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February 10, 2004

Another day, another crumbling legal threat (10/2/2004)
Someone who had apparently developed a mathematical theory which either synthesised all religions into a single equation, or proved that God did not exist, or perhaps meant nothing at all (depending on which day of the week you read it) once threatened me with all sorts of dire consequences under Australian constitutional law. He even paid a lawyer to rather unenthusiastically ask me to cease and desist. After 534 days of quivering in my boots, I was relieved to be told that "I do not believe that Mr. Peter Bowditch, has sufficient cognizance of the underlying supernal aspects relating to the development of a mathematical metaphysical theological 'a priori' to grant his ego any opportunity for self-aggrandizing upon the scales of justice. Accordingly I am advising of my intention to discontinue any further consideration of legal action in the matter of his infraction of liberty of citizenship". Whew! That's a load off my mind.

Veni Vidi Eloqui (10/2/2004)
The Amazing MeetingThe talk I gave at James Randi's Amazing meeting can be read here. This will be very useful to the people who attended the conference and who fell into one of two disadvantaged groups. The first group were those who could not hear because the highly-efficient microphone could not pick up my voice if I moved my head slightly in order to do such unusual things as look at my notes or point to the screen. The second group consisted of people who could hear but could not understand Australian. I have translated the speech into English for them. (The only place in the USA or Mexico where I was not identified as an Australian was in an Outback Steakhouse restaurant. The consensus was that the staff of these faux Aussie eateries would not recognise a real Australian if it bit them.)

Sense in the Wall Street Journal (10/2/2004)
The Wall Street Journal recently published an editorial commenting on the fact that all available research shows that there is no connection between vaccines and autism. This resulted in the predictable onslaught by liars, obfuscators and misinformed people who accused the paper of financial corruption and terrorism, among other things. The following response from the paper appeared on February 9, 2004. Please note the last paragraph.

An editorial in the Wall Street Journal was written after a surprising response the paper received from a previous editorial about vaccines, in which the editorialist had noted that although there is concern that the preservative thimerosal, once used in vaccines, may be the cause of the rise in autism cases in children over the past 30 years, there is no scientific data to reflect that presumption. Letters and e-mail messages subsequently written to the paper accused the editorialist of "fraud," a "terrorist act," and presenting an "industry profit promoting agenda," language that is also being used in other arenas by a relatively small minority of the population that uses its voice to stifle others that have an opposing view. The editorialist noted that such vociferous reaction to one statement of fact reflects a dangerous movement toward the suppression of scientific information for the advancement of a personal viewpoint in attacks on respected organizations. For example, the National Alliance for Autism Research, which is steadfastly independent, found through a rigorous Danish study it co-funded that there is probably no association between the measles-mumps-rubella combination vaccine and autism, yet naysayers immediately attacked the group and slandered its activities despite its record of thoughtful research. The editorial notes that "researchers have spent years studying the vaccine-autism link, and we hope they continue. But if the research disproves a connection--as it has up to now--the autism community needs to listen and move on," as research funding only stretches so far and "parents of autistic children deserve to see the money spent where it will do the most good."

The above material is Copyright 2004 Dow Jones & Company. To assuage the intellectual property lawyers, I will suggest that you click here to pay for a subscription to the online version of the paper.

Nonsense in the New York Times (10/2/2004)
Just to show that there isn't anything in the water in New York which makes newspapers print useful information, the New York Times wasted its February 3 Op Ed page (that's the page with just about the highest status in the paper) by publishing an astrologer's opinions about the various people competing for the Democratic nomination for presidential candidate. I won't insult you by reproducing the rubbish here, but surely a better story would have been to ask the astrologer to predict the outcome of the primaries and the November election. In fact, why not just get the astrologer to declare the final outcome right now so that everyone can start saving up for their outfits for the Inauguration Ball.

If newspapers must perpetuate the myth of astrology the appropriate place is not on the Op Ed page but on the same page as the comics. After all, astrology predicts the future just about as well as Hagar the Horrible and BC describe the past.

February 14, 2004

Quackery's slimy trail (14/2/2004)
Spanish is not widely spoken in New Zealand, so you might be surprised to find a web site with a New Zealand domain name written completely in Spanish. You might have an additional surprise if you checked and found that the site is not hosted on a computer in New Zealand, but comes from Florida in the USA. You might be even more surprised to find that the site is not owned by a Spanish-speaking New Zealander but is in fact owned by a company in Canada, where the last time I looked the major languages were English and French. All of this might set you to wondering why a Canadian company gets a New Zealand domain name in order to run a Spanish language web site out of Florida. The answer is simple. It is because Truehope is a company which lies about what it sells, deception is just part the business culture, and recent government action restricting their activities in Canada has made a need for more creative marketing.. What this outfit sells is a "cure" for mental illnesses, and this cure is a herbal pill which is supposed to stop piglets chewing the tails off other little pigs. That's right, packaged grass clippings used as pig medicine is being sold to humans with the advice that they can replace conventional psychiatric medications. Truehope is en exemplar of quackery - what they sell is useless and untested, it costs nothing to make and lots to buy, they have no interest in the health and welfare of their customers, they try to circumvent any legal or regulatory action which might restrict their activities, and they are prepared to hide and to lie. I have made some comments about them in the past, and you can read those comments here.

Naturopath sentenced (14/2/2004)
In August 2003 I mentioned a baby who had died because a naturopath managed to convince the child's parents that voodoo had cured a serious medical problem. This was not a case where naturopathy might have worked and had not led to a successful outcome, but a case where the quack had deliberately intervened when real medical care was available. 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. The sentencing judge issued a strong warning to "alternative" medicine practitioners when he said: "They should appreciate that if tragedy follows (their treatment of a patient) then the full weight of the law will fall upon them". You can read a report of the sentencing hearing here.

Science and religionBook review (14/2/2004)
I have written a review of the book "Science and Religion: Are They Compatible" edited by Paul Kurtz, Barry Karr and Ranjit Sandhu. The review turned into a mini-essay about science and religion, and you can read it here.

Misdirected email of the week (14/2/2004)
I found this offer almost impossible not to refuse. My opinions about the MLM fraud can be found here. Please note that the words "the MLM fraud" were not chosen at random. Multi-level marketing is fraud by definition. There may be good products sold through pyramid schemes, but that doesn't legitimise the business model. If I buy a stolen Mercedes Benz from a man in a pub it could very well be a good car but that doesn't make car theft an honest occupation.

Dear Friend,
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We would like to send you Free Information about a support site that can provide you with the tools and knowledge to make your residual income explode.
At MLM Success Store we offer proven, established sources for internet leads, MLM leads, network marketing leads, prospecting systems, auto responders, online and live training, lists and sources for the very best How-To books and tapes in the industry and much more!

Happy Birthday, Charles (14/2/2004)
Thursday, February 12 was Charles Darwin's birthday. Had he been alive he would have been 195 years old (as would Abraham Lincoln, who shared the same birth date). I was pleased to attend a function organised by the Humanist Society of New South Wales, The Australian Museum Society and the Australian Skeptics to celebrate the birthday of one of the few scientists of whom it can truly be said that his work caused one of those paradigm shifts that Thomas Kuhn wrote about. The breadth of Darwin's influence can be seen in the range of speakers - Professor Michael Archer (a paleontologist), Dr Charles Lineweaver (a cosmologist), and Professor Paul Davies (astronomer and physicist, and also a winner of the Templeton Prize for advancing religious thought).

Darwin fishAn example of the way that science really happens was demonstrated by a disagreement about some matter which broke out between Dr Lineweaver and Professor Archer during the question and answer session at the end. Creationists love to point to such disagreements as though they are evidence of some doubt among scientists about the fact of evolution. The truth is that science only progresses because scientists continue to look for better explanations, and looking for better explanations means disagreeing with those scientists who have done prior work and published research. In the real world, scientists know that it is possible to agree on some facts (such as the fact of evolution as a fundamental principle in biology) but have different views on the explanation of those facts. When all disagreement has gone and everything is known for sure then what is being done is not science, it is religion. Which is what we keep telling the creationists.

Three prizes were awarded on the day. The Huxley (for original contributions to the science of evolution and evolutionary theories) went to Professor Archer, the Gould (for services to education and the promotion of science in areas relevant to natural history and evolution) went to Professor Ruth Mawson of Macquarie University, and the Wilberforce (for the antievolutionist who through the silly nature of their arguments or actions has done the most to promote evolution as a fact) went to Dr Carl Wieland of Answers in Genesis. I congratulate them all. You can read a story about the prizes here.

He's smiling at the thought of the moneyWhy Benny Hinn is vile (14/2/2004)
I received the following email during the week. It says more than I ever could about why disgusting frauds like Benny Hinn must be exposed and opposed. I have removed the person's name and address.


February 21, 2004

Never let a chance go by (21/2/2004)
The population of Ratbag Castle was recently increased by the addition of a dog. He is two years old and nominally a Sheltie (although his recent ancestry seems to have consisted of a devolution towards the original "dog" kind), is friendly and (much too) active, and obeys commands in the way that creationists respond to A dog.common sense and logic. He was purchased from a place which rescues dogs from death sentences at the local pound, and as there seems to be nothing wrong with him it is assumed that the previous owners just woke up one day and decided to have him killed. Perhaps he didn't match the new furniture. After he had been around for a week or so the Manager of Dog Wrangling wrote to the rescue service to say how pleased everyone (except the cats) was with the new family member. None of this would be a matter for mention in The Millenium Project if my wife had not received a reply from a veterinarian who not only offered to sell her some magical quackery products for the dog but also offered her the opportunity to participate in a business selling the stuff. Need I mention that it wasn't just selling but building a network business? That's right - the vet was pushing a pyramid scheme based on Transfer Factor, which is made from bovine colostrum. He is the advising vet to the rescue service and is trying to get them to use Transfer Factor on the animals in their care. This incident had all the hallmarks of the opportunism shown by many participants in multi-level marketing. But ...

There is a tendency to think that people who get sucked into pyramid schemes are either greedy and unscrupulous or are not smart enough to understand the inherent problems with this type of business. Neither seems to apply in this case. The vet came out of a good veterinary school and has post-graduate qualifications. He has published original research and is considered an authority on certain animal diseases. His employment history suggests that he was prepared to work for the welfare of animals rather than pursue money alone, and this image is reinforced by his involvement with the refuge. It looks like he has deluded himself somehow into believing that an extract of milk can cure all sorts of things and he wants to share this news with everyone, even though claims made for the product defy the science he must know. It is sad to see people deceive themselves like this, and it can be even sadder to see the way such people have to cope with the cognitive dissonance when they finally realise the truth. It is embarrassing enough to realise that you have fooled yourself, but it must be even harder to cope with the fact that you have helped to deceive the people you brought along for the ride.

Religious madness (21/2/2004)
There was a story in my weekend paper about a group of religious believers who spend much of their time harassing people going in to certain shops. A quote from one of these people caught my eye and would have amazed me had I been the sort of person who thinks that there are limits to religious hypocrisy. The person was asked if he ever saw anyone from another religion working his territory and he said "I see missionaries Unrisen as yet Messiah Rebbe Schneersononce in a while. They always like to talk. They figure we're doing the same thing as they are. They ask you to read passages from the New Testament. You just ignore them. You can't chat with someone who's brainwashed". I will repeat that last sentence just in case you missed it. "You can't chat with someone who's brainwashed". This was said by a person who literally wears two hats at the same time because his religion tells him to. This is a man who approaches strangers in the street, asks them if they belong to a certain religious group, and if they say "Yes" he tries to get them to put on a fancy dress costume because his religion tells him to. This is a man who will not touch his wife in any way, not even just at the finger tips, from the moment she starts menstruating until she has undertaken a ritual cleansing seven days after her period has finished because his religion tells him that she is unclean. This is a man who allows his religion to tell him how he must be clothed on those few days when he is allowed to make love to his wife. This is a man who says that the only education required beyond high school (and maybe not even that far) is to read religious texts. And this is a man who has the effrontery and arrogance to say that other people are brainwashed. Breathtaking hypocrisy.

Speaking of religious madness ... (21/2/2004)
Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ opens next Wednesday (Ash Wednesday), but preview sessions have been held for some religious leaders and commentators. One comment caught me by surprise. Some religious representative said that it was a good film but he was surprised at the amount of violence in it. Surprised that a film about how a man was brutally tortured and then killed in a particularly nasty way was was full of violence? Hadn't he read the book?

Quackery correlates with bigotry? (21/2/2004)
I participate in an online discussion forum about alternative medicine. Like many of these groups there are many people who appear on an irregular basis or just appear once or twice, there is a group of lurkers (which may include the irregular correspondents) who just read and watch, and a small group who contribute regularly. In this case there would be about 20 people who would normally post at least once each week, and this group is about equally divided into what I will have to call "Us" and "Them". Recently there has been much discussion about a bigoted remark made by one of the "Them" group, and this discussion has divided on party lines. The solidarity (on one side at least) has been remarkable. Every regular participant in the "Us" group has had something to say about the evils of bigotry, in this case anti-Semitism. From the "Them" side there has been silence (this is not sinister in a couple of cases of people who are single-issue campaigners and who never enter discussions on any other topic), attempts to redefine "anti-Semitism" to make the offence go away, denial of any problem at all, escalation of the taunts to include atheists as well as Jews, misquotes from the Bible, a review of The Passion of the Christ, claims that charges of bigotry are attempts to stifle free speech, wisps of holocaust denial, and more. One classic was a person who claims to be Jewish who couldn't see anything wrong with what her friend had said but who accused another Jewish person of promoting anti-Semitism by protesting about it! (This was not actually surprising as she hates that person so much that she would attack him for saying that Sunday follows Saturday.) What nobody on that side would do is apologise for what was said or offer any criticism of the person who said it.

Admittedly the sample is small, but I find it informative that people who believe in science and real medicine will argue amongst themselves about all sorts of things but are unanimous on something like religious and racial bigotry, but the other side seems prepared to defend anything said by one of their side even when presented with cogent arguments against it. I think the essence of this difference is the need for and acceptance of evidence. One side wants evidence and rejects claims which do not have testable support (and bigotry is an exemplar of belief without evidence) and the other side rejects evidence, accepts anecdote and says "prove it isn't so". Sometimes the gulf just looks too wide.

February 28, 2004

Dr Andrew Wakefield (28/2/2004)
In 1998, the medical journal The Lancet published a paper written by, among other people, Dr Andrew Wakefield. This paper suggested a connection between the MMR vaccine and bowel disorders and between bowel disorders and autism. The same issue of the journal contained a paper which refuted any causal link between the vaccine and autism, but this did not stop Dr Wakefield becoming an instant hero of the anti-vaccination liar movement. When the other authors of the paper distanced themselves from Dr Wakefield's Would you buy a used intestine from this man?campaigning on behalf of the anti-vaccinators this just made him more of a hero. (He was now being rejected by the orthodoxy.) The science in the paper was always suspect, simply because it looked like Wakefield had cherry-picked the subjects of his research. There were only 12 subjects in total, and nine of them were autistic. It looked like Wakefield was working backwards from autism to MMR in order to prove something, but nothing could be proved because the paper said that the subjects were a sequential group of children who had presented at a hospital. In English, the word "sequential" suggests that they arrived in that order without any intervening patients.

The Lancet is now saying that it wished it had not published the paper, and is saying that it would never have published if it had known the truth about funding for the research, the subject selection and Dr Wakefield's conflict of interest. We now know that some of the subjects were not randomly selected but were supplied to Dr Wakefield by a firm of lawyers acting for the parents of the children. Dr Wakefield was paid 55,000 for his work and was going to receive more payments as an expert witness when the lawyers got into court against the vaccine manufacturers. Put bluntly, Wakefield was paid to find a certain result (which matched his beliefs anyway) and was going to get a lot more money if he found it.

(A longer version of this article was published in Australasian Science. You can click here to read it.)

Speaking of Dr Wakefield ... (28/2/2004)
The anti-vaccination liars have gone into meltdown about this latest blow to their propaganda campaign. One of them (who once told me to "take your vaccines and put them in a place where the sun doesn't shine" and who has also accused me of being a "scumbag" in the employ of vaccine manufacturers) has set up a web site where people can register messages of support for Dr Wakefield. I am planning to add my own contribution, although I very much doubt that it will get past the censorship process. My message will say

I am speaking on behalf of the parents of the more than 2,000 children who died from measles yesterday. We would like to congratulate Dr Wakefield for providing ammunition and support to those people who are working to ensure that this number never gets any smaller.

And anti-vaccination liars ... (28/2/2004)
Imagine that your state legislature was about to pass a bill which included the following section:

All children in this state entering school shall have been be immunized against diphtheria, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, hepatitis-b, chickenpox, tetanus and whooping cough, except that health care providers may exempt a child from any or all immunizations from the diseases enumerated in this subsection for medical reasons consistent with commonly accepted practices.

Imagine that someone told you that this meant that there would be no exemptions granted from vaccination, even for children who are homeschooled and never get around to "entering school". Perhaps they might even use the following words:

A devastating new bill has been introduced in West Virginia. It is SB439, introduced by Senator Prezioso of Marion County and Senator Minard of Harrison County. SB439 has already passed the Senate HHR Committee on February 19, 2004. It is expected to pass the Senate floor and House committees next week...As written, the bill will require that all children in West Virginia be vaccinated, whether they attend school or are homeschooled, with no recourse for exemptions. Homeschoolers in all 50 states have always been able to choose not to vaccinate. They either are exempt from mandatory vaccination required to attend school, and/or they are offered religious exemptions. This bill will make WV the first state in which homeschoolers have no choice.

You would have to assume that the person who told you this was lying. Actually, you would not even have to read that far as the words "Ingri Cassel, director of Vaccination Liberation" at the top of the piece would tell you that you were about to read lies, because that is what Ingri Cassel does. And these people keep asking why I call them liars.

But wait, there's more ... (28/2/2004)
I am working up a set of Articles of Faith of the anti-vaccination liars, based on the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church. This will take a little time, but in the meantime, here are Articles VII and VIII:

VII. Of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament is not contrary to the New: for both in the Old and New Testament everlasting death is offered to Childkind. Wherefore they are not to be heard, which feign that the old Fathers did look only for transitory promises. Although the Law given from God, as touching Ceremonies and Rites, do not bind Antivax men, nor the Civil precepts thereof ought of necessity to be received in any commonwealth; yet notwithstanding, no Antivax man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

These Commandments are:

  1. Thou shalt have no opinion about vaccination except that it is evil.
  2. Thou shalt not take unto thee any properly conducted scientific research showing the safety or efficacy of vaccines, whether conducted in heaven above, or in the earth beneath, or in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not agree with it, nor accept it.
  3. Thou shalt not accept any notion favourable to vaccination.
  4. Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work, for in six days thousands of children will die of measles alone and on the seventh many more will die while you are resting.
  5. Honour those who speak out against vaccination that thy days may be long and children's days may be short.
  6. Thou shalt not kill, except by vaccine-preventable disease.
  7. Thou shalt not vaccinate against sexually transmitted diseases, for verily it has been said of those who suffer thus: "It is their fault".
  8. Thou shalt not steal, unless it be the lives and health of children that is stolen.
  9. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour, unless thy neighbour works in vaccination research in which case thou mayest say anything about him regardless of truth.
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's knowledge of science, medicine or morals, for such knowledge may cause thee to accept the value of vaccination.

VIII. Of the Creeds.

The Barbaran Creed, and that which is commonly called the Antivaxers' Creed, ought thoroughly to be received and believed: for they may be proved by most certain warrants of Holy Scripture. The Creed says:

I believe in the evil of vaccines.
Vaccines are always harmful.
Vaccines are never safe.
Vaccines serve no purpose except to enrich sinners.
No disease has ever been prevented by vaccination.
Vaccines cause autism.
Vaccines cause children to take on the appearance of children who have been beaten.
Anything said against vaccines is the truth.
Anything said in favour of vaccines is a lie.
Diseases which kill and damage millions of children are benign.
Murderers are heroes.
Heroes are murderers
The end justifies the means.

The Passion (28/2/2004)
I've decided that I won't be seeing Mel Gibson's film, The Passion of the Christ. Not because I'm not a believer, or I think that it disparages certain groups of people, or because it tells the story of Jesus badly. I will A suffering Jesus.not go because of the violence. I've read the book and I know how the story ends, so the fact that there are some violent scenes in the film does not surprise me. It is the amount of violence and the relentless assault on the viewers which turns me away. I realise that this is Mel Gibson's film and it is telling the story in his way. I have no desire to censor his work in any fashion, but sometimes too much is just too much. I just simply do not want to sit through almost two hours of watching someone being tortured (reviewers have described the film as "the first legal snuff movie" and "The Jesus Chainsaw Massacre"). I don't know how many people, if any, will be converted to or confirmed in a belief of Jesus as a personal saviour through seeing such a graphic representation of his suffering, but I think there Don't look - you may become a real possibility of causing waverers to question the need for a god who could let anyone be treated this way, let alone someone whom he had referred to as "My Son".

As an aside, the reaction to this film by certain religious groups has been fascinating when it is compared to their reaction to other controversial visual images presented recently. It seems that no harm can come to people's psyches and morals by watching extended scenes of brutality, and it might even be good for children to see a literal blow-by-blow presentation of Christ's suffering, but the sight of a human female's nipple for a few tenths of a second at half-time in a football match can possibly lead to the downfall of civilisation and an outbreak of debauchery and wantonness. Weird thinking.

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