Friday, 18 September 2009

Critical Thinking = Open Mind

I have been reading a lot about my new found interest in all things "Skeptical" and one thing sticks out above all else.  The importance of trying to stay open minded and keeping a cool head in the times we are confronted by an issue we don't agree with. 

Being open minded has so many advantages over closing ones ears to anything new that its fast becoming my mantra, and anybody that knows me will tell you that I have been more than a little guilty of closing the door on views opposing my own.   Imagine how much easier the world could run if everybody took the time to digest an opposing viewpoint and to think before opening ones mouth and metaphorically jerking a knee in the  groin of the person you may not have the same beliefs as.

Listening to Richard Saunders of the Australian Skeptics on the Canadian Skeptically Speaking Podcast made me think about my own tactics in dealing with people with strange (to me)  ideas about alternative therapies etc.  Richard warns us not to be confrontational and aggressive in our stance as it can weaken your position.  I pricked my ears up on hearing this as I do want to warn people as to the possible dangers of say, supporting homoeopathy, but I also want to keep some of my friends.  As he rightly points out, if a group of 5 random people you meet at a cocktail party ask you what you think of Reiki and you tell them that you think its a load of bullshit, you are going to offend at least one of them. If you argue that its a load of crap this IS going to happen.  If, however you can make your feelings clear using non confrontational terminology, you have a better chance of prolonging the conversation with all five people and thus increase the chance of one or more of them maybe having a review of their own position on the subject.  People don't like looking stupid and if you can argue without antagonising them, which generally makes them put up a kind of defence against what they perceive as an attack on them, then it has to be better, surely.

Obviously, this is not the easiest thing to do as you yourself are having your strongly held view attacked in a way so your natural instinct is to attack.  This is where the admiration level meter rises all the way to the top for me where people like Dr. Eugenie Scott, Dr. Steven Novella and Brian Dunning are concerned.  Their ability to perform under pressure is legendary.  They do have the upper hand on most of us though in that two of them are fully fledged scientists and the other more or less does the skeptic thing for a living.  Their backgrounds have armed them with a pool of knowledge that we mere mortals have to learn from scratch unless we are also scientists.  But having all of the facts at your disposal isn't a guarantee to winning an argument or getting your point across because at the end of the day, some people just plain refuse to bend when it comes to their personal woo.  If this is the case then we just have to walk away and chalk up a loss without prejudice.  If you have managed to keep cool and dignified you may also still be friends and you live to get the chance to maybe take them on again.  If you waded in with the "this is a load of crap" method, that chance is probably lost along with a certain amount of credibility and possibly at the extreme end of the scale, your friendship.

This is really grass roots stuff and I apologise for anyone reading this for whom this style of arguing is the only way to fly.  But we are not all blessed with fantastic debating skills and it is for those of us that have a voice but don't really know how to use it that I am directing this to. 
So here's to a new beginning for me, open government my own style, "New Marc" after many years of stuffy old me and my strange "don't start him off" views.   I throw open my mind and renounce my own attacks and bitter ranting at the things that piss me off and see if I can find that extra patience needed to change the mind of a believer,  give peace a chance and all that.  I realise I am a tiny wheel in this gigantic machine, probably only an iron filing if the truth be known, but I have aspirations to become a drop of oil and who knows, maybe a fully fledged and well lubricated cog.

Homeopathy - revisited

This is a repeat posting in the hope that it will remain an issue in the public eye.  

Homeopaths Censor Blogger
From Orac I learn that The Society of Homeopaths was successful in getting blogger The Quackometer to pull his post entitled The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing ? an expose of how homeopaths falsely claim that homeopathy can prevent and cure malaria. As Orac says:

Gee, aren't legal threats the way that the evil big pharma and conventional medicine "suppress" the "truth" of alternative medicine and homeopathy? Why is it that the Society of Homeopaths is behaving like a thug and taking advantage of vagaries of British libel law, which is notoriously weighted towards the plaintiffs [?] in order to try to suppress evidence-based articles that are not flattering to homeopathy? Notice that, instead of debating, instead of presenting arguments and evidence for why they thought Le Canard Noir was incorrect, the Society of Homeopaths tried to suppress his right to free speech by making legal threats to his ISP, which caved.

Precisely. So in the interests of free speech, and to demonstrate to the homeopaths that bullying will not work (they can still refute the article with evidence ? or they could if they had any), I will join many other bloggers (see the end of Orac?s post for the updated full list) and reproduce in full The Quackometer?s censored article. The following is what the homeopaths were frightened you would read:

The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing

By The Quackometer

The Society of Homeopaths (SoH) are a shambles and a bad joke. It is now over a year since Sense about Science, Simon Singh and the BBC Newsnight programme exposed how it is common practice for high street homeopaths to tell customers that their magic pills can prevent malaria. The Society of Homeopaths have done diddly-squat to stamp out this dangerous practice apart from issue a few ambiguously weasel-worded press statements.

The SoH has a code of practice, but my feeling is that this is just a smokescreen and is widely flouted and that the Society do not care about this. If this is true, then the code of practice is nothing more than a thin veneer used to give authority and credibility to its deluded members. It does nothing more than fool the public into thinking they are dealing with a regulated professional.

As a quick test, I picked a random homeopath with a web site from the SoH register to see if they flouted a couple of important rules:

48: ? Advertising shall not contain claims of superiority. ? No advertising may be used which expressly or implicitly claims to cure named diseases.

72: To avoid making claims (whether explicit or implied; orally or in writing) implying cure of any named disease.

The homeopath I picked on is called Julia Wilson and runs a practice from the Leicestershire town of Market Harborough. What I found rather shocked and angered me.

Straight away, we find that Julia M Wilson LCHE, RSHom specialises in asthma and works at a clinic that says,

Many illnesses and disease can be successfully treated using homeopathy, including arthritis, asthma, digestive disorders, emotional and behavioural difficulties, headaches, infertility, skin and sleep problems.

Well, there are a number of named diseases there to start off. She also gives a leaflet that advertises her asthma clinic. The advertising leaflet says,

Conventional medicine is at a loss when it comes to understanding the origin of allergies. ... The best that medical research can do is try to keep the symptoms under control. Homeopathy is different, it seeks to address the triggers for asthma and eczema. It is a safe, drug free approach that helps alleviate the flaring of skin and tightening of lungs...

Now, despite the usual homeopathic contradiction of claiming to treat causes not symptoms and then in the next breath saying it can alleviate symptoms, the advert is clearly in breach of the above rule 47 on advertising as it implicitly claims superiority over real medicine and names a disease.

Asthma is estimated to be responsible for 1,500 deaths and 74,000 emergency hospital admissions in the UK each year. It is not a trivial illness that sugar pills ought to be anywhere near. The Cochrane Review says the following about the evidence for asthma and homeopathy,

The review of trials found that the type of homeopathy varied between the studies, that the study designs used in the trials were varied and that no strong evidence existed that usual forms of homeopathy for asthma are effective.

This is not a surprise given that homeopathy is just a ritualised placebo. Hopefully, most parents attending this clinic will have the good sense to go to a real accident and emergency unit in the event of a severe attack and consult their GP about real management of the illness. I would hope that Julia does little harm here.

However, a little more research on her site reveals much more serious concerns. She says on her site that 'she worked in Kenya teaching homeopathy at a college in Nairobi and supporting graduates to set up their own clinics'. Now, we have seen what homeopaths do in Kenya before. It is not treating a little stress and the odd headache. Free from strong UK legislation, these missionary homeopaths make the boldest claims about the deadliest diseases.

A bit of web research shows where Julia was working (picture above). The Abha Light Foundation is a registered NGO in Kenya. It takes mobile homeopathy clinics through the slums of Nairobi and surrounding villages. Its stated aim is to,

introduce Homeopathy and natural medicines as a method of managing HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria in Kenya.

I must admit, I had to pause for breath after reading that. The clinic sells its own homeopathic remedies for 'treating' various lethal diseases. Its MalariaX potion,

is a homeopathic preparation for prevention of malaria and treatment of malaria. Suitable for children. For prevention. Only 1 pill each week before entering, during and after leaving malaria risk areas. For treatment. Take 1 pill every 1-3 hours during a malaria attack.

This is nothing short of being totally outrageous. It is a murderous delusion. David Colquhoun has been writing about this wicked scam recently and it is well worth following his blog on the issue.

Let's remind ourselves what one of the most senior and respected homeopaths in the UK, Dr Peter Fisher of the London Homeopathic Hospital, has to say on this matter.

there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won't find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.

Malaria is a huge killer in Kenya. It is the biggest killer of children under five. The problem is so huge that the reintroduction of DDT is considered as a proven way of reducing deaths. Magic sugar pills and water drops will do nothing. Many of the poorest in Kenya cannot afford real anti-malaria medicine, but offering them insane nonsense as a substitute will not help anyone.

Ironically, the WHO has issued a press release today on cheap ways of reducing child and adult mortality due to malaria. Their trials, conducted in Kenya, of using cheap mosquito nets soaked in insecticide have reduced child deaths by 44% over two years. It says that issuing these nets be the 'immediate priority' to governments with a malaria problem. No mention of homeopathy. These results were arrived at by careful trials and observation. Science. We now know that nets work. A lifesaving net costs $5. A bottle of useless homeopathic crap costs $4.50. Both are large amounts for a poor Kenyan, but is their life really worth the 50c saving?

I am sure we are going to hear the usual homeopath bleat that this is just a campaign by Big Pharma to discredit unpatentable homeopathic remedies. Are we to add to the conspiracy Big Net manufacturers too?

It amazes me that to add to all the list of ills and injustices that our rich nations impose on the poor of the world, we have to add the widespread export of our bourgeois and lethal healing fantasies. To make a strong point: if we can introduce laws that allow the arrest of sex tourists on their return to the UK, can we not charge people who travel to Africa to indulge their dangerous healing delusions?

At the very least, we could expect the Society of Homeopaths to try to stamp out this wicked practice? Could we?

Friday, 11 September 2009

My Latest TV Series

I have just found out the last TV series I wrote the music for, with a freind,  is due to be aired this Monday , 14th September 2009 on the Crime and Investigation Channel in the UK and each Monday there after at 9.00pm.  Here is a taster. If there were God, he was a complete bastard to these poor families, and some of them STILL turned to the church for comfort, something that I can not get to grips with.  I hope He is pleased with Himself.  Of course, as I am a non beleiver I wont accept that "He moves in mysterious ways" for an explination, nor that the families in question must have deserved it or any other clich├ęd pap from the holy books.  It was a very hard series to write for and you can only feel compassion for these poor people.  I beleive that in death there is nothing and so they can not suffer anymore at least - I hope those left behind find strength in reason and civility and steer clear of quack relief in all its forms, however hard it may seem considering the state of their greiving minds.


Thursday, 10 September 2009

Am I Clever Enough?

I am fresh from a new month of podcast listening and reading and have ended up not so much downbeat, but more - a little deflated. I met a real journalist this month, one with a fantastically sharp mind and who's massively talented boyfriend I have been an admirer of for some time for his attitude and maturity and creative spirit. I hope they wont mind me putting their names, they are; Shanta Barley and Marmaduke Dando . It is fair to say that meeting Dan again and his girlfriend Shanta for the first time were not the reason for my deflation. They are two passionate, pro-science young people (compared to my 43 years at least) who actively think about and do things to raise awareness of causes they believe in - like global warming. Shanta through her reporting and blogging for the BBC and more recently New Scientist - and Dan through his commitment to and involvement with the popular Power Down acoustic gigs that take place in London quite frequently. Plus his well educated and well travelled outlook on life I find very refreshing - he cares about the envirnment and he cares about all of our futures and he has opened his eyes and seen the things he has been privelliged to see through older and wiser eyes than his age belies. Both of them are ACTIVE. Something that despite my reading and listening and occasional blogging about, I find I don't do very well at.

I feel that my contributions turn peoples perceptions of me into that of a soul-less nerd with nothing better to do than crap on anything "alternative" and as my arguments have become more coherent the more I read, the less people want to engage in conversations as their flimsy evidence for crystal healing falls by the wayside. They feel hurt and I don't like making people feel like that, but I also hate the notion that someone is taking money from them due to a belief in this bullshit.

I also fear posting on certain skeptical blogs because there is an extremist element to the sceptical movement that can be read as quite intimidating and sarcastic, although a certain lack of expressionism through the medium of typing on a computer keyboard could also play a part, its quite a turn off. I read the Bad Science forum and see the number of people who are real Doctors and -ists with masters in -isms and -ologys and as a musician don't feel I can stand shoulder to shoulder with these people, certainly not at an academic level, the same as any of them playing the piano in front of 1000 people would make them feel probably. Yet despite the mass of academically superior beings that populate the forum Ben Goldacre has done more to bring bad scientific practices to the general public at large than any one else I can think of through his fantastic book Bad Science and his blog in the Guardian newspaper. To me, its at the general-public-lay-person level that the most work needs to be done, because they are (we are) the people being taken in by the schemers and charlatans.

Its been said before that from a marketing point of view, the world of alternative therapies and treatments including religions and cults leave the skeptical movement for dead. Surely as we are the ones promoting the safe and sensible side of the case, its a travesty that this should be the case.

To promote critical thinking to the wider audience we have to try to keep academic jargon to a minimum and help the casual listener understand as much of what is being said without feeling patronised. If you think about it, TV ads for expensive cosmetics use the simplest forms available, full screen computer generated graphics showing the hair changing from a limp, weather beaten clump into the most shiney and managable set of locks in the world with just one application.  Stick in some actor in a lab coat and you have closed the deal.  People BUY it.    Experts arguing or agreeing amongst themselves (who can tell sometimes if you don't have 5 years medical training) on various forums is fine if you want people who have stumbled upon you to click away. It creates cliques and leaves the average person cold whilst perpetuating the nerd stereotype and is actually, in my opinion, a very negative thing for the community as a whole. Imagine if you will, attending a comic book convention for the first time and having no clue as to what all the in-jokes are about, who the characters are, which comic book they are from, and indeed, what everybody is going on about in the conversations around you.  I know as a relatively new attendee to the skeptical movement that a lot of these feelings passed through my mind when I first began reading through the skeptical forums. One of them told me, in reply to my introductory post, that I would learn nothing new from the jaded old opinons held there in  and to look elsewhere as most subjects had been discussed to death.

Brian Dunnings excellent Skeptoid podcast helped ease me into it eventually and it is there I recommend anybody begins.  The pod casts are bite sized enough to digest whole and are extremely well researched and put across so that anybody gets it, even if you don't at first agree with it. At least you can understand it well enough to maybe have an opposing opinion. The same I find true of the Skeptics Guide To The Universe, although, and I hope Brian Dunning takes this the right way (I would be surprised but also honoured if he did read my little blog, despite my earlier "skeptic about the skeptics" rant I still find his podcasts fulfiling and honest) - I find it a bit of a step up as the length of the podcast allows for more in depth discussion and having a posse of experts and skeptics on hand allows this to happen with multiple opinions over the subject, albeit with a common overall view. Dr Steve Novella always attempts to explain for example, a medical condition before getting too heavily into discussion about it or some quackery cure for it, therefore giving the casual listener a chance to understand whats going on and assuring them that he does indeed "know his onions" as we say in the UK.  I thank them for all for their laid back yet understanding-it-all style in this respect because it works.

So, now having read back what I have written, I feel better for getting some things off my chest that maybe I am a bit over sensitive to - but mostly I feel that I have actually been just a little bit active if only for pointing people to Mr Dunning and The SGU along with Marmaduke and his lovely girlfriend Shanta.

Viva science and reason.............