A sudden intake of breath

A sudden intake of breath

Emily Rosa is the youngest person to have a paper published in a peer reviewed medical journal. Her story is an inspiring one, how at age nine she conducted research that debunked therapeutic touch. Little wonder that the tale is often told, including, in 2011, by Michael Shermer at a talk he gave right here in Ottawa.

I was in the audience that night, sitting with a group of friends: my wife, a female scientist friend of ours, and various other acquaintances. Now the exact words are forgotten and the reason why he told the story is forgotten but I do remember how it ended, which was by flashing up on the screen an image of the adult Emily Rosa in a bikini with a comment that was something like, “and look what she grew up to be.”

And – certainly from our little corner of the auditorium – there was a sudden and sharp intake of breath.

Shermer gave a great talk that night, entertaining, educational, fascinating,  but when we were talking afterwards among ourselves, several people mentioned the picture of Emily Rosa in a bikini. It was incongruous, it was odd, and it made at least several people that I know of uncomfortable.

Maybe there wasn’t a point; perhaps it was just supposed to lighten up the talk at midway. I’m sure no harm or offense was intended, and yet… I’ve talked about this specific moment since then, over a year after Shermer gave the talk, and had a few more people say that yes, they remember that slide and that, yes, it was… odd. One person recalled that moment without my prompting them. That it was incongruent. Uncomfortable. Yet another person spontaneously said, when I asked if they remembered Shermer’s talk, “oh yes, that was the really sexist one.” Why? Because so many of the images he’d used to illustrate optical illusions were of parts of women’s bodies (or things that look they are).

So: Shermer came to Ottawa and gave a very interesting talk, but a talk where many of the images used were of women’s bodies and where at least one of the female bodies shown was to illustrate a story about a nine year old girl scientist. As one of my female friends said, “it’s like it was a talk for boys but a bunch of women had inexplicably also been invited.” Again, this was an unprompted comment after being asked if they remembered his presentation.

Many of us know, and indeed are, women, and it’s a good idea to think about how women might respond to a communication style heavy on close ups of female bodies and bikini shots. I’ve sufficient evidence from my peer group to tell me that Shermer’s talk was not a universal hit among that group of people. It’s worth considering why that might be. And if he’s still giving this particular talk, with these particular visual aids, It’s time to stop. Skepticism isn’t a boy’s club anymore.

A just cause, the wrong celebrity, a PR disaster

A just cause, the wrong celebrity, a PR disaster

One cannot help but feel sympathy for the Ottawa Regional Cancer Foundation. Their Bust a Move Ottawa event raised over $350,000 dollars last year. This year, with 30 days to go, they’ve set a goal for $500,000. With a track record like that it’s achievable;  but for the fact that their recently announced celebrity attendee is the anti-vaccination, anti-evidence, anti-science, anti-health Jenny McCarthy.

They were doing a good job building momentum for the big announcement, which was made on Tuesday night, and presumably they had primed journalists at the Ottawa Citizen to help them break the news. The Citizen did just that, shortly after the announcement, only they ran an article with an unfavourable headline – “Anti-vaccine crusader Jenny McCarthy to headline Bust a Move Ottawa” – and then put up an editorial that was also unfavourable – “Great cause, poor choice”. Straight out of the gate, Bust a Move Ottawa 2013 was in bad PR territory and all the publicity that the ORCF and the Bust a Move event were hoping for turned negative. By the afternoon of the next day, #dropjenny was gathering speed on twitter.

The Citizen justifies its editorial position. “A health and fitness fundraiser, in service of a health-related foundation, should not hitch its wagon to an advocate for a harmful and unfounded ideology.” Jenny McCarthy’s interventions in public health have been damaging, perhaps profoundly so. An entertainer she may be but there are a lot of people who are more outraged by her past statements on vaccinations than they are dazzled by her celebrity. For a lot of people it is not possible to separate the negative aspects of her work, about which the organisers were presumably unaware (or did not think would be important), from the positive. And how will this affect fundraising? People in Ottawa aware of Jenny McCarthy’s background are going to feel quite justified in refusing to pledge when their friends and family come asking for money for Bust a Move.

Bust a Move looks like a fun, high energy event. It should be building on the success of last year and going on to greater things. But when the local newspaper of record cripples your horse as soon as it gets out of the gate, media attention turns negative, a chorus of voices on twitter criticize and a health charity that does valuable work becomes associated with antivaxx quackery, it’s hard to see how that could be possible. It’s truly sad that ORCF and Bust a Move Ottawa are in this position. It’s a PR mess and a branding disaster. I hope they can extricate themselves with honour, and get back to fundraising and the good work that they do.


Anti-Vaccination Advocate to Headline Ottawa Cancer Event: CFI Canada, CASS and Ottawa Skeptics Issue Response

Anti-vaxxer Jenny McCarthy to front Ottawa cancer charity fundraiser

Great cause, poor choice

We’ll take the money you can bring us, even if you’re antivaccine

Pondering My Unexpected Activism

Climate change denial course puts the K in quality at Carleton

Climate change denial course puts the K in quality at Carleton

News from Canada: We learn that in the nation’s capital, Tom Harris, a Heartland associate and PR guy for the oil industry, has been teaching a course on climate change at Carleton University for the past few years. A science watchdog (the Committee for the Advancement of Scientific Skepticism) reviewed videos of the course and uncovered a hefty 142 errors, clear evidence of bias, and serial misrepresentation of the current scientific opinion on climate change.

So it’s basically what you’d expect from a Heartland associate and PR guy for the oil industry, but not at all what you’d expect from a university.

This was a review course for non-science majors, so its reasonable that the students don’t access primary sources such as the peer-reviewed scientific literature. However, one would expect that the instructor would at least have a passing familiarity with it and be able to accurately convey the relevant scientific information to his students. Nope. Harris would rather call a friend than crack open a journal.

Credit where its due, though. It takes effort, creativity, and skill, to put together a course on the science of climate change that runs for twelve lectures and studiously avoids most of the science of climate change.

You might wonder what Harris was doing all that time. Twelve lectures is a lot of dead air to fill. Fortunately, he has a lot of buddies, including a few living locally, who are equally as befuddled and confused about climatology and were more than willing to star in this gong show.

Step up Tim Patterson, tenured professor at Carleton, a devotee of the Sun as the one true cause of the climate change that isn’t happening and a fervent believer in cosmic rays that can’t be measured as responsible for the global warming that isn’t going on. He’s a palaeontologist and geologist, and therefore blessed with the profound insight that comes from working in the context of deep time. For him, climate always changes; oh yes, that it does, and many sage geologists nod their heads in agreement; but did he never once stop to wonder why it might? Perhaps that’s a question too far.

As a special treat, students get to see an elderly Australian by the name of Carter feverishly fantasising about climate science being exploded by metaphorical torpedoes of denial. It’s the sun – Boom! Did you know temperatures go up as well as down? Take that, warmists! 20th Century warming? Nothing unusual there! But never mind that it got warmer, because here comes an ice age! Oh, it’s fine comedy. One hopes the students were suitably entertained. They paid good money for this.

What’s next for our Carleton undergrads? How about a full length movie? Why not? Its time for The Great Global Warming Swindle, wherein a smarmy producer fakes data, truncates graphs and misrepresents climate science and scientists for 90 minutes. That’s another lecture out of the way.

Then there’s local “friend of science” Tad Murty, who, in a courageous and bold attempt to ignore overwhelming evidence, tells us that the oceans… are cooling. All the fish currently expanding their range into previously uninhabitable areas of the sea would be deeply surprised to learn that fact.

But for most of the lectures, Harris has to bumble along by himself. He has the students play “Blooper of the Week”, a version of “Guessing the Teacher’s Password” wherein they have to find innocuous statements by public figures that would cause Harris to shake his fist angrily at clouds. “The climate is always changing, so this cannot be stopped as we do not have such control over the sun and other cosmic forces that greatly correlate to the warming and cooling of Earth. We cannot change climate just as we cannot change the seasons from winter to summer,” one possibly baked student explains. It’s cosmic, man, truly cosmic. Down the rabbit hole we go: “the climate problem is so difficult that we may never solve it,” Harris says, accidentally acknowledging there is a climate problem, before twisting hurriedly away from the implications; “the idea that CO2 rise is mainly caused by humans, the idea that temperature rise is definite, it’s occurring; – many of these things are either not true or are simply unknown, or highly debatable.” So many contradictory beliefs, all simultaneously true, except for the things that scientists actually agree on? Now this is how you do science! Why bother to test a hypothesis, when you can simply believe in as many as you wish? Cosmic rays, the sun, the urban heat island effect, all the one true cause of the global warming that isn’t happening and doesn’t matter anyhow because there’s an ice age just around the corner. Confused? You should be.

Alright, so it would be neither fair nor accurate to say Harris didn’t expose his students to proper science. He does mention the IPCC report, although it’s the second edition, the one from 1995, that grabs his attention. That there had been two more since that time, each one becoming firmer and more confident about the causes and extent of anthropogenic climate change, is a fact of which he appears to be blissfully unaware. The students are left similarly unenlightened. Not that he has good things to say about the IPCC, standing as it does for all that is false and loathsome in the world of science. Only 2.5% of the scientists involved in the IPCC agree with the conclusions of the IPCC, we are told, something that would be a matter of great surprise to a great many climate scientists: two surveys have found 97% agreement among climate scientists with the IPCC’s main conclusions. A recent report in PNAS went on to point out that the few percent that do disagree “have climate expertise and scientific prominence substantially below that of the convinced researchers”, a polite way of saying that they are cranks.

So what have we learned? Carleton University, the educational establishment that Ottawans once liked to joke “puts the K in Quality” (I don’t know why – this sort of erudite humour escapes me, but then I never did study the classics in school), but turned its reputation around in recent years, and has been rated 7th or 10th in Canadian university rankings, nevertheless has managed to put a man in charge of a science course who teaches students that there’s an ice age coming. I always considered The Day After Tomorrow to be a fun, yet silly, doomsday movie. For Harris and his friends, well, it’s more of a prediction. “Expect global cooling”, he says. Brilliant!

One wonders why the university would give this guy a job. And how on earth did he get it? Did they advertise the position or was he just one day handed the keys to crashing Carleton’s reputation?

It’s probably the latter. His aforementioned good buddy, the cosmic-ray-fearing Professor Tim Patterson, used to teach the course. Patterson went on sabbatical a few years ago and Tom took over. Harris himself said that “95% of the course materials” came from Patterson. What with Harris being a mechanical engineer with no relevant scientific publications, his pointing out that a tenured professor provided the course materials was probably an attempt to provide some cover and credibility. What it did was just land Patterson right in it, as well as raising further questions.

Because what this implies is that Carleton (did I spell that right, or should it be Karleton? Let me know when it’s funny. I really don’t understand this university humour) has been running ERTH2402, a mangled pile of spat up and reheated climate change denial, for about ten damn years, with nobody at that august institution making a peep of complaint. One can easily imagine a kwality student emerging from this course, all bundled up in sweaters and scarves (Canadians do so understand the importance of layering) against the coming reign of the ice giants, planning some cod fishing off the Bahamas, and proudly informing their more fact-prone lecturers in other classes that everything they are teaching about global warming is wrong. Yet nobody said anything.

I do still have faith in Carleton. I want to believe that it’s only the Earth Sciences Department that’s taking a post-modernist approach to the pursuit of truth. Carleton is a university with a lot of young and creative researchers and there’s a vibe there that good things are happening. I want to believe that the only way is up for CU, but right now the Earth Sciences Department is the anchor dragging them down. If CU wants to be able to hold its head high, then how about some much needed scrutiny? They know where the problem lies, and they know with whom it lies. They have to stop hiding behind the excuse of academic freedom and start taking responsibility for educating, rather than misinforming, their undergraduate students. They deserve a whole lot better. It’s long past time.


Further reading:

PDF: Climate Change Denial in the Classroom

Fake Heartland “Scientist” Infiltrates Canadian University 

Climate Science Denial at Carleton University: A Detailed Take-Down

Climate denial at a Canadian university

Climate Change Denial being taught at Carleton University

Tom Harris Teaches Heartland Institute Fake Science to Students

Professor criticized for course denying climate change

CASS: Skepticism FTW

Climate Change and Education: Are Schools the Next Battlefield?

Heartland Institute Climate Change Denial 101

Climate misinformation coming to a school near you?

Carleton course denying man-made climate change

Denialists In The Canadian Classroom

Heartland Institute Associate Got Inside Carleton University

Denial in the Classroom

Heartland agent at Carleton University

It comes in threes

Heartland ‘expert’ taught climate denialism at a Canadian university

Climate scientist ‘troubled’ by skeptic’s teachings at Carleton University

The age of chiropractic miracles is not yet done

The age of chiropractic miracles is not yet done

One might be surprised to learn that chiropractic was once said to cure deafness. The creator of chiropractic, D.D. Palmer, claimed that by manipulation of the spine he restored hearing in a deaf man, Harvey Lillard. From that moment on Palmer decided, ipse dixit, that the spine was the key to all disease. Yet despite Palmer’s miraculous first manipulation, in the hundred or so years since, chiropractors the world over have failed utterly to recreate Palmer’s success with the deaf; a failure so stupendously comprehensive and absolute that  this treatment modality should have long ago fallen into ignominy and disuse.

So much for Palmer’s original chiropractic miracle. Most practitioners of chiropractic today tend to steer well clear of making such claims; surely nobody would believe them anymore, not in this enlightened age.

Chiropractic for the World Foundation is a registered Canadian charity “whose vision is pure and simple: to bring the gift of chiropractic to the world.” They have been working in Ghana and are delighted to report that the age of chiropractic miracles is not yet done:

Person regained eyesight. Several threw away their canes. Another canceled his appointment with his doctor. Talk about a good day at the office! 3 out of 3 of our helpers want to become chiropractors to take care of their own people here. We are spreading so much light I’m surprised the sun went down tonight!

I’ll admit that when I first read that I was taken aback. How could a Canadian-educated professional individual so sincerely believe that Palmer’s patented back rub for all ailments actually cured blindness? Even Palmer never tried to sell manure of that odour to the public, although his claiming to cure deafness was certainly a stretch. Yet giddy-in-Ghana reports that the blind can see and the lame can walk. I hope those souls didn’t throw their canes too far out of reach. Nonetheless, if a person really did have their sight restored after a chiropractic manipulation, I’d hope – as indeed would the chiropractic profession – that the clinician involved would at least exert themselves to writing it up as a case study. That would show us skeptics what for, what?

Maybe they mean well, and believe that their help wouldn’t go amiss. Ghana ranks 188th in the world for life expectancy at birth. It has an HIV rate of 1.9%. The risk of major infectious diseases is very high: watch out for diarrhea, hepatatis-A, typhoid, malaria, schistosomiasis, meningococcal meningitis and rabies. These disease risks are manageable with the use of vaccines, public health interventions, and good patient care, and Ghana could certainly benefit from better health resources. It is to that end, one supposes, that, the visiting chiropractors have been offering their help:

We were invited to meet several key government officials, including two medical doctors (Regional Health Directors), and the Minister of Accra, Ghana’s largest city and capital. During all of our communications, whether to patients or to government officials, one thing was consistent – we kept the message of chiropractic very pure and simple! Our message was very well received – people in Ghana are so ready for what we have to offer! They know innately that the body heals itself… that’s why chiropractic make so much sense to them.

It might be helpful to point out at this juncture that an evidence base for the chiropractic treatment of HIV, diarrhea, hepatatis A, typhoid, malaria, schistosomiasis, meningococcal meningitis and rabies does not exist. But this is not about evidence. This is about evangelising the original message of chiropractic, evidence be damned, a century of abject failure of the whole idea of chiropractic be damned. It’s about the idea of innate intelligence of the body that flows through the spine, that can be freed with chiropractic manipulation, that can make the deaf hear, the blind see and the lame walk. Chiropractic rejected the germ theory of medicine from the outset. Instead, the straight chiropractic paradigm allows only that diseases arise from subluxations in the spine, malaria parasite notwithstanding. For heaven’s sake, the existence of the malaria parasite itself should be  evidence enough to abandon chiropractic, and sufficient cause to turn back its adherents at the Ghanaian border.

Yet they say their message was very well received. I’d like to assume the Ghanaians were just being polite, but they really shouldn’t have to listen to this nonsense in the first place. They have enough to do with actually treating malaria without having alt-medicine peddlers try to persuade them how not to treat it. It isn’t the first time. We have seen variants on this story before: Matthias Rath took his vitamin pills to South Africa and convinced the government they had no need for expensive anti-retrovirals to treat HIV. As the head of Médecins Sans Frontières said, “This guy is killing people by luring them with unrecognised treatment without any scientific evidence.” Right now in Ghana, homeopaths have set up a malaria prophylaxis clinic “to help combat the effects of malaria through homeopathic care.” I have nothing but sympathy for their patients. There’s something malodorously colonial about these people, chiropractors, homeopaths and pill peddlers alike, their actions as superficially well-meaning yet utterly pointless as flying four thousand miles just to give a starving child a Bible.

Still, the miracles continue. The chiropractors report that they found evidence of “’the adjustment exchange rate’, that one adjustment in Ghana is worth approximately 10 in Canada or USA.” It’s because the Ghanaians live simpler lives, we are told; “ their bodies are not as polluted, mentally, physically and chemically. Their diets are more natural.” Yes, it’s amazing these people die of anything at all.

I can’t be entirely negative. The Foundation raised enough money from chiropractors and their patients in Canada to establish a children’s school in a village in Ghana, which is a worthy accomplishment. I can’t agree that the world needs more chiropractic, but more access to education is always welcome. I would also welcome it if the homeopaths, chiropractors, and alt-med peddlers would keep their useless nostrums at home where they belong, marginalised in modern medicine and as the placebo of choice for the wealthy worried well.

In defence of being a dick

In defence of being a dick

Phil Plait’s talk at TAM 8 has generated a lot of discussion. He exhorts us to be diplomats, and asks when, in our progression from believer to skeptic, did we ever have our minds changed by being called an idiot. There’s a lot of merit to pointing this out and it is a really quite obvious point to make: why indeed be a dick? If being called an idiot didn’t work on you, why should you expect it to work on anyone else?

I am, by nature, reasonable and diplomatic. I prefer discussions to arguments and talking rather than shouting. If I am ever talking to someone about an issue where they are in the wrong, it would never occur to me to tell them that they are an idiot, as after all, the reasons why people believe weird things can rarely be reduced down to personal idiocy. People, if they believe in a religion, usually believe in the religion of their parents, not because they are intrinsically stupid people and Hinduism just seemed like a good idea to them one day. If someone believes in homeopathy, they probably know someone who has used it and vouched for it, or they tried it themselves because they saw it on a pharmacy shelf, took that to be a sure sign that there was something to it, and attributed their subsequent recovery to the use of homeopathic medicine. Believing weird things is a part of the human condition, and it takes a certain mental discipline and a skeptical mindset to be aware of how we fool ourselves and others. There’s not much that’s easy about skepticism. It’s hard to do, but deeply satisfying, and it is something that I want to share, so why would I want to be a dick about it?

Even so, there are times when dickery works. Such times are rarely going to be in face to face, personal encounters, but the notion that skeptics and atheists should always strive to be diplomats is wrong. That may not have been the point that Phil Plait was making, but here’s the point that I want to make: sometimes being a dick is necessary.

9/11 was a truly awful event. 9/11 also spawned the truth movement, a whinging, drooling shirt stain of basement-dwelling carbuncled teenage and twenty-something conspiracy theorists who believed that the US government was behind the attacks, that the towers were brought down with controlled demolitions and the Pentagon was hit with a missile. This truth movement was met head on by an active skeptical and debunking movement, one which had as its nexus the conspiracy theories section of the forums of the James Randi Educational Foundation. I used to spend a fair bit of time in the forum myself, in the mid-2000s, and it wasn’t the friendliest place to any truther that stopped by. But my point is that, as unpleasant as that forum was to visit for conspiracy theorists, it was effective. Its denizens picked over every conspiracy claim that came their way, and debunked it in no uncertain terms, leaving an extensive amount of material for inquiring minds to find. JREF members also joined conspiracy theory forums, taking them on directly, or at least until they got banned. The 9/11 truth movement was called out for what it was in impolite, intemperate language: the truth movement had zero credibility, and here were a group of people making that very clear. Sometimes, and this is the relevance, really, to what Phil Plait was talking about, the conspiracy theorists would come visit to try to argue their beliefs, and the conversation that ensued would often be, shall we say, less than pleasant. The members of the forum knew their stuff and defended the evidence strongly, often turning to ridicule. Of course some people would remain polite to a fault, but the overall tone of the site was far from accommodationist.

And it worked. Opinions were changed. By way of evidence, here are some comments from JREF members in response to the question: “What convinced you back from truther to non-truther?”

“The first chink in my armour was a forum called Protestwarrior, which I trolled at, and those guys just made me look like a chump…so I avoided dissenting opinions in order to settle my cognitive dissonance. Then the South Park episode…that lead me to Screw Loose change, which lead me here.”

“I expressed some opinions here and received some slaps in the face (some tactful, some not) with good plain information. But – having a good scientific background – I was able to see that at least some of the tripe I was pushing was just flat wrong. This gave pause for serious thought. Plus, here and elsewhere, I was beginning to find links to the debunking sites. Of course a lot of this could have been avoided simply by putting “9/11″ +”debunk” into Google in the first place, but I suppose the desire to believe in something wacky can lead one astray.”

“Once I saw Zeitgeist Addendum I thought I REALLY had it all figured out and tried to start a local Z:Movement chapter. It was then I thought I was equipped mentally to take on the skeptics, whom I thought would love the idea of the Zeitgeist Movement (a “scientific method” pseudo science based, godless society? What’s more to love? Right? WRONG!!!). So I took to JREF with all that I had learned and jumped into the skeptics Zeitgeist forums. I got pwned with questions I couldn’t even begin to answer and when I looked up answers to those questions, it was then I realized that it was all a silly utopian fantasy, sprinkled with pseudo skepticism and a Technocratic, communist-like agenda disguising itself as peace….”

Being impolite is not an impediment to successful skeptical activism. Challenging people directly can change people’s minds, and the tactic of challenging ideas with ridicule should not be kept out of bounds. Let’s say that someone was undecided on a 9/11 conspiracy theory, searched on Google for the term “debunk 9/11”, found their way to hundreds of discussion threads ridiculing 9/11 truth and then decided not to take the truthers seriously after all. Would that not be a success for skeptical activism? So why not use ridicule? Ridicule is an ancient and acceptable tool in the rhetorical arsenal. If Phil’s point is that to be effective, we must be polite and let reason carry the day in order to persuade, then I know the Ancients would disagree. There is more to persuasion than mere logos.

I’ll allow that it is probably true that more minds will be changed with politeness and a kind word than outright dickery, but sometimes anger and emotion, a rhetorical appeal to pathos, are essential partners in persuasion. P.Z. Myers is not the gentlest writer on the internet, but the emotion and indignation of a Pharyngula post can be cathartic, persuasive, and inspiring. Emotive, passionate argument is very effective at conveying the wrongness of the harm that results from giving uncritical thought a free pass. By presenting an emotional point of view with which the audience can empathise, one enables and activates a powerful method of persuasion. We are hardwired to feel emotions and to respond to emotions in others.

I don’t know if the New Atheists are as effective as changing an individual’s mind as would be a cup of tea and a bit of a chat with the local humanist group, but they do play an important role in discourse. There’s a lot to be said for discarding diplomacy and pushing the boundaries of debate. The US has constitutional limits on freedom of religion and the role of religion in the state, so why not test those limits? Go ahead and desecrate a communion wafer, or publish a cartoon of Mohammed. I don’t know that doing those things have persuaded anyone to give up their beliefs, or to become more skeptical about their beliefs, but such actions have pushed the boundaries of deference to religion and tested the extent of secular rights. Any movement needs the strident fringe as much as it needs the moderates, otherwise how else will it gain ground?

The one example Phil provided in the talk was of a conversation with a girl who self described as a creationist. She asked an astronomy-related question that revealed her reliance on incorrect information. In response, Phil was not a dick, pointed her toward a different way of looking at the question and recommended she expand her sources of information to outside the creationist literature. Apparently, after the talk, a number of the attendees – theistic skeptics – expressed gratitude for the message of the talk. Theism wasn’t mentioned, as I recall, but they took comfort from it nonetheless.

I get where the theists are coming from. Skepticism is hard. We aren’t wired to do it well, and doing it well can lead one to confront uncomfortable truths. I am deeply content now to live life without a deity, but I wasn’t at first. Losing god was a dislocating, wrenching experience, and one that I would not wish on anyone else. Nobody took faith away from me; I was cursed with a constant sense of curiosity about the universe, a curiosity that the religion in which I was raised could not satisfy. The moment when I truly internalised the implications of the second law of thermodynamics, the moment when I realised that there was no escape clause for my mortal soul, nor for my species, nor for anything in the entirety of the cosmos, that moment hit me like a bag of hammers. I couldn’t sleep for weeks. So I quite understand how it is that people in the skeptical movement can be deeply critical, rational thinkers, but at the same time also be theists, and I understand if they rankle at having their beliefs challenged by other skeptics, a discomforting experience for anyone. I don’t think that theism limits the effectiveness of skepticism, and religion isn’t an issue that I personally care about. I’d rather focus my energy on science denial, chiropractors, homeopaths and other charlatans than convince someone that there is no god. The same is true for most of the self-identified skeptics that I know; discussing atheism and religion is for the humanists. They care about it a whole lot more. That’s not to say that deistic skeptics don’t have a hard time of it. A Venn diagram of atheists and skeptics would show considerable overlap, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the topic arises, but then again, theists shouldn’t be surprised if they find skeptics want to challenge their beliefs. It’s a part of the skeptical condition.

Apart from moving me enough to write this post, Phil’s talk just didn’t really move me, as I guess I struggle to see where the problem lies (and he provided no examples). It’s obvious that a kind word and simple consideration is effective and appropriate most of the time, as that is how human beings conduct most of their discourse, most of the time. We really do tend to want to get along. Yet I believe that the skeptical movement is richer for having an argumentative, impolite JREF conspiracy forum, and it is richer for having a boundary-challenging articulate foe of all things religious in P.Z. Myers. Richard Dawkin’s documentary, The Root of all Evil, was so good because it wasn’t nice. Penn and Teller have a delightfully sweary show on Showtime called Bullshit! and you can bet with a title like that, they don’t play friendly with the subjects of their show. For the rest of us, indeed for most of us in the skeptical movement, being friendly, that is, not being dicks, surely that’s really rather easy. It’s just how we live life. Being a dick, and doing it effectively, that’s the challenge, and we are fortunate to have people who are good at it.

I remain unconcerned that skepticism will be tarred by association with the stridency of certain vocal skeptics, or rendered ineffective by discourtesy. Suffragettes turned to militancy, but women still won the vote. Black Power did not prevent the successes of the civil rights movement. And calling someone an idiot will not be the death of skepticism: at the right time, it might be just what the situation demands. That ‘idiot’ may not be le mot juste in a one-on-one conversation hardly needs saying, but in public fora, ‘idiot’ may be the perfect choice of word, and we shouldn’t be afraid to use it.


Other voices:

On the Utility of Dicks

The Dick Delusion

Don’t be a dick

Furious Purpose

Not a dry eye in the house

Are we phalluses?

Richard Dawkins comments

Vacancy for a Hydropath

Vacancy for a Hydropath

From the 1852 edition of The Water Cure Journal, in the Varieties section:

Vacancy for a Doctor – Greiner, the Indian agent in New Mexico, wrote home on the 31st March, that he knew of an opening for an enterprising physician – a vacancy had happened, and he told how:- One of the Eutowa on the San Juan river was taken sick, and an Indian doctor from Rio Verde was called in to attend him. Owing to the strength of the disease, or to the weakness of the prescription of the doctor, the patient died and was buried. After the funeral the doctor was taken by the friends of the deceased, tied up, shot, and scalped – his wife’s hair was cut off; his house burned, containing all his property, and all his animals killed. This is the law of these Indians, regulating doctors. The vacancy is yet unfilled.

[Had this poor “tied up, shot and scalped” doctor, practiced the healing art, on Hydropathic principles, instead of the killing art, no such “vacancy” would have been made. But we trust some Hydropath will at once fill the vacancy, and cure all sick Indians.]

I don’t know if a Hydropath ever took up the burden and cured all the sick Indians of Rio Verde, but one has to marvel at the faith of the author that such a thing would even be possible; hydropaths of the day apparently held no doubt as to the success of their nostrums. Although I really can’t tell if we were supposed to take the piece seriously. Possibly not, as a little later, the journal offers the following advice:

How To Make Hens Lay – Tie a stout string round the body, and lay the bird upon its side upon a board, and fasten the string underneath. You can then put a pillow under its head if you wish. Hens secured in this manner will lay for any desired length of time.

That would work.

An anecdote to sum up everything that I hate about the NHS

An anecdote to sum up everything that I hate about the NHS

About ten years ago, like many other young UK graduates of MSc programs, I was working temp jobs for a short while. One contract had me working for a primary care trust, although thankfully it only lasted for about three days. The money wasn’t great and the work was dull, consisting of filing files, photocopying files and shredding files.

I found myself in the basement photocopy suite one afternoon, when, skirts swishing with officialdom, a woman barreled down the stairs, headed straight toward me and proclaimed: “Out of the way! I have to performance manage three hospitals this afternoon!”

There’s not a lot you can say to that. Of course I stood aside. Bureaucracy was about to happen, and I was the obstacle in its path.

Just think of it. Three hospitals! Only one afternoon! Performance-managed, with a photocopier, for some reason, and I’ll bet she was paid more than three nurses to do the job. Who were then fired for not performing with adequate cost-effectiveness, as determined in just one third of an afternoon by a performance-manager, and replaced with a homeopath.

I made that last part up, but you have to wonder if it is people like this behind these kinds of decisions; like the decision of NHS Tayside to sack 500 staff, but hire a £68,000-a-year homeopath instead. Maybe someone in an office building, performance managing the hell out of NHS Tayside, decided this was a cost-effective, performance-enhancing strategy for optimising the effective delivery of strategic and operational goals.

Which I’m sure is nice, but it won’t help at all with delivering actual health care.

In which I also apply for a job as a homeopath

In which I also apply for a job as a homeopath

News reaches these Canadian shores of an extraordinary job opportunity: a £68,000 per year post for a homeopath to work just two afternoons a week. I have decided to apply.


To HR, NHS Tayside:

Herewith, my application as candidate for the position of Specialty Doctor of Homeopathy in your hospital.

Statement of Principles

Homeopathy is an important and essential healthcare modality. No other treatment protocol has so effectively medicalized the interpersonal neodialectic discourse that is the essence of healing, or, to put it in the crude vernacular, a ‘cup of tea and a bit of a chat’. I applaud NHS Tayside for standing firm against the totalitarian paradigm of evidence based medicine, and for their willingness to challenge the patriarchal dogma of so-called ‘Clinical Excellence’.


I have received many years of education at the patellae of my matrilineal elder, who elucidated a profound critique of modernism via juxtaposition with her own critical Marxist theory. The class divisions inherent in hospital hierarchies are ripe for desublimation and subversion and, in accordance with cultural libertarianism, I consider myself fully qualified (that is, unqualified, or, to use a postdialetic neologism, de-qualified) to excel in the position of Specialty Doctor of Homeopathy.

I do not hold any medical qualifications, although I do have a doctorate in the biological ‘sciences’, which I hope will not be held against me; admittedly, while the extensive exposure of the self to the microfascistic paradigm of so-called ‘peer review’ and ‘scientific standards’ may be seen as an impediment to the successful practice of a pre-Enlightenment system of knowing such as Homeopathy, I believe it instead gives me the critical perspective to self analyse, deconstruct and reject the status quo of rationalism that is the abundant narrative in hospital care.

I have a lifetime of experience in making, pouring and drinking tea, both alone and with other people, and am able to, at the same time and to a very high standard, listen to other people talk about their medical issues, pets, kids or gender conflict and sexual identity in the patriarchal, neo-liberal relational terrain of marriage to the differently-gendered (or like-gendered) ‘other’.

Finally, I am able to dispense homeopathic remedies while maintaining the standards of pseudo-scientific, Enlightenment-challenging narrative and discourse that is the defining characteristic of this particular treatment modality. This application is submitted as evidence of this ability.


I do currently reside in a different country, but rest assured, for £68,000 a year and for just two work sessions a week, I would move to Tayside in a regular, non-artery-clogged heartbeat. I hear the deep fried Mars Bars are to die for, as well as standing as a marvellous symbol of the paradigm-challenging nature of this job opportunity; in a country with the worst health outcomes in all of Europe, it takes guts to de-employ 500 proper health care workers and hire a homeopath instead.

Thank you for your consideration,



Poe’s Law, vaccines edition

Poe’s Law, vaccines edition

Poe’s Law states: “Without a winking smiley or other blatant display of humor, it is impossible to create a parody of Fundamentalism that SOMEONE won’t mistake for the real thing.”

With that in mind, enjoy these facts about thimerosal

Chiropractors get Royal seal of approval

Chiropractors get Royal seal of approval

The College of Chiropractic Sports Sciences (Canada) is to be named the Royal College of Chiropractic Sports Sciences (Canada). Her Majesty has apparently only handed out 45 such Royal designations since 1952, so I have no idea why she would grant this one. Her usual powers of discrimination have surely failed her.

The CCSS work with athletes and are thoroughly intertwined with sports at the national level here in Canada, for example attending Olympics as part of the health care team. That’s nice for the chiropractors, but I wonder if it does any good at all for the athletes.

Let’s not forget what happened to one young Canadian. At the previous Olympics, Canadian hopeful Samantha Cools was knocked out of commission by her chiropractor after he “over-rotated her neck during a routine adjustment, tearing tendons and muscles”. Granted, he may not have been a member of the CCSS, but a chiropractic manipulation is just as pointless and potentially dangerous whoever is performing it. One wonders if the CCSS avoid the brutal, stroke inducing, headache causing types of manipulations, because they know that they are pointless and dangerous – despite such manipulations being an integral part of chiropractic.

Chiropractic has bugger all evidence to support its use beyond, perhaps, treating lower back pain, and that’s probably because it’s not much different to a good lower back massage, and equally as effective. There’s little reason to expect chiropractic to be effective in the first place: it was created out of whole cloth by a charlatan who imagined chiropractic could cure deafness, and just about everything else under the sun, through the correction of entirely imaginary ‘subluxations.’ The Queen has gone and given the Royal Seal to an organisation predicated on magical thinking.

“Chiropractic Sports Specialists keep active Canadians at their best by treating mechanical imbalances or dysfunctions”. Canadian chiropractors have also left people in comas, paralysed vocal chords, and induced strokes, resulting in death.

My advice? Canadian athletes can keep at their best by staying the hell away from chiropractors. Go see a sports physiotherapist instead.

Chiropractors still using bogus back device DRX-9000

Chiropractors still using bogus back device DRX-9000

Chiropractors, much more so than real medical health professionals, have to invest a lot of effort into practice promotion, and nothing helps promote a practice so much as having an edge. The DRX-9000 back compression machine, a high tech machine for treating back pain, fits the bill: with LED lights, monitors, and a claimed 86% success rate, this ersatz medical device looks like the real thing.


Back pain can be debilitating enough to people that a $4,000 price tag for 20 treatments is not an obstacle, not with a success rate as high as 86%, as the manufacturers claim.

Only the claim isn’t true.

CBC marketplace investigated the devices in early 2010 and found no scientific basis for the claims of success, nor any support for the device being able to work as it should. Health Canada asked the manufacturer to provide evidence for its use. When none was forthcoming, the licence for the DRX-9000 was pulled.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean they are no longer in use. While the company can no longer sell the devices, and indeed has gone bust, operators – that is to say, chiropractors – have no obligation to stop using them. The manufacturer is obliged to tell people that they are no longer licensed, but that’s all. In the meantime, chiropractors still tout the benefits of the DRX-9000 and consumers are none the wiser. In fact a lot of consumers will continue to be scammed and end up thousands of dollars poorer, with nothing to show for their money.

This underlines a fundamental failing in the chiropractic industry. Chiropractors operate outside mainstream medicine, yet want to be taken as seriously as real medical health professionals. However, doctors are trained and held to a very high standard, and tightly regulated as to what treatment modalities they can use. Chiropractic simply does not hold itself to a similar standard and does not have the same tradition of respect for evidence based medicine; but then, how could it, when it has failed, over and over again, to provide scientific support for the claims it makes?

The DRX-9000 is another in a long line of chiropractic money making schemes. It’s gone, but you can bet there will be others. When your practice depends on drumming up business by any means, it’s only a matter of time before someone shows up with the next big thing.

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

I’ve been reading Ben Goldacre’s columns in the Guardian for years, so a lot of the stories in the book were familiar, but it is still a delight to see them put together into this book. After seven years of reporting, his particular and unique role has become critic on the role of the media and how they report on practicising scientists, although that isn’t to say that the media pay any attention to what he says. They really should.

Some of the stories are truly astonishing. The MRSA superbug scare, so prevelant in 2004, is shown to have been driven by a unethical collaboration between the media and a compliant MRSA detection ‘laboratory’. Even worse, the so-called lab was a garden shed. The man that the media lauded as the UK’s leading expert on MRSA had a non-accredited PhD from the USA, but he was their go-to guy for positive MRSA swab test results.

And lets not forget Matthias Rath. After being the subject of a critical Bad Science column, Rath took The Guardian and Ben Goldacre to court for libel. Eventually Rath lost the case, and an entire chapter of this book, devoted to the topic, could finally be included in the later editions after being excluded from the first print. If ever there was a good argument for guaranteeing the rights of journalists to criticise providers of health care, this chapter is it.

There is the usual supporting cast of bonkers homeopaths, peddlers of machines that turn water brown when you put your feet in them, and that awful poo lady Gillian McKeith. But the real villains are their water carriers, the compliant media that don’t seem to have even half a clue when it comes to science. Alternative medicine practitioners are celebrated while scientists are treated like eccentrics unable to make up their minds. All this matters because the public places far too much trust in what they read, and no greater example can be provided than the drop in public vaccination rates after the media-driven MMR hoax. Getting it wrong can, and does, cost lives and harm health. We should all be smarter, and this book can help.

A final note, to Ben Goldacre and his editors. I read a story as a child, possibly in Reader’s Digest, about a reporter who had developed the habit of peppering his prose with colons and semicolons. Despite his editor’s exhortions to cut back, he just couldn’t. The solution? One day, the editor took a pair of scissors and cut the colon and semicolon keys right off his typewriter. Forced to live without them, he found that his prose greatly improved. It is a lesson that I recall every time I want to reach for a colon or semicolon: do I really need to use them; and would the prose be clearer if they were not there? I err toward not using them, for the purposes of clarity. With that in mind, and maybe this is entirely my own complaint, reading Bad Science was somewhat like bicycling in a North American suburb. You are getting up a good rate of speed when you encounter an inexplicable stop sign. Even if the road you are on is busy, and straight, and the only junction is to a lane with just a few houses on it, there’s a stop sign. You can see the destination ahead, but to get there will take three or four stops and restarts before the road – like the sentence – ever ends.

It’s a minor complaint, and Ben Goldacre’s unique prose style certainly hasn’t stopped me purchasing three copies of the book, two of which were to give away. I find that I think of Bad Science as a bit like the A-Team of critical thinking books: “If you have a friend knee deep in woo, and no one else can help, and if they read books, maybe you can buy them Bad Science.” It wouldn’t hurt.

Microwave ovens and the Plant Program

Microwave ovens and the Plant Program

A friend of mine with cancer told me recently about the Plant Program(me), after it was recommended to her by an oncologist.

The Plant Programme is essentially a diet that dramatically reduces the levels of growth hormones and other dietary factors that may cause the growth of certain types of cancer, specifically breast and prostate cancer. It was put together by Professor Jane Plant, a respected scientist. Professor Plant attributes her rapid remission from breast cancer, and subsequent non-recurrence, to the diet.

For the most part, what Professor Plant says is supported by a growing amount of evidence. Breast and prostate cancers are sensitive to a range of chemicals that increase cell proliferation. And as well as there being certain foods that promote cancer growth, other foods may reduce or prevent it, like the phytoestrogens in soy, which may act by blocking estrogen receptors in the body. I wasn’t surprised by all of that. Jane Plant is a well established researcher in a field in which I have worked myself, and, as expected, her evidentiary base was good.

But she doesn’t like microwaving.

That did surprise me, because the people that tend to not like microwaving are the same people that eschew not just that one piece of technology, but also many of the gifts of the Enlightenment, from evidence based reasoning to modern medicine. A quick look around the wonderful world wide web revealed an abundance of supposition and nonsense about microwaving, with nary a good, published, paper in sight. So why doesn’t Professor Plant like microwaving? Here is what she wrote about it (in: ‘Prostate Cancer: understand, prevent & overcome prostate cancer’, p.242 and 245, and ‘Your Life in Your Hands, understanding, preventing and overcoming breast cancer’, p. 202.)

“Never use a microwave cooker because free radicals are formed in the food.”

“I do not own a microwave and try to avoid food cooked or heated in one. Unlike normal heating, microwaving food works by vibrating water molecules in food. This generates free radicals and I suspect would not destroy as many ‘bad’ chemicals as ordinary cooking (although I have been unable to find any data on this).”

Let’s break these statements down.

1. The mechanism by which a microwave oven cooks food (by vibrating water molecules) generates free radicals.

2. The mechanism by which a microwave oven cooks food ‘would not destroy as many bad chemicals as ordinary cooking’

Claim 1. Free radical production

This should be straightforward to verify, but with this claim, I straightaway hit an obstacle. The quotes in the book were provided as is, sans footnotes or references. That shouldn’t be a problem, because I’m fairly sure that Professor Plant and I hang out in the same databases, read the same kind of books, kind of thing. Yet after several hours searching on Google Scholar, Pubmed, and ISI Web of Science, I couldn’t find any support for the notion that microwaving creates free radicals in food. I could have missed something, but given that the only people claiming microwaving creates free radicals are the cranks, and the usual science databases are quiet on the subject, I do not know where to find good evidence to support this claim.

So who does say that microwaving produces free radicals in food? The Atlantis Rising Educational Center in Portland, Oregon, I’m told. As the story goes, the Soviets investigated microwave ovens and decided they were dangerous, and pulled them off the market for two years in the 1970’s. Good luck finding any proof that really happened, because I couldn’t. Anyway, in a fit of largesse, the Soviets shared their findings with the world, the world in this case, apparently, being the Atlantis Rising Educational Center in Portland, Oregon, and not it seems, for what I am sure were sound political reasons, the World Health Organisation. Among their findings were the alarming notion that microwaving produces free radicals in food, especially root vegetables.

If I come across as snarky, it’s because none of this stuff has citations. Trying to find out why Professor Jane Plant has encouraged potentially thousands of cancer sufferers to unplug their microwaves has led me way down into a veritable rabbit hole of woo. I thought it would be simple, but actually I can’t find a single, credible, reliable source for the idea that microwave ovens produce free radicals. Not a one. I can find plenty of ‘references’ to the Soviet research from the 1970’s, and lots of pointers to the Atlantis Rising Educational Center, the unlikely repository for 1970’s Soviet research. So by all means, if you have a good reference, an original citation, or indeed access to the Soviet research, dear reader, then please share it in the comments.

Lets take a different approach. Is it even possible that microwaves produce free radicals in food? Microwave ovens work by heating water and other polar molecules in food, like fat. They do this through rapid rotation of these molecules in the presence of an alternating electromagnetic field, which creates friction and heat. The heated molecules in turn will distribute the energy to the remainder of the food. Microwave ovens are actually pretty simple, in terms of the chemistry that they can affect. Water molecules, because they are polar, are affected by the microwaves – in fact, much more efficiently than other polar molecules –  and all that will happen is that they become very hot. Most other effects on microwaved food are indirect, and caused by heating from proximity to the water molecules. In contrast, an oven will produce a smorgasbord of chemical reactions. A conventional oven can be used to brown food. Maillard reactions occur between sugar molecules and proteins, as when meat is fried. Caramelization occurs when carbohydrates are heated, like when coffee beans are roasted. But you can’t fry food in a microwave. You can’t roast coffee beans in a microwave. You can’t bake bread in a microwave, at least, not in a way that will give you tasty bread. Microwaves really just heat water molecules, which in turn heat the food. At what point in this process could free radicals be produced? Could it be as a result of the rapid oscillation of water molecules in the presence of microwave radiation? No. Is it indirectly, as a result of food being in contact with very hot water? No, although, if yes, then watch out for your pot of tea. Or any food stuff that has been heated, really, by any cooking method, as most everything we eat contains water.

As an aside, here is an example of the kind of nonsense out there about microwave ovens.

“The problem with microwave cooking starts in the molecule of the food/liquid. The molecule of the food/liquid is vibrated from the inside out by the action of the microwave… The electromagnetic radiation causes some of the electrons to be dislodged from the food molecule, which converts the stable food molecule to an unstable molecule. This is called a free radical… When you consume this massive pile of free radicals, it will rob your cells of electrons. It does this so that the unstable molecule can be stable, which then causes your cells to become unstable.”

Scary stuff! Molecules of food are “vibrated from the inside out.” Food cooked in a microwave becomes “a massive pile of free radicals.” Your cells become “robbed of electrons.” Well, don’t worry. It’s all wrong.

Free radicals are atoms, molecules, or ions, with unpaired electrons on an otherwise open shell configuration. They are highly reactive, and thus likely to take part in chemical reactions, which can lead to cell damage. The trouble is, production of free radicals takes a significant amount of energy, and a microwave oven doesn’t provide enough. Don’t believe me? Heating a mug of water in a microwave will not result in a mug of superoxide, singlet oxygen and 2H. Heating a mug of water in a microwave results in a mug of hot water. That is why millions upon millions of people can use microwave ovens every single day. Microwave ovens are safe, produce chemically uninteresting food, and are culinarily quite dull.

Claim 2. “The mechanism by which a microwave oven cooks food ‘would not destroy as many bad chemicals as ordinary cooking'”

Actually, Professor Plant’s point number two  is almost an acknowledgement of safety of microwave ovens. The thing is, free radicals, being highly reactive, would do a lot destruction to ‘bad chemicals’. That is one reason why our own bodies produce free radicals. Our phagocytes churn out superoxide to kill invading pathogens, and that does the job very well. So microwave cooking doesn’t destroy as many ‘bad chemicals’? If microwaving were producing sufficient free radicals to be a concern to human health, then microwaving would be producing enough free radicals to destroy these bad chemicals. But, of course, microwaving doesn’t produce free radicals. It just heats water molecules. I won’t say more about point number two, because Professor Plant had indicated that it was her own supposition, and acknowledged that she could not find any data.

I think it is worth reiterating that what microwaves do is really very simple. They agitate water molecules, creating friction and heat, and that in turn heats the food. In fact, because the process of microwave cooking is chemically simple and fast, there is an additional and pertinent nutritional benefit with microwave food: it can be more nutritious than food cooked by other methods. Here’s why.

For one, the shorter preparation time required for microwave cooking may result in a tendency toward better preservation of micronutrients.

For another, in a 2009 study published in the Journal of Food Science, the antioxidant potential of 20 vegetables was assessed after variously boiling, microwaving, pressure cooking, griddling, frying, and baking. Antioxidant potential was found to be best preserved after griddling, microwaving and baking. The greatest losses of antioxidant potential took place in food that was pressure cooked and boiled. This is not the first time the antioxidant preservation by microwaving was observed. All of that is relevant if one accepts the premise that antioxidant potential in food is a worthy nutritional goal, and a lot of people, including Professor Plant, do.


There’s a lot of merit to the overall message Professor Plant sets forth in her books. The effect of diet on certain cancers is attracting more and more research interest. The problem is, some of the details in the books, like the statements on microwave ovens, border on the superstitious. People with cancer deserve the facts, not vague and unsupported notions about free radicals and microwave ovens. It may not be a big deal to live without a microwave, but encouraging people to give up their microwave oven because doing so will help with curing or preventing cancer, as my friend had done, based on such little evidence; that strikes me as being altogether unhelpful.

Wind Turbine Syndrome

Wind Turbine Syndrome

Ontario has a choice: in the coming post carbon world, whether it will invest in nuclear power, or start building wind turbines.

More and more wind turbines are going up across the province, and not in the future, but right now. New builds are being facilitated by the Green Energy Act, which took the authority to approve wind farms away from municipalities and gave it to the province. The hope for the Act is that by doing this, it will speed up approvals, overcome local political objections and get turbines up and producing electricity as soon as possible.

Yet wherever wind turbines go up, objections rain down. And for all the objections that can be laid against wind farms – noise pollution, sightline obstruction, and effect on property values – one of the most intriguing objections has to be the fear of damage to people’s health. People living near wind farms have reported a whole range of symptoms, including sleep disturbance, headaches, tinnitus, ear pressure, dizziness, nausea, tachycardia, irritability, and more. One doctor, Nina Pierpont, has put a name to it, calling this collection of complaints ‘wind turbine syndrome‘, and hypothesising a biological cause based on low frequency sound waves.

But wind turbines aren’t new. The technology has been around for decades, and usage, in countries like Denmark and Germany, is so widespread that if wind turbine syndrome was real, surely, surely, somebody would have noticed by now. The beguiling question is why not.

Research from Europe – where people have had extensive exposure to wind turbines, for decades – has failed to uncover any such problems. For example, a mail-in study of 725 Dutch rural residents living close to wind turbines received 268 responses, 92% of which said they were satisfied with their living environment, and no statistically significant correlations between levels of wind turbine noise and health or well being were found. The same study did come out with a few other intriguing findings though, on which more later.

One obvious point to make is that in Europe, wind turbines have a high level of acceptability. Even so, some people do experience disatisfaction with wind turbine builds, and they can experience annoyance, but this has not been elevated to the level of calling their experience a medical syndrome. Let’s take a quick look at the reasons for high public acceptance. It will prove to be relevant to the health issue, as we will later see.

In Denmark, where wind turbines are most common, by the year 2001, 85% of the turbines were owned by local co-operatives or individual farmers. Imagine: local ownership, generating income for local people, sited according to local desires and in accordance with the resident’s interests. That’s in stark contrast to the Canadian situation. In Canada, a large company, with no sympathy for local concerns, can dramatically change the visual and aural scenery of a township or village with a wind farm. Sadly, local or co-operative ownership of wind farms is not likely to happen in Canada. In its absence, wind farms –and the companies that want to build them – will, one hopes, seek other ways to find public approval.

Let’s take a look at what Denmark does with set back distances. Windmills must be situated at a minimum distance of 4 × their height away from habitation. If the windmill is erected closer than 6 × its height, an estimation is carried out free of charge regarding the depreciation of the property value. If the loss is more than 1%, full compensation of the loss in property value is paid out. If the property is situated farther away than 6 × the height of the windmill, 4,000 DKK is payable to have an evaluation of the loss in value carried out. If it is estimated that the depreciation is more than 1%, the loss in value of the property is paid out and the 4,000 DKK reimbursed. If it is estimated that there is no loss in value of the property, the 4,000 DKK is forfeited. Owners of windmills have to pay the compensation.

Implicit in this process is the understanding that property prices will be affected if a windmill is situated too close to a property. If on appraisal, a property is found to have lost value, the owner of the windmill is responsible and must compensate the property owner. This is a serious concern and a source for tremendous angst for any homeowner, and it is a concern that remains currently unaddressed in Canada.

In France, 500 m set back distances are used for wind turbines. Germany considers local noise protection status, and set back distances are determined by the permitted decibel limit for that area. The Netherlands uses a limit of 4x the height of the wind turbine mast, and a maximum noise level of 40 dB. Broadly speaking, set back distances of around 500 m, and permitted noise levels of 35-45 dB, are common in the rest of the world. What about here in Canada? In Ontario, set back distances are mandated at 400 m, which is similar or slightly closer than a lot of other places.

So how is that in Denmark, with its similar set back distances and much greater population exposure to wind turbines, has never come up with wind turbine syndrome, while Canada, with a limited populaton exposed to wind turbines, is so concerned about it?

To give Dr. Pierpont’s hypothesis consideration, I think it is biologically plausible that wind turbines, producing persistent, low frequency sound, could cause perturbations in human health and the symptoms of wind turbine syndrome. It’s certainly possible, albeit unproven as yet. However, Dr. Pierpont’s work, while interesting, is incomplete. Her 38 case studies are far from conclusive when, as in the case of Denmark and Germany, their large populations – and, if you will, very large datasets – should have revealed the existence of a widespread, wind-turbine-related human health problem. But these two countries have not.

And that is a big problem for the wind turbine syndrome hypothesis. It is very unlikely that a problem would only exist in Canada and the States, and not exist in countries like Denmark and Germany, when all four countries are using what is essentially the same technology. So what makes the difference? In Denmark and Germany, wind turbines are widespread, widely welcomed and well managed. In Canada and the United States, they are rare, imposed, and sometimes poorly planned. One is tempted to conclude that the best cure for wind turbine syndrome – or perhaps the best preventative – is to desire wind turbines in the first place, rather than to resent them as an imposition.

Can it be that simple? It should certainly be considered that wind turbine syndrome may be explained, at least for some people, by the nocebo effect. A nocebo (Latin for “I will harm”) is something that should be ineffective but which causes symptoms of ill health, and the ‘nocebo effect’ is an ill effect caused by the belief that something is harmful. In this case, the belief that wind turbines are harmful results in the manifestation of a number of non specific symptoms, including sleep disturbance, head aches, nausea and so on. But I don’t think the nocebo effect alone can really explain wind turbine syndrome. It is also plausible that someone, resentful of the new wind turbine and primed to expect ill health from it, attributes any and all illnesses and ailments to the ever present wind turbine. Ill health can then become a self fulfilling prophecy.

It would not be fair, though, to dismiss every wind turbine related health complaint in this way. Indeed, there are a number of fairly obvious exceptions. A wind turbine is a very large, and, if you are close enough, very loud structure. Can a poorly sited wind turbine that produces constant, audible and persistent noise lead to sleep disturbance, stress and headaches? Certainly. There are also problems related to light flicker from turbine blades moving in front of the sun.

Given all of that, in as much as wind turbine syndrome may be – if it exists – caused by infrasound, as Dr. Pierpont has proposed, it must be disentangled from: any possible nocebo effect; a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy of attributing unrelated ailments to the new wind turbine; and a self fulfilling prophecy of illness. Given these confounders, 38 case studies simply do not suffice as proof.

The answer, in the end, may be to just avoid these problems in the first place. This is the other side of the European story, illustrated by the intriguing findings to which I alluded earlier. For the Dutch respondents to the postal survey, the risk for being annoyed by wind turbine noise outdoors increased with increasing sound levels; one would expect exactly that to happen, and it does suggest that set back distances should be based on noise levels as well as minimum distances. But this, for me, is the key finding from the study: “Noise annoyance due to wind turbine noise was associated with stress symptoms, psychological distress and lowered sleep quality.” All of those things, be they stress, mental or psychological distress, or lack of sleep, can result in what would appear to be a ‘syndrome’ of symptoms, but this syndrome doesn’t need a new, cutting edge medical hypothesis based on infrasound to explain it. What it does need is an acknowledgement that poorly sited wind turbines, or turbines sited by fiat, can lead to real physical and mental perturbations.

We do need wind turbines. We need a lot of them. But if people are being made resentful and embittered by the process and the siting of wind turbine construction, we should look at this process as a political failure and one with potential implications for health and quality of life.

Unfortunately, in Ontario, the Green Energy Act has rendered the public uniquely powerless against wind farms. By removing jurisdiction for approval to the province, local people can no longer influence their own politicians and their own town councillors to prevent wind farm construction. Adopting the rhetoric of climate change denial won’t stop wind energy. Pleading for the preservation of a scenic view won’t have much sway on a distant bureaucrat in a distant city. When one cannot argue against a de facto political decision, what can one do? In that regard, claiming an unproven, barely plausible health problem as one’s own has got to be worth a try. Like embarking on a hunger strike, attributing non-specific illnesses to the local wind turbine can seem to be a persuasive, last ditch, desperate form of rhetoric. For stressed, unhappy people, feeling disempowered and wronged, claiming to suffer an unproven syndrome may be all that they have left in their armory.

If the European experience has taught us anything about wind farms, it is that gaining acceptance and achieving consensus is essential to growing the wind power industry. When local communities are involved in wind turbine decisions, when they are treated respectfully and honestly, as the European experience shows, they can be won over to the idea. When wind farms are imposed on communities without consent, without concern, without consultation and with insufficient set back distances, local hostility and resentment can burn for a long, long time. When a company purchases agricultural land at low cost and then seeks provincial approval for a wind farm, with only a cursory attempt to inform the local populace of their plans, it is an imposition. This isn’t the same as NIMBYism. It isn’t that people don’t want wind turbines from the outset. It isn’t even that they don’t want wind turbines in their back yard or local area. It is that wind turbine locations should be reasonable, and the parties that want them should seek, and obtain, consensus. Then, like Germany and Denmark, we won’t see a hint of wind turbine syndrome.

In fact, at the end of this post, I’ll offer a testable prediction. News reports on ‘wind turbine syndrome’ and statements from pressure groups invoking its existence will be more prevalent in countries with lower levels of public acceptance for wind turbines. Conversely, reportage on wind turbine syndrome will be significantly lower in countries with high levels of public acceptance for wind turbines. Check back in 12-18 months, count newspaper articles and we’ll see how things turn out.

If one were to bake a Mandelbrot cake, could one eat all of it?

If one were to bake a Mandelbrot cake, could one eat all of it?


When computed and graphed on the complex plane, the Mandelbrot Set is seen to have an elaborate boundary, which does not simplify at any given magnification. This qualifies the boundary as a fractal. Because they appear similar at all levels of magnification, fractals are often considered to be infinitely complex (in informal terms).

So here’s the question. If one could bake a cake that didn’t just approximate a fractal like the Mandelbrot Set, but was in fact fractal, could one eat it? Would slicing into it have any effect at all, given that the edge would be, well, infinite?

All other things being equal, of course, and assuming the existence of a Hausdorff oven and a non-Euclidian cake slicer.

I ask because a college room mate, some years ago, baked me a birthday cake in the form of the Mandelbrot Set. It was a great cake, and to this day I am disappointed that it didn’t last the week.

BCA vs. Simon Singh: a letter to an MP, and the responses

BCA vs. Simon Singh: a letter to an MP, and the responses

Back in June, I wrote the following letter to my MP, and received a reply, also printed below.

I encourage anyone who is concerned about the chilling effect and consequences of the BCA’s libel case against Simon Singh to contact their Member of Parliament. MPs that are aware of this case, and are made aware that it is of concern to their constituents, will be much more likely to do something about it.

Representative democracy is responsive democracy, but MPs first need something to which they can respond. So, write!

Dear [M.P.],

I write to express my deep concern regarding the recent libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against Simon Singh, and the implications for English libel law.

In 2008, Simon Singh wrote a comment piece in The Guardian newspaper on the evidence for and against chiropractic. The BCA took offense at one line in particular, on the lack of evidence for the use of chiropractic in treating babies. Simon Singh had recently written in depth about the evidence for chiropractic in his book ‘Trick or Treatment?’ and so knew well of which he spoke in the comment piece. He is, as am I, a scientist, and therefore is used to the scientific method: in the face of scrutiny or disbelief from our peers, we endeavour to defend our work on its merits and on the evidence. This is how science progresses, and it is how advances in medicine are made. It is how the public good is protected. Yet the BCA, rather than provide a robust defence of their practices and claims, chose instead to sue. What was an earnest comment, written in the public interest and for the public good, was pulled by The Guardian as soon as the writ was served.

The implications are profound. You are surely aware of the concerns that many have regarding English libel law, but with this case, English libel law has taken a turn down sinister new paths. For anyone considering writing about the evidence, or lack thereof, for a treatment, the threat of a libel action will have a chilling effect on that intention. The public good is poorly served when scientists or health professionals cannot write freely about evidence and fraud in medicine, for fear of damages and costs that can run into well over 100,000 pounds just for a preliminary hearing.

In the field of public health, it should not be open for any provider or promoter of treatment to sue for defamation in respect of their provision or promotion of those treatments*. There must be a balance between the rights of the individual to protection of reputation, and the rights of the public to hear discussion of the merits of treatments provided by said individual. Defendants should be protected by qualified privilege in such cases, as are journalists under the so-called “Reynolds Defence”, or we may see further erosion of the rights to free speech and comment in England.

I note that the Commons Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport has been considering libel law. I hope that by bringing this particular case to your attention you will be more aware of the serious and chilling directions that libel law has been taking, and will be able to offer whatever appropriate support you can toward moderating these tendencies. Additionally, the charity Sense About Science has been campaigning for a change in the law, and your colleagues Dennis MacShane, Michael Gove and Dr Evan Harris have put their names to a statement of support that you will find attached to this letter**.

Yours, [name here]

*{h/t to JoK}

** see here and here.

A few weeks later, I received the following reply.

Dear [me],

Thank you for your letter regarding the recent libel case brought by the British Chiropractic Association (BCA) against the journalist Simon Singh, and the implications for English libel law. I apologise for the short delay in responding. Your concerns about journalistic freedom of speech and the UK’s current libel law are duly noted.

Freedom of speech is essential in a functioning democracy and indeed is recognised in international and human rights law. The right to freedom of speech is particularly important to the media, which plays a special role as the bearer of the general right to freedom of expression for all.

I have therefore written to the Rt. Hon. Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State at the Department of Culture, Media & Sport about this issue and have asked him to comment. I will let you know as soon as I receive a response.

In order to get the reply to you as quickly as possible, I may forward it to you directly. However, if there are any issues arising from the response which you wish to pursue further, please do not hesitate to let me know.

Thank you again for bringing this issue to my attention.

Best wishes,


In August 2009, I received the following letter from Bridget Prentice, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, to my Member of Parliament. He was good enough to forward it on.

From: Bridget Prentice MP. Parliamentary Under Secretary of State.

Thank you for your letter of 26 June to Ben Bradshaw at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, about a recent libel case brought against Mr Simon Singh. Your letter has been passed to this department and I am responding as the Minister responsible for civil justice issues.

As a Government Minister I am unable to comment on individual cases which are or have been before the courts. In that context, I understand that this case may be subject to appeal. However, it may be helpful if I begin by explaining the law in this area in general terms.

It is important that people have an effective right to redress through the law of libel where their reputation as been damaged as the result of the publication of defamatory material. Whether material is defamatory is a matter for the courts to determine based on all the relevant circumstances. The main tests established by the courts in determining whether material is defamatory are whether the words used “tend to lower the plaintiff in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally”, “without justification or lawful excuse [are] calculated to injure the reputation of another, by exposing him to hatred, contempt, or ridicule”, or tend to make the claimant “be shunned and avoided and that without any moral discredit on [the claimant’s] part.”

Your constituent is concerned about the effects of the libel laws on freedom of speech. The Government firmly supports the right to freedom of expression, which is protected by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). In addition, section 12 of the Human Rights Act 1998 requires courts to have particular regard to the importance of the right to freedom of expression, particularly in relation to freedom of the press. Of course, the exercise of this right carries with it duties and responsibilities that are expressly recognised in the law. It is not an absolute right, and can be restricted for a number of reasons set down by law, such as public safety, the prevention of crime, or respect for the rights or reputations of others. Often, the right to freedom of expression may need to be balanced against other rights, like the right to respect for private and family life, home and correspondence, which is protected by Article 8 of the ECHR.

As you may be aware, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee is currently conducting an inquiry into Press Standards, Privacy and Libel and is considering a wide range of issues in this area of law. The Justice Secretary gave evidence before the committee on 19 May and the Government will consider carefully any recommendations that the Committee may wish to make in its forthcoming report.

I hope you find this information helpful, and I enclose a copy of this letter for you to forward to your constituent, should you wish to do so.

Bridget Prentice.

Chiropractors at the Olympics

Chiropractors at the Olympics

The 2008 Olympics, Beijing. Behind the scenes, and sometimes right there with the athletes, were the chiropractors. Here are a few of their stories.

The BMX athlete and the neck adjustment

Samantha Cools was a Canadian medal hope in the debut of BMX on the Olympic stage. She was a five time world junior champion, and she was looking good. That is, until her chiropractor in Switzerland “over-rotated her neck during a routine adjustment, tearing tendons and muscles, which then pushed up against the main artery in her neck and also the nerves.”

Horrifying, potentially fatal and entirely unnecessary. The consequences of her chiropractic ‘care’ were being unable to train for five weeks before leaving for China, and being unable to chew food. And, once she got to Beijing and competed, a disappointing fifth place finish and a DNF.

One would hope that a lesson was learned, but it seems not. Cools credited her being able to compete at all with the care she was receiving from another chiropractor. He worked on her for 30 minutes before each race in Beijing to loosen her muscles. One presumes he was steering well away from the violent chiropractic neck adjustments that injured her in the first place, and just sticking to massage.

The mysterious magical black muscle tape


Did you spot the black tape that some athletes were wearing? Kerri Walsh, the US beach volleyballer, was never seen without it on a shoulder. It’s called Kinesio tape, and it was developed in the 1970s by a Japanese chiropractor. It does all sorts of magical things, like: “works to support the muscles, remove congestion, activate the endogenous system and correct joint problems”. Blimey,and its only a bit of tape. In fact, unlike rigid tapes, that can be used to, say, hold an ankle in position, Kinesio tape is super thin and flexible. I struggle to imagine how it can have any benefit at all, given that. One might as well take a black sharpie and draw black lines on the shoulder. It would cost less.

I am here to learn, though, and the manufacturers to educate.  Here’s what they say it can do.

• Re-educate the neuromuscular system
• Reduce pain
• Enhance performance
• Prevent injury
• Promote good circulation and healing

And how does it do all that? Well, it:

• Creates a lifting effect which improves circulation and relieves pain
• Tension on tape has the ability to relax or stimulate muscles

Got that? Nah, me neither. As explanations go, it’s a bit scant. Supposedly, the tape lifts the skin, and then all these wonderful benefits follow from said lifting action.

Actually, at this point, I’m even unclear as to how it can lift anything. It’s tape, it is stuck directly to the skin, and it just sits there. Is it an antigravity tape?  That would lift the skin. Maybe they mean that it lifts the skin when you have to take it off, but before that, one has to wear the tape for the suggested 3 to 4 days and look like a bit of a tit. What the tape does do, if it is stretched before applying to the skin, is provide “a constant pulling (shear) force to the skin over which it is applied.” Fine, but I’d want a wee bit more proof before believing it can therefore ‘re-educate the neuromuscular system’.

Kinesio tape doesn’t have any clinical study evidence for all these marvellous benefits, at least according to to one physical therapist who regularly uses it. He goes on to give this far from ringing endorsement: “I mean it works for some people and it doesn’t work for others. I’ve put it on patients and they’ve felt an immediate difference. I’ve put it on patients and they haven’t felt a single thing.” In other words, some people fall for it, and some people don’t.

But even if it doesn’t have good clinical evidence, it does have some sterling celebrity endorsements, including Lance Armstrong. Lets give him the last word. In his book ‘Every Second Counts’, he described Kinesio tape as “a special hot-pink athletic tape that came from Japan and seemed to have magical powers.”‘

There you go. Magical.


It isn’t a surprise that athletes turn to chiropractors. It’s probably fair to say that most people are unaware of the dangers of chiropractic, but athletes also have a particular vulnerability to chiropractors, and that is an all too common tendency for magical thinking and superstition. For all the athletes out there willing to try anything, no matter how silly, for an edge, there are plenty of charlatans willing to sell them something, be it a magical tape or the promise of unblocked nerves from a neck adjustment. Michael Shermer, founder of the Skeptics Society, had this to say.

“I began visiting a chiropractor not because I needed one but because I had read that energy flows through the spinal cord and can get blocked at various places. I discovered that the more I got adjusted, the more I needed to get adjusted because my neck and back kept going “out”. This went on for a couple of years until I finally quite going altogether, and I’ve never needed a chiropractor since.

All told, I raced as a professional ultra-marathon cyclist for ten years, all the while trying anything and everything (except drugs and steroids) that might improve my performance. As the Race Across America got bigger – it was featured for many years of ABC’s Wide World of Sports – I had many offers to try all sorts of things, which I usually did. From this ten-year experiment with a subject pool of one, I drew two conclusions: nothing increased performance, alleviated pain, or enhanced well-being other than long hours in the saddle, dedication to a consistent training schedule, and a balanced diet; and it pays to be skeptical.”

Beware the spinal trap

Beware the spinal trap

What follows is a reproduction, with a slight modification, of an article published in The Guardian in 2008. Written by Simon Singh, that article prompted a libel action from the British Chiropractic Association. The ensuing court case has resulted in much focused critical attention on chiropractic in the UK and around the world, and a campaign to change the libel laws in England. This article has had the ‘libellous’ sentence removed.

Read more about Simon Singh’s court case and the Sense about Science campaign here.

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ‘99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Giving politicians political cover

Giving politicians political cover

It’s easier to complain about politicians being bought off by lobbyists and campaign donors than it is to do anything about it. In fact, doing something about the pernicious influences in politics comes down to just a few cost-free actions.

In representative government, politicians represent the people that contact them with their views. If only lobbyists and campaign donors contact them, don’t be surprised if that is who will be represented. However, politicians do have dedicated resources in place to help them represent their voters.

Take the House of Representatives in the U.S. These people represent very large numbers of voters. They have large numbers of staff, in local offices and in the capitol, and they will take steps to ensure that every time a constituent contacts them, the representative knows about it. Constituent management software (e.g.) is used to track and categorise the contacts that are made with the office. At the end of each day, the representative can get a breakdown of phone calls and emails urging a yes vote on a bill or a no vote on a bill, and whether the calls are from their own constituents or out of state. It isn’t quite direct democracy, but the idea that representative democracy is not responsive democracy is just obviously wrong.

So what sort of numbers are we talking about? Apparently the climate bill, now moving through the U.S. Senate, is generating a lot of constituent contact. Joe Romm at ClimateProgress has heard that call loads of 100-200 a day are coming in that oppose a climate and clean energy bill.  Opponents to the bill in Congress matched the number of calls from supporters of the bill, although most of the opponent’s calls came from out of state.

Phone calls, emails, and letters help politicians gauge public support and provide political cover. Senator Cardin’s chief energy policy advisor had this to say:

“If you want a stronger climate bill, we need to hear from you. Send us your input.”

There’s no shortage of lobbyists waiting to speak to politicians. But politicians also want to hear from their constituents, and they will give a high priority to what their constituents have to say.

Does money get votes? The cash for climate story

Does money get votes? The cash for climate story

As mentioned previously on this site, Ottawa city councillors get a fair whack of money from developers for their campaigns.

Here is yet more evidence that donations do affect voting intentions. This comes from the US, where both houses are wrangling with climate change legislation.

On June 26, the House narrowly passed the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (HR 2454) by a vote of 219 to 212. The final version of the bill that passed the House Floor differed substantially from the version that was originally introduced by Reps. Waxman and Markey.

As the bill heads to the Senate for further markups and compromises, MAPLight.org examined some of the House actions that illustrate the influence of special interests on the legislative process.

House members’ positions on changes to the bill tended to correlate with financial support from the interest groups that would benefit from these changes.

Money matters. Legislators respond to campaign contributions, and if their voters do not approve, yet say nothing, it’s the money that will talk.

I’ve heard from lobbyists that they only wish they had the influence over a legislator that constituents had. I only wish constituents knew it as well, and would take the time to contact their representatives. Even a phone call can make a difference.

Does money get votes? A city of Ottawa example, part II

Does money get votes? A city of Ottawa example, part II

In a previous post, I looked at the plausible influence of campaign donations on council member’s voting records.

Ottawa city council members have been the recipients of a lot of cash from developers. To see if there is a link between cash received and their voting records, one can look at how they vote and see if it matches with the amount of money received. It’s a crude kind of analysis, but then, companies giving cash to a candidate’s electoral campaign isn’t exactly sophisticated or subtle.

In the vote on expansion of the urban boundary, the council voted not to expand by 2,000 hectares (which is what the developers wanted), nor by the 800 hectares (as recommended by city staff), but only to allow a single expansion of 220 hectares, to complete an area that was already largely developed.

Here’s how councillor’s votes lined up with cash received.



% Total

Gord Hunter




Rob Jellet




Diane Deans




Larry O’Brien




Maria McRae




Jan Harder




Michel Bellemare




Rainer Bloess




Bob Monette




Rick Chiarelli




Georges Bedard




Eli El-Chantiry




Doug Thompson




Marianne Wilkinson




Christine Leadman




Steve Desroches




Jacques Legendre




Shad Qadri




Glenn Brooks




Alex Cullen




Clive Doucet




Peggy Feltmate




Diane Holmes




Peter Hume




The vote to allow a limited expansion of 220 hectares was acceptable to all the councillors that had received no money from developers. As this motion was passed, the previous committee recommendation for 842 hectares expansion was not voted upon. The councillors that had received most money from developers, and voted against the motion to allow only 220 hectares, may have done so as they felt 220 hectares was not sufficient.

Ecology Ottawa were right to highlight the amount of campaign contributions from developers. There are plenty of examples of the subtle and not so subtle influences played by lobbying, contributions and freebies. A University of Kansas study found that a one-time tax break allowed several multinational corporations to receive a 22,000 % return on lobbying expenditures. Even though the amounts of money spent on campaign contributions to Ottawa councilors is tiny in comparison, even small gifts can change the recipient’s perception of the donor. Clipboards and notepads from drug companies given to medical students, though trivial gifts, were sufficient to improve the student’s perception of that company’s products.

So does money buy votes on Ottawa City Council?  It’s plausible, insofar as any donation can influence the perception of the recipient, although clearly votes do not line up exactly with campaign contributions. It could be that councillors that vote for expansion represent wards outside of the core, and they may perceive a need for growth in their wards quite differently to councillors from inside the city.

Ultimately, both voters and the councillors themselves need to be aware of the influence campaign donations can have on decision making. If the electorate remains silent on an issue, then a vote in favour of developers is not even controversial. In our representative democracy, developers and voters alike have the right to participate, to lobby and to donate.

A chiropractor struggles to defend chiropractic

A chiropractor struggles to defend chiropractic

Lawyered up

The British Chiropractic Association took Simon Singh to court for libel. In a stunning example of the Streisand Effect, the criticism that they were trying to suppress –  that their claims that “chiropractic can be used to children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying” were unsupportable – have come under new, unprecedented scrutiny.

Richard Brown, chiropractor and Vice President of the BCA, tried to defend chiropractic in the pages of New Scientist. Here is some analysis of his unconvincing defence.

Chiropractors are so misunderstood

Brown:  Many critics – including Edzard Ernst  – hark back to the origins of chiropractic. This has the clear intention of suggesting that modern chiropractors cling to the 19th century idea that spinal misalignments are responsible for the majority of diseases. While a tiny minority retain this view, most are aware that such claims have long since been debunked.

Let’s take a look at his first testable claim: that a tiny majority of chiropractors retain the view that “spinal misalignments are responsible for the majority of diseases”. Palmer’s original belief was that subluxations of the spine cause disease, and that correcting subluxations, therefore, will correct the disease. What do UK chiropractors believe?

A  survey of chiropractors in the UK (from 2007) found that:

Non-musculoskeletal conditions in adults, including asthma (64%), gastro-intestinal complaints (61%) and pre-menstrual syndrome (PMS) (70%), were considered conditions that can benefit from chiropractic management. Opinions on the treatment of osteoporosis (43%), obesity (26%), hypertension (42%) and infertility (30%) were less conclusive. Childhood musculoskeletal and muscular conditions, infantile colic, otitis media and asthma were perceived to benefit from chiropractic intervention by more than 50% of the respondents.

Far from just a tiny minority, we can see that clear majorities of chiropractors hold the belief that asthma, GI complaints and PMS can all be treated with chiropractic. Large minorities believe chiropractic can help with hypertension, infertility, osteoporosis and obesity. Infant colic, ear infections and childhood muscular problems were believed to be treatable by chiropractic by more than 50%. A fair reading of the survey will see that it shows a majority belief that spinal misalignments play a role in at least these aforementioned, non-spinal diseases.

Of course his actual statement,  “that modern chiropractors cling to the 19th century idea that spinal misalignments are responsible for the majority of diseases” is extreme and exclusionary, and deliberately so. A critic will find it hard to factually dispute, which succeeds in shifting the frame away from the areas of debate where chiropractic is weak, viz. the evidence and the philosophy. One must, on the evidence, accept that his statement is likely to be true, as there surely are but few chiropractors who firmly believe subluxations to be the cause of every disease. However, a majority of chiropractors do still cling to the ludicrous belief that subluxations are the cause of the aforementioned diseases, as the evidence clearly shows.

Brown also uses the rhetorical device of ‘conceding the point’. By admitting that the basic principle of chiropractic has “long since been debunked” – he even uses the language of the skeptic – he hopes to get the readership on his side. But in a scientific publication, defending chiropractic will take more than decorum. One also needs logos.

Cherry picked data

Brown: Claims that chiropractic is dangerous overlook two recent pieces of research. One found no causative association between chiropractic manipulation and stroke. The other concluded that the incidence of stroke after chiropractic was no greater than after a consultation with a general practitioner (Spine, vol 32, p 2375, and vol 33, p S176).

Here is the second testable claim: that there are two research papers that demonstrate the safety of chiropractic that the critics have overlooked. For a skeptical, scientific audience, that’s a sit up and listen moment, but as one is reading the claim and not being Gish-galloped with it in a live debate, the audience has the luxury of testing it out. There are two questions we can ask. First, what do the two papers say, and are they of good enough quality to support the idea that chiropractic does not cause stroke? Secondly, where do the papers fit into the larger body of research on the safety of chiropractic?

Spine, vol 32, p. 2375.  Safety of Chiropractic Manipulation of the Cervical Spine. A Prospective National Survey. (2007). This survey was the first national, large scale effort to poll chiropractors and estimate incidence of adverse events arising from cervical spine manipulation. The authors found that minor side effects of chiropractic manipulation were common, including neck pain, stiffness, soreness and headaches. However, no serious adverse events such as stroke or hemorrhage were reported by the chiropractors. So, no stroke, but the paper is far from a ringing endorsement for the safety of chiropractic. They report that manipulation of the neck commonly leads to headaches, a finding that is profoundly concerning. And there are other criticisms: patients were not followed up, it is not known if chiropractors under-reported adverse events, and people may not have told their chiropractor about a serious adverse event after chiropractic treatment. If they found themselves in hospital with a vertebral arterial dissection, they would have more important things on their minds. To keep things in context, a number of researchers have found that there is an association between chiropractic and stroke. A survey of chiropractors, like this one, does not invalidate all the research that preceded it.

Spine, vol 33, S176.  Risk of Vertebrobasilar Stroke and Chiropractic Care. Results of a Population-Based Case-Control and Case-Crossover Study. (2008). This paper is very popular among chiropractors, who see in it validation for their practice of manipulating the neck vertebrae. I’ll not recap it in depth, but will just say, again, that one paper does not supercede all that has preceded it, and wonder why it is that it takes a survey or an indirect population study, like this one, to identify the risks of chiropractic. It begets the question: does the profession not want to find out the risks for itself? Apparently not. For a more detailed look at what the researchers found, go here.

So, placed into context, Brown’s cherry picked citations rather reveal that there are risks associated with chiropractic, and chiropractors themselves have done little research, on their own initiative, to quantify these risks. Furthermore, there is a large body of research that shows an association between chiropractic and stroke, and Brown would do well to read up.

More to chiropractic than spine bending

Brown: Our critics also make the mistake of equating chiropractic with spinal manipulation, especially with regard to treating non-spinal conditions such as asthma. This demonstrates a lack of understanding of the fact that chiropractors utilise a range of treatments, including postural advice, reassurance and exercise.

I suppose that if one cannot defend the claim that subluxations cause asthma, one should retreat from the claim. Why argue for something that is factually indefensible? The problem with what Brown says here is that he seems to suggest that chiropractors can utilise postural advice, reassurance and exercise… to treat asthma.

It is no surprise to me that chiropractors do more than spine bending. Practice growth and financial success in the chiropractic business is not held back by the same barriers that real doctors face, like prescribing restrictions or evidence based medical practice. Take a look at a chiropractor’s office and see what they have to offer. In fact, Richard Brown, our valiant defender of chiropractic, offers all manner of wonderful woo at his clinic: aromotherapy, reflexology, ear candling and Indian Head Masssage.

So yes, there’s more to chiropractic, but not much more.

I know you are, but what am I?

Brown: Ernst and others claim that chiropractic lacks evidence, pointing to a paucity of randomised controlled trials. This overlooks the fact that many accepted medical interventions have little or no research evidence to support them.

No, it doesn’t overlook that fact, because that fact is not, in fact, relevant. What is relevant is the fact that chiropractors lack evidence in support of their claims, and ignore the evidence that disprove their claims.

Medical interventions, when found to be unsuccesful, will be discarded. Chiropractic, when found to be unsucessful, will just insist on being tested again and again until the researchers get their sums ‘right’.


The last thing the chiropractic profession wants is scrutiny, but by suing Simon Singh, that’s exactly what they got. This is a profession that chooses to sue a science writer for criticising their claims, rather than countering with the evidence. It is a profession that won’t look for evidence of harm from chiropractic unless first prodded to do so. It is a profession where the majority are adherents to a discredited, bogus 19th century pseudo-medical concept of disease. It is a profession so divorced from reality that the best they can muster in their defence is a grab bag of rhetorical tricks and diversions and the hammer of English libel law, because, as they well know, the evidence for chiropractic just isn’t there.

free debate

Canada to fund research into alternatives to physics, chemistry

Canada to fund research into alternatives to physics, chemistry

The Chalk River nuclear facility was a major producer of isotopes for nuclear medicine. Unfortunately, it broke down.

No worries though. Specialists in nuclear medicine called for more research into alternatives to Tc-99m, and Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq heard their call for help:

“…we hope to research into alternative, non-nuclear isotopes that could supplement or replace Tc-99m in certain medical imaging procedures.”

Minister? I know the Harper Conservatives are not the Party of Science, but do you not have someone that you can call?

Homeopathy Awareness Week 2009: Zicam!

Homeopathy Awareness Week 2009: Zicam!

Its homeopathic awareness week!

Were you aware that homeopathic nasal cold remedies can burn out your sense of smell? The FDA wants you to know about it.

Zicam make popular homeopathic products such as nasal sprays. Two of their products, Zicam cold nasal gel and and Zicam cold nasal swabs, were recalled by the FDA this week after they were found to destroy people’s sense of smell.

There is more to homeopathy than the snake oil gambit of diluting a compound so much that not a trace of the original remains. The philosophy of homeopathy is, rather,  The Law of Similars, or ‘like cures like’. If a chemical causes a certain set of symptoms, then treating a disease that produces those symptoms with said chemical will effect a cure.

Hence Zicam, et hinc illae lacrimae.  The homeopathic (active) ingredient in Zicam is Zincum Gluconicum, or zinc gluconate, which was approved by the Homeopathic Pharmacopeia Convention in 1997. It was ‘proven’ to produce cold like symptoms in healthy individuals, and added to the The Homœopathic Pharmacopœia of the United States (HPUS) that year. HPUS dictates the maximum strength that a compound can be for over the counter use, although based on what criteria I know not. For Zinc Gluconicum it is a 1x dilution, that is, one part compound to nine parts water. Zicam actually used a higher dilution, 2x, where the previous dilution is taken and diluted a second time. The final dilution is 1:100. Bear in mind that Avogadro’s limit is not reached until around 24x dilution, and many homeopathic over the counter preparations are diluted beyond that, and you can see Zicam’s mistake: their homeopathic cold remedies actually contained ingredients.

Not only that, the effect of using actual ingredients in Zicam neatly disproves the concept of the Law of Similars and the essential philosophy of homeopathy. Sticking harsh chemicals up your nose, it turns out, has potentially life threatening consequences. It doesn’t cure congestion or sinus pain; it causes sinus pain and the loss of smell.

Why did Zicam do it? Probably because, by labelling an over the counter treatment as homeopathic, they avoided the regulation and safety testing that would be demanded for proper drugs.

Remember, homeopaths, Avogadro’s limit is your friend. Make sure that your treatments contain nothing at all and you will avoid these unpleasant lawsuits.

The FDA can’t regulate a placebo.

When $2.5 billion can’t buy the results that you want…

When $2.5 billion can’t buy the results that you want…

Its been ten years since the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) was established. Ten years and $2.5 billion dollars. What do they have to show for it?

Echinacea for colds. Ginkgo biloba for memory. Glucosamine and chondroitin for arthritis. Black cohosh for menopausal hot flashes. Saw palmetto for prostate problems. Shark cartilage for cancer. All proved no better than dummy pills in big studies funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. The lone exception: ginger capsules may help chemotherapy nausea.

Senator Tom Harkin, the driving force behind NCCAM, has long been aware of the problem. From the outset, the center was bedeviled by practitioners of evidence-based medicine. The “unbendable rules of randomized clinical trials”, as he described them, proved unforgiving. Harkin lambasted scientists for their resistance to accepting therapies on faith: “It is not necessary for the scientific community to understand the process before the American public can benefit from these therapies.”

Sadly, his valiant defence of alternative medicine from the Armies of The Enlightenment was all in vain. After being described as ‘Tom Harkin’s folly’ in a New York Times editorial, in 1998, the center was elevated to the status of National Institute of Health center. It was to be run under a mandate of promoting a rigorous and scientific approach to the study of alternative medicine.

The result has been a disappointment to Senator Harkin.  He told a Senate hearing in 2009, “One of the purposes of this center was to investigate and validate alternative approaches. Quite frankly, I must say publicly that it has fallen short.” After all, the center has been “disproving things rather than seeking out and approving things.”

I see the problem, Senator. If only scientists had not adhered so rigidly to RCT standards. If only they had been willing to accept other sources of information. In fact, their willingness to disregard folk wisdom and tradition and their privileging of evidence-based medicine is, well, gosh darn it, it’s almost fascist. Not all the way fascist. Lets say… microfascist.


As someone far more intellectual than I once wrote, “the evidence-based movement in the health sciences is outrageously exclusionary and dangerously normative with regards to scientific knowledge.” The problem? Scientific research operates inside a post-positivist paradigm that excludes alternative forms of knowledge. I would argue that by refusing to contemplate the experiential, the traditional, the imagined and the anecdotal, the evidence-based movement  “acts as a fascist structure”. Indeed, credentialed “scientists”, through their “secular priesthood” hold a monopoly on the production of scientific knowledge.

Senator, by privileging ‘regimes of truth’ like evidence-based medicine, the NCCAM has been a good example of microfascism in action. If you want to see your center fulfil its original intention, if you want to see an end to microfascism in the National Institutes of Health, if you want to prevent the elimination of alternative ways of knowing and the reduction of health sciences to the totalitarian ideology of evidence-based medicine, that ‘regimented and institutionalised version of ‘truth”, take back the NCCAM. Alternative medicine can never be integrated with the singular, totalising ideology of evidence-based medicine and its microfascististic worldview.

It is in deconstructivism that the radical singularity of knowledge that is complementary and alternative medicine will find a welcome space of freedom to territorialise and colonise.  It is time for CAM to resist the totalitarian program of randomized controlled trials, to decolonise the masculine narratives of large sample sizes and competing hypotheses.

It is time for CAM to embrace postmodernism. And then you can get the results you want.