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Some action at last (1/2/2003)
In an amazing piece of good news, the US Federal Trade Commission is taking action against not-a-medical-Dr Hulda Clark's quackery empire. (You can read the good news here.) Apparently their reach extends to Switzerland where Clark's representative probably thought he was safe. My prediction is that Clark will abandon her Swiss friend and leave him swinging in the wind while she looks for another patsy in another country to run her web site and her offshore distribution shield. I have said before that Clark learned from her near-miss when she was charged with practising medicine without a licence. In that case she managed to get the suit dismissed, not because she was not guilty (she had told someone that he had AIDS and she could cure it in three weeks), but because she was able to convince a judge that she was too befuddled to stand trial.
Since then she has structured her business so that she is insulated from problems. Tim Bolen runs the PR, the smear campaigns and the defamation, her son does distribution in the USA, her brother sells in Canada and runs the mailing lists, David Amrein (who is the person charged this time) runs the web site and the online sales (from Switzerland, near the banks). Clark can cut any of these people adrift as soon as they look like trouble for her. Even when she sues people, she does it through her publishing company rather than personally. It's all nothing to do with her, but I'll bet I can guess whose signature is needed to get the money out of the bank.
A shy MLM doesn't like having its name mentioned (1/2/2003)
I have received a letter from a lawyer representing a company called Nutrition for Life International, Inc (NFLI) stating that I have committed some sort of intellectual property infringement by listing the company's web site in The Millenium Project. (You can see the lawyer's letter here.).
According to the company's web site, Nutrition for Life is a multi-level marketing organisation selling opportunities to "start a home-based business and make it grow" and also some "health and wellness" products, which appear to be a miracle weight-loss product (it must be a miracle because it seems to work in contravention of the normal rules of nutrition which state that there is no such thing as a food which can make you slim) and a vitamin supplement. I have listed "opportunities" first in this list before the products as it appears first on their web site. This is consistent with most multi-level marketing schemes in that the pyramid is what matters most, not any product which coincidentally might move through the structure.
In the letter from the lawyer it states that "NFLI owns trademark rights throughout the world, including ... Australia". A search of the Australian Trade Mark Office database shows that the trademark "Nutrition for Life" is registered to Merck & Co, and that it is a trademark for "Professional advisory and consultancy services for the assistance of patients suffering illnesses such as HIV, including dietetic and medical advisory and consultancy services". I find this all quite confusing, and I have contacted the legal firm representing Merck on trademark matters in Australia for a comment.
And then there are the conspiracy nuts ... (1/2/2003)
Within minutes of the announcement of the tragic destruction of the space shuttle Columbia, lunatics were spouting nonsense on web sites, Internet forums and newsgroups about what happened. I haven't had time to do a real analysis, but a look at the first couple of hours of this crap shows that the blame has been put on the US Government, NASA itself, terrorists, Mossad, Jews in general, Saddam Hussein, collision with a UFO, the secret HAARP project, Masons (through their connection with NASA), contrails, the media (AOL/Time Warner need some good news), the "left wing" (yes, someone really did make the connection between the left wing coming off first and liberal political views), President Bush, and many more culprits. Again, people with better things to do will have their time wasted because they are too polite to ridicule idiots.
Shaken Baby Syndrome (8/2/2003)
Shaken Baby Syndrome is back in the news again with the overturning of the conviction of Sally Clark for the murder of her two children. Clark is a British lawyer who was convicted in 1999 of suffocating one child and shaking another to death, and her appeal was based on the suggestion that vital evidence had been withheld from the jury at her trial. I have only seen newspaper reports of the quashing of the conviction but it seems that the withheld information included evidence that babies suddenly dying for no apparent reason is quite common and it is not unusual for two of these deaths to occur in the one family, and even, as in this case, for both deaths to occur at the same time of day, at the same age of the child, and with the same adult in the room at both times. Another suggestion was that there is a "cot death gene" which predisposes certain children to very early death. (I leave it as an exercise for the reader to formulate an evolutionary theory to explain the continued existence of a gene which causes its host to die many years before reaching reproducing age.) Whatever the reasons for the reversal of the charges, Sally Clark is now free to play golf with OJ Simpson.
Both children were examined by a doctor shortly before they died (one on the day of death and one the day before) and no problems were reported. As these were "well-baby" doctor visits just for vaccinations, the anti-vaccination liars have been salivating over the prospect that this double tragedy can be exploited for their evil cause. As far as I can tell, Clark herself has not played the "vaccines did it" card, although she may have been keeping it in reserve in case this latest appeal failed. There now seems to be a symbiotic relationship developing between the anti-vaccination liars (who are constantly looking for more ways to frighten parents) and certain bizarre groups who seem to believe that accusations of Shaken Baby Syndrome are almost always false (and who are always looking for other things to blame rather than violent or distressed parents). Each group supports the other and a "victory" for one is a win for the other. This goes part of the way towards explaining why the anti-vaccinationists seemed uninterested in Sally Clark until it was time to rejoice at her release from prison and why they continue to support Alan Yurko now that his true motivation has been revealed and he is no longer blaming a vaccine for killing his girlfriend's baby. Still, I suppose that one form of madness looks much like another from the inside.
Congratulations, Professor Dini (8/2/2003)
I would like to offer my personal congratulations to Professor Michael Dini of the Texas Tech University Department of Biological Sciences. Professor Dini has come under criticism for his open policy of refusing letters of recommendation to students who reject science. The wonderful irony is that people who have been trying to tell us all that creationism is not religion are claiming that Professor Dini is discriminating on religious grounds. This is almost as hypocritical as it would be to recommend someone for a job or graduate study program when that person rejects the fundamental theories and facts of their chosen discipline. In 1 Kings 7:23 it says "And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it round about". To thinking people, this is an approximation which is near enough when retelling a story from an oral tradition. To the sort of person who believes in a six-day creation because the Bible is always correct, it means that God thinks that π is exactly 3. Do you think that it would be appropriate for a professor of physics, mathematics or engineering to provide a letter of recommendation for a student who believes that π is 3 because the Bible says it is? Would you want such a person designing bridges, aircraft, global positioning systems or weapons targeting software? Neither would I.
Who's the mystery woman, and who does she work for?
Over the last week or so, Australia has been getting ready to play its part in the "coalition of the willing" by transporting military personnel and equipment in the general direction of Iraq. A small number of sailors decided that they didn't want to receive an anthrax vaccination and were sent home. Apparently they were unaware that they might have to be vaccinated, although the rest of us have been talking about the likelihood of war for many months, the use of biological weapons by the Iraqis has been seen as a real possibility, and there have been almost daily reports of Hans Blix and his band of intrepid inspectors wandering around Iraq looking for these very weapons.
The media beat this up as if it was important, and the anti-vaccinators jumped with joy, issued press releases claiming inside knowledge of many more dissenters, and challenged the officers giving the orders to take the vaccines themselves. (The most senior officer in the Australian defence force had his shot and as far as we know is still alive.) One interview that came to my attention was given by telephone to a television show by a "Meryl Nass" of the "US Vaccine Advisory Board", telling of the dangers of the vaccine. You can see a report of the interview here and another version here. I went looking to see what I could find out about this organisation, but the only mentions in Google seemed to be on anti-vaccination sites, which in many cases linked it to the Centers for Disease Control. Strangely, there seems to be no mention of this body on the CDC site, although they do mention a "National Vaccine Advisory Committee". The CDC's official statement on the safety of the anthrax vaccine does not seem to echo the concerns expressed by "Ms Nass". I wonder who this woman is. I wonder who she really works for. I wonder if the Today Show might have been conned. Could someone have been lying about who they were? Somehow, I would not be surprised if this were so.
Don't mention the war (15/2/2003)
Some people have asked my why I haven't said anything here about the situation in Iraq and what should be done about it. The main reason is that I try not to do politics here, and in this particular case I think that there are a lot of simple answers, coming from various points in the political spectrum, which are almost all certain to be wrong. I don't like tyrants and I wouldn't lose much sleep if the Iraqis rose up and put Saddam Hussein in a garbage bag (or even several bags), but I am concerned about countries carrying out pre-emptive attacks to change the government in a place which is no immediate military threat. Where will the next target be? Zimbabwe, after we finish playing cricket there? The ideal answer for Iraq would seem to be to force the country to really disarm, replace Hussein with some sort of democracy, and then use aid and oil money to rebuild the society. Unfortunately, this is probably the least likely scenario, although the presence of a large military force in the area, with or without UN approval, might just allow the weapons inspections to continue until a useful result is achieved. Hussein is a master at brinkmanship and he was prepared to make some concessions just before the Blix report was presented to the UN, so maybe there is some hope of a peaceful future. I'm glad I don't have to make the final decision about whether and when to start shooting.
More on SBS (15/2/2003)
I have received several thoughtful and polite emails which were critical of what I said last week about Sally Clark. (Another person wished that my own children should die so that I could know how it feels, but I don't take the rantings of lunatics seriously.) I will send personal replies to the correspondents, but I thought that I would provide some clarification for general consumption.
The piece above is a sketch for a longer article I am preparing for publication in a magazine. Because of a small family health crisis it was written in a hurry, and I admit that it isn't the clearest or most coherent thing I have ever written. The issue for me is not Sally Clark per se but the mythology that has arisen around her case and the way that it has been exploited by people and groups with agendas to follow and barrows to push. (I realise that I will probably be accused of this myself.) There really is a Munchausen by Proxy syndrome but some children are just sick a lot and accident prone, some people really do shake their children to death or suffocate them but some children die of disease, genetic defect or for no apparent reason at all, but, as with accusations of sexual abuse, neither complete denial nor a witchhunt is going to do anything to solve the problem. I will publish my longer article here, but as I have to wait until after it has appeared in print it might not be here for a couple of months.
Whole lotta not much goin' on (22/2/2003)
There's not a lot of new stuff here this week because a plague of an echinacea-resistant virus struck down the residents of Ratbag Castle. I tried all the zappers and potions that I was going to use to illustrate my speech about alternative medicine, but none of it worked. I suppose I was grateful for that in a way, otherwise I would have had to do some serious rethinking of what I was going to talk about. Preparing for and giving the talk took up a lot of the time between coughing, sneezing, shivering and nursing. Everything should be back to normal next week
Zapping and Healing (22/2/2003)
I gave a talk about alternative medicine to a dinner meeting of the Australian Skeptics on Saturday, 22 February, 2003.
You can read the talk here
Another one bites the dust (22/2/2003)
I don't like to gloat about companies and web sites that disappear, but I have to make an exception sometimes. When I did my regular link check this week I found that the execrable SkyBiz no longer has a site. This was a totally fraudulent pyramid scheme (I know, all pyramid schemes are fraudulent, but this was just a little more blatant than usual) which involved people selling web sites. Why anyone would want to pay $100 for what they could get from Tripod or Geocities for nothing was always a mystery, but I knew several people who were tempted by this scam. Some actually outlaid money, some tried to make money by selling more sites, and some even discredited their businesses by putting up commercial sites under the domain. The last I heard, the crooks who set up the scam were ordered by a court to pay back all the money they had stolen. If you ever think that the people at the top of a pyramid scheme might set up these scams so that those below them can get rich, remember that the people who created SkyBiz collected $172 million in the first year. Better than robbing banks, if you don't get caught.