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October 6, 2007

Brevity alert (6/10/2007)
Another brief update this week, because I am off to the small country town of Grenfell. This visit is part of a program of exploration by Her Majesty and me as we consider options for escaping from the rat race and moving to somewhere where the air is clean, the traffic invisible (the last country town we investigated had NO traffic lights!), the locals are friendly, the pubs are relatively free of slot machines and life runs at a slower pace than in the big city. We plan to make these trips about once each month. Of course there are some things I'm not going to give up, and the first question I ask the local officials is "How fast is the broadband?" With the drought still on I might even be able to pick up some work dowsing.

Australasian Science (6/10/2007)
The October edition of Australasian Science is now on the newsstands, complete with my latest Naked Skeptic article about the deception or Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. You can read the article here. I thoroughly recommend a subscription the magazine, even if you don't live in Australia. It was one of the best two science magazines in the country until the management of the Australian Museum went all postmodernist and killed what was possibly the longest-running publication of any kind in Australia in an attempt at "relevance". That decision left Australasian Science as the indisputable Number 1.

And, no, I don't know why the column is called "The Naked Skeptic". Some things will forever remain a mystery.

Well, I tried (6/10/2007)
A friend contacted me during the week to tell me about a web site which was looking for writers who might even get paid to write stuff about UFOs, psychics and various other paranormal topics. I had a glance at the site and it looked like a blog with quality close to average with a lean to the mediocre, but I thought "What the heck" and sent this email:

Tell me more!

Examples of my output can be found at

The first sentence of the reply said:

What would you like to know? I went to the link you provided but did not see any articles. It simply took me to the home page. How do I find your stuff?

The writer then went on to tell me about his extensive experience at running web sites, how he was too busy to keep writing for this one, how there might be some pay some time in the future when the site became even more fantastically successful than it now is, and finished with another request for information:

Let me know if any of this sounds interesting, what you might bring to the table, and point me at some samples of your writing.

There are about 800 pages in the various sections, most of them written by me. I am carefully considering my reply to this web expert who doesn't seem to know that you have to click on links to see where they go.

And I tried some more (6/10/2007)
A person who says that germs don't cause disease (they are a result of infection, not the cause) posted the following claim to an alternative medicine forum:

As a scientist, I have a hard time understanding how so many thousands of scientists can be so mislead. That is until I go to my best source of information. In Rev. 18:23, THE BOOK states "for whole nations were decieved by your medicines." Only by understanding that it was to happen and is happening can I go orward and fight the deception.

This particular clown has never shown any evidence of being any sort of scientist (or of being able to spell words correctly). He has made this claim about what the Bible says about medicine before, and has been questioned about it before. A friend of mine (who happens to be - wait for it - a licensed practitioner of acupuncture and is coincidentally Jewish and therefore not your conventional New Testament scholar) and I both came back with the following quote from the King James Version of the Bible

Revelation 18:23
and the light of a candle shall shine no more at all in thee; and the voice of the bridegroom and of the bride shall be heard no more at all in thee: for thy merchants were the great men of the earth; for by thy sorceries were all nations deceived.

A fourth person then chimed in to support the original poster. She accused both the acupuncturist and me of lying about what the Bible said and offered the following quote from another translation (the New International Version):

Revelation 18:23
The light of a lamp will never shine in you again. The voice of bridegroom and bride will never be heard in you again. Your merchants were the world's great men. By your magic spell all the nations were led astray.

The person quoting this claims to be a Christian. She has continually dismissed my knowledge of anything on the basis of my being an atheist and once called the acupuncturist "Jew boy" and accused him of consequently knowing nothing about the Ten Commandments. In this she is typical of many so-called religious people who have less familiarity with their holy books than do outsiders and non-believers. That is not the point I am making here, however. What is demonstrated here is how believers in nonsense (in this particular case, nonsense about medicine) will stick together in the face of facts. Here was Bishop Ussher - it's all his faultsomeone saying that we were lying when we said that the Bible didn't say "whole nations were deceived by your medicines" by giving an alternative translation which also did not include the word "medicine". Bizarre!! Is it any wonder that these people can't grasp basic science, or even common sense?

Speaking of the Bible ... (6/10/2007)
It was the birthday of the universe this week. Yes, that's right - creation happened on October 4, 4004BC. In June 2005 I foolishly allowed myself to become involved with a public debate with some creationists, and you can read something about that experience here. I am still waiting for answers to some questions I posed at the time about this 6000-year-old universe thing, and maybe someday some creationist will get around to answering some of them.

Brain-dead spammer of the week (6/10/2007)
As well as having a reasonably high web profile through this site and various skeptics groups, I participate in several social networks such as Facebook. I am also old enough to have met and interacted with a lot of people in my life, but it is still a bit surprising when someone pops up from the distant past. As an example, when I was performing at the recent National Science Week show in Sydney a member of the audience told me that we had both been part of a sporting club more than twenty years ago.

This email just turned up in my inbox:

Hi! I'm not sure if you remember me.. I'm Ann Berns, I guess we went to high school together. It was quite a while ago but I still remember our friendship. Do you remember that walk after classes? It was really cool! And them my parents moved to another town and I had to leave with them... What a bugger it was to start in another school, with no friends around. I felt very lonely in the beginning, until half a year or so later, when I made new friends. But this is another story. But I still think about you sometimes, all that fun, all whispering chats during classes. Do you want to see what I look like now? Visit my home page then, it's at xxxxx

Hmmm. The only girl I remember from those days with a name like that spelled it "Burns", and her first name did start with "A" but it wasn't Ann (or even Anne, as the From: header said). Ann(e) seemed a little uncertain about where her web site is too, because when I put my mouse over the link it showed a completely different target address. (No, I didn't click on it. I am not as silly as I look.) The thing that really got me wondering about Ann(e)'s legitimacy was that I ran my mind back to my high school days and remembered that there had been a reason why the school had the name it did. There wasn't a lot of whispering with the girls in class at Normanhurst Boys' High.

(Coincidence time: I first became involved with the Australian Skeptics organisation thirty-five years after I left high school. The person who invited me to join the committee (and whom I had never met before) had lived a few streets away from where I had lived during my formative years. She had attended the same girls-only high school as my sister and her brother had gone to Normanhurst, but we didn't find this out for some time after we first met. Spooky.)

October 13, 2007

What are these things called "ethics"? (13/10/2007)
When a member of a professional body breaches the organisation's code of ethics, it is reasonable to expect that the organisation would take disciplinary action against the offender. When Andy Lewis pointed out on his excellent Quackometer blog that a homeopath was clearly violating the code of ethics of the UK Society of Homeopaths by claiming to be able to cure malaria and asthma, the reaction was swift and as expected. The SoH threatened to sue Andy and his hosting ISP for defamation unless the article was removed from his site. No action against the lying homeopath, of course, but what else would you expect from an organisation devoted to the perpetuation of a fraud in the full knowledge that it is fraud. Andy took his page down but it has reappeared in many places, one of which is here.

See more cartoons by Prasad Golla at the North Texas Skeptics site.

What was I thinking? (13/10/2007)
Was I even thinking at all? Was it a Senior Moment? Could it be blamed on the boogie or the bossa nova? Was it anything to do with Pope Gregory XIII and his introduction of extreme daylight saving time? Have the polio shots I had in primary school finally caught up with me? Whatever the reason, I actually did know even as I was writing about the birthday of the universe being on October 4 that it was really on October 23. Bishop James Ussher appeared to me in a dream this week and quoted from what must have been the Vulgate Bible: "Tu est stultus". As we were reminded, however, in that great literary work Life of Brian we should "Always look on the bright side", and the bright side here is that now I get to attend two birthday parties for the universe this year. I just hope that by the time the second one comes around I can still remember the first.

And speaking of the creation ... (13/10/2007)
Just near the hotel I was staying in last weekend while visiting the country metropolis of Grenfell (population 2,000) there was a shop with the simple and generic title "Christian Book Shop". From the bargain table just inside the door I was able to buy, for a very reasonable price, two DVDs produced by our old friends at Creation Ministries International, who used to be called Answers in Genesis until there was a big falling out with the US branch of the organisation.


The new organisation name on the DVDs suggested that they might contain some new creationist claims, but it was the same drivel that has been responded to and debunked countless times. The three books below were produced by Australian Skeptics many years ago and they don't need any updating to be adequate responses to the repetitive nonsense that keeps getting polished up and reissued by the creationists. It is interesting to note that Dr Tas Walker, the man who has the Australian evidence for Noah's flood, is a "respected geologist" who has worked on "the geological assessment of coal deposits". I can only wonder who respected him enough to employ him, seeing that he seems to think that Australia's quite massive coal deposits are only about 4,000 years old.

Creationism - an Australian perspectiveCreationism: Scientists respondThe Other Quote Book
Click on any cover to download the book.

More naked skepticism (13/10/2007)
Australasian ScienceThe Naked Skeptic column in the November issue of Australasian Science will be a revision of something I wrote a few years ago about quacks lying about Louis Pasteur making a death bed confession that he was wrong about germs. The magazine won't be out for a few weeks, but you can read the article here.

Keep those kids safe (13/10/2007)
In a move which can only really be interpreted as an attempt to buy the votes of the paranoid or religiously insecure members of the population, the Australian government has introduced a scheme which allows any resident of the country to obtain Internet filtering software for free. I haven't detected any great demand for this in my travels, but perhaps that's because I move in circles where protecting the kids from dirty words or pictures is seen as less important than education, infrastructure, defence, health and other things that governments are usually supposed to provide and manage.

A very good book and a best-seller, too!Concern about net nasties is nothing new, and when I wrote a book about the Internet ten years ago I researched pornography because I was inevitably asked about it whenever I did a radio interview promoting the book. My usual advice to worried parents on the other end of talk-back lines was that the best approach was not high walls but communication and consultation, just as it should be for the other dangers of youth like sex and drugs. Talk to them, set out the rules, be prepared for them to occasionally fail to live up to expectations, and be there when they needed you. Much like life, really.

There was some filtering software around in those days, but it was rather primitive and relied mainly on blacklists of web sites and words. A good laugh could always be had about filters which blocked access to sites which mentioned breast cancer, sex education or men named Dick. I wondered what progress had been made in the last decade with faster computers allowing more sophisticated programming and therefore better heuristics and more inbuilt intelligence, so I decided to try the new free software being offered to me nightly on television.

I had several products to choose from, and I picked a program named Integard. The only criterion for choosing this one over any of the others was that the description suggested that it might be less intrusive than some of the others. I installed it with filtering set to "Older teenager", because that's what's in my house. (I should point out that it was only installed on my own personal machine, not my daughter's.)

The first place to check was obviously The Millenium Project. I didn't bother to check all 700 or so pages, but enough of the pages were being blocked for adult content, violence or grossness and obscenity to make me wonder what sort of site I was running here. A quick check over a selection of pages on the Australian Skeptics site produced a large proportion blocked for violence or adult content. I spoke to the web master there about his disgraceful site, but he just scratched my head and said that it was a puzzlement.

One real mystery was why the history page here for June 2006 was blocked for illegal activities. Readers are invited to go there and try to work out just what illegal activities are being talked about or promoted.

A particular annoyance was that sometimes pages which got through the filtering would have parts of the HTML code missing, so they displayed as meaningless rubbish. Another was that some, but not all, JavaScript routines were prevented from running. I also found that even when told to stop monitoring (by entering a password) the thing didn't quite go away. I discovered this when I did my regular link check on this site and got "Blocked by Integard" screens when I checked on some reported broken links.

False positives are always a problem with any filtering software. When I found that access to the millions of mailing lists at was blocked at the domain level because the whole project was classed as a dating service I started to have doubts. When I found that the tens of thousands of t-shirt and coffee mug shops at were unavailable because of a blanket ban for drug references I started to giggle hysterically. (My daughter suggested that someone must have been selling t-shirts with pictures of marijuana leaves on them, something which I thought had gone out of fashion at about the time the 'web was invented.) When I was told that a blog page discussing Al Gore's Nobel Peace Prize was blocked for adult content I decided that I had had enough and this piece of rubbish could safely be deleted from my computer. I don't think I will bother testing the other offerings from the government. I can only stand so much pain.

And, yes, I went looking for a pornography site and it was blocked. That was the only page I attempted to access which was blocked for any reason which made sense to me.

Footnote: The government is paying licence fees to the software manufacturers, at a reported $190 million for a year. There was a program on television this week (October 11 was World Sight Day) which reminded us about the tragedy of trachoma being the leading cause of blindness in the Aboriginal population of Australia (the disease was wiped out of the white population seventy years ago). It is estimated that this plague could be completely eradicated with an expenditure of $20 million over five years. I am sure that if the voters were given the choice of how to spend the money the Fred Hollows Foundation would be preventing blindness without having to worry about the budget and nobody would be spending ten times that amount to stop kids looking at pictures of naked bodies. Or even t-shirts and coffee mugs.

October 20, 2007

Administration (20/10/2007)
That will teach me not to respond when a reader asks for a favour. The request was for a way to easily link to individual articles in the site history pages, and as it was something I had been thinking about myself for some time I said "Why not?" Well, one reason why not is because it took much more time than I actually had to spare (and it's not finished yet). Of course, more time would have been available if it wasn't also the weekend to do all the family tax returns (with only three vital documents still to be located) and I hadn't forgotten to get a flu shot when the time was right.

(Note to self: Next year get the flu shot when you should, otherwise you will feel like an idiot later in the year when it is too late. A sick idiot. With aches, tiredness, stuffed nose and a sore throat.)

Where some more time went (20/10/2007)


More AIDS madness (20/10/2007)
Anti-vaccination liars have long claimed that AIDS is deliberately being spread in Africa by vaccination. (I was in the room when Australian doctor and anti-vaccination hero Dr Archie Kalokerinos declared that the World Health Organization and Save the Children Fund "put Hitler and Stalin in the shade" with their deliberate policy of genocide by vaccination.) A new vector for AIDS has now been announced by the head of the Catholic Church in Mozambique, Archbishop Francisco Chimoio. It's the condoms being distributed to prevent the spread of the disease. "How do condoms cause AIDS?" I hear you ask, and the answer is simple - it's because condoms are deliberately infected with the HIV virus at the time of manufacture. Archbishop Chimoio also claims that retroviral drugs are being made which encourage the disease rather than treat it. (This is a different claim to the one made by several AIDS deniers and alternative medicine promoters, which is that AZT causes AIDS, the evidence being the fact that almost everyone taking the drug also has AIDS.) All of this is being done to wipe out the population of the African continent so that the Europeans can take over the place.

Most Archbishops I have come across seem to be reasonably intelligent men who just happen to disagree with me about the existence of and the rules deriving from some deity. Archbishop Francisco Chimoio appears to be barking mad. Either that or he believes that telling a lie is an acceptable way to enforce the Church's ban on the use of condoms for any purpose whatever. Read the story here.

Not all the news out of Africa is bad (20/10/2007)
AIDS isn't the only pandemic in Africa. There is also hunger. The CBS 60 Minutes show featured a story about how Médicins Sans Frontières is producing a product called Plumpynut made from peanut butter, milk powder and sugar which is saving children's lives in Niger. Five million children die around the world every year from malnutrition and something which is cheap, easy to make and requires no refrigeration or special handling must be of enormous benefit.

There are detractors and perceived problems, of course. In the interview the inevitable mention of peanut allergy came up, and the MsF doctor replied "We just don't see it. In developing countries food allergy is not nearly the problem that it is in industrialized countries". Another way of putting that is that food allergy is a luxury found in places with plenty to eat from a wide choice of foods. Another objection was that the product contains sugar. (This is there for two reasons - it provides quick carbohydrates which starving children need and it makes the stuff taste good so the kids will eat it.) This is bad for two reasons - it makes money for pharmaceutical companies (??) and it leads to Type II diabetes. Speaking as someone with Type II diabetes, I can categorically state that it is a better condition than death. The poor formatting of the discussion forum on the 60 Minutes site makes it hard to follow who said what, but it seems that objections were also raised on the basis that feeding starving children just encouraged people to have more children. I would assume that the anti-milk-powder loons would be against it too, but there is only so much idiocy that I can take on one day.

The Nobel Peace Prize sometimes seems to go in the wrong direction, but the 1999 award to Médicins Sans Frontières could only be criticised or disputed by people with no souls or consciences.

The devil made me do it (20/10/2007)
Someone was commenting about some real research which contradicted a claim that some form of quackery worked. Another participant in the forum responded with a list of words which are considered meaningless buzzwords when used to compare alternative medicine research to science and which indicate that the criticism can be ignored.

*Substantial* *real* *convincing* *hard* *clear-cut* *reasonable* *significant* *credibile (sic)* *compelling* *copious* *direct* *reliable* *adequate* *solid*

I couldn't help myself, and had to ask:

I realise that most (if not all) research done by alternative medicine spruikers (when it is done at all, of course) is insubstantial, false, unconvincing, easy, obfuscated, unreasonable, insignificant, incredible, uncompelling, rare, indirect, unreliable, inadequate and vaporous, but do you really need to point this out every time a piece of real research is mentioned? Do you want to make alternauts seem incompetent?

From I'm No Quack, a collection of doctor cartoons drawn for the New Yorker by Danny Shanahan.

It's ipecac time again (20/10/2007)
ThisCephaelis ipecacuanha - another way of making yourself sick is a pediatrician speaking, someone who is supposed to be a specialist in the care of children:

"I tell them if you don't want to vaccinate for philosophical reasons and the state doesn't allow that, then say it's for religious reasons," she said. "It says you have to state that vaccination conflicts with your religious belief. It doesn't say you have to actually have that religious belief. So just state it."

I have to admit that even after spending so much time in the swamp I can still be amazed at the effrontery and deceit practised by anti-vaccination liars. It seems that every time these vile creatures wake up in the morning they look forward to another day finding ways to harm children. Just read that paragraph above again. See how it can be paraphrased as "Lie about what you believe". You can read the story about how parents are avoiding their responsibilities here. And notice the way that Barbara Loe Fisher from the National Vaccine (dis)Information Center has a nice piece of vacillation. She doesn't like people lying about religion to avoid vaccination, but, what the hell, the end justifies the means and the end is fewer vaccinated children. Or, put another way, more dead, damaged, disabled and diseased children.

That's telling me! (20/10/2007)
I am suitably chastened by this email, and I promise to mend my ways and try harder in the future.

Date: Thu, 11 Oct 2007 18:05:41 +0100
From: "david keddle"
Subject: FUCCA!!!!

HI ALL// If I did,nt KNOW YOU, then WOTS the point???? Canya B more Relative, INformative, WIDE OPEN MORE TO PISS OFF OR EXPOSE GOVERMENT BULLSHIT!!!!!!

Queensland (20/10/2007)
Queensland is Australia's strangest state. It has produced both the craziest and the most corrupt politicians that the country has seen (with one state Premier taking out the quinella for both craziest and most corrupt). It is where creationism festers at Creation Ministries International (nee Answers in Genesis), and is the only state where serious consideration was ever given to teaching creationism in schools. It was the home of Australia's most egregious cancer quack and our most famous "this car runs on water" inventor (both given serious government encouragement). It is where Nexus magazine is published, one of the world's most unhinged publications. It was the focal point for the spread of the cane toad, A cane toad. Yuk!generally regarded as the world's most loathsome animal. It was about the only place in Australia where slavery was ever practised, and Queenslanders overwhelmingly elected the most stupid and the most overtly racist members of the federal parliament seen in living memory. (Both of them were the same woman, who is threatening to stand again in the coming elections. She hopes that people will forget her imprisonment for electoral fraud.)

It's not all bad, of course. There's Bundaberg Rum, the Great Barrier Reef, and there's ... Well, I am sure there are many good things there. It is certainly a nice place for a tropical holiday, but I always like to keep my return air ticket close to my person.

Queensland has now achieved another distinction - it is where almost all the UFOs go. Over the last two years there have been 100 "official" sightings in Queensland out of a national total of 128 (or maybe only 120 - the newspaper article reports both numbers). As it says at the web site of UFO Research Queensland:

UFO Research Queensland's official policy is that there now exists, and has for many years, a large body of well attested sightings that are so unambiguous the only reasonable inference is that extraterrestrial vehicles are flying through our atmosphere, landing on the ground, and entering our oceans.

The team of highly-trained analysts at Ratbags Think Tank have been considering this phenomenon, and have come up with some possible reasons for the disproportionate rate of alien visitation to Queensland.

Quintessence Nook (20/10/2007)
I mentioned Queensland. Here is more Australian weirdness from the vault at Quintessence of the Loon.

An Aussie ET.UFO Research Queensland - The Gympie Pyramid added 26 April 2001
You thought that all the ET pyramids were in Egypt or the Americas, didn't you? Well, here's more news. There were (and still are) pyramids in Australia. I haven't seen the Gympie pyramid because it is on private land and the owner doesn't want people wearing it out by looking at it. I would suspect that it was a myth except for the conclusive evidence of a petrified ET that was found near Gympie. Just look at that picture and tell me you don't believe that creatures like this once roamed across Queensland. Or perhaps they hopped. Maybe they taught the kangaroos how to locomote. Someone must have, things like that don't just evolve. Gympie has several fine Chinese restaurants (and there is a pyramid in China!). Think about it. By the way, if you add 666 to the first three digits of the Gympie postcode and divide the sum by 51, you get a number which is almost exactly seven times pi. Accidental? I think not!

Clear evidence of political activity.Gaiaguys added 14 June 2001
Some people have a problem with governments. Some people have a problem with police. It seems that the owners of this web site are the victims of a mass conspiracy of state, federal and local governments and bureaucracies, politicians from all political parties and the entire police force of the state from top to bottom. I didn't read it all, but perhaps the ambulance and fire services are part of the plot as well. Even local louts have been conscripted to get drunk on Saturday nights and knock over the complainants letter box. This is serious stuff. I didn't know all this was going on around where I live. The bright side is that if all the politicians are agreeing with each other and conspiring to knock over letter boxes they won't be hanging around my local shopping centre frightening babies.
[Sadly, the GaiaGuys web site is no more. It contained Australia's finest collection of idiocy and paranoia. Comments on its demise include accusations of suppression by the government and assault by Satanists.]

A map of Gosford, just north of Mount Kuring-Gai.Awareness Quest Research - Australian Archaeological Anomalies added 23 September 2000
One of the conundrums of that great intellectual endeavour, Creation Science, has been the distribution of animals. If all the animals were on the Ark, how was it that Australia got all those marsupials? How did the platypus, wallaby and koala get from Turkey to Toukley? (I know the platypus is not a marsupial (it's a monotreme), but it's still weird.) It would have made more sense to find all the pouched critters near the landing site (they don't travel very well) and the placental things spread out over the rest of the world. Also, there was a severe lack of eucalyptus trees on Mount Ararat, making it even harder for koalas to survive. This site provides a glimmer of a clue to an idea which may answer this great question. It seems that there have been archaeological finds in Australia which suggest a connection with the Levant. I am proposing an even more radical notion - that in ancient times, the Middle East was in Australia. Noah did not wind up on Mount Ararat but on Mount Kuring-Gai, an isolated and little-explored area with much marsupial habitat around it. A further clue is that the word "kuring-gai" means "bloody big boat" in the local Aboriginal dialect. You can believe me when I say that. You read it on the Internet.
[In 2010, Awareness Quest turned into a guest house offering pampering to tourists. Perhaps they are offering the delights of a trip to the Middle East while avoiding the hostilities in that part of the world by going to Queensland instead.]

October 27, 2007

Some people are never satisfied (27/10/2007)
There was at least one rather surprising reaction to the video interview I featured last week. The following comment was posted to the the Usenet newsgroup

Wait a minute. You grew new hair, not gray?
How much makeup was used?
My, my you are getting younger.

You have just shown what a deceiver you are.

Compare with video of Jun. 6-06.
I smell a rat.

Polly - head of the Ratbags Institute of Rodent Research
Polly - head of the Ratbags
Institute of Rodent Research

I assume that the "video of Jun. 6-06" refers to the one showing me attempting to commit homeopathic suicide. I must therefore admit that the critic is correct and I indeed changed my hair style in the 499 days between June 10, 2006, and October 22, 2007. This is obviously an attempt at deception because, as everyone knows, hair stays the same length and colour indefinitely. The only really puzzling thing is the comment "not gray", as I am sure that my hair is still grey. I would look in a mirror but for some reason I have no reflection. (It must be because of my unusual blood group). I was gratified, though, to read that I am getting younger. That portrait I had painted must be working, or maybe it's the monkey gland extract I bought from the visiting alternative endocrinologist at my local health food and supplement store. And I hope that it's not Polly that smells.

A "Thank you" (27/10/2007)
I would like to thank the community associated with the Auburn Gallipoli Mosque for the hospitality shown to visitors on their open day this weekend. I believe that it is very important for all the members of our diverse community, whether adherents to a particular religious faith or non-believers like me, to familiarise themselves with how other people live their lives and practise their beliefs. I have a lot to say about religion on this site, but I have always maintained that the problem is not with religion per se but with those who use religion (or pretend to use religion) as an excuse to harm others or to divide people. I saw nothing at the mosque which caused me any concern at all, I had some misconceptions about Islam corrected, and I learnt some things that I didn't know before. The building itself is an asset to the district's architectural landscape and the decoration in the interior is quite astounding, particularly when you hear that all the intricate hand-painting of designs took less than six months.

Our guide made an interesting comment about inculcating children into religion, a comment with which I agree completely. She said that nobody could become a real Muslim until they freely chose the religion at or after puberty, and that there was therefore no such thing as a "Muslim child". I don't go as far as Richard Dawkins does in describing forced early religious categorisation as child abuse, but I have always held that it is meaningless to label children as if beliefs and faiths are genetic. Nobody is born with any supernatural belief at all, and nobody should be expected or assumed to believe anything just because of who their parents are.

Some people never give up or shut up (27/10/2007)
During the week I attended the final two lectures in the series based on the British Medical Journal's list of the 15 greatest milestones in medicine over the last 140 years. One of the obvious advances in the list was vaccination, and just as obviously the anti-vaccination liars were not happy. When questions were invited at the end of the lecture on vaccination, one person tried to monopolise the conversation with questions in the style of "Why don't you say what you say all the time?" and "Why don't you do what you do every day?" and "Why do you hide what you freely admit?" The doctor at the lectern was too polite to say something like :"Shut up. You have had your say and we don't need to hear any more of your lies", but when the woman said that nobody in Australia is ever told that there might be reactions to vaccines I had to butt in to point out that every woman who has a baby in a hospital in Australia is given an documentation pack containing this information. The liar simply repeated the lie.

If you click on the image at right you can see pages 68 to 70 of the Understanding Childhood Immunisation booklet which is freely available at every hospital in the country and just about every medical practice. The booklet is given to every new mother, and to say that it is not or that the information is hidden is not being mistaken, it is not just bending the truth - it is lying.

Click here for the slides and audio from the lecture.

Speaking of lies ... (27/10/2007)
I September I reproduced a rant from an anti-vaccination liar of breathtaking idiocy, and I said that it "requires no other comment". I have had a couple of emails asking for comments, on the quite reasonable basis that what is plain to me might not be so clear to people who have not been observing the fanatics for as long as I have. I have also been asked for a generalised rebuttal of the major lies told by the opponents of vaccination. I have chosen a list of ten lies on the Australian Vaccination Network's web site as the basis for a series of articles I will be writing over the next few weeks. It will be a series because some of the lies and their justifications need research and comprehensive answers. Here are the lies from the AVN site:

  1. Vaccines have never been tested.
  2. Vaccines contain toxic additives and heavy metals.
  3. Vaccines are contaminated with human and animal viruses and bacteria.
  4. Vaccines can cause serious immediate side effects.
  5. Vaccines can cause serious long-term side effects.
  6. Vaccines do not necessarily protect against infectious diseases.
  7. Doctors, as paid salesmen for vaccine products, are no longer considered to be trustworthy arbiters of their safety and effectiveness.
  8. Pharmaceutical companies have paid for almost all vaccine research to date.
  9. Doctors and health professionals rarely if ever report vaccine reactions.
  10. Some childhood illnesses have beneficial aspects and therefore, prevention may not necessarily be in the best interests of the child.

The first article will appear here shortly, but in the meantime I have republished an article by Dr Stephen Basser which appeared in the magazine of Australian Skeptics, the Skeptic, in 1997. Sadly, not much has changed over the decade since then. You can read it here.

Fat fraud (27/10/2007)
AsThat evil cholesterol stuff! someone with diabetes, I have to be very conscious of my weight. Carrying a few extra kilograms doesn't just cause problems with diabetes but also has many other adverse effects on health, which is why we are regularly advised of the potential dangers of the current "epidemic of obesity". There are psychological aspects to weight as well, and I have to admit that getting back to a body shape that let me wear the same size clothes as I did when I was twenty years old made me feel good and helped to overcome the natural negative reaction to being constantly reminded that I have a medical condition that is going to affect the rest (and duration) of my life. Society also has conventions about what is an attractive or even normal body shape is, and you don't see many clothes models with beer guts or thunder thighs.

All of these pressures create a fertile environment for quacks to offer miracle cures for fatness. My friend Loretta Marron (of has been researching weight loss remedies and has been campaigning for more official restrictions on their advertising and distribution. Unfortunately, the situation seems to be getting worse and is compounded by the lack of any effective regulation of useless "medical" products. In an interesting example of irony, quack supporters are always claiming that regulatory bodies like the Australian TGA or the US FDA are financed by pharmaceutical companies and this motivates them to resist "alternatives", but registration fees for weight loss quackery alone provide $775,000 for the TGA each year, with millions more from the fees for other magic potions which don't have to to be proved to have any efficacy at all.

The best that people like Loretta and me can do is to publicise the problems and try to get politicians and bureaucrats to actually act in the public interest. Loretta has had a minor success this week by getting an article published in a high-circulation metropolitan newspaper. I just hope that the people who matter take some notice, although I am pessimistic that in the current federal election climate the problems of people being deceived and defrauded by sellers of snake oil will not amount to a hill of beans.

You can read the story in the Sydney Morning Herald here.

And a different kind of fraud (27/10/2007)
Most fortune-tellers and psychics are relatively harmless, and can even be good entertainment if they know how to do the act well. I make an exception for those who pretend to talk to dead people, and the reason I don't like them is because they prey on the emotions and grief of others. Telling me that I am going to spend the rest of my life in a tropical paradise sipping margaritas on the back of a yacht with a tall, dark and handsome millionaire might make my wife worry a bit about who she had married, but telling me that my father or mother are coming through with some meaningless inanity which pollutes my memories of them is another thing altogether. All we really have of our dead loved ones is memories, and the charlatans who pretend to talk to the dead damage these memories.

The video shows a fraud who has been working the Australian circuit for some time, and has now apparently expanded her trawl to New Zealand. Note how adeptly she handles the revelation that the spirits she has been summoning are not only not dead people but actually nobody at all. Note how she discovered that charging people $400 to transmit gibberish from the afterworld was a better financial option than receiving welfare. You can't see it in the video, but I would not be surprised to find that she left a shiny trail of slime behind her as she moved around.

A friend of mine went to some of her shows and says that she isn't even a competent cold reader. Of course, as we hang around with magicians (who can do readings and do them better than Deb Webber) our standards might be higher than those of the general population, but I don't think any of our magician friends would have the gall to charge $400 an hour for readings and pretend that it wasn't a trick. They could do this, but then they wouldn't be our friends..

And finally, some fun (27/10/2007)

See more from Matt Bors here.

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