Home > History > Front page updates June 2003
How things are Panning out (7/6/2003)
The massive recall of products manufactured by Pan Pharmaceuticals in Australia has caused much heartache among the alternative medicine faithful. One of the diversionary tactics used by the alternative supporters has been to concentrate on the single product Travacalm (which threw up the first big red flag) as if this was the only problem found at Pan, and then to try to either prove that Travacalm wasn't anything alternative or that there was no real problem anyway and the whole affair was just a smokescreen to allow the destruction of the supplement industry. Truth was not a necessary component of much that was said, and neither, as it happens, was knowledge about herbs and "natural" medicines needed. I found it ironic that I should be placed in the position of telling alternative believers which plants were used to produce which natural drugs. As an example of this, one person who claimed to be knowledgeable in such matters commented that there was no mention of Travacalm's active ingredient, hyoscine hydrobromide, in her herbal reference books. Perhaps she wasn't looking under "henbane" for the name of the plant it comes from, or under "scopolamine" for the name that it sometimes goes by.
A strange aspect of much of the opposition to real medicine is that people make statements which are either ridiculous or can be disproved in minutes. I am not sure whether this is just contempt for the audience or pathological lying, where the truth simply does not matter. Another example came from a regular spokesperson for the alternative industry who claims to be a journalist and a professional writer on health matters. In a press release she said that the recall was announced on the 29th of April (it was the 28th, and the wrong date was used twice so it wasn't a typo), that Pan's "stocks plummeted" in the second week after the recall and other companies' shares rose (Pan shares were suspended from stock exchange trading on the day the recall was announced so they went neither up nor down in the following week. The writer forgot to mention that the company whose shares benefited most was Blackmore's, Australia's best-known producer of alternative products.), and that on the same day as the Pan recall, the Therapeutics Goods Administration had ordered a recall of some packaged ham but hadn't savaged the smallgoods company like it had Pan.
Ham? Ham is a "therapeutic good"? The TGA ordered some ham recalled? I immediately checked the ham I had bought for my lunchtime sandwich to see if had an AUST L or AUST R number (I refrained from making jokes about "curing"), but there was nothing there. This "journalist" was so stupid (or so careless) that she couldn't tell the difference between the TGA and the federal Health Department. Still, what are facts when there's quackery to be defended? For the record, the last three recalls ordered by the TGA at the time of writing were Difflam - C Alcohol Free Solution (February 4), Pan (April 28) and Kotex U tampons (May 30). No ham.
The press release went on to talk about how the Pan recall was part of the great UN/Illuminati worldwide Codex conspiracy to destroy alternative medicine. Evidence of the conspiracy was that the Geneva office of the World Health Organization had been notified of the Pan recall! Did I mention that some of the alternative supporters are nuts?
(An extended version of the above item was published in the June 2003 edition of the Skeptic, the journal of the Australian Skeptics. You can read the article here.)
Why some things are here (7/6/2003)
I get the occasional email asking why I have some particular sites listed in The Millenium Project. Sometimes these questions suggest that the writers live in a different universe (such as the person recently who could not imagine how a Holocaust denial site could be classed as racist). Sometimes the questions come because a site has changed since I first saw it and there is now nothing on the site that would seem to attract my attention. Sites change over time and I cannot check the content of every one of the thousand sites regularly, so I appreciate it when I am told of these anomalies. One thing I have been asked about several times is why I have included sites such as the P.E.R.S.O.N. Project and GALE, which are sites dedicated to educating school children about homosexuality. The observation is usually made that I do not appear to be homophobic and that these are not paedophile support or recruiting sites. My objection to these is quite simple.
I don't care how people choose to live their lives as long as they leave me and other uninterested people alone. In fact I am disinterested as well as uninterested, that is, I am both impartial and I don't care at all. I do become interested, however, when it comes to what people do to and with children because all members of a society have a responsibility for the welfare of children. Part of that responsibility is a concern about what children are taught at school. If a group of Christians, Muslims, Jews or atheists wanted to come into classrooms and conduct lessons dealing with the advantages of their particular religions or world views, paying particular attention to their special needs and providing examples of famous members of their groups to act as role models, there would be outrage and much discussion of the separation of church and state. The reaction should be similar if the NAACP, the KKK or some other race-based organisation wanted to come in and talk about how good it was to be a particular colour. I put talking to young children about sexuality in the same category. I don't really care what sort of educational materials these organisations make if they distribute them only to high-school students. I just do not believe that discussion of sexuality and sexual lifestyles is appropriate material for children in infant or elementary schools. Change "K-12" to "7-12" and I will be happy.
Harassment hits the ton!!! (7/6/2003)
Things have been a bit quite on the harassment front lately, but a significant milestone has been achieved in the last week. By combining their efforts, Mr William P O'Neill of the Canadian Cancer Research Group and the Gutless Anonymous Liar have now managed to lie about police interest in me and my non-existent criminal activities an amazing 100 times! That's one hundred times! Persistence like this deserves recognition, so I thought I would show another example of someone who triumphed through practice.
Book early and book often (7/6/2003)
The Australian Skeptics 2003 National Convention will be held in Canberra between the 22nd and 24th of August. The real conference will be on the Saturday and Sunday, but on the Friday night there will be a free public forum called "Alternative remedies---the good, the bad and the ugly". This will have several speakers, including (the organisers hope) some from the alternative medicine industry, and a public discussion session. As well as being part of that forum, I will be giving a presentation on conspiracy theories in the convention proper on the Saturday. You can see more details at the convention web site, or you can download a pdf file with the program and registration details.
Literal interpretation of the Bible (14/6/2003)
One of the many lies told by creationists is that the theory of evolution is some sort of deliberate attempt to undermine the Bible by positing that the creation myths in Genesis are not true stories. In reality evolution says nothing about religion except indirectly, in that a scientific explanation of how things are will always be more attractive to people who can think than will superstition and legend. When creationists claim that acceptance of evolution necessarily leads to total rejection of Christian teachings they are merely exhibiting their own lack of faith. Their insistence on the literal truth of the Bible invites ridicule of their religion, and, by extension, rejection of the worthwhile teachings and principles of Christianity. Creationists like to demonise Charles Darwin as if all this heresy started with him, but the following words were written some years before the publication of The Origin of Species. The author is considered by many to be somewhat of an authority on religious belief.
Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking nonsense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field in which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of Holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although "they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion."
(from translation by John Hammond Taylor)
Scientology runs from the truth - again (14/6/2003)
In March 2002, the criminal cult of Scientology tried to get Google to remove some references in their database to web sites which were critical of the cult. Google took out the links while they thought about it for a while, and then restored them when the ramifications (and ridiculousness) of allowing vested interests to determine what is indexed in search engines became apparent. The Scientologists have now had another go at hiding what they do by convincing the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to remove material that the cult does not like. (The Wayback Machine is an amazing attempt to chronicle the evolution of the web, and it provides an invaluable resource for anyone seeking the history of the tens of millions of web sites.)
The Scientology claims against the Wayback Machine are stronger than against Google, because the archive contained the complete text of documents which are claimed to be subject to copyright rather than just links to pages containing the material. There is a real possibility that they could leave themselves open to expensive litigation if they do not promptly remove copyright material, but the interests of free speech demand that the process be open and transparent. The Internet Archive should adopt the policy used by Google (and The Millenium Project) of publishing in full the text of any legal demands or complaints and also registering the complaints with the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse. In Scientology's favour, I can see why they don't want outsiders to read the cult's teachings that 75 million years ago people were thrown into volcanoes and blown up with hydrogen bombs.
Speaking of Scientology ... (14/6/2003)
I was talking to someone during the week who had been searching the Internet for information about drugs which might be prescribed for her daughter's ADHD. She had found a psychologist near her home who had much to say about the terrors of Ritalin and dexamphetamine, and when she quoted some of this to me it all sounded very familiar. Sure enough, it was almost word-for-word off the web site of the Scientology anti-psychiatry front, Narconon. I have no reason to believe that the psychologist is a Scientologist, as her web site seemed to just be the normal "no such thing as mental illness" stuff that can be found throughout alternative medicine and her suggested treatments didn't look like a Purification Rundown, but this incident shows the danger that can arise when two corrupt ideologies synergise each other even if their goals are widely separated. The psychologist may be well-intentioned (although deluded), but her support of the cult's lies could boost their apparent validity. And we all know what Scientology's intentions are...
And then there's Benny ... (14/6/2003)
I had a few words to say once about the sleazy faith "healer" Benny Hinn. This has attracted quite a lot of email from people who think that Benny sits just to the right of the person sitting at the right hand of God. There seems to be some disagreement about whether my soul is worth praying for or is already condemned, and it is even possible that I am acting directly on Satan's orders. You can read my rather mild criticism of Benny Hinn here, and you can see the collected email here.
Strange email of the week (month?) (14/6/2003)
I don't think I was the only person in the world to receive an email from the Apostle Abraham, who wrote to me about the Signs of God. He started off this way, and after that it got a bit weird.
Signs from God. The Messiah comes. We have the end of the World and already 3th World war. The Mankind faces the Doom and as well the biggest ever experienced Holocaust. Each second Human being ends up in the Pond of Fire. If the Messiah is not coming now (Jesus Christ, Son of God, King of the Jews), God will come as Devil-and Germany brought the entire Mankind into Hell. Owing to the Brandenburger Nazi gate in Berlin every Human will be punished as hard as Adolf Hitler. That means Hell forever:Final Solution (Endlösung)
Challenges and challengers (21/6/2003)
There are several well-known prizes available for anyone who can demonstrate that they have an ability which cannot be explained by science or reason. The most famous of these is probably James Randi's $1,000,000 Challenge, but there is also a significant prize offered by the Australian Skeptics. The rules of these contests are relatively simple. All anyone with a paranormal ability has to do is 1) say exactly what it is they can do, 2) specify the conditions under which the powers work, 3) agree to a test protocol, mutually developed by the challenger and the prize granter, 4) do it, 5) bank the money. The test has to require no judgment and have unambiguous results - the power either obviously works or it doesn't. This all should be quite easy for anyone with super powers, although many seem reluctant to submit themselves to testing. Many also claim that they have satisfied the conditions for winning the money without the bother of actually going through the first four steps.
A "healer" appeared recently on Australian television and someone from the Australian Skeptics was interviewed about the healing claims. The challenge was mentioned, and the television program seemed to take this as an indication an easy test could be arranged and that all the "healer" had to do was wave his hands about. If he healed anyone, he would get the money. (It was a bit more complicated than this really, but space here is limited.) The Skeptics spent a lot of time disabusing the program producers of this false impression, particularly as it looked like the station was going to go ahead with the test at a university (using staff from the English Literature Department (!!!!) because the "healer" doesn't trust scientists), and it appeared that they were offering the Skeptics' money as a prize without following the Skeptics' rules for the competition. Matters came to a head when the program went to air with a story that the Skeptics had backed down from the "healer's" challenge and were running away because they were possibly afraid that the "healer" might be genuine. I won't go into all the gory details here, but you can read a press release by the Australian Skeptics here. What isn't in the press release is the set of abilities claimed by the "healer". I have reproduced these claims below, and I leave it up to you to work out what he does and how it could be tested.
Messenger for The Life Force
Bogus challenges (21/6/2003)
Speaking of challenges, I was reminded of some bogus ones out there when an Australian lawyer who claims to be offering a prize for anyone who can prove the non-existence of life after death started issuing his own ranting press releases ridiculing the Australian Skeptics because they can't and won't test the "healer". I will write something about this fool and his challenge next week, as well as the nonsensical challenges issued by creationist Kent Hovind and anti-vaccination liar Jock Doubleday.
False quotations and lies (21/6/2003)
One of the regular tactics of the supporters of pseudosciences is to quote people from real science who seem to be supporting an unorthodox position. The quotes are inevitably either selective extracts taken out of context, supposed quotations offered without reliable citations, or simple fabrications made on the assumption that nobody will bother (or sometimes be able) to check. The champions at this have long been the creationists, as Niles Eldredge and the late Stephen Jay Gould could attest, and I saw a beautiful example this week where palaeontologist Mary Leakey was quoted as suggesting that some hominid fossils which she had discovered in Africa threw doubt on the theory of evolution. As the probability of Dr Leakey saying anything of this sort is approximately the same as the probability that the universe is only 6,000 years old, I didn't really have to go back to the cited source to reveal the deception.
The following quote appears on many medical quackery web sites:
"The thing that bugs me is that the people think the FDA is protecting them. It isn't. What the FDA is doing and what the public thinks it's doing are as different as night and day".- Dr. Herbert Ley, Former FDA Commissioner, 1970. (Sometimes the year is given as 1969.)
When it was quoted to me recently, I asked for a reference so that I could see the context in which Dr Ley made this remark, if, indeed, he ever did say it. The first "reference" I was given said
"Dr. Herbert Ley, former FDA Commissioner, in testimony a United States Senate Hearing on the matter. He said, "The FDA 'protects' the big drug companies and are subsequently rewarded, and using the government's police powers they attack those who threaten the big drug companies." He then went on to say, "People think that the FDA is protecting them. It isn't. What the FDA is doing and what the public thinks it is doing are as different as night and day."
Leaving aside the fact that the words between the quotation marks were different in the two cases, I at least now had the clue that the original comments should be somewhere in the Congressional Record, in the minutes of the committee. As the online records of the Congressional Record only go back to 1994 and I live a long way from Washington DC, I though it reasonable to ask for a proper citation. (You know, the sort of citation you have to make in undergraduate assignments to get passing grades.) I was at first referred to a book called "Racketeering in Medicine", which seems to be the source of the first quote above. When I asked again for something a bit more official, I was pointed to a site promoting the quackery of ozone therapy for cancer, where another supporter of a totally different cure for all forms of cancer was quoted as saying:
"1965 Senator Edward Long holds U.S. Senate hearings where Dr. Herbert Ley, FDA Commissioner testifies that the FDA "protects" the big drug companies and are subsequently rewarded, and using the government's police powers they attack those who threaten the big drug companies. "People think what the FDA is protecting them. It isn't. What the FDA is doing and what the public thinks it's doing are as different as night and day."
But wait - this says 1965 and at that time Dr Ley was an Associate Professor at Harvard. He did not become FDA Commissioner until July, 1968. Senator Long retired from the Senate at the end of 1968, and Dr Ley left his position at the FDA at the end of 1969. Asking for clarification of this anomaly produced a reference on another quackery site to a book published in 1974 (and, sadly, now out of print) which was apparently quoting a newspaper article from 1970. As the next message I received cited both the years 1965 and 1970, I gave up the cause as hopeless.
So here is the story so far. Dr Ley may have said something in 1965 (when he was not working at the FDA), or in 1969 (when he was FDA Commissioner), or in 1970 (when he was a former Commissioner). He may have appeared before a US senate hearing in 1965 (when he was working at Harvard), or in 1969 or in 1970. The Senator named as chairing the hearing retired at the end of 1968, so he could not have been chairing any meetings in 1969 or 1970. In 1965, when Senator Long was a Senator, Dr Ley could not have appeared in the rôle of FDA Commissioner. As both men are now dead, it is not possible to ask either of them directly for clarification. By the way, it is now 2003. Could it be possible that conditions are different today, even if the things that Dr Ley was supposed to have said were true at the time? Thirty years is a long time in medicine. It is quackery that stands still and doesn't change.
Attacking the FDA and equivalent organisations in other countries is essential for the progression of quackery. Regulation and rules are bad for business. The sort of people making the attacks have no problem telling lies as many of the potions and nostrums they try to sell are obviously fraudulent and they know it. The "quotation" from Dr Ley is just another case of lying. It would be so simple for someone to supply a valid citation if the statement had ever been made to a Senate hearing, but the failure of any of the retailers of the lie to substantiate the claim is strong evidence that Dr Ley never said what the quacks say he said. I am, of course, open to correction on this by anyone who can point me to the relevant chapter and verse in the Congressional Record, but I won't be holding my breath while waiting. As one person said to me: "Why does it matter when or where he said it? All that matters is the FACT that he said it".
Yurko update (21/6/2003)
The latest story from the supporters of murderer Alan Yurko is that it wasn't the vaccines, or the coagulopathy, or the coroner, or the several other excuses which have been successively offered in the campaign to get the killer out of prison. The most recent one was medical negligence, but this has now been escalated to a claim that the doctors who attended to the baby after he was bashed and taken to hospital deliberately killed him so that they could harvest his organs for transplant.
Perhaps Yurko is conducting some sort of bizarre experiment to test the capacity of his followers to tolerate or perform unconscionable acts. You may be familiar with the work during the 1960s of psychologist Stanley Milgram, who showed evidence that people could be encouraged to act against their consciences in certain circumstances. It could be that Yurko is extending this work to see if there is a revulsion threshold for the anti-vaccination campaigners beyond which even they will say "Enough". There is no sign of this happening at the moment and no evidence of the moral and emotional dissonance observed by Milgram (admittedly, he was working with subjects for whom possession of consciences could be assumed), so the next claim is awaited with interest. Maybe it will be to replace the word "transplant" with "breakfast".
Administration matters (21/6/2003)
There has been a lot of behind the scenes reorganisation of this site this week, so if you have been directed to a particular page by a search engine or bookmark and the page is no longer found I apologise. The pages are all still here, but many of them are in a different place. This was done as part of the introduction of a new feature which will list pages where the content has recently changed. This feature will be implemented in two weeks. It makes no sense to start now because the reorganisation plus a small change to make site navigation easier will mean that a large proportion of the site will be reloaded to the server this week even though the page contents will not have changed. It doesn't seem too useful to have a system which provides a list of almost all the pages in the site when asked for what has changed in the last week, so I will wait and turn it on when the results make some sense.
Rhabdomancy - real or rubbish? (21/6/2003)
Australia is the driest continent (I know Antarctica gets less rain, so pedants need not write to correct me), so while agriculture might be difficult it has always been a fertile place for the magicians who claim to be able to locate water by dowsing or divining. These claims have long been of interest to Australian Skeptics, and now the results of twenty years of testing have been brought together in the one place. On this DVD (or on video if you prefer) there are three documentaries about divining (James Randi in Australia in 1980, a current affairs show from 1989, and a test of dowsers at a country fair in 2002). As well as these histories, there is an educational section on testing diviners which is suitable for explaining the concept of blind testing to school students. You can buy a copy of the DVD or video here. (The video is available in both PAL and NTSC formats.)
Challenge follow-up #1 (28/6/2003)
One of the responses to the challenge situation I mentioned last week was from Australian lawyer Victor Zammit, who rushed to gloat on his web site (and almost wet himself with joy) over the way the Australian Skeptics were treated by the television show. Zammit has long seen the Australian Skeptics as some sort of enemy, perhaps because he is a strong believer in the existence of life after death. (He thinks John Edward is a real psychic, which gives you some idea of his critical abilities.) Zammit has a bogus challenge of his own where he supposedly offers $1,000,000 for anyone who can prove the non-existence of life after death. The challenge is bogus because, aside from the impossibility of proving a negative, it has impossible conditions. His is not the only bogus challenge out there, and I have collected the stories of three of them - Zammit, creationist Kent Hovind, and anti-vaccinator and home-birth zealot Jock Doubleday. You can read the details here, and maybe even work out how to get rich.
Challenge follow-up #2 (28/6/2003)
The story I told last week about the "healer" and the television show had a (sort of) happy ending. The show went ahead with a test of the "healer" (using a test protocol which could politely be described as "sloppy") and, you would never guess it, found no effect above that which would be expected by tossing a coin. The "healer" made the usual claims of success of course, but when the same number of cures, sorry, "helpings" occur in both the test and control groups there is probably not much healing going on. I suspect that the "healer" was just as much a victim of the show's ratings chase as were the Australian Skeptics, but the unfortunate fact is that there will be people who watched the show who will now believe that hand waving over photographs can cure disease. After all, didn't half the people who were waved over report feeling better?
Hill harasses? Hilarious! Ha Ha Ha! (28/6/2003)
The following email arrived at the office of the ISP which hosts the ratbags.com domain. The name "Dixon Hill" rang a bell somewhere, and, sure enough, I had heard of an investigator by that name. In several episodes of the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation Captain Jean Luc Picard relieved his boredom by entering a fantasy world where he took on the rôle of Dixon Hill, Private Investigator. When asked for a comment about his complaint, Mr Hill replied "I am not Dixon Hill. I just look like Dixon Hill". You can hear this confession by clicking here. Perhaps Canadian harassers are not aware that there is television in Australia and we even get some popular shows. Maybe Basil Fawlty will complain next.
Sent: Monday, 23 June 2003 12:51 PM
To: innocent party
Subject: Illegal Usage - Colocation
You currently host a colocation client named "Gebesse Holdings". owned by one Peter Bowditch. Mr. Bowditch is allegedly operating a website that appears to be involved in extensive Haven Spamming activities. The content of the site actively violates the right to privacy of innumerable persons, and clearly seems to be in violation of the US Patriot Act in that he actively appears to engage in the commission of cyberterrorism. After careful considertion, I'm forced to conclude he is also likely in violation of similar statues in Canada, Germany, England, the Russian Republic and France. If same continues within your colocation site, such could result in prosecution. Clearly it will require my client to obtain appropropriate legal remedies from your company and from "ratbags.com", his apparent company.
Kindly be advised you have 5 business days to commence proceedings to terminate "ratbags.com" and the associated colocation license, after which this matter will be turned over to the Authorities in each nation in question and after which my client may be obligated to seek remedy in the form of monetary damages from you and your client.
Dixon Neville Hill
Cancer curers and George Orwell (28/6/2003)
Wednesday, 25 June, would have been George Orwell's 100th birthday. The day after that was International Kooks Day in memory of Earl Gordon Curley, the self-proclaimed world's greatest psychic. (Earl predicted the death of the Pope in 1998. Unfortunately, Earl did not foresee the death of Earl in that year.) This (almost) coincidence seemed an appropriate time to reconsider how two of Orwell's expressions relate to the kookiness of the promoters of quackery. The expressions are "doublethink" and "ignorance is strength". I wrote something about this in November 2001, and you can read it here.