Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Gid(eon) Delusion

Can we? Please?
If The RDFRS published these at a reasonable price, I think I'd buy about 10 a year and drop them in various hotel rooms.

*Update : Having just read a little about Gideon Bibles and their colour coding, it seems that I have accidentally created a copy of the God Delusion destined for distribution to the law-enforcement community. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Tell the homeopaths why we object.

Some homeopaths would like to find out why we're complaining about them, and what Sense About Science and the Nightingale Collaboration have got against them.

They say:
Homeopathy as a profession is under attack from groups such as Sense about Science and groups such as the Nightingale Collaboration.
This Research will gauge public opinion as to the amount of information that the public and prospective patients wish to be able to access from professionally Qualified Practitioners only.
Why not go tell 'em¿

Here's my responses:

Thursday, 23 June 2011

Tragical thinking.

So, inspired by a tweet by Tim Minchin, I'm going to try to rid myself of all the traces of magical thinking. What's magical thinking you say? Essentially it's the kind of thinking that makes bogus connections between thoughts, words or actions effects in the real world, like prayer, spell-casting or, at a lesser level, superstitious beliefs like black cats being unlucky (or lucky, depending on who you listen too). Of course I don't pray, or cast spells (any more), or avoid black cats or walking under ladders, except when safety dictates, but there are traces of this kind of thinking in some of my, and most other people's, words and mannerisms, and I'm going to try get rid of them all.

So this means no more:

  • wishing people good luck
  • crossing fingers (or saying crossed-fingers) for luck or to negate bad luck
  • touching wood (fnarr fnarr)
  • saying things like "well of course it's rained, it's because I washed the car"
  • correlating weather with my failure to dress appropriately for it
  • etc.
even in jest.
    Of course most of the time when we say or do these things we're using them as a shorthand for something else, like expressing sympathy for or solidarity with a friend in fix, or exasperation with our own stupidity. I'm just going to have to find better ways of expressing those things without indulging in stupidity. The idea that thoughts or words or actions can affect reality without a non-supernatural causal link really is one of the daftest going around, so if anyone catches me saying or doing such things, please point it out.

    I don't think it's going to be easy; wish me luck! ;)

    Update: of course there's one symbol I'm not giving up, because it's too fucking awesome, and that's the sign of warding against the evil eye, AKA the rock/metal hand.

    Sunday, 15 May 2011

    Are you chronically skeptical?

    Update: The website Chronically Skeptical is now live.

    Anyone who frequents on-line forums relating to chronic illnesses will know that they are riddled with bullshit. Sufferers of chronic illness are often desperate for some form of relief, and their conditions are often cyclical, and this makes the more gullible among them easy meat for the so-called Complementary and Alternative Medicine industry. All kinds of claims are put forward as fact without the now legendary "jot of evidence", and anyone expressing skepticism is accused of trying to deny people their relief or being in the pockets of big pharma. Often the afflicted feel let down by the conventional medicine that has failed to offer them the cure they felt sure would be available. This can lead to a mistrust of doctors and scientists, when one media-sensationalised study after another turns out to be wrong, or the silver bullet they felt was on the horizon turns out to be a blank, or to have unpleasant side-effects. In addition to this many people cling to religion to help them through, and while I would not wish to deny a sufferer the small comfort that this may bring them, it does make for annoying reading when someone writes that, f'rinstance, it's been revealed her by divine inspiration that her daughter was crippled by arthritis at an early age as part of god's will to teach them both to appreciate life more.
    All this said, these forums are a valuable resource for sufferers to share their experience, learn from others who share their condition, and share some much-needed camaraderie. But for the skeptic, this experience is easily marred by the proliferation of pseudo-scientific drivel that's trotted out unchallenged on these sites.
    So what to do? Where is the resource for those who favour an evidence base for treatments and knowledge of their condition, uncoloured by god, crystal healers, homeopaths and Hopi ear-candling? Well it's about time we started one. But, I can't do it all myself, I'll need help moderating and administrating such a resource. So, if you're a skeptic, and chronic disease sufferer or partner or friend of someone who is, and you're inclined to help out with such a project, let me know. I've got server space and the know-how to set up web-sites and forums etc. but assistance with the day-to-day admin/design/rules/moderation etc. would make it much more likely to be a genuinely useful resource. So I've registered (which currently only points at this article); if you want to help out please contact me on describing the kind of help you are prepared to offer, and a little about your background and why you motivated to help.

    Sunday, 24 April 2011

    Fuck Easter reprise.

    Just went to shops to buy last-minute supplies for barbecue. All major supermarkets shut. Fucking fuck Easter and the donkey it rode in on.

    Fuck Easter!

    Well it had to happen eventually didn't it?

    To save me the trouble of too much writing and you the trouble of too much reading, Here's the bullet point outline of the post I'd write if I could be arsed.

    • Easter is bullshit.
    • Chocolate eggs are:
      1. nice
      2. fuck all to do with Jesus
    • Cute chicks, both kinds, are:
      1. nice
      2. fuck all to do with Jesus
    • Cute bunnies, both kinds (!?) are:
      1. nice
      2. Fuck all to do with Jesus
    • Easter is an appropriation of a pagan fertility celebration that has, wait for it, fuck all to do with Jesus.
    • It might be named after a Germanic fertility goddess Oestre, but the only reference for that is the writings of the "venerable" Bede, but we take his word on a lot of other shit, so why shouldn't he be right about this too?
    • Jesus knew he was coming back, little bit of torture, three days dead, live in paradise for all eternity, some fucking sacrifice.
    • Not even dead three whole days.
    • One man cannot absolve another's sins/crimes, especially one they never committed (original sin pffft)
    • Probably never happened anyway.
    • What kind of stupid god makes all this shit up?
      • Turn self into man who is own son.
      • Put son in obscure place to gather small following
      • Have son tortured killed to absolve all mankind's sins including, and perhaps most importantly,  an allegorical one that happened in a garden that never existed.
    • I would say you couldn't make this shit up, except of course that someone did.
    • Yes, we all like chocolate and hot cross buns (Pagan sun-wheels? Really? Anyone got any evidence for this claim apart from some drivel trotted out by someone called "dreaming sparrow-fart" who heard it during a "pathworking" AKA "Day-dreaming" AKA "making shit up")*
    • Enjoy the holiday.
    • mmm nice eggs.

    *MOALP is as equal opportunities offending organisation.

    Sunday, 17 April 2011

    NHS homophobic? No, it's all about risk.

    I was prompted to write this by an exchange on Facebook that contained several misleading statements about why the National Blood Service won't accept blood from homosexual men (Oh no, someone is wrong on the internet!). It started with the status update:
    Fucking van drove by "NHS: Please Give Blood"
    If you'd fucking take it, maybe I would, you bigoted, closed-minded twatheads!
    This on its own wouldn't have prompted a blog post, I can appreciate the frustration that must be felt by someone who wants to perform what they perceive to be civic duty but are denied the opportunity for what seems, to them, like unfair reasons. I may disagree that they are unfair reasons, but can understand the frustration.
    Before I start with what annoyed me about the subsequent discussion, let me declare a bias; this is a somewhat emotive topic for me having watched my brother and his life-partner and suffer an array of illnesses for years and then die a slow lingering death from AIDS related illnesses in the early nineties. While the excellent staff at the The Sussex Beacon cared for John in his final months, I was told several anecdotes about homosexual behaviours that were leading to the spread of HIV. I won't relate them here as they are just that, anecdotes, and therefore only peripherally useful in any discussion about how HIV is transmitted. Plus they are twenty years out of date, and you have to hope that if the stories I was told (by gay people) of repeated acts of unprotected anal sex with random partners of unknown sexual history were true, that the gay community has responded in some way to mitigate this now. However, one thing that will not help the process of minimising the suffering caused by HIV/AIDS and AIDS related illnesses is misinformation about the manners and mechanisms in which HIV is spread and the risk factors involved, so I can get very annoyed when in response to statements like:
    To be honest, for 'men who have sex with men' it's more risky, that's just a fact unfortunately, not a matter of prejudice.
    I see people write things like:
    So that explains why the fastest growing HIV infection rates are amongst the straight community who are freely allowed to give blood?
    or in response to :
    Is it not more likely down to risk assessment than bigotry?
    Statements like this:
    No - the questionnaire doesn't address risk behaviours; have you had sex with a man since 197something? Banned - shagged a female whore without condom last night? No one asks ...
    And slightly less annoying but quite interesting is:
    It's a homophobic policy based on homophobic assumptions. Rigorous tests are carried out on donated blood. A ban when someone who's heterosexual could just as well be carrying the HIV virus reinforces prejudice.
    I think we have a number of closely related questions here:
    1. Is Male/Male sex more likely to transmit the HIV virus? And as a consequence are men who have sex with men (commonly referred to as MSM) more likely to be carrying it?
    2. Is HIV incidence really rising faster among heterosexuals than among homosexual men in the UK? And if so what is the cause?
    3. Since it is all rigorously tested before use, why are we concerned about the potential for HIV to be present in the blood anyway?
    4. Is the lifetime ban on giving blood motivated by fact or simple homophobia?
    Fortunately, one thing that didn't come up is the denial that HIV causes AIDS. No one reading this blog or who is a friend of any of my friends believes that particular regrettably oft-repeated piece of bullshit do they? No? Good; then we can proceed.

    Q1. Is Male to Male sex more likely to transmit the HIV virus? And as a consequence, in the UK, are men who have sex with men (commonly referred to as MSM) more likely to be carrying it?

    A1. Yes. Yes they are.

    Oh you need more than that? OK.
    The HIV virus is transmitted through bodily fluids. It cannot live for long outside the body, and therefore needs to get into the body either directly into the bloodstream through a wound or in an injection, or through the mucous membranes, which are delicate tissues found in the mouth, nose, eyes, ears, vagina, urethra and anus. Since I've not heard of a lot of nasal, aural or ocular sex, hetero or homo, I think we can safely forget about those, and concentrate on those in the more fun orifices. The primary difference we concerned with here is the difference between vaginal and anal intercourse; from International HIV/AIDS charity Avert's FAQ:
    Unprotected anal intercourse does carry a higher risk than most other forms of sexual activity. The lining of the rectum has fewer cells than that of the vagina, and therefore can be damaged more easily, causing bleeding during intercourse. This can then be a route into the bloodstream for infected sexual fluids or blood. There is also a risk to the insertive partner during anal intercourse, though this is lower than the risk to the receptive partner.

    Check out these stats from Avert. Let's focus on the Pie Chart at the top for now.
    This chart shows the transmission method for all diagnosed cases of HIV in the UK up to 2010. It shows that for all sexually-transmitted cases of HIV, it's around about half-and-half homo/hetero, with a slight bias toward the straight. Superficially, this might be unexpected if, as most of us have, you've been exposed to information that suggests that HIV is more prevalent among homosexuals. However we need to think a bit harder. These figures are absolute numbers, and are therefore not proportional to the to the numbers of people that fall into those groups. Estimates of the percentage of people who are homosexual vary from about 3-10% of the population. For the sake of argument, we'll use the 10% figure.
    In 2010 the total population of the UK would have been around 52,000,000, about 50/50 male/female.
    If around 10% of the male population are homosexual that gives around 2.6M  homosexual males vs 23.4M hetero males, vs. 23.4M hetero females. We shall ignore lesbians, as transmission between this group is so low as to not feature in the statistics in any significant way. Now we need the absolute figures for HIV infections, which we can again get from the Avert statistics. Sex between men: 48,748; Sex between men and women: 50,184.

    48,748 ÷ 2,600,000 ≈ 0.019 ≈ 2% of homosexual men infected with HIV.
    50,184 ÷ 46,800,000 ≈ 0.001 ≈ 0.1% of heterosexual men and women infected with HIV.

    making it twenty times more likely that a randomly selected gay man will be HIV infected than a randomly selected straight person of either gender. As it turns out, infection rates are higher among straight women than they are among straight men, so if we were to exclude women and compare gay men with straight men, this ratio would be even higher. Also, if we take a figure from the lower end of the spectrum of estimates of the proportion of gay to straight, such as 5%, this figure goes up to nearer forty times more likely even without splitting the genders.

    So, in case we didn't already know this, we've learned two things. Anal sex is more likely to transmit the HIV virus than vaginal sex, and if a donor (or sexual partner) we choose is a (randomly selected) man who has previously had MSM sex, he is at least a factor of 20 (and probably much greater) more likely to be carrying the HIV virus than a man who hasn't.

    One common response to bare assertions of the fact that anal sex among homosexuals is more likely to transmit HIV is the petulant  "Well explain why HIV infection rates are increasing faster among heterosexuals then!" as seen above, which leads us nicely to the next question, where we shall see exactly why.

    Q2. Is HIV incidence really rising faster among heterosexuals than, among homosexual men in the UK? And if so what is the cause?

    Let's go back to the data from Avert, but a bit further down the page:

    It is clear from this data, that since 1999, the infection rate has been higher, in real terms, among heterosexuals than among the MSM group. Of course this doesn't take into account the ratio of homo to heterosexual people in the population. Were we to perform similar maths (an exercise for the reader perhaps?) to that in question 1 above, we would find that, even in 2004 when the number of heterosexuals contracting HIV was around twice that of homosexuals, the rate of infection within the group is still much higher, as a percentage of the total group size, among the MSM group than among the heterosexual. Even so "where are all these new cases coming from?" is a very pertinent question, and luckily one which was answered by the Health Protection Agency in 2007. They identified that the vast majority of these new infections in heterosexuals were acquired in sub-Saharan Africa, mostly by those emigrating from Africa, and mostly by women. While the reverse is true for the MSM group where most infections were acquired in the UK. So the short answer to "Why are heterosexuals getting infected with HIV at higher rates than homosexuals then?" is a) there are more of them, and b) they are catching it in Africa. And remember this is diagnosis rates, so such a sharp increase may be due to an increase in testing among heterosexuals, either in addition to or instead of any real increase in infection rates.

    Another thing to notice is that since 2004 there's been a marked decline in hetero infection rates, this may be down to a number of factors (change in sexual practices due to increased awareness, less immigration from sub-Saharan Africa, passing the peak of cases revealed by increased testing, etc.) and while rates appear to have recently started declining slightly among the homosexual group, if current trends continue, hetero infection rates will be lower than MSM rates again in a few years.

    Q3. Since it is all rigorously tested before use, why are we concerned about the potential for HIV to be present in the blood anyway?

    Due to its small size, it is difficult to test for the presence of the HIV virus directly, so the most common form of HIV test, the ELISA antibody test, like the majority of HIV tests, does not directly check for the presence of the HIV Virus, but for the antibodies the immune system produces in an attempt to fight the infection. The problem here is that these antibodies are not normally detectable for 6-12 weeks after infection, and sometimes up to 6 months. So there is a "Window period" during which a person infected with HIV will pass the test with flying colours. There are other tests that can be performed, but these are either more complicated, and hence more expensive, to perform or they more often give false positives.

    Short answer: Yeah it's tested, but the tests aren't 100% effective, it's safer to remove the risk earlier.

    Q4. Is the lifetime ban on giving blood motivated by fact or simple homophobia?

    One thing to notice about the questionnaire given to those who would give blood is that the words "gay" or "homosexual" never appear anywhere. In the interests of plain language they don't use "MSM" either. What it does say is "Are you a man who has ever had oral or anal sex with a man, with or without a condom?" This is a bare statement of a behaviour that indicates a risk. It is not a judgement on a person's sexuality or lifestyle. Of course you may interpret this as being a politically correct, coded statement, when what they really want to say is "URGH keep that fucking gay blood away from me!" if you wish to indulge a persecution complex, but that is clearly not its intent if you think a little more rationally. There is a follow-up question for women: "In the last 12 months have you had sex with a man who has ever had oral or anal sex with another man, with or without a condom?". So apparently the advisory committee responsible for these decision is so homophobic it won't even allow women who have slept with a bisexual guy to give blood!
    There are several other criteria for who can give blood, despite what anyone may say. Our original poster for example was labouring under the misconception that it is fine for a straight man to have sex with a prostitute and give blood the next day. This is quite clearly not the case. You may not give blood if you have, in the last 12 months, had sex with anyone who has ever accepted money or drugs for sex. Of course this may not be clear if you were looking for the word "whore" in there somewhere ;) The questionnaire also forbids you from giving blood if: you have ever been a prostitute (even once) or have recently had sex with someone who has ever been a prostitute; you have ever been an intravenous drug-user or have recently had sex with someone who has; have had sex in an area where AIDS is common, or have had sex with someone else who has; have ever had hepatitis B or C or had sex with someone who has; recently had a tattoo, piercing or acupuncture; if you have visited somewhere where malaria is common or think you might be getting a cold. These are all, like the ban on MSM giving blood, because they indicate a high risk of the blood being contaminated with HIV or other blood-borne diseases; not out of prejudice against any of those groups, but because the risk factor of the blood being taken infecting the recipient is simply too high.

    So the last question that I think remains unanswered is why, if it's only up to 6 months that the tests are ineffective, is the is the restriction on MSM blood permanent? Rather than just 6 months or one year like the limit after having had sex with someone who's had sex with someone from Africa? According to HIV/Sexual-health charity the Terence Higgins Trust, the most recent review decided that:
    for example allowing MSM to donate if they haven’t had sex in the past year, this would still lead to the vast majority of gay men  being excluded from giving blood. The last review of the policy found that the risk to  the blood supply would rise by 60% if men were allowed to self assess based on these criteria. For this reason it was decided that a blanket ban was safer.

    Another interesting note about the above graphs, is that infection of IV Drug users is tiny in comparison to those infected via sexual contact. So why are these people excluded from giving blood? Quite simply it's because a greater proportion of those who take drugs intravenously are infected and therefore, for the same reason the MSM group is excluded, they are excluded too. It simply isn't worth the risk; it's not prejudice, but like much in medical risk-assessments, it's a numbers game. HIV/AIDS, and some other infections such hepatitis B and C, are problems that disproportionately affect those who have anal sex, and homosexual men are having most of the anal sex, and homosexual men are disproportionately likely to be carrying the HIV virus. This is not bigotry; it is fact.

    Of course anyone who wishes to deny services to gays based on these facts is bigoted arsehole, as is anyone who wishes deny services to someone who is HIV positive, beyond reasonable safety precautions,  regardless of their sexual orientation. And anyone who blames homosexuals for the spread of HIV, or tries to claim that AIDS is some kind of divine retribution for sin can just fuck off and die. But we mustn't allow the fear of being labelled as prejudiced to influence matters of public health, and so we exclude those in high-risk groups from giving blood regardless of whether any of those groups are persecuted minorities who are often the victims of bigotry or not. 

    It turns out that earlier this year, the NHS revised their rules to a more sensible 12 month ban after MSM sex, bringing it in line with the currently available science, but keeping an all important period in which contracted diseases may not be detectable. Of course this probably won't mean that many more gay men can give blood, unless they've remained celibate for 12 months.

    Further reading:

    Sunday, 6 March 2011

    If you must be religious...

    So apparently, the British Humanist Association's ads bearing the legend "If you're not religious, for God's sake say so." were, ridiculously, deemed "likely to cause widespread and serious offence". In a bid to demonstrate what adverts that may genuinely cause widespread and serious offence might look like, skeptical humorist blogger extraordinaire Crispian Jago came up with his own, and later tweeted asking for others to do the same. I thought it had to be done, so I offer you:

    Monday, 14 February 2011

    Fuck Valentine's Day

    Continuing my recent theme (laziness) and just linking to other posts instead of writing one...

    I was going to do a post about how Valentine's Day is a shit, but I can't be arsed. Instead read my Christmas post and mentally replace the word "Christmas" with "Valentine's Day". OK, so some of it doesn't really work very well, but you get the picture.

    Friday, 11 February 2011

    Osteomancy (or chiropractic and medical imaging)

    I think I spend about half my working life worrying about the potential for, and trying to minimise, the exposure of patients and healthcare practitioners to unnecessary radiation, right down to worries about amounts so small that you might conceivably expect to receive more from cosmic rays while on a transatlantic flight. So when some bright spark put up ads for a local chiropractor on all the office noticeboards showing a picture of him holding an x-ray I experienced a minor apoplexy. I was going to write a lengthy blog post about the ALARP principle and the fact the the spine-wizards freely admit that their magical "subluxations" can't be detected by conventional means, and that they're not required to have genuine medical training and so aren't qualified to detect anything that might counter-indicate their manipulations. But while googling for some references I found that Le Canard Noir had got there first. Damn him!

    Wednesday, 19 January 2011

    Another attempt to make the Soil Association see sense.

    So I received a wholly unsatisfactory response from the Soil Association to my enquiry about their recommendation of the use of homeopathy to treat farm animals. It's worth another go isn't it?
    Hi Georgia,
    Thank you very much for your response. Unfortunately it largely fails to address the points of concern in my email. While I applaud your commitment to animal welfare and all the measures you require regarding conditions the animals are kept and transported in and the prevention of habitual, unnecessary use of growth-hormones and antibiotics, homeopathy cannot be seen to be a valid part of such a practice. You speak of using alternative medicines "where these can be shown to be effective", but the standards of evidence you use to determine this must be set very low indeed in order for homeopathy to be included in any treatment regime. The opinion of any number of organic farmers or even veterinarians, based on their personal experience is not the same as data from genuine trials, it is just a collection of anecdotes, which proves nothing. The only way to genuinely prove the effectiveness of an intervention is through a properly controlled trial including subject and experimenter blinding, and a control group, the allocation to which is randomised. Such tests repeatedly demonstrate that Homeopathy is not effective for anything. If you (or Yeo Valley and their vets) have references to papers describing such studies that demonstrate the effectiveness of homeopathy for, using two examples from Yeo Valley blog, the control of flies or reducing stress in livestock, I would be very interested to read them.
    You say that the "philosophy" of homeopathy would encourage empathy or observance in stockmen; I have read fairly widely on this practice and have not come across anything that would indicate this to be the case. Perhaps you could direct me to some reference?
    The bottom line is that, as has been demonstrated by the available scientific literature, homeopathy is not an effective intervention for anything it has so far been tested for, and that enough work has been done to indicate that further testing would be a waste of time and money. If an intervention is required then an effective one should be given or this is neglect. If no intervention is required then one should not be given otherwise the price - a significant barrier to adoption by many consumers - of organic produce is needlessly driven up. The worst possible situation is where an intervention is required and an ineffective one is given, thus both neglecting the animal and driving up the price of produce. Vets who practice or encourage homeopathy may be well-meaning but have been fooled by the unscientific  nonsense that surrounds the practice of so-called "complementary" and "alternative" medicines. 
    I feel that adherence to the recommendation of this practice tarnishes the reputation of your organisation and would again recommend that you strongly reconsider it and raise the bar of evidence for medical interventions you recommend significantly. 
    Please do not think I am against your organisation in principle, I just think that adherence to complementary medicines, and particularly obvious bunk like homeopathy, does you a disservice that hampers the adoption of organic produce by consumers; it will cause some who support your cause to abandon it as it both gives a poor impression of your ability to correctly judge scientific evidence, and constitutes unintentional neglect of the animals.

    Tuesday, 18 January 2011

    The Soil Association Replies

    Here's what I've been sent in response to my email (and Ben's Tweets presumably)

    Dear Tim,
    Thank you for your letter regarding the use of homeopathy in organic standards.
    The trust and support you have given the Soil Association is much appreciated and I am sorry you feel this issue may make you re-consider buying organic produce given our ongoing commitment to, and highest level of engagement with, animal health and welfare.
    The welfare of animals is central to Soil Association organic principles - No system of farming has higher levels of animal welfare standards than organic farms working to Soil Association standards and Compassion in World Farming believes the “Soil Association's welfare standards are leaders in the field.” (Joyce d'Silva).
    Under organic rules, all aspects of animal health and welfare are tightly controlled, including rearing, shelter, feeding, transportation and slaughter. We do however believe that ensuring good health is better than relying on drugs to treat disease, which is why we put so much emphasis on practices that encourage healthy farm animals. Organic farmers do this in many practical ways, such as keeping numbers down to reduce stress, providing appropriate nutritious feed and ensuring easy access to the outdoors. Organic animals cannot be given growth promoting hormones, regular doses of antibiotics or genetically modified (GM) feed.
    Encouraging healthy farm animals also means using complementary therapies where appropriate. Under our standards, sick animals are treated using complementary remedies- of which homeopathy is one part of- where these can be shown to be effective, unless a vet says an animal needs antibiotics or other medicines; in which case they must be given. When this happens organic standards require a set period of time has to pass before the animal can produce products for sale as organic. These are generally three times as long as those required by law for non-organic food. 
    For all complementary therapies our standards specify that they are used 'with professional veterinary guidance and provided that their healing effect works for the species and condition you are treating'. This affords farmers and their professional advisors the freedom to make choices for the animals under their responsibility, in full knowledge that they will lose organic status if we find that they have not met their overriding duty to ensure good animal welfare. 
    The underlying philosophy of homeopathy will support the farmer to be more observant and empathetic stockman, which has to be a good thing. For more serious problems, conventional treatments, such as antibiotics, may also be needed to help return an animal to good health. The important thing is that we actively encourage each and every organic farm to create a model for optimum health and vitality, that sees disease as a reflection of something deeper in the system that needs correcting, and that uses conventional drugs when genuinely needed, rather than as substitute for poor husbandry. 
    We have much collective experience that for many routine problems homoeopathic and herbal treatments will be do the job very well, without any compromise to animal welfare, and put simply, many farmers and vets find that the homoeopathic approach works - which is why they continue to use it. The choice of treatment is ultimately down to the livestock keeper. This blog from Yeo Valley talks about use of homeopathy on their farms if you're interested in reading more -
    We do not shy away from the debate that surrounds this therapy with both sides of the argument receiving regular airings in our own membership publications. I would encourage you look at some more sources of information on this large and in-depth field – I have included these below.
    I hope this explains our position sufficiently and that you feel able to continue to support our work. 
    Best wishes,Georgia Catt
    To see our standard on complementary veterinary medicines, including homeopathic treatments see section 10.9 of our organic standards online
    A wide range of treatments and debate about their use can be found in the proceedings of the SAFO workshops These present a balanced perspective from across Europe and show that veterinary professionals are on both side of the debate.

    Georgia CattPress & e-Communications Officer
    Hats off to them for bothering to respond. Needless to say I still disagree and will be responding in the not too distant future.

    Friday, 7 January 2011

    Atheist school visits?

    So an interesting question was posed on Facebook by a theistic neo-pagan pal; interesting enough, I thought, to be worthy of a relatively comprehensive response, so here it is.

    The feint went thus:
    To all my good atheist/Dawkins following/SitP friends out there, please indulge me, I am curious, if you were invited to go to a local school and do a talk on the subject would you accept?
    and then after a number of responses from atheist/skeptics in the affirmative, the actual thrust of the argument:
    "very interesting. I didn't really set a context but the question came up in a conversation the other day. Most people who share Dawkins view would be up in arms going bonkers if a priest came to give a talk at there local school, explaining and encouraging his religion.. yet most dedicated Athiests etc don't see any reason why they should not do so themselves. Is this not a touch... hypocritical?"
    With the follow up, which I'm assuming was at least half in jest :
    P.s. What do Athiests call a Devil's advocate?
    In the interests of any easy win, I'll hit the postscript first; most of us call it a "Devil's advocate". By and large we're not so prissy as to reject accepted metaphorical language constructs, even when they originate from a now defunct role within the Catholic church. I don't hate the term, but I do hate how it's often used these days. I may elaborate on why in a later post, but for now let's get back to the meat.

    I think in order to adequately talk about this topic it's important to get a bit of groundwork done; there are a number of points that need making clear up front.
    1. There is a bias toward faith, and particularly the Christian faith, both implicit and explicit in the state schooling of the UK.
    2. Atheism is not a faith-based position, nor is it a type of religion, nor is it a belief system. Flippantly "Atheism is a religion only in the same sense that baldness can be said to be a hair-colour"1
    3. It's by no means clear that all, or even most, atheists would be "up in arms" if a religious leader were to talk to a class, depending on the religious leader, in the right context. This appears to be a straw man.

    a. The Faith Bias.
    I shan't dwell too long on the tolerance of Faith schools, which have been shown to be divisive within society by perpetuating mistrust and intolerance, which would otherwise dissipate (and don't actually improve results by and large but achieve better results by the tighter selection criteria). I also shan't talk for too long about the idiotic new idea of academies, which allow religious organisations free reign with most of the syllabus. But it is worth talking about the mandatory requirement in state-funded schools (apart from the new academies), for a daily act of "collective worship...wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character". Now you may argue that parents may withdraw their children from such a practice, which is clearly an anachronism in a country where the majority now say they are not religious. However this would single out such children as different and expose them to ridicule, and additionally there is no mechanism for a child that is so inclined to opt out for themselves.
    There is no mandated syllabus for religious education, so faith schools are free to teach only their brand of supernatural nonsense with no requirement even to tell pupils of any age that there are other religious viewpoints, let alone that it is perfectly normal to believe in no gods.
    Religion gets a shoe-in at all state funded schools, faith schools and academies, an atheist speaker would go some tiny way to providing a little much needed balance. Is it hypocrisy to ask for a small redress of a significant imbalance? or to take the chance if it's offered?

    b. Atheism is not a religion or faith-based position.
    Atheist simply means "not a theist". A "theist" is a person who believes in the existence of god or gods, an "atheist" is simply someone who is not one of those people; a person who has no belief in a god or gods. This encompasses a pretty broad spectrum of positions including
    • most people who self-profess as agnostics: those who believe it is not possible to know for certain whether god exists, and IMHO those who either haven't yet thought about it hard enough, and those who are pretty sure there's no god, but are too chicken to state their opinion clearly.
    • people who don't actively believe in god but aren't really sure (see above)
    • those who think there's probably no god, but are open to further credible evidence (no, you can't reasonably call these people agnostics)
    • those who are certain there is no god, of whom there are very few; N.B. not even Dawkins puts himself in this category.
    and all points in between. Being an atheist does not require the belief of anything that cannot be proven.
    The hypocrisy charge won't stand, because it is not comparing like for like to consider a school visit from an atheist to that of a religious leader.

    c. Are atheists really against religious people talking to schools?
    Now I couldn't possibly accuse such an honest and genuine chap as our questioner of such tactics, but this statement seems akin to a theme/strategy often used by the religious where they say "atheists think this, and that's just stupid/hypocritical" when actually atheists don't really think that at all, and the accuser has either just assumed something without asking any atheists, have only asked one or two possibly unrepresentative or stupid ones, or is deliberately and deceitfully constructing a straw-man to poke sticks at. Let's be clear that it's very hard to say what all atheists believe, since they explicitly share nothing in common except the absence of belief in a deity; I can only tell you what I, and many eminent atheists such as Dawkins and particularly atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett believe. In his work "Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" Dennett proposes that the key to eliminating, not all religion, but those forms of religion that are most toxic, is to ensure that a proper religious education is given to all children. By "toxic" he means those forms of fundamentalism that cause people to perform horrific acts like beating up homosexuals, practising genital mutilation, shooting abortion doctors, blowing themselves up or flying planes into buildings; and by "proper" he means religious education that teaches about all religions, the history of that religion, and what people of that religion believe. Of course, despite atheism not being a religion, the syllabus must also make it clear to the students that there are people who follow no faith. Crucially, no child should be allowed to be excluded from such learning; surely any religion worth its salt can stand up to its practitioners learning about others? He even goes as far as to say that it doesn't matter how it is taught: the teacher could say "this is what those idiot Muslims/Hindus/Jains/Neo-Pagans/atheists think, and we know they're wrong" as long as they also make it clear that they will be tested on their knowledge of the beliefs and practices, not on their opinions of them. I won't go into the reasons why Dr Dan thinks this will work, but suffice to say that this idea is endorsed by many athiests including Dawkins and representatives of the National Secular Society and British Humanist Association.
    It is of course true that many atheists would get angry at the thought of certain religious dogmas being taught to children: that homosexuality or the use of condoms is a sin, that women are inferior to men, that women should be stoned to death for showing their hair among examples of religious twattery; but you would hope that atheists wouldn't be the only people to become annoyed at such idiocy. And, of course we reserve the right to ridicule even the most harmless religious nonsense, but object to them telling children that's what they believe? Probably not.

    To summarise, I don't think it is true that atheists (at least not all atheists, or even the so called "new" atheist celebrities) would object to a religious person explaining to a school what it is they believe, as long they weren't preaching hate, and even if it were true, it's not comparing like for like to compare atheists with the faithful, and even if that were true, it would still not be hypocrisy for an atheist to agree to present their beliefs to a school, in fact it would be a much needed step toward redressing the balance.

    1 Anyone know the original source of this quote? I'd love to know.