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August 2, 2003

Science books? We don't need no stinkin' science books (2/8/2003)
September 10 is going to be a big day for reason and common sense. That is, if it is not a big day for superstition and idiocy. It is the day on which the textbook buyers in Texas make their decision about the science texts to be used in the state's schools in 2004. Texas is the largest buyer of school textbooks so what is supplied to students in that state determines what is published for the rest of the country as publishers do not want to produce different editions for different markets within the US and obviously do not want to lose the biggest single customer that they have. If Texas says that something must be in or out of textbooks, that thing is in or out for everybody.

Having one state significantly influence what goes in textbooks is not necessarily a bad thing, as commonality of education and teaching materials across the country is a noble ideal. The problem arises when special interest groups want the content of the texts corrupted to suit their beliefs and opinions. As it is science we are talking about here, it is not to hard to guess that the special interest group wanting to damage science teaching is the most anti-science collection of idiots around - the creationists. They are back with their disguised religion called "intelligent design" (abbreviated to "ID", suggesting that an appropriate name for its followers would be "IDiots") and their attacks on evolution, as if proving evolution wrong would prove their nonsense right.

Because the law in Texas since 1996 has stipulated that books cannot be rejected on ideological grounds but only for factual errors, the strategy of the creationists' attack on reason has been to pretend that they are not pushing religion but are pointing out errors in the theory of evolution. The campaign is being led by the Discovery Institute which pretends to be nothing to do with religion, showing that they might know all about Genesis 1 to 11 but they don't seem to have read as far as Exodus 20:16. The method of attack has been to rely on a book called Icons of Evolution by Jonathon Wells. (You can see an analysis of this book here.) The particular "icon" which is being heavily featured in the attack on science in Texas is the case of the peppered moth, and the way this has been used is a perfect example of the duplicity of the creationists.

Carbonaria sitting on light bark, waiting to be eatenTypica sitting on dark bark, waiting to be eatenIn the 1950s, Bernard Kettlewell tested the hypothesis that the change in colouration of the peppered moth over time had been an example of natural selection in action. These moths had once been predominantly of a light colour, but the majority had become darker over several years. The hypothesised reason was that the light-coloured variety had become more visible as soot from the industrial revolution had darkened the surfaces they rested on, and this increased visibility had made the light moths more vulnerable to predators. Kettlewell placed moths of different colours on different backgrounds, and, sure enough, the ones that contrasted with their backgrounds got eaten more frequently than those with better disguise. When he published his results, Kettlewell included some photographs with pairs of different coloured moths on both light and dark backgrounds to illustrate the principle. Note that he used real moths and real tree bark to set up the photographs. Incredibly, the creationists are claiming that the fact that the pictures were staged is a flaw in the argument. The expression "clutching at straws" comes to mind. Apparently, Kettlewell should have been patient enough to wait for different coloured moths to land side by side before taking his photographs. If this is the best that the creationists can do to discredit evolution, they must realise themselves how vacuous their position is. The problem is that the people on the Texas Board of Education might not see through the fog of deceit.

It seems bizarre that three brass plaques suggesting that the Grand Canyon demonstrates the magnificence of God's handiwork can be removed after 33 years because displaying them in a government-managed park is a violation of the separation of church and state, yet in the vastly more important arena of children's education religious bigots can continue to influence what is taught in science classes. I've flown through the Grand Canyon and it really is awesome. I didn't need to believe that a god made it, but I have no problem with anyone who wants to thank their particular deity for making it available for us to marvel at. I just don't want anyone teaching school children that the thing was made in ten months during a world-wide flood that happened only four thousand years ago.


Speaking of creationists ... (2/8/2003)
Just about every skeptic mailing list and newsgroup has been buzzing recently with the news of a creationist school science fair which featured such projects as watching Uncle Steve for a while and noting that he hadn't eaten any bananas, thus proving that he was not descended from monkeys, and putting some non-living material in a jar and observing that it did not come to life. What was surprising about this is that there was real debate over whether it was a spoof site or a real site belonging to some fundamentalist religious organisation. In collecting about 600 sites for my Quintessence of the Loon site I developed a good nose for a hoax, and this one reeked. The Blind WatchmakerThe clues were many, but just one was the name of a man featured on several pages. Remember that Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Blind Watchmaker. The name of the book was an allusion to the comment by William Paley that anyone finding a watch would have to assume the existence of a watchmaker, the old "Argument from Design". The site seems to be picking a big fight with Professor Dawkins, but it is a remarkable coincidence that the person doing the fight picking is called Richard Paley.

This spoof site is excellent, and an enormous amount of work has gone into making it. Its creator, if I may use that word, should be congratulated. What is scary, though, is that it is still so close to the way that creationists talk that even highly skeptical people can't always tell the difference.


Paul Zane Pilzer, practising zero principles (2/8/2003)
I spent some time a few nights ago trapped in a room full of pyramid dupes listening to a genius called Paul Zane Pilzer. Well, he must be a genius if his CV (which was mentioned more often than one would expect, except at a winnerfest like this) is accurate. Either that or he was sometimes in two or more places at once. He was telling all these people how they were in the position to become very rich though multi-level marketing as the MLM pyramids moved into the "wellness" industry. This confluence of two great scams, pyramid selling and quackery, caught my attention. I was going to write something about Pilzer this week, but I want to spend some time investigating his background more closely. Anyone who did as much as he supposedly did in such a short amount of time should have left lots of tracks, but many of those tracks on the web lead back to things he has said about himself or other people in the scamming business have said about him.

One thing that struck me on the night was the similarity between this meeting and a religious tent event. Whenever money was mentioned, a murmur of approval came from the crowd in the same way that muttered "amens" are heard when some preacher thumps his Bible up on the stage. Pilzer got a standing ovation when he arrived! References were made to how the people in this room would be successful (saved?) but others would miss out. I thought for a moment that a collection plate was going to be passed around, but perhaps the organisers thought that this might be going too far after charging people $99 to go to what was really a sales presentation promoting Pilzer's tour later in the year. In any case, there were books and DVDs to buy in the foyer. In packs of five! That's right folks. Pilzer's books are so important that you need to buy them five at a time (plus ten "prospecting brochures") just in case you meet some potential downliners on the way back to the carpark. Half price, tonight only! And people were falling over each other to buy.


Harassment Update (2/8/2003)
Things have been quiet lately, and the only harassment to surface since the hilarious threat from the metafictional Dixon Hill (who is a fictional character referred to in the fictional television show Star Trek) has been a vague threat from a non-medical doctor with some magic machines which seem to imply eligibility for more than one Nobel Prize. You can see the complete list of ongoing legal threats here.


Bali Bacon (2/8/2003)
I was watching Law & Order this week just after a news item on the television about the trial of the people responsible for setting the bombs that killed about 200 people in Bali last October. The killers are still smiling widely and saying they have done good by killing all those Christians. They are apparently looking forward to their seventy-two virgins in heaven and see themselves as some sort of martyrs. The juxtaposition with a cop show reminded me of that old saying "stitched up", used to describe the situation when a conviction is obtained by less than lawful means. There is no doubt in this case of the guilt of the accused, because they are very proud of it, but I think that the term "stitched up" would be appropriate here with another meaning. I suggest that the murderers be sewn into freshly harvested pig skins before they are executed, and that it be made quite clear to them that they will be buried at the local garbage dump while still dressed in their porcine finery. Of course the politically correct will say that this would be offensive to their religion, to which I would reply that if their religion tells them to kill people of other faiths then it deserves, no, demands to be offended.


Weird email of the week (2/8/2003)
As well as another African writing to me instead of to Benny Hinn, I received the following alarming warning during the week. Should I be concerned?

What colour is this helicopter? Is it a CIA taxi?This is not unsolicited mail I am emailing you because you have opted' into the CIA black list visit my site to remove yourself from the BLACK LIST Further investigations will proceed if you do not provide the information we seek Being blacklisted by the CIA or FBI is not a laughing matter.


Pat Robertson cartoon (2/8/2003)
Two weeks ago I asked for help to locate a cartoon which showed preacher Pat Roberston announcing that God was curing a case of haemorrhoids right now, and in the next frame it had a bolt of lightning zapping Pat. A few days later I was moving some books around and I happened to open Martin Gardner's The New Age: Notes of a Fringe Watcher. I was idly leafing through it when the answer leapt off the page. I hadn't read the book for years, yet some force outside me made me pick it up, open it, and turn to the correct page. Explain that, skeptics! Actually, the complete answer wasn't there, but it did tell me the newspaper (the Chicago Tribune) and the year of publication (1986). A bit of detective work produced the information that the cartoon appeared in August 1986 (the 22nd, I think) and was the work of the late Jeff MacNelly, 1985 Pulitzer prize winner and creator of the Shoe comic strip. I still haven't been able to see a copy and it seems that the Tribune only has text available in the archives of that era, so if anyone in Chicago is renovating a house and is pulling up some linoleum from that time, please don't throw out the newspapers under the lino until you have checked them. Even better, if someone could check a library for microfilm records, I'm sure a deal can be arranged. I really would like to see that cartoon. Of course, Robertson has never been far from the cartoonists' minds:

Chris Britt : Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson
Chris Britt: Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson

August 9, 2003

Contact Reflex Analysis (9/8/2003)
SometimesMagical pathways to locate your wallet a form of quackery is promoted with such a breathtaking arrogance, duplicity, and disregard both for the truth and for the lives and welfare of potential victims that it almost defies belief. The parlour trick of pretending to test muscle strength by pushing against some muscle group and then doing it again under supposedly different circumstances is well known. I demonstrate it as a part of talks I give on quackery, where I ask for a volunteer from the audience and test how hard it is to push down an extended arm while they are holding something in the other hand.
(Quacks use this trick to deceive people and steal their money. This article is too long to have on the front page, so you can read the rest of it here.)


Mysterious Harassment (9/8/2003)
No truth! No courage! No value!Nothing is heard for months, and then the Gutless Anonymous Liar pops up (not even on a full moon) with a mysterious message which says "we're so delighted with the results of our recent efforts! they're really paying off! aren't they!". This raises the question of what these "recent efforts" are, because they appear to have no effect at all and the results are totally undetectable. Perhaps GAL has very low expectations. As the message was headed "enjoying the heat!", maybe GAL gets excited at anything which is warmer than the 3°K temperature of the universe's background radiation.


Apology in advance (9/8/2003)
The Great Australian Science ShowThings will be a bit disrupted around this site for the next two weeks. On Saturday August 16th and Sunday August 17th I will be lurking around the Australian Skeptics' display at the Great Australian Science Show in Melbourne. (Don't forget to introduce yourself if you attend the show.) Murphy's Law has been invoked and the hard disk has failed on my laptop computer. There is no possibility of having it replaced and reinstalling everything before I get on the plane, so I won't be able to update this site on the regular schedule next weekend. There will be an update, but it could be any time over a five day period. The following weekend I will be at the Australian Skeptics annual convention (see details below), so Darwin knows when I will be updating around that time. I apologise for the inconvenience, but any one man band will have problems if the theremin player and the harpsichordist both call in sick on the same day.


Page Change Notification (9/8/2003)
Long-term visitors to this site may remember that it once featured a "Mind-it" button so that people could be advised by automatic email when the page changed. The people who owned Mind-it got greedy and wanted web site owners to pay $795 per year for the privilege of having the buttons, so the system justifiably sank without trace. I haven't bothered to look for a replacement service up until now, but as updates will not follow a regular schedule over the next few weeks, I have located a free service which will do the job. It's at ChangeDetection, and you can register for notification by using the form at the left of this page. They make the usual claims about privacy and I have no reason to doubt these claims. I know that they will not tell me the email addresses of people who register to be told about changes to this page, although they will tell me the total number of registrants. I will try it with an otherwise unused email address over the next few weeks and I promise to make a lot of noise if that email address starts getting any spam. This is the change notification system used by Steve Gibson at grc.com and he's about as paranoid about security as it is possible to get, so I'm not too worried.


Speaking of spam ... (9/8/2003)
I have been using MailWasher for the last few weeks to filter my incoming mail and it seems to be doing a good job. It is a bit less automatic than I would like, but I still spend a lot less time getting rid of rubbish than I used to. Highly recommended. On another spam matter, I created a new Hotmail address to use a system that allows text messages to be sent to my mobile phone whenever an email arrives. I had thought that this would be useful for my clients as another way of contacting me. It took seventeen minutes after creating the account before the first porn spam arrived, and by the end of the week the phone was beeping false alarms all day and my inbox was being filled on a daily basis. I really cannot understand why Microsoft allow this continual abuse of their system. I know I can set up lists of acceptable email senders, but that would not have been possible in this case. I have a free email at Yahoo! and it never seems to get any spam, so blocking the crap must be possible.


How many times do I have to say it? (9/8/2003)
 Someone wrote to me this week to complain about the mercury in vaccines.

Vaccines should not be preserved with mercury. It's poisoning our children. It doesn't belong in our bodies, period. If you want to sound a little more intelligent, perhaps you should learn how to spell. Learnt is not a word, it's learned.

I replied that most vaccines do not contain thimerosal now. I couldn't help but also point out that people who use expressions like "Thimersol ... contain mercury" when the real word is "Thimerosal" and the singular present tense form of the verb "to contain" is "contains" should be very careful when impugning other people's intelligence by claiming that real words are not words. The following message then came in:

In florida ALL ARE! Check your facts

I suppose I could say "Check your facts" and tell the person to look at http://www.vaccinesafety.edu/thi-table.htm but there is a limit beyond which explanation of facts to the fact-resistant becomes masochism, so I didn't bother to reply again.


Does WebTV cause brain death? (9/8/2003)
I try hard not to be prejudiced, but I am not the only person with a web site who has noticed that subscribers to WebTV seem to suffer more than subscribers to other services from a reluctance to grasp reality. (The big exception is AOL, but that could just be an artefact of number of subscribers. The vast majority of people who write to me asking about enlarging their penises despite a clear notice that I don't know come from AOL. Weird.) The exchange above was with a WebTV subscriber and is what philosopher Rudolf Carnap called a "confirming instance".


Australian Skeptics' Convention 2003 (9/8/2003)
Seek the evidence. And the webmaster.The Australian Skeptics will be holding their 2003 National Convention in Canberra from 22nd to 24th of August. You can read the program (and even register) by going here. The convention proper runs from Saturday to Sunday, but on the Friday (22nd) there will be a Junior Skeptics event in the afternoon and a free public forum about alternative medicine in the evening. I will be speaking twice at the convention on the following topics (another excuse for not doing much else for the next couple of weeks). Both papers will be published here afterwards, but if you are in or can get to Canberra that weekend I would love to meet you.

Friday - Dangerous Practitioners
A constantly repeated claim of the alternative medicine business is that alternatives are safe and can only do good. This is usually backed up by claims which distort, exaggerate and abuse statistics about the dangers of conventional medicine. This talk will examine several ways in which alternative medicine and associated practices can be dangerous and look at the tactics used by alternative practitioners to hide or deny these dangers.

Saturday - Conspiracies - inventing things to believe in
Conspiracy theories encapsulate everything that skepticism is not. A good conspiracy theory exploits several logical fallacies, requires faith in the untestable, is highly resistant to critical examination of the theory, and is strangely credible. Many conspiracy theories are also enormously funny. A long-hidden and never-before-revealed conspiracy will be exposed in this talk, but I can't say any more as I have to say alive until the day.

August 15, 2003

Bible Code? Bunk! (15/8/2003)
In 1994, the journal Statistical Science published a paper written by Doron Witztum, Eliyahu Rips, and Yoav Rosenberg which suggested that meaningful messages and names of famous rabbis were embedded in the text of the Hebrew Bible. The method of analysis was to take letters at fixed separations out of the text and see what turned up at every seventh letter or every seventeenth, and so on. In 1997, Michael Drosnin published a book called The Bible Code which went further by claiming that the Bible contained all sorts of prophecies, many of a secular nature and not just relating to Jews. In a rash moment in an interview, Drosnin stated that only the Bible would have this sort of thing in it, being divinely inspired, and boldly declared that Moby Dick was an example of the sort of book which would not contain predictions of the assassinations of famous people. Perhaps he should have picked some other book, because Australian mathematician Bernard McKay rose to the challenge and found many such predictions in that very book. That this should be possible is no great surprise given that any text of sufficient length will contain all sorts of coincidental patterns, and it is made even more likely when tricks like deciding to leave out all the vowels or spaces can be used to vary the underlying text.

At 50-letter spacing, the Torah contains its own name backwardsThe very idea that the Bible should have this embedded code is curious. Like the theory of reverse speech, which suggests that the spoken word contains intentional meaning when reversed, the idea of such a deeply camouflaged code doesn't make any sense. (The sample at the right combines both ideas - it shows the word "Torah" embedded in reverse in the Torah!) If God wanted to include prophecies in the Bible, why did He do it in a way which meant that nobody could work out what the prophecies were until sufficiently powerful computers were invented, thousands of years after the texts were written? Were computers part of God's long-term plan for humanity, and if so, why do they usually behave as if possessed by demons? Would it not have been simpler for God to include people in the Bible who spoke predictions of what was to come? He could have called these people "Prophets".

2003 Eureka PrizesProfessor McKay won the Australian Skeptics Eureka Prize For Critical Thinking at the Australian Museum's 2003 Eureka Awards for his debunking of this bunk. Congratulations, Bernard.

Coincidentally, there is another mechanism which grabs and keeps meaningful sequences of things out of a vast array of possibilities. It's called "evolution" ...


The limits to quackery (15/8/2003)
I am still looking for forms of "alternative medicine" that are unacceptable to true believers. (I wrote about this some time ago.) A couple of forums that I participate in which deal with alternative medicine have had discussions this week about an apparent case of child abuse, where someone was suggesting daily enemas for the treatment of ADHD. These were to be forced on the children even if they resisted. When I commented on this atrocity by using the ironic statement "No Ritalin here", one of the replies I received was the two simple words "Praise God". Here was someone who believed that their god preferred troubled children to be subjected to the embarrassing, needless and potentially harmful practice of having tubes pushed into their anuses (sometimes with siblings helping to restrain them while it was being done) rather than to have the children treated with a drug with decades of successful use. There was no criticism of the practice from any alternative medicine supporter.

A few days earlier I had been told that there was no basis to object to any "cure" for a disease just because it could not be proved to work, as long as it did not harm the person taking the treatment, they believed it works and it made them feel better afterwards. When I suggested that the practice in southern Africa of raping babies as a cure for AIDS was an alternative to real medicine which did no harm to the people taking the "cure", made them feel better and was believed to work I was told that the definitions which had been cast in stone the day before were now flexible and that I was disgusting. George Orwell was right when he said that you have to use doublethink to practice doublethink. Another word is "hypocrisy".


Battle of the Titans (15/8/2003)
There Subluxated cat.is an old saying that goes something like "the enemy of my enemy is my friend". I find myself in rare agreement with the loons at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) over their objection to the use of animals in the teaching program at Palmer Chiropractic University (sic). I think, however, that my objection is based on a different foundation. PETA objects because the use of animals for any kind of research is evil as animals are more important than humans. In their philosophy, it is impossible to derive any good from any form of animal experimentation. (The one exception to this is apparently the experiments leading to the production of insulin, which just happens to be needed to treat the diabetes of one of the senior executives of PETA. She has apparently justified her use of pig-sourced insulin on the basis that exceptions need to be made for people who are too important to lose.) My objection is that no amount of experimentation on animals will ever validate the nonsense of chiropractic or lead to any benefit for humans, so any experiments carried out for this purpose are just unjustified cruelty to animals. I do wish I had thought of the slogan that PETA are using, though: "Please have the backbone to stop animal tests".


Anti-vaccination liars push the envelope of madness (15/8/2003)
Last year I attended a seminar where mad people stood on a stage and demonstrated their demented thinking to a group of young parents. A few weeks ago I talked here about a woman who claims that there is no such thing as Shaken Baby Syndrome because it is impossible to shake a baby and harm it, therefore the damage seen in such cases must be caused by vaccines. A new contender has appeared in the anti-vaccination liar insanity championship, although, as in any other field of human endeavour, I am sure that there are people out there trying to do better even as I type. Here are two passages from a book called The Medical Mafia by Guylaine Lanctot, M.D. Note the medical degree.

Vaccination enables the selection of populations to be decimated. It facilitates targeted genocide. It permits one to kill people of a certain race, a certain group, a certain country. And to leave others untouched. In the name of health and well-being, of course.

and

Vaccination is a biological weapon at the service of biological warfare. It permits the targeting of people of a certain race, and leaves the others who are close by more or less untouched. It makes it possible to intervene in the hereditary lineage of anyone selected. A new speciality is born. Genetic engineering. It is flourishing, enjoys much prestige, and is receiving substantial research funds. The challenge is staggering. To find a vaccine which gives an illness against which we already have the vaccine! In this way, we would be able to send in troops who have already been vaccinated against the killer vaccine, which they would then spread among the enemy. It is absolutely crazy and insane!


CRA and cold reading (15/8/2003)
I received some comments about the piece I wrote last week about Contact Reflex Analysis. Much of the commentary took place in newsgroups and was the usual drivel about how I didn't know what I was talking about and how it is a wonderful technique, far exceeding the capabilities of such useless real medical practices such as MRI and microbiology. One person just quoted some more slabs from the lying CRA web site, including a claim that arm pushing could somehow be used to cure blindness! The claimant professes to be a Christian, but was unresponsive to my question about whether Jesus used CRA in the healing described in Mark 10:49-52.

Your health written in your right eye.One sensible correspondent, however, raised the very real question about how these obvious tricks seem to have some diagnostic power even though the method is transparently ridiculous. The answer is our old friend, cold reading. Consider the iris chart shown at right (click on the image for a larger view). Of all the forms of quack diagnosis, iridology is the one which should be able to be done with a highest level of reliability. The charts are supposed to show a mapping of the parts of the iris to parts of the body. An iridologist should be able to produce a diagnosis using nothing except a picture of someone's eye, without any further examination or feedback from the patient. Using the same chart, another iridologist with the same training should produce a similar diagnosis. This is what happens, for example, with X-rays or other diagnostic scans, where radiologists might differ slightly in how they interpret images but there will be a large area of agreement. It should also be remembered that the radiologist will usually only work from the image, not the physical patient. I know someone who works in a laboratory where Pap smears are examined for signs of cervical cancer. The technicians only have the slides to work with, never the patients, and the whole system only works because a useful level of interoperator reliability can be assured.

I have seen iridologists in action, and they don't seem to refer to the charts at all, although there will always be one on the wall. The iridologist sits opposite the patient and chats about family medical history and other forms of polite small talk. This is how they find the information which is fed back to the patient as a diagnosis. It is the same technique used in mentalist magic acts, but most magicians will admit that it is a trick. (Scamsters like John Edward pretend that it is some secret power, but it is not.) It is, in fact, the basis of most forms of fortune telling where the reader has contact with the subject. In fairness, it must be said that not all readers do it deliberately, because it is quite easy to convince yourself that you have special skills when all you are is an experienced, attentive and sensitive listener.

While it is possible to do iridology from a picture, thus eliminating the possibility of cold reading, this can't be done with something which requires the tester to make subjective measurements of someone else's strength. Again, the deception may not be deliberate and may be driven by unconscious skills and knowledge possessed by the tester (this is how successful diviners work - they unconsciously recognise the likely places to find water). If the tester has to touch the subject and ask them questions about matters which can only be known by the subject then the possibility of cold reading cannot be eliminated. The subject provides feedback which is used by the tester, and many studies have shown that people simply do not remember the details of conversations. When recordings of "successful" readings or diagnoses are compared to subjects' memories of the events, it is almost invariably shown that they overestimate the accuracy of the reader and fail to remember the guesses which missed.

A good tarot reader can tell you about your children and the colour of your car, and a good arm pushing diagnostician can tell you about your diabetes or diverticulitis. What neither can tell you is anything that you do not already know yourself. Their real skill is getting you to tell them what they need to know without you noticing that the telling is happening.


Karma, who says there's no such thing as karma? (15/8/2003)
Earlier this year I received a threat from some lawyers telling me about the terrible things that were going to happen to me if I didn't stop talking about a company called "Nutrition For Life". It was your typical MLM scam, where the "opportunity" was promoted first and the product (fraudulent diet pills) came a distant second. As of July 3, 2003, NFLI is no more. Sad, isn't it?

It's not pining! It's passed on! This MLM is no more! It has ceased to be! It's expired and gone to meet its maker! It's a stiff! Bereft of life, it rests in peace! If you hadn't nailed it to the perch it'd be pushing up the daisies! Its metabolic processes are now history! It's off the twig! It's kicked the bucket, it's shuffled off its mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible!! THIS IS AN EX-SCAM!!
(Thanks very much to all at Monty Python for the inspiration)

August 21, 2003

Why do I do this? (21/8/2003)
With two out-of-town weekends in a row and two speeches to prepare for next weekend, I haven't had as much time as I would like to work on this site, so this week's update will be a little shorter than usual.

I often get asked why I bother to spend the time I do on this site and on the other things I do of a skeptical nature. For some strange reason, it seems perfectly acceptable to most people if someone spends their weekends playing golf, or watching sport on television, or planting and tending things in a garden, or sitting in a boat fishing, or skulking through the forest hunting animals, or sailing, or playing chess in the park, or trying to see the latest fashionably opaque foreign art movie, or looking at paintings in galleries, or any number of other worthwhile ways to waste time. Replying to a question about how one spends one's weekends by mentioning any of the above activities is usually sufficient, but my hobby seems to require further explanation and justification, as though it is more wasteful of time than hitting a ball or pruning a rose. The four stories below show why I do this.


Things that must never happen again (21/8/2003)
I spent the weekend of August 16 and 17 at the Great Australian Science Show in Melbourne. This event was held in the Melbourne Museum, which is a very impressive piece of architecture. (When it was built there were complaints that its extremely modern and angular design clashed heavily with the 19th century grandeur of the neighbouring Royal Exhibition Building. I totally agree, but then I Would you wish this on anyone?remember when the Sydney Opera House was reviled for not looking as conventional as the tram dormitory which it replaced.) Museums are about the past, but there were two exhibitions which I felt made particular statements about aspects of the past which should stay in the past. This is the history which we repeat if we do not learn from it. One of these exhibitions is the permanent Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre, which catalogues the relationships between indigenous Australians and the later arrivals over the last two centuries. As this is unfinished business, I will say more about it below. The second exhibition is much smaller, and has to do with something which is at the top of my mind - immunisation.

In the last week of my final school year before high school, I ended up in hospital to have my appendix removed. I remember very little about the experience, but one thing that has never left my mind is the image of a young girl who was being kept alive by an iron lung. Last weekend, I stood next to one of these horrible machines and pondered the fact that my children have never seen anybody in one of them, nor have they had to adjust the way they play games at school to make allowances for the kids with callipers on their shrivelled legs. My grandchildren will never see a case of polio. Another exhibit showed a video of a child with whooping cough, complete with the awful sounds. Other stands had pictures of children suffering from vaccine-preventable diseases. Standing in the middle of the exhibition, I could not help but be enraged at the thought that there are people who would inflict these pestilences on children again and who believe that any form of lying is an acceptable means to their end.


Things that should not be happening now (21/8/2003)
Bunjilaka Aboriginal CentreTwo of the greatest blights on civilisation are racism and religious bigotry. When I visited the Bunjilaka Aboriginal Centre in the Melbourne Museum I felt somewhat uncomfortable. There has been a polarisation of views about history of modern Australia, with one extreme suggesting that modern history has been a constant process of persecution and oppression of the indigenous people by the white invaders. This is called the "black armband" view of history. At the other end of the spectrum is the "white blindfold" viewpoint, which says that the black people are a lazy, useless lot who got what was coming to them because they could not cope with progress. As is usual in most cases like this the truth lies somewhere in between, but most thinking people would concede that the correct position is much closer to the former than it is to the latter.

There were two reasons for my discomfort in the exhibition. One was because I felt that the exhibit leaned a little too far towards the black armband side, but this is quite normal and is to an extent forgivable. The other reason was a feeling of sorrow, not because I feel any sense of personal guilt for what went on in the past (regret is not guilt) but because I know that indigenous Australians are still one of the most disadvantaged groups in our society. The effects of racism can be real even if the discrimination is well-intended (or even unintended), so we have to always be alert. We can't undo the past, but we can't ignore it either or pretend that its effects have gone away. It may seem strange to quote comedy, but my views are perfectly expressed in the following words by John Clarke and Ross Stevenson, taken from the satirical television show The Games in 2000. (I have edited out a few words explicitly referring to the Olympics)

The GamesAustralia, like many countries in the new world, is intensely proud of what it has achieved in the past 200 years.

We are a vibrant and resourceful people. We share a freedom born in the abundance of nature, the richness of the earth, the bounty of the sea. We are the world's biggest island. We have the world's longest coastline. We have more animal species than any other country. Two thirds of the world's birds are native to Australia. We are one of the few countries on earth with our own sky. We are a fabric woven of many colours and it is this that gives us our strength.

However, these achievements have come at great cost. We have been here for 200 years but before that, there was a people living here. For 40,000 years they lived in a perfect balance with the land. There were many Aboriginal nations, just as there were many Indian nations in North America and across Canada, as there were many Maori tribes in New Zealand and Incan and Mayan peoples in South America. These indigenous Australians lived in areas as different from one another as Scotland is from Ethiopia. They lived in an area the size of Western Europe. They did not even have a common language. Yet they had their own laws, their own beliefs, their own ways of understanding.

We destroyed this world. We often did not mean to do it. Our forebears, fighting to establish themselves in what they saw as a harsh environment, were creating a national economy. But the Aboriginal world was decimated. A pattern of disease and dispossession was established. Alcohol was introduced. Social and racial differences were allowed to become fault-lines. Aboriginal families were broken up. Sadly, Aboriginal health and education are responsibilities we have still yet to address successfully.

I speak for all Australians in expressing a profound sorrow to the Aboriginal people. I am sorry. We are sorry. Let the world know and understand, that it is with this sorrow, that we as a nation will grow and seek a better, a fairer and a wiser future.


Things that have been happening for far too long (21/8/2003)
Religion is not necessarily bad, although I can do without it personally. It becomes a problem when it raises the expectations of people who are desperate, in just the same way that medical quackery does. Faith healing combines the two evils. I have mentioned before that some people seem to be confused and think that I am Benny I still don't think he looks like me.Hinn, just because this site comes up on search engines when you look for his name. I am not sure how this confusion is maintained, as it should be obvious that the expression "slimy charlatan" would hardly be used to describe Hinn on his own site. Perhaps they have seen the Benny Hinn-style healing that I do as an occasional stage act.

I received an email this week intended for Hinn, and it demonstrates why the battle against the scammers  who steal money by using the name of God is important. What this lady needs is a proper doctor, not someone who will take her money, blow on her forehead, and then forget her and move on to the next mark.

I am requesting prayer for my body, I have had several TIA's ( small strokes) and consequently sugery preforned on both carotid arteries. However since the surgery, the first symptom I had has returned. My left foot goes numb and the left side of my face. Also I have been diagnosed with Fibromyalga which is arthritis of the ham strings, and sinues and muscles of the body. Any illness or trama to the body makes the Fibromyalga worse, and I am experiencing aches and pains all over. Also would you please send me the magazine Benny Hinn sends to xxxxx. Thank you very much for your prayers and your teachings


Things that are nice when they happen (21/8/2003)
Sometimes we don't think rationally. I'm afraid of heights. I know it's really silly, but it usually doesn't have any effect on my life. On holiday once in the middle of Australia, I got stuck half-way up Ayer's Uluru - a sacred site for all AustraliansRock with a full-blown panic attack. I clearly remember sitting on the ground and rationally telling myself that anyone who scored straight As in cognitive psychology and perception at university should be able to recognise that the curvature of the rock was causing an illusion which magnified the apparent distance both to the ground and to the top of the rock. I still couldn't breathe, though. I eventually got to the top, but I could only do it by forcing my body to act against my mind's better judgment.

I was reminded of this recently when I received an email from a university professor who had just had her first child vaccinated. This was not just any random university professor but someone who is an expert in the statistical analysis of scientific experiments, yet she admitted to being influenced by anti-vaccination propaganda. Her words were: "All I could think about was SIDS and autism, and what if there was some slight chance that all those anti-vaccination people were right?". Despite my conviction of the worth of vaccination, I had to admit that similar doubts had entered my mind when my daughter took her son for his first round of shots. Concern like this is natural, but overcoming the concern is vital for the wellbeing of our children. In her email, she thanked me for helping her to make the decision to vaccinate her daughter. If I received only one email each year saying something like this, then all the time I spend on this site would be worthwhile.


Dentist attempts extraction (21/8/2003)
If a government advisory body issued a press release saying "There is a lack of convincing evidence of a link between dental amalgam restorations and specific diseases and symptoms" and someone said that this meant that the organisation had made a "decision ... to withdraw their endorsement of the safety of Dental Mercury Amalgam", would you be surprised if that someone threatened legal action for pointing out the inconsistency? I wouldn't, because legal threats trump facts for many of these people. The dentist in question is rattling his sabre. See the story here.

August 30, 2003

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (30/8/2003)
In I have a dream today1963 I was studying French in high school, although I don't particularly remember spending any time thinking about the above quote. As everyone knows (because it's a cliché), it means "The more things change, the more they remain the same". As a bona fide baby boomer I am not supposed to remember much of the 1960s at all, but I do remember some things from 1963. I remember the pessimism about the state of the world and I remember the optimism that we relative youngsters felt about our ability to change things. This week saw the 40th anniversary of one of the most significant events of that year, an occasion when optimism was at its peak and real progress seemed imminent. It was on August 28, 1963, that Martin Luther King stood in front of a statue of Abraham Lincoln and told the quarter of a million people gathered there, and the rest of the world, about his dream. You can read the full speech here, but I would like to quote two passages which summarise its meaning for me.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today.

and

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Martin Luther King Jr - Carl DixonUnfortunately, King did not live to see the fulfilment of his dream. Unfortunately, neither did anyone else. The evil, the hatreds, the religious and racial bigotries, the wars are still with us. The French journalist Ambrose Karr might not have thought that he was writing philosophy when he coined the title to this article back in 1849, but the forty years since King spoke in Washington have proved Karr right. The methods may have changed and the discrimination may take other forms, but there are still real gulfs built on imaginary differences, on who one chose for parents, or on which superstition is better than which form of witchcraft. Things have changed, but they are still the same.

There was another piece of optimistic writing which came out in 1963. It was written by a scruffy guitar player with a whining voice, but it asked questions which needed to be asked, and which still need to be asked today. Sadly, the answers have not changed.

How many roads must a man walk down
Before you call him a man?
Yes, 'n' how many seas must a white dove sail
Before she sleeps in the sand?
Yes, 'n' how many times must the cannon balls fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many times must a man look up
Before he can see the sky?
Yes, 'n' how many ears must one man have
Before he can hear people cry?
Yes, 'n' how many deaths will it take till he knows
That too many people have died?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

How many years can a mountain exist
Before it's washed to the sea?
Yes, 'n' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, 'n' how many times can a man turn his head,
Pretending he just doesn't see?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.

Copyright © 1962; renewed 1990 Special Rider Music

You might think I am being excessively negative about all this. I'm not. I just think that we need reminding from time to time of what we thought might happen and what actually did happen. Maybe we can do better next time. On a positive note, it wasn't until 1964 that Bob Dylan wrote "The Times They Are A'Changin'". That was only thirty-nine years ago so there is still time for the prediction to come true.


Speaking of Martin Luther King ... (30/8/2003)
One of the Highly Commended sites in the 2002 Millenium Awards was a hoax site created by the racists at Stormfront which pretended to be some sort of official Martin Luther King site. It was very nicely Martin Luther King - click for larger viewdone, looked professional, and consisted of much malicious gossip and derogatory "news" items about Dr King. To sentient beings, whether Dr King was an adulterous boozehound or not is irrelevant to the validity of his messages about tolerance and equality. He was not, after all, tub-thumping about morality and then getting caught leaving brothels with his shoes in his hand while bleating about "just providing pastoral care" to the unfortunate ladies within, like so many other preachers. His campaign was civil rights, and his personal life had nothing to do with this unless it conflicted with those ideals. On the other hand, racists need every lie and innuendo they can find to attack opponents, because they can't rely on the logical and intellectual vacuum of their philosophy.

The Stormfront hoax site is no more. By pure coincidence, I found out that it had disappeared when I ran a regular link check on the day which happened to be the 40th anniversary of Dr King delivering his famous "I have a dream" speech. It would be nice to assume that the Stormfront nazis had closed this deceitful site so as not to offend decent people, but it would also be nice if I were to be fabulously wealthy, irresistible to potential sexual partners, and simultaneously at the top of the world tennis rankings, the Formula 1 drivers' championship table and the Billboard album charts. And just about as likely.

[In 2010 I was advised that the site was back. The new version is much less deceptive, but still could be mistaken for an official King site.]


And just speaking of speaking ... (30/8/2003)
I was invited to participate in a debate organised by the Complementary Healthcare Council of Australia on September 11. The topic was to be "Is Natural Healthcare the Prevention Tool our Health System Needs?", and there were to be speakers from the complementary health care industry as well as conventional medicine and consumer protection and skeptical groups. Unfortunately the debate has had to be postponed until later in the year. I hope that it can still go ahead, as it is important for both sides to hear what the other has to say. There is probably much more common ground than either side would like to admit, and if alternative medicine is to be truly "complementary" then forums like this are essential. Diplomacy is all about finding things for people to agree about, even if the areas in which they don't agree are large.

One forum where I would hope that not too many people would disagree with me is James Randi's Amaz!ng Meeting. The next one will be held in Las Vegas in January 2004, and I will be a speaker. The topic has not been finalised yet, but it will probably be something to do with alternative medicine. You can find out more about the conference here. If any Australians want to join the group already planning the long trek across the Pacific, please email me so that we can coordinate things. As an Australian reptile wrangler would say on American television, "Crikey! It's gunna be bonzer".


Naturopath convicted (30/8/2003)
On Friday, August 20, 2003, a jury in the Newcastle Supreme Court (NSW, Australia) found naturopath Reg Fenn guilty of manslaughter over the 1999 death of 18-day old Mitchell Little. Mitchell was born on September 7, 1999. On September 16 he was diagnosed with critical aortic stenosis - a narrowing of his aorta (the major artery out of the heart to the rest of the body). Tha Aorta from Gray's Anatomy - click for larger viewWe are always being told by the media about the dire condition of our public hospitals and how long patients have to wait for treatment, but corrective surgery for Mitchell was scheduled for the next day in a major Sydney hospital and ambulance transport was arranged to take the child the 200 kilometres or so to the waiting surgeons. Doctors know how serious the condition is, which is why the surgery was immediately arranged. They also know how successful this particular surgical intervention is, and there was no reason to suggest that Mitchell would have come out of the operating theatre with worse prospects for a long life than any other ten-day-old baby.

Mitchell Little did not get that surgery, because a naturopath named Reginald Fenn told Mitchell's parents that he could cure the child with a magical Mora "radionic" machine and some drops of jojoba snake oil. Mitchell died on September 25. To nobody's surprise, the reaction of the alternative medicine industry was to close ranks and go into denial mode. Articles have appeared in "natural health" magazines (some as recent as this year) suggesting that the charges against Fenn were just part of a witch hunt. I was told that he wasn't really a naturopath (his business was the "Lake Macquarie Naturopathic Clinic") and that he must have been inexperienced (he has been doing this for at least 15 years). Another defence was that he is 74 years old. When the people saying that were asked to comment on the fact that alternative hero Linus Pauling only started pushing vitamin C at about that age and that Hulda Clark is that old and is still inventing new forms of quackery the silence was palpable. The ridiculous machines are still on sale and being recommended by quackery supporters. Of course, the number of people "killed" by real doctors was inevitably mentioned (complete with the usual lying, fabricated or long-discredited statistics) as if mistakes by real doctors can be used to justify the deliberate actions of people committing fraud. What was never said is what can never be said - a person with no medical knowledge used his ignorance and arrogance to cause a needless death.

The facts here are simple. There is no form of "alternative medicine" that can expand a constricted artery, just as there is no "alternative" cure for cancer or AIDS or for most of the other diseases which quacks claim to be able to treat. While ever the practitioners of alternative medicine refuse to accept that there are limitations to the usefulness and effectiveness of their potions, palliatives and placebos, tragedies like the death of Mitchell Little will continue to happen. They keep using terms like "complementary" to suggest that they really want to work alongside real doctors, but whenever a problem with alternative medicine arises solidarity trumps complementarity. Surely, the alternative medicine industry could not be such an obvious house of cards that the exposure and elimination of criminals, charlatans and incompetents would cause it to collapse. Or could it? That's what the inhabitants seem to think.

Update:
On February 13, 2004, Reginald Fenn was sentenced to five years imprisonment for the manslaughter of Mitchell Little. The sentence was suspended due to Fenn's age and poor health, but he has been placed on a good behaviour bond lasting the same period. You can read the judge's comments here.

Hal's back! (30/8/2003)
For the last few weeks rabid racist Hal Turner has been begging on his web site for money to keep his site and radio program going. The deadline was about a week ago, when all the money was going to run out, Hal's frontthe site was going to go 403, the radio show was going to be set to just a low whistle, and the free world was going to be vulnerable to being overrun by hordes of faithless, depraved, unwhite abortionists. Luckily for us all, it seems that someone has come up with the necessary cash.

Hal seems to have worked out the answer to another of his problems as well. As Hal is an equal-opportunity racist, he appeared to be having some trouble at one time deciding who he supported in the conflict in the Middle East: the disgusting, hook-nosed kikes or the stinking, depraved, rag-headed savages. He is now firmly in one camp, but a new dilemma has arisen. Hal is not too sure what to think about Arnold Schwarzeneggar. On the one hand, Arnie is being criticised by some people because he bothered to learn English (or something like it); on the other hand, Arnie once admitted to a casual bit of miscegenetic sex with some woman not his wife; on the third hand the woman was black so she probably doesn't count; on the final hand, people are saying that Arnie's father was a member of the Nazi Party. I suspect that for Hal, the last point will clinch the argument and Arnie will be declared a Hal Turner endorsed Good Guy. And he killed a lot of people in films too, which is what Hal wants to have happen in real life.

Note to potential complainers - I think that Hal Turner is a ranting lunatic and the world would be better off without his vile site. Having said that, I don't think that people like him are as dangerous as some might believe. His site is so close to parody that it is unlikely to influence anyone's opinion. Anyone who would agree with him is already unhinged, and most of them would have trouble with the big words he uses anyway.


Alternative "alternative" (30/8/2003)
A couple of serendipitous spelling errors appeared in a particularly hostile exchange between alternative medicine supporters and proponents of science on an Internet forum this week. Both were alternative spellings of "alternative". They were "alternaive" and "alterantive". The side known as "Us" commented with smiles, laughter and suggestions about coffee mugs; the side known as "Them" responded with snarls about the silliness of spelling flames. Sometimes the gulf seems just too wide.



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