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May 19, 2012

Pretending to be something you’re not (19/5/2012)
The Australian skeptical community was presented with a new member this week, a website calling itself "The REAL Australian Sceptics". You might think that it has something to do with the real Australian Skeptics, but you would be wrong. It is in fact a project of the Australian Vaccination Network, although this isn’t mentioned anywhere on the site despite the rules about incorporated non-profit organisations saying:

An association’s full name (including the word ‘Incorporated’ or the abbreviation ‘Inc’) must appear in legible characters on any letter, statement, invoice, notice, publication including website, order for goods or services or receipt in connection with its activities.

Unreal Australian S[c]eptics

But let’s not be pedantic about minor illegalities. We can leave that up to the relevant authorities (who have been notified, of course). See the Associations Incorporation Act 2009, Section 41 and the NSW Office of Fair Trading’s General Obligations for associations for more information.

When I first became aware in 2010 that the AVN had registered four domain names containing "australiansceptics" I sent Meryl Dorey, AVN President, the following email. I did not receive an answer.

Dear Ms Dorey,

You have no idea how pleased I was to find that you had registered various Internet domain names which include the word "australiansceptics". I knew that you were looking for something to do after you stepped down as President of AVN, but I never suspected that you would be planning to join me and my friends over here in skeptic land. As you usually use the spelling "septics" (a joke which is still funny after a million repetitions) and Australian Skeptics Inc use "skeptics", it seems obvious that you are planning your own skeptical organisation.

This can only be good news as the country needs as many supporters of skepticism and scientific and critical thinking as it can get to fight the forces of evil and nonsense. Sometimes it’s difficult to convince sensible people that, for example, there are those who oppose vaccination, and it would be immensely useful to have someone with inside knowledge of organised insanity to help get the message of truth out.

As you are well aware, I do not speak for Australian Skeptics unless I specifically say so and in this case I am expressing my personal view. Australian Skeptics Inc might have an opinion on the matter but I will leave it up to them to comment.

I am sure that we can put aside the differences we have had in the past and I look forward to working with you to educate the population to recognise and accept medicine, science, rational thought and truth rather than quackery, magic, superstition and lies.

Your friend
Peter

When I saw the new deceptively-named web site I posted this email again as a comment. It wasn’t published. I found out later that this was because comments were later blocked for the introduction page. This is not unreasonable but is usually done when the page is created, not as an afterthought. It did provide some amusement however, as the following Twitter exchange shows.

Meryl replies to me on Twitter

That’s right – she follows the #StopAVN Twitter hashtag but replies to someone totally different. That takes real skill because most of the programs used to interact with Twitter automatically fill in the person being responded to. The Internet meme LULZ was given a heavy workout.

But now we should get on to the real commenting saga. The site contains a lot of words about how comments should be framed, pointing out that abuse will not be tolerated but dissenting views will be, references are required, and a whole lot of other stuff that experience says will only apply to people who are not friends of the AVN.

The first article posted to the blog was an insane rant by an anonymous person only identified as "HPS". It contained so many inaccuracies and outright lies that anyone with even a modicum of knowledge about science or medicine coming across it without prior exposure to the antics of anti-vaccination liars might see it as a joke. I posted the following comment:

First comment

For explanation, see Poe’s Law and Landover Baptist.

I received this email from Ms Dorey, moderator of the blog:

I would like to offer you an opportunity to rewrite your comment so that it does not attack the person who wrote the blog post. If you do so, I will be happy to consider moderating it.

Kind regards,
Meryl

As I couldn’t see how I had been attacking anyone I didn’t bother to reply.

Many of the comments on the article were posted by someone calling itself "ChildHealthSafety" with no further identification. This person runs an eponymous web site which also hides the identity of the site owner. Many (most? all?) of the comments made by this person were nonsensical reiterations of classic anti-vaccine lies. My opinion of anonymity is well known, so I posted the following comment. (Note – this might not be exactly what I wrote. I forgot to take a screen shot.)

Why doesn’t ChildHealthSafety tell us its* name, either here or on its web site? What does it have to hide, or is it too unsure of its facts to back them up with a real name?

My name is Peter Bowditch and I am not ashamed to admit it.

* I use the pronoun "it" because it does not even reveal its gender.

A leopard with permanent spotsI received the following from Ms Dorey:

I’m afraid that once again, your comment is attacking another commenter rather than commenting on the article and therefore, it will not be moderated. Please keep your posts on topic without making any derogatory comments about other people and I will be happy to approve them.

So asking someone to identify themselves is an attack. If that is the case then I can’t go any further. Words are being used in a manner which is in conflict with normal usage of the English language. What is obvious, however, is that yet again Ms Dorey’s claims of open and free speech are revealed as the vacuous statement they really are. Her idea of free speech is that she and people she agrees with can say anything they like without having to produce any evidence beyond anecdote and say-so while everyone else can just keep quiet. As I was banned from the AVN’s Internet mailing list in 1999 without ever posting a message I can’t say I’m surprised at the perpetuation of the cliché about leopards and spots.

I suppose allowing ChildHealthSafety to hide behind a pseudonym is consistent though. Consistent with, for example, registering domain names that look like they belong to someone else and then using them on a web site with a title very similar to the other party while simultaneously hiding your true identity. But as I have never expected an iota of honesty or ethics from anti-vaccination campaigners I can hardly say I’m surprised.


And while we're at it ... (19/5/2012)
Here is a complaint lodged with the NSW Office of Fair Trading (File number 6184095):

The Australian Vaccination Network Inc has created a web page at http://australiansceptics.com/ with the title "The REAL Australian Skeptics". I will leave it up to the real Australian Skeptics Inc to complain about this apparent attempt to confuse people by using a similar name to promote ideas which are anathema to them. My complaint is that nowhere on the australiansceptics.com web site is there any mention of its association with the Australian Vaccination Network, despite the guidelines for incorporated bodies stating quite clearly:

"An association's full name (including the word 'Incorporated' or the abbreviation 'Inc') must appear in legible characters on any letter, statement, invoice, notice, publication including website, order for goods or services or receipt in connection with its activities".

There is no doubt that it is a project of the AVN because it is being promoted on the AVN's Facebook page and Twitter feed and comments are moderated by the AVN's President.

I realise that this could be seen as a trivial matter, but the AVN has been in trouble in the past for working close to the edge of rules and regulations.



See more Speed Bump here


I get more information (19/5/2012)
Back in April I had the following exchange with a reader:

Date: Sun, 01 Apr 2012 20:15:13 -0700
From: Bill Gross
Subject: Your web page is a joke and it only makes you look bad.

The good Doctor has already been through enough shit without your jealous ass spreading more crap. So do us all a favor and just go play in the busy street.

Hello Bill,

Thank you for your useful comments, which have been passed on to our editorial team for their amusement. The comments would be even more useful if I knew which "good Doctor" you were talking about

Bill has replied with a clarification:

Date: Sun, 29 Apr 2012 11:24:41 -0700
From: Bill Gross
Subject: Re: Your web page is a joke and it only makes you look bad.

Well if memory serves me correctly, I could have been talking about the only doctor (Dr. Burzynski) that is actually trying to cure people of cancer, instead of the now conventional treatment of shooting you through with radiation destroying good and bad tissue all the while making return visits a must, as well as pushing "legal" drugs all in an effort to get all the money the person has before they are killed by the "treatment" that is designated as the conventional way to do things.

Your memory needs updating, because Dr Burzynski is not the only doctor trying to cure people of cancer. In fact he isn't even one of them, because to be one he would have to be doing something that might lead to a cure for at least one form of cancer. (There is no universal cure for cancer, despite what quacks like Burzynski claim, because there are many different forms of the disease.) Oh, and you do realise that Burzynski supplies real medicines (at outrageously inflated prices) from his in-house pharmacy and they look a lot like conventional chemotherapy drugs. As for return visits, patients have to keep returning to Burzynski, sometimes for years, generally until they either die or run out of money.

Yes that is most likely what I was talking about.... I'm so happy to have provided your editorial team with some amusement.  You might try actually writing something that could help a child not be "practiced" on and told that this is his or her only treatment. Radiation in any form is not an acceptable treatment for anything other than murder. I as a parent could not torture my child in that manner especially when there are other safe and proven methods.

What are these "safe and proven methods"? Please don't say anything to do with Burzynski because until he provides some evidence there is no indication that what he does is either safe or works. In fact, the high sodium loads that he inflicts on patients with his antineoplaston treatment are probably harmful.

I am treating my fathers skin cancer and am doing so successfully with natural methods that don't cost a fortune and take every penny he has.

I feel sorry for your father. Skin cancer is almost always curable by real doctors but certain forms of it can kill quite quickly. Make sure his will is up to date.

With natural remedies you eliminate the middle man and get the nourishment that God provided instead of the fake man made cheap imitations that line the pockets of the "ones who rule". I do not claim to know everything but I am smart enough to see through the bullshit.

If I in any way ruined your day with my post I do apologize. I was pretty harsh, lol.

Why would you have ruined my day? I've heard all this before.

I am just sick of seeing people subjected to the treatment at hand with the medical society not making any efforts at all to find new safe ways to treat cancer.

There are thousands of researchers working to find cures and treatments for cancer. Have you any idea how much money could be made by whoever finds the cure for breast cancer, for example?

So with that said you may want to watch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRua3NLg-Z8

I have watched it. I'll have to say this for Burzynski, he is certainly putting a lot more money and effort into his advertising these days. Back when I first came across him he was just running lying web sites exploiting dead and dying children. Now he has lying videos like this one, a wide network of money-laundering web sites and a much more sophisticated program of scripted and almost credible testimonials. Some of the stories are so convincing that you could almost forget that you are watching actors and reading fiction.


Some more email to set me straight (19/5/2012)
I appreciate thoughtful criticism. It helps me improve the product.

Date: Sat, 12 May 2012 22:40:22 -0700
Subject: you need a hard punch
From: bam bam

in your face...

you are a piece of rotting shit..

Thank you. It is always best to start off on a polite note.

as humans even children and mothers who come in as patients are damaged and maimed by mercury they are exposed to chronically or acutely in health care and never informed or mercury exposure symptoms-given a list of mercury symptoms to look for ( like you get with a bottle of aspirin), and watched or accounted for...even as they have mercury symptoms that are very well documented in medical literature...

I assume English is not your native language. Congratulations, though, as your English is better than my Cantonese.

i am compiling a list of many doctors md's scientists toxicologists dds's of various histories some with the FDA EPA with a more humanistic and sympathetic view of human experience and with truth on their side are putting information out on the internet on just how harmful damaging irresponsible callous unwarranted the practice of using mercury in health fields is.

Where is mercury used in health fields? Other than in homeopathy of course, because that has nothing to do with health. See homeopaths using mercury here.

there are thousands of patients who are now ill and post on the internet their direct causal link to mercury related health products such as amalgam etc

There are thousands of people posting on the Internet with claims they have seen UFOs. Do you believe those delusions too?

there is not conspiracy it is truth.

in fact the only conspiracy is the people that really have something to loose by admitting the truth and owning the damage they allow..such as the Amercican Dental Association and decades of blind support of Amalgam while Millions of Americans are filled with Mercury in various amounts and when they get symptoms depending on the amount they received they do not know what happened or what to blame because the dentist never told them what they are exposed to..great cover up and great conspiracy....the conspiracy to not admit damage based on the millions sick..can we say liability issues A book which can not possibly exist!you idiot...

I knew there was mercury in dental amalgam before I entered high school. My dentist told me. You do know that the American Dental Association put out a book in 1966 which contained the recipe for dental amalgam and also warned dentists about the dangers of high exposure? Dentists were at risk because they were exposed to large amounts of mercury daily. People with fillings are exposed to tiny amounts which cause no harm.

in fact many industries will go down in flames before admitting guilt for reason of saving face and liability issues while people are really harmed and parish under the reality of the poisons they are exposed to.

can we say lead-asbestos-ddt and many more...

Which has what to do with mercury? As I said above, the dangers of high exposure to mercury have been known for a very long time. Have you read Alice in Wonderland? Do you know why hatters went mad?

allowing the established industries of mercury usage create manage fund and report on the things that are huge liability issues is like the trusting tobacco companies to report the poisons they expose there clients with

it is idiots like you that think asbestos lead ddt and now mercury are safe and not damaging humans.

When have I ever said all these things are safe? Are you familiar with the Straw Man Fallacy?

humans are idiots basically and you are definitely one..one that probably goes to mcdonalds and eat the hamburger thinking it is just as healthy as eating organic meat raised humanely with a healthy organic diet..

How do you know what the animals were fed on?

i am sure you would of been an idiot that would have defended asbestos and lead and ddt to name a few in there hay day in american industry before they were banned, as perfectly fine

That's "would have", "their" and "heyday", but who cares about accuracy? You don't seem to. When was lead banned?

it is idiots apologists like you that have will compare mercury and its use to such things as hydrogen and oxygen in your dumb rebuttals and arguments This ass is not dumb!red herring arguments of smoke and mirrors and confusion

A chemical compound containing hydrogen and oxygen kills far more people than mercury does, so I'm not sure what your point is here, or even if you have one.

it is an idiot like you will use some stupid little imperfection in my statements as a reason to throw out the reality that mercury does harm humans you fucking idiot...

There are many "stupid little imperfection[s]" in your statements, but they have nothing to do with reality.

Did I call you a dumb ass idiot yet???

Why do people keep insulting my donkey? He isn't dumb.



See more Jesus and Mo here

May 26, 2012

Experimenting on skeptics (26/5/2012)
At SkeptiCamp Sydney on May 26 I conducted a small experiment to show that even people motivated to attend a skeptical conference can have their actions influenced by things they read. It was not intended to be a scientific experiment so no statistical analysis of the results has been or will be attempted. It was merely designed to demonstrate principles. It was done as part of a talk titled "We're so skeptical we can't be fooled".

Each person in the audience was given a piece of paper. On one side was an instruction about turning the page over before being asked to do so. Half the forms had the instruction "Don’t turn over until asked to do so" and the other half said "Please don’t turn over until asked to do so". The hypothesis was that the addition of the word "Please" would reduce the probability that the subjects would ignore the instruction. About a dozen people admitted to turning over before being asked to do so, but none of these people had the "Please" version. We can conclude from this that skeptics are more likely to do what you want them to do if you ask politely. The principle being tested here is known in skeptic circles as "Don't be a dick" and there is no reason to suggest that it doesn't apply to the wider population at large.

The main part of the experiment tested the psychological principle known as "Anchoring bias". This states that when people are asked to estimate something their guess will be influenced by information provided at the time. Told that a number is incorrect, the average estimate will be higher in a group shown a high number than in a group getting a lower hint. These were the four statements, together with the numbers shown to the two groups:

HighLow
The number of people receiving Newstart unemployment benefits in Australia is3,475,32141,293
The population of West Wyalong is73,283803
There are X kilometres of track in the Sydney CityRail system11,345253
The average consumption of marijuana by high school students in South Australia is X grams per year4,2862

Here are the results, with the average estimate for each group shown together with the best estimate currently available for the correct value.

Experimental groupHighLowActual
The number of people receiving Newstart unemployment benefits in Australia is713,252351,568329,500
The population of West Wyalong is32,9196,8272,946
There are X kilometres of track in the Sydney CityRail system24,5122,0201,595
The average consumption of marijuana by high school students in South Australia is X grams per year791349

There was no useful estimate available for marijuana consumption in SA high schools, although figures do show a significant reduction in marijuana use in the age group over the last few years. Five subjects in the "High" group estimated use at 10 kilograms per year. As this would represent heavy individual usage and would be almost inconceivable as an average these were exclude from the results. Exclusion of these outliers did not affect the direction of the overall results with the "High" group still having a higher average estimate than that for subjects shown a low figure.

So on all four statements the people shown a higher target provided, on average, higher estimates with the opposite happening for the group shown lower clues. If this proves anything at all it is that committed skeptics are little different to non-skeptics in the way that they are influenced by information provided to them in the absence of corroborating data. I would hope that the difference is that skeptics would not take single, unsupported numbers at face value and would ask for additional evidence to back up what they are told. Isn't this what makes us skeptics, after all?

References:

Anchoring bias in decision-making
Jobseekers receiving Newstart Allowance
West Wyalong Local Stats
CityRail Facts and Stats
Statistics on Illicit Drug Use in South Australia



That old Schadenfreude feeling (26/5/2012)
It takes time, but pyramid scheme operator TVI Express finally has to pull out the cheque book. You can see the media release from the ACCC here.

$200,000 penalty for TVI Express pyramid selling scam

The Federal Court has imposed penalties totalling $200,000 on three individuals for their illegal participation in the pyramid selling scheme TVI Express.

"Pyramid selling schemes are not legitimate businesses but scams promising the rewards of easy money that never arrives," Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims said.

"People who are tempted to take part in pyramid selling should note the serious penalties they could face."

The Federal Court's decision marks the end of the ACCC’s action against Lualhati Jutsen (also known as Teddi Jutsen), Tina Brownlee and David Scanlon for participating in a pyramid selling scheme.

The court ordered that Ms Jutsen pay a penalty of $90,000. Ms Brownlee was ordered to pay $80,000 and Mr Scanlon $30,000.

Justice Nicholas found that Ms Jutsen's contravention was serious and a substantial penalty was warranted. Justice Nicholas was also satisfied that there was a clear need to impose a penalty on Ms Jutsen that will deter her from engaging in further breaches of the law.

In relation to both Ms Jutsen and Ms Brownlee, Justice Nicholas found it difficult to accept Ms Jutsen’s submission that she should be regarded as a victim of the scheme. He also did not give any weight to Ms Brownlee’s submission that she blamed the ACCC for not warning her that participation in the scheme was unlawful.

The court made declarations, granted injunctions for five years restraining all three from engaging in similar conduct and ordered that they pay the ACCC’s legal costs.

In November 2011, Justice Nicholas found that the respondents breached the law by participating in the TVI Express scheme. The TVI Express scheme was promoted through various websites including the site www.tviteamoz.com and the TVI Express Oz group on facebook.com. The TVI Express scheme extended throughout Australia and internationally.

People who wished to participate in the scheme were required to pay a membership fee of $330. Once an individual had paid the $330, they received a 'travel certificate' and the opportunity to receive commission payments for recruiting other people into the scheme.

The court found that the vouchers were of little to no value and that the only way a person could earn income from their participation in the scheme was from recruiting new members.

Pyramid schemes may be identified, in part, by the extent to which the membership fee, or participant payment, bears a reasonable relationship to the value of goods or services that participants are entitled to be supplied under the scheme.

The ACCC's case commenced in May 2010, at a time when Ms Jutsen, Ms Brownlee and Mr Scanlon were actively and heavily promoting the scheme in Australia and planning to travel to New Zealand to recruit more members. The ACCC took prompt action in order to protect members of the public from being recruited to the scheme.

Release # NR 099/12
Issued: 21st May 2012



See more from Judy Horacek here


Peer review - Close enough is better than nothing (26/5/2012)
That's the title of my latest column in Australasian Science magazine. If you don't already, you should subscribe to this excellent publication. If you're not the subscribing kind and live in Australia please nag your newsagent to make sure he carries it and puts it in a prominent place. (Don't tell anyone, but I've been known to rearrange the magazine display shelves to make it easier to find.)

Pseudoscientists don't like being told that they would have more credibility if their work was published in peer-reviewed journals. Often they will attack the peer review process itself and try to pretend that because it is not perfect it is not useful. (The "Nirvana Fallacy".) Of course it is not perfect, because it is an invention and construction of humans not gods, but it is still better than the alternative of being able to say, claim and publish anything at all. You can be a bit more confident when you read something in a peer-reviewed journal because you know that more than one person has read the paper before publication. Errors can still get through, and sometimes the flaw in the research is missed by the reviewers. I saw a case of this a few years back.

You can read the rest here.




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