Home > History > Front page updates October 2011
The backlash (1/10/2011)
I mentioned last week that a deal had been struck between Blackmore's, Australia's most prominent manufacturer of snake oil, and the Pharmacy Guild of Australia which would see pharmacists recommending rubbish when customers had certain prescriptions filled. This sign appeared almost immediately in shops belonging to a very large pharmacy chain.
I could not have put it better myself.
Also, Marcus Blackmore, head of Blackmore's, promised that the scientific research showing the efficacy of the products that were to be recommended as part of the program would be published on front page of the company's web site by Friday, September 30. If the scientific papers existed it would be a simple matter to turn them into pdf files and put the links on the site. I'm sure that Blackmore's have more resources that I have to work on their web site and I could have done this in ten minutes, so it is a bit surprising that the front page of their site still looks like this, with no mention of any research papers:
Well, it would be surprising if you thought that any such science existed.
There has, however, been some research done on the four supplements that are proposed to be part of the plan. Here is what the National Prescribing Service has to say:
Evidence for using zinc supplements with antihypertensives
Routine use of zinc supplements is unnecessary for people taking blood pressure lowering medicines (or ‘antihypertensives’). There is evidence that long-term treatment with certain types of antihypertensives may reduce zinc levels, but it is unclear how often this causes zinc deficiency.
Evidence for any benefit of zinc supplementation in the absence of zinc deficiency is limited.1 People taking anithypertensives should only be considered for a zinc supplement if they are deficient in zinc.
Results from the only trial investigating zinc supplementation with an antihypertensive (hydrochlorothiazide) were inconclusive.
Evidence for using Co-enzyme Q10 with statins
Evidence does not support the use of Co-enzyme Q10 to prevent myalgia (muscle pain) during treatment with a statin.
No trials have shown that taking a Co-enzyme Q10 supplement with a statin prevents myalgia. Randomised controlled trials of Co-enzyme Q10 to manage statin-associated myalgia have conflicting results and do not support routine use with statin therapy.
Evidence for using magnesium supplements with PPI therapy
Magnesium deficiency or ‘hypomagnesaemia’ has been associated with long-term use of proton pump inhibitors (PPIs). Case reports indicate that stopping the PPI is the best way to normalise magnesium levels. Taking a magnesium supplement with the PPI may not be enough to correct the magnesium deficiency.
No studies have investigated the use of a magnesium supplement to prevent magnesium deficiency during PPI therapy. A magnesium supplement should only be considered if a PPI has caused a deficiency in magnesium that requires treatment. Evidence for using a supplement with a PPI to treat magnesium deficiency is based on case reports.
Probiotics with antibiotic-associated diarrhoea
There is some evidence from trials that probiotics may prevent antibiotic-associated diarrhoea in some adults and children. But limitations with the trials mean that the true effect of probiotics is uncertain, as is the most effective product or dose.
I don't think so (1/10/2011)
I received this email during the week:
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While was encouraging to think about of the pleasure that could be derived from sending emails to 17,883 chiropractors asking them the simple question "Why don't you get a real job?", I felt that I should pass up this wonderful offer. I probably would have had to pay for the list and that would have reduced the pleasure considerably.
While I had the emailer open, this came in as well. Again, I don't think I'll respond, as this person seems to miss the whole point of this site.
Date: Wed, 28 Sep 2011 15:59:53 -0400
From: "Peter Williams"
Subject: Urgent Order
I Am Mr. Peter Williams,I would like to order Noni Juice Authentic - CASE OF 4 x 1 LITTER. BOTTLES.Let me know if you do have it and if you don't have this specifications inform me of the ones of you have in stock and what are the size you carry.What would be the total Price for one including taxes and without shipping charges?What types of payments do you accept?Thank you and waiting for your reply asap.
A couple of things immediately sprang to mind. The first was that I have two friends named Peter Williams, so I actually opened the email in case it came from someone I knew. I doubt, however, that it came from either of them because they can both spell and punctuate and neither are likely to be wanting to buy noni juice.
The second was that the writer obviously wanted the stuff supplied in those plastic bottles that appear in abundance along our roadsides and around picnic areas and I appreciate his honesty in calling them "litter bottles". He should be aware, though, that all supplements supplied by Ratbags Traditional Vitamins come in those stoneware jars that I used to get ginger beer in when I was a kid. That word "Traditional" isn't there for nothing. The only problem we ever had with the packaging was when the vitamin division shared a warehouse with the distillery and seventeen pallets of spirulina went out to people who were expecting Ratbags Rotgut bourbon. The strange thing was that we got more complaints from health food shops for not labelling the booze as organic than we did from bars who told us that once their customers got used to the green colour they said it tasted better than the normal product.
A respectful debate (1/10/2011)
Meryl Dorey of the Australian Vaccination Network has a long history of intolerance towards anybody who disagrees with her in forums that she controls. I have been banned from the AVN's Internet mailing list since 1999 (despite never posting anything to the list - I joined because I had been told that I was being defamed there). More recently, Ms Dorey has blocked me from following her on Twitter, blocked me and many other people from commenting on the AVN's Facebook page and refused to publish dissenting comments on two blogs that she runs for the AVN.
Ms Dorey has stated on several occasions that she welcomes debate and discussion as long as it is polite. Politeness is why I always refer to Ms Dorey as "Ms Dorey" and resist the use of terms such as "total slime", an expression she used to describe me at one time in a forum where I had no right of reply.
She has now created yet another forum, this time at Google Groups, with the title "Vaccination-Respectful Debate". The description of this group says "This is a place for people from both sides of this very polarised vaccination debate to meet and discuss the issues concerning vaccine safety, efficacy and necessity. All viewpoints are welcome provided they are respectful". It then goes on to say "At the first sign of abuse, name-calling, etc, you will be banned", so perhaps this might be somewhere where I can appear without being called names or accused of being a shill for Big Pharma. Or perhaps it is a place where I can get banned very quickly.
I decided to again test Ms Dorey's commitment to free and open speech, so I joined the list. I didn't post for a few days, so I missed the kudos of being the first person to be banned - that went to my friend Peter Tierney who dared to question the warnings that were given to some people.
I finally made my first post, and somewhat to my surprise it managed to make it past the moderators (unnamed, but there are two of them and they are not from the pro-vaccine camp). Here is what I had to say.
Hello all, my name is Peter Bowditch. I have a long-time interest in the vaccination debate and I welcome the chance to participate in a forum where the evidence for both sides can be respectfully presented.
While I believe that a case can be made for compulsory vaccination for people in certain occupations (health care being the obvious example), I support the idea that for most people it should be an informed choice. The critical word is "informed", and that is where people have to be careful.
There is a vast amount of information about the safety, effectiveness and possible side effects of vaccines available. Some of it is based on science, such as the information freely available from the web sites of Immunise Australia, the Centers for Disease Control and the WHO, for example, and for those who are not afraid of reading scientific papers the National Institute of Health's PubMed database. Some of the information is based on emotion, misinterpretation or misunderstanding of the science or simply an inability to distinguish between good science and bad. Some of it is based on dubious science, and even the occasional piece of fraudulent research (such as the discredited and now withdrawn 1998 paper in The Lancet by Andrew Wakefield). Some of it is so out of touch with reality that it could be material for research into mental illness.
What concerns me most, however, is the "information" which keeps getting repeated even though it is relatively simple to demonstrate that it is false. The fact that some of this gets repeated by people who have been told, sometimes on several occasions, that it is false and have been offered the refuting evidence suggests that they are simply working to an anti-vaccine agenda and truth does not matter to them because the end justifies the means. Here are just five of these continually repeated untruths.
It is true that in the manufacture of some vaccines a cell line is used which was derived from the lung cells of a foetus aborted in 1962. It was a legal termination undertaken to save the mother's life and the mother donated the foetus to science. Attempts have been made to claim that Catholics, for example, should therefore refuse to use these vaccines. In 2003 the Vatican issued a ruling on this matter, making it perfectly acceptable for Catholics to use these vaccines on the basis that they had an overriding responsibility for the health of their own children and those they came into contact with.
The obvious absurdity of this is apparent to anybody who lived through the early 1950s. If polio is still present then where are the callipers on children's legs, where are the iron lungs? When I asked a prominent anti-vaccine campaigner for evidence of this I was pointed to a reclassification of statistical categories in 1956 where the CDC ruled that paralysis had to last for 60 days for a case to be recorded as "paralytic polio". It was not a renaming of anything, it was a refining of the way cases were reported. Yes, polio still exists, although not in places like Australia which have comprehensive vaccination programs; the main barrier to world-wide eradication seems to be nonsense spread by religious fanatics.
The largest clinical trial in the history of medicine in terms of numbers of test subjects was the trial of the Salk polio vaccine with about 500,000 subjects. Clinical trials for Gardasil and Rotateq both included more than 30,000 test subjects. At the time of writing this, PubMed returns 19,352 papers for the keyword search "vaccine clinical trials" and 9,681 for "vaccine safety". Calls are sometimes made for placebo-controlled trials of vaccines but there are significant ethical problems with deliberately exposing subjects to deadly or disabling diseases. In extreme cases of fearmongering the lack of crossover trials is pointed out. As a crossover trial would require subjects to have their vaccination status removed part way through the trial it is obviously impossible to do this sort of test. People requesting it either do not understand how scientific research works or are deliberately creating a situation where they can say "this hasn't been done".
Nothing more needs to be said about this than "No, they are not". If someone tells you this you should immediately correct them. If they persist then you know that you don't have to listen to anything more that they have to say.
Smallpox, rinderpest (in cattle), with measles and polio on the horizon (although the horizon gets pushed away at times by either opposition to vaccination or nonsensical minimisation of the harm these diseases do)
I look forward to a rational, respectful discussion of both the considerable advantages and the small risks of vaccines, and I hope we can avoid nonsense like the things I have mentioned above. Nobody ever said that vaccines are 100% safe, because nothing is. Anybody who says that vaccines are 100% unsafe is wrong, because the billions of vaccinated people with no effects are evidence against the claim. There are risks associated with vaccines, but those risks are small and the benefits are great.
This actually managed to get through the moderators and made it to the list. (I still haven't been banned, although each day I slightly increase the pressure.) There were four responses which indicated that people either didn't read what I wrote or felt that repetition is all it takes to make something true.
I look forward to many more confronting exchanges on the list. At the time of writing I am in correspondence with a homeopath who seems to think that homeopathy can be used for disease prevention in place of vaccination and can repair vaccine damage. As she is one of the moderators of the list I think I might be heading for trouble. But I like trouble.
The saga continues (and hopefully ends) (8/10/2011)
Blackmore's finally published the research supporting their four Companion Products that pharmacists were getting ready to recommend to people filling prescriptions for certain classes of drugs. Unfortunately, the research wasn't made available to just anybody as you had to be some sort of "healthcare professional".
Fortunately, however, Blackmore's definition of "healthcare professional" was as loose as I suspected it might be, and I was accepted as a "Science researcher". You can read the supporting evidence here, although for some reason Blackmore's have put security on the document so you can't print it. I can understand why they might want to put Acrobat security on it so nobody can change it, but preventing printing? Smells like paranoia to me.
A couple of paragraphs stood out for me.
The evidence was compiled in line with the Therapeutic Goods Administration's Levels of Evidence Guidelines for listed products, and demonstrates that some prescription medicines diminish nutrients and that supplementation can improve nutritional status.
Where it says "listed products" it refers to a class of medical devices or preparations which do not have to prove efficacy, just that they don't do too much damage when taken according to directions. Put another way, for something to get a "Listed" classification it does not have to be shown to work or even provide any benefit at all. Homeopathic products are "Listed". Real medicines are usually "Registered", because that classification means that evidence has been produced that they do what the promoters say they do.
In addition, evidence was sourced using two key resources identified by the National Prescribing Service as having the highest quality of information for complementary medicines: The Natural Standard Professional Database and the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database.
I'm really impressed by databases of magical snake oil preparations put together by quacks, but the important message to be taken from this paragraph is that the National Prescribing Service cited has issued a statement saying that none of the Blackmore's Companion Products actually have any benefit at all. It is standard operating procedure for pseudoscientists to refer to authorities in the almost certain knowledge that the general public will be impressed by the reference and fail to see what the authority really had to say. You can see the NPS comments here.
Then suddenly the cake was flooded with icing when the Pharmacy Guild announced that the ridiculous proposal was not going ahead. You can read the official announcement here.
Gold Cross endorsement of Blackmores Companions range withdrawn
The Pharmacy Guild of Australia and Blackmores have agreed that the Gold Cross endorsement of the Blackmores Companions range of complementary medicines will be withdrawn.
The mutual decision has been taken in view of the strong level of public concern about the proposal, based on some media reporting of the endorsement which was ill-informed and inflammatory.
The last thing the Guild would ever want to do is deplete the credibility of community pharmacists, or damage the trust in which they are held by Australians. That trust and confidence is of paramount importance to the Guild and to our Members.
The Gold Cross endorsement arrangement with Blackmores was entered in good faith, with absolutely no intention of undermining the professionalism and integrity of participating pharmacists. There is not now and never would be any direction from the Guild for pharmacists to be involved in unprofessional, unethical or clinically unsound conduct. The idea that community pharmacists would take part in commercial “upselling” without regard to their professional standards is offensive to our profession and rejected by the Guild.
However, perceptions are very important, and it is overwhelmingly clear that the public perception of this endorsement was damaging to the reputation of community pharmacy. Both the public, and sections of the broader pharmacy industry expressed strong concerns about the proposal.
The Guild has listened to these concerns and accepts – mutually with Blackmores – that the best course in all the circumstances is to withdraw the endorsement arrangement. The Guild regrets any damage done to the image of community pharmacy and will do everything possible to ensure the public maintain their trust in community pharmacists as the custodians of medicines and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme.
The National President of the Guild, Kos Sclavos, said: “We entered this arrangement in good faith, but we have now agreed with Blackmores that the furore that has been created is doing damage, and must be dealt with before it further damages community pharmacists and the patients they serve. The only alternative is to cancel the endorsement, and this has been done. I add my personal apologies for any distress this has caused to pharmacists.”
Gold Cross, a fully owned subsidiary of the Guild, had agreed to endorse a range of Blackmores products, which meant that the range of four Companions products would have the Guild’s Gold Cross on their packaging.
Additionally, an optional prompt containing clinical information for the patient to consider in relation to one product of the Companions range was to be available through the dispensary IT programs, on a pilot basis. The software pilot was not intended to commence until at least November, and will now not proceed.
Blackmores products are well-established, and marketed by one of the best known and respected names in evidence-based complementary medicine. Many doctors, pharmacists and other health professionals make recommendations for these types of products frequently.
Blackmores developed this range of four to be available exclusively through pharmacies so that consumers would always obtain the appropriate information and advice.
Contrary to some media reports, there was never any compulsion whatsoever on pharmacists to sell these products, nor was there any direct incentive to any pharmacist to sell them. At all times, community pharmacists would continue to be free – and indeed expected - to exercise their professional and clinical judgement in relation to these products.
What's that about efficacy? (8/10/2011)
Speaking of efficacy and how things can get on the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods without having to prove they do anything, this devastating comment was posted to a blog talking about vaccination.
My initial temptation was to respond that if you use words like "effiacy" it tends to point out the fact that you are illiterate, but that would have been churlish of me.
See him live! (8/10/2011)
That's an adjective, not a verb. I'm about to get really busy with a couple of speaking engagements coming up that require preparation, so I'm off to write and time some speeches.
I'll be back here when I get back here.
Another saga continues (8/10/2011)
My friend Ken McLeod has continued his collation and editing of the "mistakes" made by Ms Meryl Dorey, once (and maybe still) the President of the Australian Vaccination Network. Part 3 has just been released. You can see Part 1 and Part 2 in the site history.
Part 4 is writing itself now.
I am chastised! (15/10/2011)
Somebody is not happy about what I do here and has decided to make suggestions. His inability to spell probably reflects an inability to read or follow simple logic. He doesn't think this is a web site and he can't find the Hate Mail section. Sad, isn't it?
Date: Thu, 13 Oct 2011 23:47:03 +0100
From: Sam Hall
Subject: Comment / Feedback
You have clearly mastered the art of modern technology comms, use and abuse.
I too work for a computer consultancy, perhaps one more sucessful than yours. Why are you so afraid to set up a blog ( i cant call it a website as its just your drivel on there) and allow others the freedown to post commnets viewable to all. Are you scared that people may actually post far more powerful data and facts than anything I have red from you ? You are a coward - who thinks themselves particularly smart, get your picure up there...courage of your convictions etc.
If you are so right on your subject matter allow people to reply in public and you may find your audience are far more vociferous than you think.
What will your legacy be - a follower, i see no leaders here.
As is the case for ALL criticism I receive about the site, your email and this response will be published.
It helps to have a look around before you make a fool of yourself.
SkeptiCamp is coming (15/10/2011)
It is highly unlikely that there will be an update to this site next week because I will be speaking at SkeptiCamp in Melbourne. If you happen to be there as well, make sure you say "Hello".
You can find details about this excellent event here. If you haven't booked yet I'm sure there's still room for more people in the audience. If you are in Melbourne that weekend and are even the least bit interested in skeptical matters then you should be there. The entry price of "Free" should suit every budget.
Respectfulness ends (15/10/2011)
I knew it was too good to last. The pretence that Meryl Dorey and the Australian Vaccination Network could tolerate criticism and debate on the misnamed "Vaccination-Respectful Debate" group at Google Groups took less than a fortnight to collapse. Here is the correspondence that got me banned without even the courtesy of a warning. Yet again the hypocrisy of Ms Dorey's continual claims of support for free speech is revealed.
Date: Fri, 07 Oct 2011 18:57:28 -0700
Subject: Re: Polio in China
From: Greg Beattie
Hi. I thought we might have heard from you here after what you said on the "Introduction" thread. You used the term 'nonsense' to describe the argument that I have subsequently put here. I asked you to read this thread and consider participating. Is there anything here that you disagree with?
Thanks in advance
I don't know what more I can say. I listed five lies that are regularly told by people opposing vaccines. You repeated four of them as if repetition somehow made them less false.
Date: Sat, 08 Oct 2011 19:52:21 -0700
Subject: Re: immunisation evidence and Cuba
Please don't come here to drop bombs and then run. If you believe that something Baumgartner or Ioannidis (or anyone) has said is incorrect,
I don't believe I mentioned Baumgartner, and I didn't say Ioannidis was incorrect. He was correct, which is one of the reasons that science has moved forward in the last two centuries - by finding flaws and fixing them.
What I said was "nothing Ioannidis said was a surprise to real researchers" and then provided a link to a comprehensive analysis of what Ioannidis said and why and how he is misinterpreted.
please share that information on the list. This is a place for debating research - it is not a place for your to push your Skeptic barrow.
As I said above, I offered a link to where research was debated. There was no need for me to do the work again.
I would like to hear where you think Ioannidis went wrong.
He wasn't wrong and I never said he was.
My reply was not published, leaving the impression to anyone reading the public group archives that I did not or could not respond.
Date: Tue, 04 Oct 2011 16:23:16 -0700
Subject: Re: immunisation evidence and Cuba
I don't believe that anyone on this list would support fraudulent research. All of us - whether pro vaccination or pro-vaccine safety - believes in open, transparent and accurate medical research, right?
So in that spirit, can you please tell us what statements Wakefield made in his 1998 case series which later proved to be incorrect?
Let's start with how his claims about medical conditions of the subjects matched what their clinical records actually showed:
Then there's the statement in the paper (the very first words in it, in fact): "We investigated a consecutive series of children". This implies that the children were a random selection from patients presenting at the hospital. We now know that most, if not all, were supplied to Wakefield either by JABS or by lawyers working on an action against vaccine manufacturers.
The fact that Wakefield didn't disclose the true funding for the research or his colossal conflicts of interest were just icing on the cake. He forgot to mention that he had been on the lawyer's payroll for two years before he saw the first subject and that he stood to make a very large amount of money if he could have the government replace the current measles vaccines with the one he had developed.
Date: Sat, 08 Oct 2011 20:00:15 -0700
Subject: Re: immunisation evidence and Cuba
Peter, what you are saying is simply not true and the BMJ has close financial ties with the manufacturers of the MMR vaccine
What is your evidence for this?
and would not be expected to tell the truth about Wakefield
That is probably an actionable statement.
(they did hire Brian Deer to write a series of smear articles, after all).
I have just won a bet that Brian Deer would be smeared. He was the obvious choice as a journalist to write about Wakefield as he had been investigating the fraud for many years.
Here is what Wakefield says about your claims:
was funded by the Legal Aid Boa rd (LAB)4
I didn't say that.
False – Not one penny of LAB money was spent on The Lancet paper. An LAB grant was provided for a separate viral detection study. This latter study, completed in 1999, does disclose the source of funding. The Lancet paper had been submitted for publication before the LAB grant was even available to be spent.
my involvement as a medical expert was kept “secret”5
I didn't say that.
False – at least one year before publication, my senior co-authors6, the head of department and the dean of the medical school7, and the CEO of the hospital were informed by me. This fact was also reported in the national press 15 months prior to publication8.
children were “sourced” by lawyers to sue vaccine manufacturers5
False – Children were referred, evaluated, and investigated on the basis of their clinical symptoms alone, following referral from the child’s physician9.
After they were supplied by the law firm.
children were litigants10
False – at the time of their referral to the Royal Free, the time material to their inclusion in The Lancet paper, none of the children were litigants.
Of course they weren't. It was the parents who were going to sue and the court action wasn't planned to start until after the fraudulent research had been completed and published
I had an undisclosed conflict of interest11
False – The Lancet’s disclosure policy at that time was followed to the letter. Documentary evidence confirms that the editorial staff of The Lancet was fully aware that I was working as an expert on MMR litigation well in advance of the paper’s publication12.
But were they aware that the lawyers were funnelling legal aid money to him?
did not have Ethics Committee (EC) approval5
I didn't say that.
False – The research element of the paper that required such an approval, detailed systematic analysis of children’s intestinal biopsies, was covered by the necessary EC approval13.
I “fixed” data and misreported clinical findings14
False – There is absolutely no basis in fact for this claim and it has been exposed as false15.
The NHS records from the hospital say different.
findings have not been independently replicated12
False – The key findings of LNH and colitis in ASD children have been independently confirmed in 5 different countries16.
We keep hearing this and we keep hearing why it is not true.
has been retracted by most of the authors17
False – 11 of 13 authors issued a retraction of the interpretation that MMR is a possible trigger for syndrome described. This remains a possibility and a possibility cannot be retracted.
It is a fact that almost all of the authors distanced themselves from the paper. Semantics won't change that.
the work is discredited18
False – Those attempting to discredit the work have relied upon the myths above. The findings described in the paper are novel and important19.
My reply was not published, leaving the impression to anyone reading the public group archives that I did not or could not respond.
Have we outgrown religion? (15/10/2011)
This is the talk I gave as my contribution to the question "Have we outgrown religion?" in a debate held during Interfaith Week at Sydney University. The debate, part of the Sydney University Union's Tuesday Talks series, took place on Tuesday, October 11, and the other participants were Greg Clarke (founder of the Centre for Public Christianity and CEO of the Bible Society), Scott Stephens (Editor, Religion and Ethics for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's web site), Avril Alba (Director of Education at the Sydney Jewish Museum) and barrister Martin Hadley (a friend of mine and fellow committee member of Australian Skeptics).
I am an atheists so you probably think that all I have to do is say is "Yes" and then sit down. In fact, this is a serious question and deserves a serious answer.
I'm going to look at four reasons for the existence and evolution of religion in society. We are social animals, we have evolved to live in tribes, and as far as I know no anthropologist has ever discovered a society which did not have some form of religion, so there must be some reasons why religion was important in our past. The question is whether it is still important.
The four reasons for the invention of religion are:
The nature question is settled and the only place that religion still plays a part is in the rejection of science by fringe groups such as young-Earth creationists or the faith healings claimed by charlatans. Every new discovery in science or medicine reduces the places for gods to hide or to influence events. People still pray for rain or for disease to be cured but when it rains or the patient gets better there is almost always a better explanation than "God did it". Yes, there are things we still don't fully understand (and might never fully understand), but calling on the god of the gaps isn't really an option any more. We have outgrown religion as an explanation of the natural world.
Nobody wants to live in a theocracy any more. If I polled the people in this room I doubt that anyone would want to repeal the section of our Constitution which expressly prohibits the establishment of an official religion. Australia has been lucky in that it was formally created as a secular state, with citizens free to practise whatever religion they wanted to provided it doesn't violate any of the other rules. We frown on animal sacrifices, for example, and forbid practices like genital mutilation of girls, human sacrifices and "honour" killings. We don't care that any of these are part of your heritage - don't bring them here.
Yes, we have debates on public policy where people's religious views play a part, such as on abortion, same-sex marriage or the recent discussions about school chaplains or ethics classes, but generally religion is given no more influence than any other form of opinion. On the big issues facing society, such as climate change, health, education and the future of work, religion plays almost no part in the debate and religious leaders have the same input as any other citizens.
Things might be different in other places (it is undeniably different in theocracies like Iran and Saudi Arabia) and an example would be the USA, nominally a country with a strict separation of church and state but a place where nobody can be considered for the position of President without avowing strong Christian beliefs. This has even reached the absurd position where candidates for the Republican nomination for the 2012 election are arguing over who is more Christian than whom, with fingers being pointed at a Mormon for not being Christian enough. In Australia the first Australian-born Governor General was Jewish and two out of the last five Prime Ministers have been atheists (although they used the word "agnostic" just to be safe). In Australia, at least, we appear to have outgrown religion as part of the political and legal systems, and the remaining vestiges such as prayers to open Parliament are just historical monuments like the Union Jack in the corner of our flag.
People will keep saying that Australia is a Christian country, but the facts say otherwise. Marriage is a civil matter everywhere with no requirement to attend a church for any form of ceremony. Unmarried couples have many of the rights endowed by formal marriage and divorce is a matter for the couple involved with none of the concepts of sin or right-or-wrong which used to affect the process. (Religion still has an influence in the opposition to legal recognition of same-sex relationships, but this will change and society will not collapse.)
Many of the other social ties that religion provided are no longer relevant. We have clubs, societies and associations to join, we have entertainment options that weren't dreamt of a century or two back, we can travel long distances away from home without any problems. Once, the first permanent building in a settlement was usually a church, now a new development will include space for schools and shopping malls but churches will come after the houses, if they come at all. When we travel to strange towns we are more likely to ask when the Rotary meeting is on or where the bowling club is than to look for a church to pray in. (As an aside, if you go to live in a small country town it is often useful to find a church to attend even if you are a non believer. Many other members of the congregation will be there just for the social life too. Some of these towns don't yet have shopping malls or Rotary, although they always seem to have a bowling club and a pub.) We seem to have outgrown the need for religion to be the major organising factor in our social life and interactions.
The final use for religion is spiritual. It explains the questions that science can't answer. Why are we here? Where do we go after we die? For me, these questions aren't really that important, but I can see why they might be important to others. I was dead for billions of years before I was born, and I expect my afterlife to be much the same. Our existence in the universe is something that can probably never be satisfactorily explained, but the fact is we are here and have to make the best of it. I'm happy for religious people to use gods to answer these questions if it provides them with comfort and certainty. If it does this, then they have not outgrown religion and might not even need to do so.
So one out of four reasons for religion might still have validity, but I submit that for all the other reasons we have, or should have, outgrown religion in our lives.
After the talks had been given questions from the floor were invited and I was asked about mutual respect. Here is an approximation of my answer.
The fact that the five people on this panel disagree about certain things while agreeing about others yet we can still have a discussion like this implies respect. The very idea of "interfaith" implies respect for the views of others. All of us can learn from what other people say and believe, and even though we might not agree with them we have to accept that they hold these beliefs sincerely. We are, after all, talking about something that can be neither proved nor disproved - the existence of gods. The very definition of faith means "belief without evidence".
While I don't believe in a god I have no problem with people who do, provided that they don't use their religion to harm anyone. (Remembering that nobody lives in total isolation from other people, so even matters which might seem to be intensely personal might still have bad effects on others.) I do, however, ask for respect in return. I find the suggestion that atheists must be totally immoral as offensive as I am sure religious people find generalisations about terrorism or witch burning. The fact that I derive my moral philosophy from different books is just an example of the diversity that humans exhibit. We all want the same things in life. We just have different ways of finding and explaining those things.
Do Be a Dick (22/10/2011)
Here is a close approximation of my talk "Do Be A Dick" at SkeptiCamp Melbourne on October 22, 2011.
At The Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas in 2010, astronomer Phil Plait gave a talk which has come to be known as “Don’t be a dick”. You might think from the title of my talk that I’m going to contradict him, but you would be wrong.
Phil’s argument was that you don’t win over true believers in nonsense by abusing them or calling them names, and I totally agree with this. That doesn’t mean that I am an accommodationist, someone who leans backwards in order to see the opposition’s position more clearly and to accept that their argument might have validity. Far from it. There are people and organisations out there which have to be attacked, and attacked strongly. It’s how the attack is done that matters.
How the attack is done depends on who is being attacked. Someone once said, and then many people repeated, that you can’t reason someone out of something they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place, and you certainly can’t abuse them out of it. If you are going to argue with people who have irrational ideas you have to pick your targets.
Just to keep everyone from falling asleep I’m going to show some pictures of people called Richard or Dick. Here is a dancing Dick.
We need to get this target thing out of the way. In all the years I’ve been fighting nonsense I’ve had the same policy – I’m not going to try to convert true believers, because these people are often incapable, through lack of education or thinking skills, to know that they are wrong. They often are simply taking the word of others whom they assume know what they are talking about or are authorities in some way. True believers also often have their beliefs as part of their self-image, so attacking their belief is attacking them personally. They are not idiots, they are not morons, they are misguided.
Dick Van Dyke with Mary Poppins – Cockney speaking Dick, where the producer was misguided in thinking that any actor could do a Cockney accent if he tried.
There are always exceptions, of course, and sometimes you have to address an individual. I do this when they attack me personally, because that makes them fair game. I am always polite, however, as I have found that this can drive them into paroxysms of mouth foam, particularly if they have started out with abuse and foul language. As an example I received an email once which suggested, no, said straight out, that everything I said was nonsense because I was constantly performing fellatio on myself. That is a paraphrase, by the way. I responded with:
I'm sorry that your lack of length prevents you from reaching your mouth and I can only imagine how embarrassing this can be for you, but your inadequacy is no reason to be impolite, no matter how envious you are of those who are better endowed.
A cowboy Dick, who is here for no apparent reason.
Sometimes you can have a go at an individual if that person has a particular standing, and it works quite well if that person happens to be in the room among other people that you might be able to make an impression on. As an example, in 2003 I spoke at a forum in Canberra on alternative medicine. The speaker who was going to follow me was the CEO of the Complementary Health Care Council of Australia, so I had a few quotes from her in my talk showing the mendacity of the quackery industry (I just put the words up on the screen behind me, but I didn’t mention names). I set the scene at the start.
Here is the introduction slide for my presentation. Put your mouse over it to see what happened when I pressed "Next".
We had photographs taken together after the event, just to show that we could be civilised.
Moby Dick – I don’t know why thinking about medical matters made me think of Moby Dick, but perhaps there’s a herb for that.
My most prominent work is probably The Millenium Project, and I have never thought that what I do there will ever change the mind of someone whose mind is made up. When I have something to say it will be about the people and organisations who do the deceiving, and my hope is that fence-sitters looking on will see the dishonesty, the logical failures and the nastiness. Just to be clear, I will go after individuals if they are causing harm or are exemplars of the problem. I blame the perpetrator, not the victim. It’s the bewitchers who are the problem, not the bewitched.
Dick Yorke - a bewitched Dick
Time is limited here, so I had better move fast.
Dick Johnson, a fast Dick
When it comes to attacking ideas, ideologies and organisations then the rules change. I have no problem being ruthless with anti-vaccination liars, Holocaust deniers, 9/11 troofers and people like that. The rubbish that these people talk has to be exposed and opposed at every opportunity.
If someone asks you, for example, if you think that they should be concerned about getting a flu vaccination for their child because they had seen a homeopath on television talking about the dangers of all the dreadful ingredients in vaccines you should tell them to talk to their doctor and point out that the homeopath was almost certainly talking rubbish. You do this politely and with respect. If instead they tell you to read the AVN web site and tell them why they should endanger their child with Big Pharma poisons feel free to tell them to stop talking nonsense. If someone expresses an interest in the events in New York in September 2001 you can point them towards sources of good information. If they tell you to look at the film “Loose Change” and tell them where it is wrong feel free to be as aggressive as you like.
I had some woman contact me once to ask why her web site was in a list headed “Anti-vaccination Liars”. I told her, politely, that it was there because she told lies about vaccines and if she stopped doing that I would remove it from the listing. When some troofer offered me “Loose Change” the other day as evidence of I don’t know what (he didn’t say) I told him to come up with something new and to stop bothering the grownups.
I need to say something at this point about accommodationism, which is the practice of accepting that the other side might have valid arguments and should be heard. This might be alright for religion, for example, where whether god exists or not can’t be proved, but it certainly isn’t alright for serious matters like vaccination or health. This week again an academic supposedly working on the public perception of vaccines criticised someone for mounting a frontal attack against the Australian Vaccination Network. To my knowledge this academic has been working on this single public health issue for over a decade and has about 40 people in the team. In that decade she and her team have achieved exactly nothing, and at one stage she even said that the AVN provided the balance that parents needed for an informed choice. Two years ago if a media outlet wanted to run a story on vaccination they went to Meryl Dorey at the AVN. In about two years Stop the AVN, which has no organisation or resources other than a Facebook presence, has brought the AVN to its knees. The media now go to real doctors like Robert Booy at Westmead for vaccine information and the AVN, if it is mentioned at all, is regarded as a fringe group of loonies. For a couple of days this week the AVN’s Facebook page has looked like a bar brawl as they have been eating each other in an ever increasing frenzy. This is happening now because a group of people decided that we had had enough and would turn on the dickedness.
That’s not to say that we weren’t polite. As I said above, being polite drives them nuts, especially if they have already resorted to insults and abuse.
So here are some rules for how to be a dick and do it right.
Richard Prior - a sweary Dick
First, keep it as polite as you can. No matter what language they use at you, talk to them like you would to your mother. Or your own kids. Don’t go down to their level because then they have won. That doesn’t mean you can’t point out lies and the misuse of language.
Steven Dick - a magical Dick
Don’t try to trick people by being smarter than they are. You might very well be smarter but making a point of it isn’t a winning strategy. Remember the Brights?
Richard Branson - an unembarrassable Dick
Ridicule is a useful tool, but don’t give them a chance to ridicule you back. Try to appear sane and balanced at all times. (You can ignore this rule if you have several billion dollars.)
Be honest. Nobody likes a dishonest Dick, and again, you don’t want to get down in the gutter with them.
Richard Burton - a drinking Dick
(Additional warning - if you drink too much you might forget you have divorced someone and marry them again.)
Keep your wits about you. Arguing with nutters after a night at Skeptics in the Pub will usually end badly.
Laurence Olivier playing the third Dick
Do your homework and be prepared. Laurence Olivier didn’t go on stage to play Richard III until he had learnt all the lines and rehearsed. At the top of the front page of The Millenium project is a quote from Bob Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall”. In another part of the song he says “I’ll know my song well before I start singing”. Good advice.
And finally, remember that like a good rock band you should combine talents with others with the same objectives. Groups like Stop the AVN work because we are all pulling in the same direction and there are people to share the work.
And in case you think that slide is too subtle, remember that one of the musicians working on the album was Keith Richards.
Like the promo for this talk says - Do be a dick: Sometimes diplomacy and politeness are wastes of time (but not always). Deniers and liars are deniers and liars, not skeptics. You are allowed to tell them so.
A saga creeps along (29/10/2011)
Just more problems for the crooks at Sensaslim. It never seems to end for them, does it? But it should. Soon. The sooner the better.
Here is the latest media release about them from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
ACCC takes second contempt action against Sensaslim director
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has commenced proceedings against Peter O’Brien alleging contempt of court.
Mr O’Brien is the sole director of Sensaslim Australia Pty Ltd, which is in liquidation.
The ACCC alleges that Mr O’Brien authored or authorised communications sent on 13 August 2011 and 16 August 2011 that had a tendency to interfere with the administration of justice.
The ACCC is seeking:
A directions hearing has been set down in the Federal Court in Sydney for 3 November 2011.
In July 2011 the ACCC instituted proceedings alleging that Sensaslim Australia Pty Ltd (in liquidation) and several individuals involved in the Sensaslim business engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct and made false representations. This action continues in the federal court.
Previously, on 29 July 2011 the ACCC instituted contempt proceedings against Peter O’Brien, alleging that Mr O’Brien authored or authorised a communication sent to franchisees of Sensaslim which had a tendency to interfere with the administration of justice.
Release # NR 194/11
Issued: 20th October 2011
A quack issues threats (29/10/2011)
It's only taken him eleven years, but superquack Stan Burzynski has finally noticed that I had something harsh to say about him in 2000. I suppose that's consistent, though, as Burzynski has been researching a cancer cure for several decades and still hasn't managed to win that elusive Nobel Prize. Things just take their time in Texas. Apparently the Burzynski people were alerted to my comments because someone posted a link to my site in a discussion about the quack in a JREF forum. As my page about the quack comes up fourth in a Google search for "Burzynski" I have to assume that whoever looks after the corporate image at the clinic has something to learn about brand management.
The following appeared in my inbox like seagull droppings on a picnic table. I think I will take eleven years to answer. I also reserve the right to ignore threats coming from Gmail addresses. Surely someone working for Burzynski or a real law firm could use a corporate email address and a more professional email client than Windows Live Mail.
From: "MAS" <email@example.com>
Date: Fri, 28 Oct 2011 00:47:54 -0400
Subject: Demand to Cease and Desist and Removal of Webpage/Articles
Demand to Cease and Desist and Removal of Webpage/Articles
I represent Dr. Stanislaw Burzynski, Burzynski Clinic, and Burzynski Research Institute. It has been brought to our attention that you have content on your website http://www.ratbags.com/rsoles/comment/burzynski.htm that is in violation of several state and federal laws. This is a legal complaint regarding the article you posted online titled “The Millenium Project – The fundaments of the Net – Burzynski Research Institute. This correspondence constitutes a demand that you immediately cease and desist in your actions defaming and libeling my clients. Please allow this correspondence to serve as notice to you that you published libelous and defamatory information.
Please be advised that my clients consider the content of your postings to be legally actionable under numerous legal causes of action, including but not limited to: libel, defamation, and tortious interference with business contracts and business relationships. The information you assert in your postings is factually incorrect and posted with either actual knowledge, or reckless disregard for its falsity, and with the actual and specific malice to injure my client’s business relationships in the community.
I am sure you are familiar with Defamation (Libel). If not, I will assist you.
What is Defamation (Libel)
Libel is a published or fixed form of defamation of character; a civil wrong that falsely impugns the reputation or character of a person or entity, opening the target up to public scorn or ridicule. Libel might appear in a magazine, book, newspaper, or in a radio or television broadcast. Signs, billboards or posters can also be mediums for libel. Online libel, or cyber libel takes electronic forms such as email, mailing lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, podcasts, vodcasts and Web pages. Although many citizens do not yet realize it, comments made to chat boards, newsgroups and even mailing lists are all forms of publication. Criticisms of companies or their goods can be a basis for libel charges if the poster misrepresents facts, or fails to qualify his or her post as opinion.
Every comment you made in your article is highly incorrect. I suggest you remove the article in its entirety or I will file suit against you immediately. I find it surprising for you to make careless statements without researching. You are highly aware of what you are doing, and I have court documents to prove this.
Although you try to disguise your statements as your “Opinion”, Please note by law you are held accountable for posting incorrect information from a third party..including from the original source. I am not sure where you obtained your incorrect information, but you will be held liable for your statements. REMOVE ARTICLE IMMEDIATELY.
GOVERN YOURSELF ACCORDINGLY.
9432 Katy Freeway
Houston, Texas 77055
So here's the challenge ... (29/10/2011)
If Dr Burzynski is so good at curing cancer then he should join the long line of people who are taking my Cancer 100 Challenge. Well, it's not such a long line, actually, because exactly zero people with guaranteed cures have come forward since May 6, 2000, to ask for my help to get a Nobel Prize. Perhaps they are shy. Perhaps they don't need the publicity. Perhaps they don't want a Nobel out of some philosophical objection to the origin of the prize fund because of its foundation in the armaments industry. Or perhaps, like Burzynski, they can't cure cancer but are prepared to take money from desperate people.
He's writing again (29/10/2011)
The latest edition of Australasian Science magazine is on the newsstands now, so if you aren't a subscriber you should either rush to your newsagent (if you are in Australia or New Zealand) or get onto the magazine web site and subscribe. This is the best popular science magazine in the country and I don't say that just because I write for it. Unlike some other popular science magazines it doesn't dumb down the content or chase sensationalism but instead contains material targeted directly at intelligent people, written by scientists rather than journalists. Of course, it's not Nature or Science either, but it doesn't pretend to be. Get yourself a copy. You will not be disappointed.
My latest Naked Skeptic column is headed "Knowing things that just ain’t so":
So where's the rest? (29/10/2011)
It's been a short update this week because I have been travelling, but the real reason is that I have a very long magazine article to write and I am doing the final work before launching the Radio Ratbags podcast. If all goes well it will go live on either Tuesday, November 1 or Wednesday, November 2, and then appear every two weeks. I think I've got the recording and editing software sorted out, I've got script outlines for the first three episodes, the iTunes account is in place and all everything needs is a final polish and a couple of tests. Watch this space. Or watch @RatbagsDotCom on Twitter.