyone hum Led Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love in TOTP style while you're reading.

      Anyway, here's my favourite idiocy-related stories from this week:

      5. UK taxpayer to pay £200 million for visit of homophobic, misogynistic bigot who thinks our equality laws fly in the face of some non-existant "natural law".
      He's a cunt, vote against him here.
      Laugh at some parodies here and here.

      4. Cherie Blair let's a guy off jail sentence because he's religious
      Apparently being religious means violence is OK. Daily Mash strike back.

      3. Tories given ticking off about their bullshit violent-crime statistics
      Here's the original article explaining why they're bullshit

      2. MMR scare doctor found to have acted dishonestly and irresponsibly.
      Like we didn't know that already. He'll likely be found guilty of serious professional misconduct too. The Lancet finally fully withdraws the bullshit paper he was probably paid to produce, and yet still some parents would still rather risk the death or blindness of their babies than give them a proven vaccine, despite there being no genuine evidence against it.

      1. Scientologists practice "Touch-Healing" in Haiti before going home in disgrace.

      Monday, 1 February 2010

      We've got no poison; we've got a "remedy"

      On Sat 30th Jan 2010, I led the small but perfectly formed Brighton 1023 : Homoeopathic "overdose" event. We only had a few people as I only had a couple of weeks to put it together while the other groups had been planning for months. But we made the video and had a few laughs before and in the pub after.
      Before that, at the previously unheard of hour of 8 O'clock on a Saturday morning, I had a brief appearance on BBC Radio Sussex. In the interests of the much vaunted BBC "balance", they had arranged for a practising water-wizard (and graduate microbiologist!) Trevor Gunn to come and oppose me.
      Here's the link on Listen Again if you're interested, although I don't know how long those things stay up. I'm on at around 2:14.45
      Firstly let me say that Trevor seemed like a very nice guy, as many homoeopaths are; a pleasant persona really helps the placebo effect along nicely. Plus they usually genuinely care about the health and wellbeing of the people under their misguided care. So I'm not intending this as a character assassination on Trevor, but some criticism is inevitable. Also props to him for keeping his cool since I was essentially suggesting that his whole profession is built on lies and/or idiocy.
      One point he made, which had also been stated by several other homoeopaths in the press this week, was that the "overdose" wouldn't prove anything because homoeopathy is a very individual thing and it was likely that none of us would be susceptible, or somesuch trite weaselly nonsense. Trevor made an analogy with teasing a room full of people with a peanut allergy by eating handfuls of peanuts and saying "look it doesn't do anything to me!". Unfortunately this analogy is flawed and the argument as a whole even flies in the face of one of the things that homoeopaths themselves claim about the mechanism of action for their "remedies"
      When Samuel Hahnemann pulled the idea for homoeopathy out of his arse in the late 18th century, he did so on the basis that taking a substance that would cause a symptom in a healthy subject, would also cure that symptom in an ill subject, and vice versa. This is of course completely unproven and without any basis in science, but nonetheless it's what they claim. In fact, the very mechanism that these dilution-druids use to establish what each remedy is useful for is based on this principle. Hahnemann came to this "realisation" after he consumed doses of of cinchona bark (a source of quinine, and treatment for malaria) and then experienced some of the symptoms of malaria. Here we see our old favourite fallacy "post hoc ergo propter hoc" come visiting again, along with a spectacular "Illicit Conversion". Coincidentally, the symptoms Hahnemann experienced after taking his cinchona could also be interpreted as the symptoms of stress and anxiety; draw from that what you will.
      The inaptly named "provings" (from the German "Prüfung" meaning "test" or "exam") is a method where a homoeopathic "remedy" is given to healthy subjects, Hahnemann having had a rare moment of clarity and realised that symptoms of other diseases could confound the results, and their health is monitored to note any symptoms that might occur. Hahnemann recommended the use of a 30c* "potency" in "provings", the same "potency" used by everyone taking part in the 1023 event, and these ultra-dilutions are still most commonly used in "provings" today. Interestingly "provings" do often include a control group, and sometimes today the tests are even "double-blinded". Blinding is where the person concerned is unaware of whether the treatment being given is a placebo or not. In single blinding, the patient does not know; in double-blinding the therapists do not know either, thus preventing them from giving clues, unconscious or otherwise, to the patient which may cause them to respond differently to the treatment. So this at least is a step in the right direction, but of course with homoeopathy both groups are actually receiving only placebo.
      Unfortunately there remains one problem with this method, and it is that the symptoms under examination are decided upon after the testing is complete. Note that this is not just that statistical analysis is performed after the results are in, as in genuine clinical trials, but that what is being looked for isn't decided until after the data is available. In genuine clinical trials it is regarded as suspect if a proposed medicine is tested for a particular condition and after the fact the statistics show that it seemed to have an effect on some other condition that was not the original focus of the trial. In these circumstances there is a good chance that the apparent pattern is simply down to chance or over-interpretation of the results. As is beautifully demonstrated by the Bible Code nonsense (check this out, for Simon Singh's amusing debunking of the Bible Codes), if you look at a large enough dataset for long enough, seemingly meaningful, but ultimately meaningless, patterns seem to emerge. Erroneous results of this kind have caused some physicians to call for all trials to declare their aims and describe their protocol before the trial begins. This would also assist with eliminating another confounding factor in medical trials called Publication Bias. It is true that some medicines have been found to be effective for other conditions because of these apparent anomalies, but the effectiveness for that condition can only be determined after further studies looking specifically for that effect, thus eliminating the possibility that the original result was down to chance alone. Essentially what happens here is that whatever symptoms the treatment group coincidentally experience in greater amounts than the control group is assumed to be what that treatment will be effective for. Of course which statistics the experimenters pick from the data will be guided by all the cognitive biases that the genuine clinical trials are designed to guard against.
      Bottom line is, "provings" are bunk-science, spectacular examples of Post Hoc reasoning, and have about about as much relation to real science as the mock landing-strips of the cargo cultists have to real military airfields. This exercise in hydromancy proves nothing. Homoeopaths also claim that dilution and succussion** increase the potency of the substance. If provings were any kind of proof, then you would expect a significant portion of last Saturday's "Overdosers" to fall ill with the symptoms of arsenic poisoning. It's been two days now and as far as I know everyone is still fine.

      P.S. this first post in a year or so, resurrecting this blog marks a slight change in direction away from criticism of religion alone, and a turn towards my thoughts on all kinds of bullshit. Religion is unlikely to get off lightly, but it's no longer going to be the sole focus of the blog.

      *A 30c "potency" let's not forget is about the same a one molecule of active ingredient in a sphere of water with the same diameter as the distance from the earth to the sun. There is a statistically negligible chance that there is even a single molecule of the active ingredient in a given "remedy". Homoeopaths claim that the water somehow retains a memory of the substance it once contained and that this memory is enough to effect a cure. There is no credible evidence for either of these leaps of faulty reasoning. It's also worth remembering that with the pillules as sold by Boots, a drop of this water is applied to some sugar pills, and then allowed to dry out, so the water is not even present anymore. So, now we are relying on the power of sugar to remember the power of water to remember some substance that causes the same symptoms we are trying to cure. I would say that you just can't make this shit up; except of course that someone did.
      **Banging the bottles of water on a pad made of leather and horsehair to simulate the "effect" of Hahnemann's transportation of his remedies on horseback. I shit you not!