Current Affairs Religion

Tiny steps

It’s Tuesday, and the internet is still offended. Why? Because a store owner in Missouri posted an ill-advised sign in his window, which was spotted and widely circulated on the internet. It read:

Skepticon is NOT welcomed to my Christian Business

The owner of the Gelato Mio store saw something at Skepticon that upset him, which prompted him to put up this sign in his store window. You can read more about this on Hemant Mehta’s blog, which details the incident, and the response to the posting of the sign once pictures of it were circulated on the internet. Mehta’s blog is also the place to go to see a further apology from the owner of the store, which is as follows:

To the World:

Hello, my name is Andy and I’m the owner of Gelato Mio, a gelato shop located in Springfield, Missouri. There has been quite a lot of buzz and discussion concerning a picture of the sign I briefly posted in my front window Saturday evening. I’d like to take this opportunity to tell my story and offer a heartfelt apology to your community. I messed up, plain and simple. This is NOT an excuse, but how it happened from my perspective.

I decided to welcome the convention downtown by offering the attendees 10% off their purchases at my store. A lot of the group from the convention were stopping by, being very polite and enjoying my Gelato. Saturday night started out as a great night. Once the store slowed down, I decided to walk down the street to learn more about the convention, fully thinking it was something involving UFOs (“skeptics”). What I saw instead was a man conducting a mock sermon, reading the bible and cursing it. Instead of saying “Amen”, the phrase was “god damn”. Being a Christian, and expecting flying saucers, I was not only totally surprised but totally offended. I took it very personally and quickly decided in the heat of the moment that I had to take matters into my own hands and let people know how I felt at that moment in time.

So, I went quickly back to my business, grabbed the first piece of paper I could find, wrote the note and taped it in my front window. This was an impulsive response, which I fully acknowledge was completely wrong and unacceptable. The sign was posted for about 10 minutes or so before I calmed down, came to my senses, and took it down. For what it’s worth, nobody was turned away. I strongly believe that everybody is entitled to their beliefs. I’m not apologizing for my beliefs, but rather for my inexcusable actions. I was wrong.

Guys, I really don’t know what else I can do to express my apologies. I’ve received dozens of calls and hundreds of emails since the incident, and have done my best to reply to each and every one and express my regret for what happened. For the thousands of you whom I’ve offended, I sincerely apologize. I hope you can find it in your hearts to forgive me. This is me as a human being sincerely apologizing for my actions.

To those of you who accept my apology, Thank You; it means a lot. To those of you who haven’t, I hope you will. I’m just a 28 year old small business owner who made a big mistake. I hope you see that I have not made any excuses, I’ve owned up to what I did, and I apologize.

For what it’s worth, an Atheist reached out to me to help me work through all of this and contact your community directly. I graciously accepted his offer.

I will give everyone who comes to my store this week 10% off as a token of my apology. Really, what’s more universal than ice cream?

Sincerely, Andy

So, Andy acted impulsively, realised the mistake he made, and apologised. End of story, right? Sadly, no, because there are still people out there who would rather make an example of Andy than accept the apology and move on. PZ Myers disagrees, and his objections are now posted as part of Mehta’s blog (and you can see a selection of tweets here). The comments for Mehta’s blog contain a disappointing amount of hate, hurt, and irrationality, and readers seem fairly split about whether or not the apology is to be accepted or not. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to come down on the “accept the apology” side of things, and risk the ire that this will, doubtlessly, bring.

I tend to subscribe to the “don’t be a dick” philosophy, because being a dick doesn’t help get the point across, and mostly just tends to upset and alienate people. For anyone who would like to respond by telling me that they are a discriminated against minority who face abuse every day, and therefore have the right to be a dick, I will pre-emptively counter by reminding you that I live in a country which has, enshrined in it’s employment equality law, the right of a religious, medical, or educational organisation to discriminate on the grounds of religion, and where the vast majority of schools fall under religious patronage, meaning that it is almost impossible to educate one’s children without faith. With that said, please do me the courtesy of not dismissing what I say because I “don’t understand” the discrimination people face.

I think that Andy, like all of us, is human, and that he responded stupidly to something that was designed to provoke a response. He is by no means the only person guilty of such a crime, and I would wager that, if we were to check our own blogs, emails, and Twitter feeds, we’d probably find messages that we regret posting, or that we think now, with hindsight, were posted too hastily. Many people who believe strongly in religion do not merely see religious criticism as criticism of the religion, but as a very personal attack too – I could talk here about the various regions of the brain thought to be associated with religious thought, and the psychosocio-development of religion, but it’s probably more succinct to say that religion and faith are very personal and important things to those who believe, and those who believe tend to identify that belief as a large part of themselves as a person. In short, Andy, as a believer, has an emotional attachment to his faith, and when he saw something that ridiculed that faith, it also felt like something which ridiculed him directly, and his feelings were hurt. He acted, like many of us with hurt feelings do – by lashing out.

Am I aware that it’s irrational? Yes. Am I aware that it is illegal? Yes. Do we all sometimes do irrational, and possibly even illegal, things when we are feeling hurt and upset? If we’re honest, yes. Do we all apologise, publicly, for our irrational behaviour once the fog of upset has cleared? Well, no, actually. Mostly, we don’t. We shroud ourselves in a cloak of indignation, rights, beliefs, and other such emotional things, and declare that we were right anyway, or that it’s a matter of opinion, or other such placations. We use the cloak of indignation to bat away anything that might damage or tear the cloak, lest it expose the flawed logic beneath it. Privately, we might admit that we were hasty, but publicly, we do not want to lose face, so we gather our indignicloak about us and continue on. Does that sound like the kind of behaviour that skeptics revere, or more like the kind of thing that we are renowned for ridiculing? It is, I think, much easier to maintain an air of indignant offense than it is to accept that trashing a menu online  or posting hundreds of fake bad reviews was also an emotional reaction that, in hindsight, may be unjustified.

I’m not saying that what Andy did was ok – demonstrably, it wasn’t; it was offensive, and illegal. What I am saying is that he seems to have realised that his behaviour was offensive and illegal, and taken steps to remedy it. Frankly, he could have simply left the sign there, turned away patrons, and picketed the con for the rest of the weekend, and depending on the area he was in, he may well have received popular support for such actions. The fact is that that’s not what he has done. He took down the sign once his initial upset had cleared. He apologised, and has done so again, explaining (but not making excuses for) his behaviour.

People like Andy don’t understand our beliefs (or lack thereof) simply because we browbeat them into submission. People like Andy may never understand how or why we don’t believe in Jesus or Mohammed or any other deity. It would be nice if, in the future, everyone understood everyone’s beliefs, but if we are honest with ourselves, we might realise that, while we know about the beliefs of Christians, for example, we don’t understand them. I can think of many reasons why someone might have faith, but I don’t understand them because, to me, they seem illogical or hollow or simply weak. I speak the language of science, and evidence, and proof, and they speak the language of belief and faith.

I’m not saying that atheists should lie prone on the ground and allow people to walk all over them, but what I am saying is that responding like an aggrieved extremist group does not do anyone any favours. Do you honestly think that, if his shop goes out of business, he’ll suddenly have a conversion experience, become an atheist, and start attending Skepticon himself? Do you think that a non-acceptance of, what really appears to be, a sincere apology makes you seem like the better person? Do you believe that making a loud example of this person will help anyone, in any way? I don’t. Tiny steps matter.

Current Affairs

Super Mario, the animal abuser? Pull the other one, PETA.

Tanooki Mario (Nintendo)


Today, PETA launched a new video game designed to combat the nefarious influence of none other than Super Mario. That’s right, Super Mario is encouraging our kids to wear fur, and promoting the inhumane slaughter of innocent animals to further the fur trade, because at certain points during Super Mario 3D land, Mario becomes Tanooki Mario, and wears a Tanooki suit to signify the change. Tanooki Mario has special abilities, which are granted to him when he manages to grab a Super Leaf. Tanooki Mario’s costume, PETA assert, bears a resemblance to the Tanuki dogs who have been abused (beaten, skinned alive, etc) for their fur. Thus, it follows logically that this game encourages animal abuse. Wait, what?!

PETA maintain that, because Mario is shown wearing fur, he sends the message that it’s ok to wear fur. Which would be incorrect even without the ethical implications of fur, because, as even a child can see, Mario is quite clearly wearing a costume, and not a “fur”. Mario doesn’t skin or in any way interact with a Tanuki dog (or any other animal) to receive his costume, and it is no more sinister (and no more encourages animal abuse) than any other animal based costumes, such as the Easter Bunny or, say, Freeda the Fish, an animal costume regularly worn at various PETA protests, and indeed, paid for by PETA. True, one might argue that a fish costume and a Tanuki dog costume are not the same; after all, those Tanuki dogs are abused, and the costume makes light of it and desensitises individuals to their plight, and as we know, there’s no abuse of fish, and PETA totally support the eating of fish, and are fine with the way they are treated.

Those of you who clicked on that “paid for by PETA” link will have noticed that one of the entries on that PDF is highlighted – the purchase of a walk-in freezer. It would be nice if the freezer was for something wholesome and earth-friendly, like vegan ice-cream, but the truth is that it is a freezer for animal carcasses. The reason PETA needs such a freezer is that it regularly puts down animals which are left at its headquarters. PETA say that it’s more humane to put an animal down if it is unwell, and have spoken at length on their beliefs about humane ways to put down animals, and it’s a hard position to argue against, but it’s only words, and their actions, unfortunately, tell a different story. While making a point about their compassionate euthenasia, PETA neglect to mention that they euthanise over 90% of all animals left at their headquarters. It is implausible that so many animals left there would be completely untreatable, or unsuitable for rehoming, and indeed, when pressed, PETA admitted that “some treatable and adoptable animals were also among those killed by lethal injection”. This seems to be at odds with their philosophy of complete freedom for animals, and the notion that no animal should die an unnecessary death.

PETA say that the reason they euthanise animals is that they would otherwise end up languishing in horrible conditions in animal shelters, and maintain that they are doing them a kindness. It is, I think, a little harder to glamorise or  justify their connections with extreme activist groups such as the Animal Liberation Front, and with activities such as fire-bombing university laboratories, animal breeding facilities, and other buildings. Bruce Friedrich, VP of PETA, has said that “blowing stuff up and smashing windows” is a great way to further the cause of animal liberation, and that while he doesn’t do it himself, he advocates it. PETA paid large sums of money to support Rodney Coronado while he was on trial for the arson attack on Michigan State University’s research facilities, an attack which destroyed years of research and cost the university over $100,000. Coronado has, thankfully, since become more moderate in his views and no longer advocates arson, but before this change of heart, he travelled to schools and spoke about, among other things, how to make incendiary devices to use against objectionable buildings such as research facilities.

So, am I against animal rights? Do I want animals to be subjected to cruelty? No. What I am against is the showboating, selective data presenting, and generally media-whoring behaviour of PETA, who seem increasingly to put their own publicity ahead of their supposed animal protection agenda. What I am against is an organisation that doesn’t publicly throw bombs, but privately supports those who do. What I am against is an organisation who espouse one philosophy (picketing and abusing those who do not adhere), and who act according to another philosophy. What I am against is an organisation who complain that Nintendo show a character in an animal costume, and yet advocate the wearing of vegan simu-leather products (which surely also play into the fashion industry and general public demand for animal skin products, since they appear identical to leather?). In short, what I am against is hypocrisy, in whatever form it may take, because I believe that ethical behaviour extends beyond renaming fish.

Current Affairs

Aiding dogs… with Reiki?

Would the principle of an organisation prevent you from donating money/time/items if you disagreed with those principles? This is a question I posed a short time ago on Twitter, when I wondered if atheists felt that they couldn’t donate to religious based charitable organisations, because of the conflict in belief. There was a mixed bag of answers, though many seemed to think that, as long as they were providing valuable aid, and not leaning too heavily on the bible-bashing, that it was worth donating money to help those in desperate need. Leaving religious clashes aside, is there ever a point at which you would question your charitable donations, based on your knowledge of what the organisation will do with that money? For me, this question was raised again yesterday, when I discovered that a dog sanctuary in Ireland regularly uses its donations to fund alternative therapies for its animals (see note below – 16/11/11).

Dogs Aid is an animal sanctuary in Dublin, primarily for dogs, but also housing other animals on occasion. The following is from its website:

Dogs Aid is a charity set up by three ladies in 1987 to help dogs that were unwanted and abandoned in Dublin, Ireland. Since then we have helped rehabilitate and rehome hundreds of dogs. Dogs Aid has a no destruction policy so we never put a recoverable dog down, and as a result the sanctuary is a permanent home for many forever dogs that are “too old or too bold” to be rehomed. From time to time we also take care of other animals including rabbits, bats, birds, foxes, feral cats, hedgehogs etc.

Dogs Aid is entirely staffed by volunteers and entirely funded by public donations, and all of our money goes to help the animals. We are currently in the process of building a new sanctuary on our permanent site and look forward to moving the dogs to their new home later this year.

Dogs Aid, like many animal sanctuaries, is funded by public donations, and they are the kind of organisation that I would have donated to in the past, but yesterday, while looking through their website, I found the following paragraph describing the condition of one of their “forever dogs” (emphasis is my own):

When Daisy came into us it was clear that something wasn’t quite right. The vets diagnosed her with brain damage and blindness resulting from the brain damage. After regular meals and regular reiki healing she’s doing really well. Daisy doesn’t spin as much as she used to and is a happy, confident girl.

At Dogs Aid, Daisy benefits from regular reiki healing.

Reiki healing focuses on the manipulation of chi, in conjunction with meridian lines and chakras. The practitioner can use many techniques (but often a “laying on hands” approach) to manipulate the chi and flow chi energy into the patient in order to heal them of many ailments. Despite repeated attempts to demonstrate the effectiveness of reiki, it is widely discredited as having no stronger effect than a similarly administered placebo. In 2008, a review of clinical trials involving reiki concluded that there was no evidence to support its efficacy for any condition, and serious methodological concerns were noted with regard to the trials (many of which were so poorly constructed that they had to be excluded from the review).

One, off-hand mention of the use of reiki might not be enough to discourage one from donating to, or otherwise helping, Dogs Aid, but a look at their “Useful Links” page was enough to discourage me. Pride of place, above even links to Veterinary services, is a link to a Pet Healer, who practises “Small animal healing, specialising in Reiki and Seichem which is great for relieving stress, boosting energy, vitality and immune system responses.”

The Pet Healer in question is Marese Hickey, and she treats both animals and people. In people, she uses a combination of therapies that she has learned, mixing hypnosis with other “energy medicine” techniques. In animals, she uses both reiki and seichem, which she says allows her to safely perform “psychic surgery”. Further examination of her site yields a story of her own cat, who outlived her expected death by several months – a situation which Hickey attributes to her own healing, and to homoeopathic remedies prescribed to her by Emily McAteer, a homoeopathic vet. The cat in question suffered from cancer of the ear (squamous cell carcinoma) and chronic renal failure, and in the last 6 months of its life, received no treatment for either condition.

It’s clear from her own website that Hickey believes her cat lived as a result of her healing, and the fact that she consulted a homoeopathic vet cements her attachment to alternative medical treatments. Many people point to the response of animals to alternative medicine (such as homoeopathy) as proof that it works, stating that animals cannot know about placebo responses and other explanations for feeling better after alternative medical treatment, and therefore must be healed by the treatment in order to seem better. It is true that animals probably aren’t aware of the concept of placebo treatment, but it is also true that their owners are susceptible to confirmation bias – simply, the owner expects the pet to  improve, and so sees an improvement. This effect may be enhanced by the owners behaviour toward the pet – the owner’s behaviour may change, and the pet may respond to this change by also changing its behaviour. Finally, if a pet is receiving no treatment for a serious medical condition, it is possible that pain and sickness will cause it to change its behaviour, and that this behaviour will be misinterpreted as an improvement in condition (e.g. pet moving around much more attributed to an improvement in the condition, but could equally be due to the pet’s discomfort and inability to find comfort in any position).

I’m afraid that this is, absolutely, enough for me to question further donations to Dogs Aid. I don’t support alternative, unproven therapies, directly or indirectly. It is clear that, at least some of the volunteers there do support these therapies, and will continue to use them, and advertise them as a viable method of treating your sick pets. As a donor, I can’t stipulate where my money goes – I can’t simply phone Dogs Aid and say that I will only donate money toward veterinary bills with real, qualified vets using actual medicine – so the only choice left is to raise an objection, and withdraw support. Sorry, Dogs Aid, but I’m out.


Update: Dogs Aid have been in touch to clarify their position, and state that “Marese Hickey comes to the sanctuary regularly to volunteer her reiki skills, entirely without cost to Dogs Aid.”.

Current Affairs

Burzynski in Ireland; arguing with believers

Earlier this morning, I tweeted a link to this very sad article, in which we are told that a toddler has passed away after a battle with cancer. Though devastating for the family, the story would be otherwise unremarkable, except for the brief mention of the treatment the toddler received. According to the article, the family opted to refuse the chemotherapy (due to the high risk), and instead, opted for Burzynski’s treatment.

I have spoken here before about Burzynski’s treatment, and the fact that I believe it to be ineffective. While I accept that some people will want to supplement conventional treatment with things that help them to maintain a positive outlook, I believe that it is dangerous to eschew conventional (and proven) treatments in favour of unproven and/or dangerous quack treatments, and I believe that it is wrong when this decision is made, not by adults for their own treatment, but by adults, on behalf of children. I realise that this is occasionally a controversial opinion to hold, and this was reaffirmed today, when I tweeted the link to that article, saying:

A #burzynski victim from Ireland – a toddler has passed away after eschewing chemo for quackery.

This prompted a series of increasingly irrational responses from a twitter user known as mrs_bopp, aka, Kate Bopp. I’d like to address some of the arguments that she made in greater detail than twitter will allow, so to my blog I’ve come. I’ve used Storify to capture the conversation in full, and you can see it here, but for the purposes of clarity, I’ll extract some individual tweets/arguments below.

  • You have no first hand experience with cancer, and therefore are ill-informed

Leaving aside for the moment the fact that my father is battling cancer for the second time, thus providing me with plenty of experience with cancer, its treatment, etc., this is a weak argument. I also have no first hand experience with Hogwarts, but I can assure you that, having thoroughly read and re-read the Harry Potter series, I am extremely well informed about it. Even if there was no one in my family or circle of friends who had ever had cancer (and extremely unlikely situation), merely having been around someone with cancer does not magically make you well informed. Research, keeping up with medical journals, reading about clinical trials; these things will help you to be informed about cancer.

  • Someone close to me died of cancer, so my opinion is more valid

Without meaning to sound callous, is there a single one of us out there who has not had a brush with cancer? I too have seen family struggle with cancer, and have seen friends die of cancer. I have had the unfortunate experience of seeing a child who I babysat occasionally succumb to cancer, and of comforting her friend (whom I also babysat), on the evening of the funeral. Cancer is extremely prevalent, and while I don’t mean to diminish the upset that anyone might feel upon losing a friend or a relative, the loss of a friend or relative does not make your opinion more important than someone else’s, nor does it make it scientific fact.

  • People who have made this difficult choice don’t need to hear your negativity

It’s true that reading comments or articles that question the legitimacy of Burzynski’s treatment will not help, in that they will not bring the child, parent, husband, sister, etc. back from the dead, nor will they cure the cancer of anyone considering undergoing treatment with Burzynski. The aim of my comments, blogs, or any other input, is not to upset grieving families, or to “steal hope” from those who have been told that the prognosis with conventional treatment is bleak. My hope is that people who research alternative therapies will also come across information about the controversies surrounding those therapies, and perhaps think the better of spending their life savings, and their last few months, on a treatment which will ultimately leave them unfulfilled, and not cured. My hope is that people will realise that convincing patient anecdotes are not necessarily proof of efficacy, and that they will not be taken in by them.

In recent weeks and months, several people have been taken to court to face charges ranging from criminal mistreatment to manslaughter. The reason? Rather than bring their child to a medical professional, they opted to use “faith healing”. In the case of the Hickmans, this resulted in the death of their son. Is it better that we spare these parents the difficulty of agonising over their choice, than inform people so that others will seek medical treatment? Is it better that we don’t discuss these cases, and stay silent while more people are allowed to succumb to treatable conditions due to their reliance on alternative medicines and faith healing? I have no doubt that the loss of a child is absolutely awful, and I have no wish to bully the parents of these children, but I also do not believe that we should hide from the controversy surrounding these treatments merely to prevent upset.

  • Do you have kids?

In the last paragraph, I mentioned that I don’t doubt how awful it is to lose a child. I can’t be certain of how I would feel in this circumstance, because I don’t have a child (or children) of my own, and therefore, have never lost a child. The “Do you have kids” argument is often thrown out as a hook – you reply that you do not, and are told that you, therefore, couldn’t possibly know what it’s like to have a sick child. While I don’t understand the exact specific feelings one has when their child is sick, I do understand that this argument is weak, and essentially baseless. The fact that I haven’t got children does not change the outcome of clinical trials, the misinformation spread about alternative medicinal cures, or the evidence upon which their debunking is based. The fact that I do not have children proves just one thing: that I don’t have children. Another twitter user (@Saoili) replied to this one, and though the tweet isn’t included in the storify, I wanted to include it here, because I believe it speaks volumes:

  • Oh yeah? Well chemo costs lots of money, and natural cures are just being held back by big pharma because they can’t make a profit on them.

Late in this conversation, some spectacular back-pedalling occurred, when @mrs_bopp, having first brought the issue of the cost of chemotherapy into the conversation, attempts to turn it around, and say that she never mentioned such things. Unfortunately, the exact free/cheap phrase is one I took from her own tweet, whereby she claims we are naive because we don’t know how much chemotherapy costs.

This is a familiar tactic – chemotherapy exists only to make money for big pharma, and other cures are suppressed to the detriment of the public. Of course, mrs_bopp, like many others, refused to be drawn on the fact that Burzynski’s treatment is far from cheap or free. Even after multiple deflections, and plenty of question dodging, there was no acknowledgement of the fact that, this treatment at least, costs rather a lot. If someone is truly convinced that there is a big pharma conspiracy, there is little that can be said which will change their minds, so the best one can hope for is to point out the logical flaws and call them on the back-pedalling.

  • You’re just close-minded

If in doubt, question my ability to believe things which are, obviously, beyond my comprehension. Ultimately, if clinical trials prove that Burzynski’s treatment (or any other alternative treatment) is effective against cancer, I will be delighted. It will represent a significant step forward in the treatment of cancers, and an improvement in the condition of patients while they are being treated. I look forward to the day when chemotherapy is not the gold standard of cancer treatments, and when there are more effective, and less toxic alternatives available. Unfortunately, that is not the case. Clinical trials have not proven the efficacy of a whole host of alternative treatments, and chemotherapy remains the gold standard because it works, and has been proven to work. I agree that patient anecdotes are compelling, and the videos and pictures do paint a very rosy picture of Burzynski’s treatment, but until I see some real clinical data, I find it difficult to believe that it is the miracle cure it is purported to be. It is important to keep an open mind, so that when new evidence arises, which contradicts beliefs that you previously held to be true, you can look at the new evidence with an objective, critical eye, and decide if it is conclusive enough to change your beliefs. It is important, also, to make sure that your mind is not so open that all your brains fall out.

The arguments that I saw this morning are by no means atypical, but they continue to be wheeled out whenever someone asks for proof, or evidence, or even just some common sense, so let me be quite clear. I am not out to make sure that people abandon all hope. I am not trying to upset families or ruin lives. I value the truth, even if that truth is not something that I particularly like, and I will continue to do so, regardless of how many people around me do or do not have cancer, regardless of whether I have children, and regardless of how many times I am accused of being heartless, or of lacking integrity. You are entitled to your opinion, and so am I, but neither of us are entitled to our own facts, and nor are we entitled to fill in the perceived blanks in scientific knowledge with whatever nonsense we chose to make up. I will continue to publish my opinion, and will expect that a percentage of people reading will disagree – and if you also wish to publicise your opinion, you too should expect some debate and disagreement – but the mere fact of your disagreement will no more detract from scientific fact than it will stop me publishing those facts.

I typically finish up my blog posts with a summation paragraph, and an attempt at some sort of dry wit, but in this case, I’m going to leave you with a Tim Minchin beat poem which resonates deeply with me (and not just because of these rose quartz healing crystals I’ve been carrying).



Current Affairs

“Don’t forget it was the chemo that cured you”

The world of alternative cancer treatments is vast and confusing, and I can understand why anyone diagnosed with cancer would want to give themselves the best fighting chance possible. Eating right, getting exercise and rest, and looking after your mental health can all play an important part in cancer recovery, but often, people end up attributing a miracle cure to a particular lifestyle change, diet change, or alternative therapy, rather than the conventional treatment that they also underwent. When that’s just a personal belief, that’s one thing, but when someone starts to market this belief, wrapped up in some pseudo-science, then they begin to step tentatively towards quackery.

Recently, I came across a leaflet advertising a seminar by Bernadette Bohan, who was going to talk about the role of nutrition in the treatment and prevention of cancer. I’ll admit to being immediately dubious, as I saw no qualifications mentioned on the leaflet, so decided to investigate a little. What I found was disappointing. Bohan has had cancer twice, and each time has undergone conventional chemotherapy. Upon her second diagnosis, she embarked upon a number of lifestyle and diet changes which she now attributes her good health to, and while, at first glance, these changes appear to be sound, a deeper analysis shows them to be based on flawed information. Undeniably, good nutrition is important, but Bohan is not a nutritionist, and goes further than just recommending good nutrition.

Primarily, Bohan seems to be an advocate of “juicing” – ingesting large quantities of juiced fruits and vegetables throughout the day. While a healthy diet will include portions of fruit and vegetables, proponents of juicing argue that drinking these as a juice is more beneficial than simply eating them. The juicing process, they say, “pre-digests” the food, making it easier to absorb the nutrients, and the inclusion of so much juice helps to heal all that ails you (reduces your risk of cancer, boosts your immune system, helps you remove toxins, aids digestion, helps you lose weight, helps manage heart conditions, etc.). Allegedly, a break from processing the fibre contained in whole fruits and vegetables will also prevent cancers. However, as a Mayo Clinic nutritionist points out, there is no sound scientific evidence that juicing does any of these things, or that the fruits and vegetables are more beneficial to us in juice form. At best, juicing may simply be a way to include less palatable vegetables in our diet, but it is certainly not a cure-all, and there is currently no evidence to suggest that drinking lots of apple juice is any better for you than simply eating a lot of apples.

Juicing isn’t really the biggest problem here – Bohan doesn’t advocate ridiculous amounts of juice (a la Gerson Therapy) – it’s just a gateway to the rest of the information on the site, for which the evidence dwindles accordingly. We are told that wheatgrass juice is a super-food, and that its high quantities of vitamin B17 (a substance that is thought to kill cancer cells), and its ability to suppress bacterial growths and eliminate stored toxins with its liver purifying chlorophyll, make it justifiably popular. Well, there’s just so much wrong with all of that that it’s hard to know where to start. Vitamin B17 has been sold, in the form of Laetrile, as an alternative cancer cure that is neither a vitamin, nor a cure. In fact, studies have found it to be potentially toxic in larger quantities, possibly resulting in cyanide poisoning. Oh, and it’s completely ineffective in the treatment of cancer too. This isn’t just a slip – on another page, a piece on “Power Foods” tells us about the wonders of B17, this time in great detail.

Chlorophyll is something that many will have studied in school, as that important chemical which plants use to get energy from light. And humans use it for… well, nothing in particular really. Chlorophyll is used by plants in the process of photosynthesis, to fuel the conversion of carbon dioxide into compounds the plant can use (e.g. sugars). As we don’t photosynthesise, it’s not especially important to us, and indeed, doesn’t function in the same way inside us. No amount of chlorophyll will help you detoxify or oxygenate things – we simply cannot use it that way. At best, we might gain some scant nutritional value from it as it passes through our dark, non-carbon dioxide filled, digestive systems.

Bohan’s advice doesn’t stop there however; she also takes care to tell us that it’s not just what we’re putting in our bodies, but what we’re putting on our bodies. Antiperspirants, we’re told, contain aluminium, which accumulates in our brain, and “the link with Alzheimer’s disease and aluminium compounds has been scientifically proven.” This is nonsense. There is, at best, circumstantial evidence to link aluminium and Alzheimer’s Disease, and overwhelmingly, medical and scientific professionals agree that no causal link has been demonstrated between the two. There is not enough evidence to make a strong recommendation to remove aluminium from your life, or to switch to a different antiperspirants (or stop using one altogether), and the link between aluminium and Alzheimer’s is so tenuous that to state that it has been “scientifically proven” is an outright lie. On this point, I actually complained to the ASAI, and was told that I was told that, because it was an editorial, they are “not in a position to pursue [my] complaint.” In which case, any advertiser may, clearly, write whatever they please on their website, as long as it’s an editorial, so it’s open season folks!

Finally, we come to her seminars, which are, after all, the reason I came across Bohan in the first place. For €500-€650, you can attend a three day wellness seminar with Bohan herself, featuring numerous workshops, talks, juices, and other fun activities. A little research pulls up some timetables for previous and upcoming seminars, in which Bohan will discuss her organic, alkaline diet, and be joined by Jackie O’Mahony, to discuss healing visualisations and cell healing. Without heading off on a tangent to discuss alkaline diets (unproven) and cell healing (which actually could be any one of a number of pseudo-scientific nonsense techniques), it’s clear that there’s a heavy emphasis on the alternative treatment options at these seminars, and based on her site, this emphasis extends throughout her philosophy.

While I’m not opposed to eating healthily, and making positive lifestyle changes to improve your chances of beating cancer, I’m also not naive enough to think that juicing or dieting or any of it will, alone, kill cancer. Throughout Bohan’s site, she reinforces the importance of her new diet, but it’s rarely mentioned that what did the curing was the chemotherapy. It’s easy to become wrapped up in the idea that something as palatable as fruit juices and supplements will help you to avoid the difficulties and side effects associated with chemotherapy, but this woman didn’t cure herself using fruit juice. I don’t believe her intent is malicious, but rather, that she has been misinformed. By seeking out information on the internet, and from alternative medicine sources, she has put together a programme that is so jam-packed with disproved and debunked information that it’s hard to see where one piece ends and another begins. With her own cancer cured, and her book setting her up as a mother who found her own way to healing through an alternative prescription, it’s easy to see how people would be taken in. Her book is selling well, she has appeared on tv, and she’s becoming more prominent in the field of alternative therapy. It is not, I think, such a big step from “juices helped to cure me” to “juices cured me”, and I fear that this is where Bohan is rapidly headed.

When Bohan told her oncologist about her life changes, he replied “Don’t forget it was the chemo that cured you“, and I think it’s such an important statement. Of all the alternative cancer cures that have been advertised, not a one has been scientifically proven to work. I know what the effects of chemo are because I watched my father go through chemotherapy. I shaved his head when he lost his hair, I watched him wake up looking positively exhausted and pale, and I saw the effect it had, not just on his body, but on his mind. I know that the side effects are undeniably difficult, but the fact of the matter is that chemotherapy, and not Laetrile or wheatgrass or juices or any other alternative treatment, cures cancer. Chemotherapy demonstrably and repeatedly cures cancers, and as the technology has developed, it cures more cancers, more effectively, than ever before. I can imagine wanting to forget the hair loss, the nausea, the tiredness, but forgetting the cure? Not for me.

Current Affairs

I’m getting a lovely woman here…

She’s very excited to be here and give you a message, but she’ll have to wait a few minutes until she finishes cold reading the audience before she can pass it on. I’m talking, of course, about “Britain’s Best-Loved Psychic”, Sally Morgan, who has come under fire after people attending her show in Dublin called “shenanigans” on the whole affair. People who attended the show called into LiveLine, claiming that they had heard information being fed to Sally moments before she repeated it on stage. This story was not just put forward by one attendee, but by many others who called in to support the claims, saying that they too had heard prompting and/or information being passed. Interestingly, though I’m sure many will accuse skeptics of merely wanting to debunk her, these stories did not come from an organised group of skeptics, but from people who paid to attend the show, hoping to receive messages. I wish one of them had thought to record what they heard!

It’s a rough time to be Sally Morgan, and articles about the Grand Canal Theatre fiasco have prompted a response from the theatre, and from Sally herself. In short, she reaffirms that she doesn’t use “plants”, that she has never met McKeown or Skelly, and that she’s just sharing her gift while running the gauntlet of skeptics and cynics. And I’m almost inclined to believe that she’s telling the truth, simply because it doesn’t seem like she’d need that stuff; she already gets all of the “psychic” information she needs from the guests at the show, before it starts. A quote from Sally’s website will help me to explain why and how Sally has been “hot reading” successfully for years, whether or not she’s got a plant:

Get to the venue early to take full advantage of the many ways that Sally can give you a message:

* Complete one of Sally’s ‘Love Letter’ cards in the venue foyer and leave a question for Sally.

* Leave a video message on Sally’s special ‘Psychic Cam’ which she may play during the show.

* Bring a photo of a loved one passed and Sally may be able to connect with them in spirit world.

So, Sally encourages people to arrive early so that they have enough time to write down or film their questions/stories, and then pop their photo in the “dead loved ones” box, allowing her plenty of time to “attune” to the spirits before she takes to the stage. Of course, because of the sporadic nature of her “gift”, there’s no telling who will receive a reading, and who won’t, but I’d hazard a guess that those who pony up at the start of the show are high on her hit list.

In addition to the fact that she asks guests to provide information which, surely, she should already know, there is also the way in which she “reads”. Frequently asked questions include “is he/she in spirit” and “what does that mean”, and while one might excuse not understanding a family in joke, surely a medium shouldn’t need to ask if the person she is receiving is actually dead? Clearly, simply having all of the information up front isn’t enough. Rather, she employs a shrewd and calculated combination of “hot reading” and “cold reading” which deceives vulnerable or gulliable people into believing that she is speaking to the dead.

On one occasion, an audience member tells Sally that she has had a son (“A year ago I had a little boy”). About two minutes later, Sally asks “did you have a little boy”. By rapidly changing topic, peppering the conversation with generalities that are likely to elicit an emotional response (“daddy saw it”, “I love you”, “blowing kisses”) and false-specifics that are likely to be remembered as unknowable truths (“all the cards, daddy was there” – after the birth of a child, or on any birthday, there will be cards, so it’s a very safe assertion to make, “you have to tell him I fell asleep” – a common lie told to children who might not understand death), Sally makes sure that this audience member won’t remember or realise that she’s just told Sally, 2 minutes ago, that she had a son about a year ago, thus prompting “new baby” cards, and, since it’s been about a year, “1st birthday” cards. In recalling this incident, it’s likely that all that will be remembered is that Sally knew she had a little boy, and that there were cards with baby booties on them, even though “she couldn’t have known”. You can see the amazement etched on the face of her sister, standing with her, as she leans in to comment on what Sally is saying, and she is obviously impressed that Sally knew there were cards, and that she had a little boy, and that it was his birthday, when in reality, Sally knew what she had been told only moments before, and made a simple assumption based on that information.

These techniques are not specific to this one reading, or this one show – Sally has a regular show that is now airing on Living TV, which follows her as she travels around the UK and performs, and each episode contains similar readings. Another, more humorous example of some blatant “lukewarm reading” shows what happens when she receives a spirit who doesn’t realise that he’s not a man. As she starts her usual line of questioning to probe information from the audience, she’s cut rather short, as it becomes apparent that the “Bernard” she’s channelling is actually someone’s grandmother. This clip is from her own show, and sadly, the video clip cuts off before she can explain how that was her intent all along.

Sally Morgan is not a psychic, and she can’t speak to the dead. If she could, and it was truly not under her control, well, I for one would expect far fewer “lovely” people who are in heaven, and at least a few visits from that grumpy old relative that was a bit of a git, loathed by all, and likely bound for somewhere other than the pearly gates. Sally is a shrewd businesswoman who makes a profit by taking advantage of vulnerable people, selling tickets, books, and dvds to those who have been taken in by her performance. She is a simple con artist, who will continue to make money for as long as people are willing to keep giving it to her.

Whether or not she used plants in the Dublin show is, all told, a bit immaterial – it should be clear to anyone who has seen her shows, live or on tv, that she is not performing real magic or speaking with spirits, but simply lying, and putting on a show. If she uses plants, or stagehands, or “light technicians” to feed her information, then it is simply one more source of information that is readily given to her by the very people who have come to her show to be told vague things that they already knew, by a women pretending to be someone they love.

I believe that Sally Morgan is a cheating, manipulative, profiteering fraud who has no genuine psychic ability, and who likely uses any means necessary to continue the charade, though I don’t believe that she is stupid, unintelligent, or unaware of what she is doing – it takes skill to cold read well, and it takes balls of steel to ask your audience to tell you all the information up front and then present it on stage as if you have plucked it from the mouth of a relative “in spirit”. She, like all those who claim psychic abilities, has been presented with the James Randi $1,000,000 challenge, and like all those who claim psychic abilities, she has yet to claim her prize. I may even have a touch of the psychic myself, as I predict that this latest scandal may not harm ticket or book sales as much as I would hope – her next two shows in Dublin are sold out and have been for some time, and her statement about the Grand Canal Theatre claims already has a number comments from those who believe that she is being unfairly targeted, or that the people of Ireland are giving Sally a hard time.

Sally says “People wonder “where am I getting it from” and for many they would only ever understand if t could be explained scientifically [sic]” and I think this may be the most accurate prediction that she has made in some time. While I don’t wonder where she’s getting it (because I have a pretty good idea about the sources), I’m not at all sorry to say that, unless Sally can prove that it works, and how it works, scientifically, I’ll continue believing that it doesn’t at all.

Yours in spirit…


Current Affairs Religion

Slings and Arrows: Confessions of an Atheist

It’s a rough time to be a Catholic priest. Everywhere you go, people are doing unreasonable things like expecting you to obey the law, take responsibility for crimes you’ve committed or helped to conceal, and respect those who don’t believe in organised religion or a god. Truly, the church has been “rocked by the barbs of a secular culture”. It’s gotten so bad, that we may never see another papal visit. Oh, and I suppose there might have been some small indiscretions by a small minority of priests too, but let us focus on the real problem: atheists.

The Raphoe report, the result of an investigation by the National Board for Safeguarding Children in the Catholic Church into allegations of clerical child sex abuse made to the diocese from 1975 up t0 2011, is expected to be published later this month. This report will add to the growing scandal fuelled by the Ryan and Murphy reports, the Cloyne report, and other articles and allegations made against the Church which appear to make the aforementioned national board a necessity. These abuses, and the depth to which they were covered up, have rocked the Church to its foundations, and since the publication of the first report, public opinion has turned against the Church in a way that we have not previously seen. People may still believe in god, but such is the volume of people leaving the Church that they’ve even taken away the ability to defect. I can’t help but wonder if there will come a point when priests such as Bishop Boyce and Pastor Stahl realise that the decay they see has come from within, and stop looking to place the blame for this loss of popularity squarely at the feet of atheists and secular society.

Pastor Stahl wants to protect his community from the atheists who are on a par with all sorts of unsavoury characters. The full text of Pastor Stahl’s blog has been reproduced on the Pharyngula site, and though I can provide you with a link to Stahl’s blog, I can’t promise that you’ll be able to read it, as that is a privilege afforded only to invited guests. To summarise, Stahl wants a registry of “known athiests” so that a good and god-fearing christian can look up atheists in their home town and make sure that they aren’t influenced untowardly by the close association that atheists have with satan. The irony of proposing a connection between atheists and satan is obviously lost on Stahl, but perhaps more worryingly than the comparison with an imaginary being is the comparison and implied link between atheism and paedophiles and sex offenders.

Brothers and Sisters , I have been seriously considering forming a ( Christian ) grassroots type of organization to be named “The Christian National Registry of Atheists” or something similar . I mean , think about it . There are already National Registrys for convicted sex offenders , ex-convicts , terrorist cells , hate groups like the KKK , skinheads , radical Islamists , etc..


Now , many (especially the atheists ) , may ask “Why do this , what’s the purpose ?” Duhhh , Mr. Atheist , for the same purpose many States put the names and photos of convicted sex offenders and other ex-felons on the I-Net – to INFORM the public !


Or perhaps they are radical atheists , whose hearts are as hard as Pharaoh’s , in that case , if they are business owners , we would encourage all our Christian friends , as well as the various churches and their congregations NOTto patronize them as we would only be “feeding” Satan .

Frankly , I don’t see why anyone would oppose this idea – including the atheists themselves ( unless of course , they’re actually ashamed of their atheist religion , and would prefer to stay in the ‘closet.’ ) .

Oh dear. This implied connection is not just irritating and, frankly, offensive, but it’s also a laughable example of someone who cannot see the speck in his brother’s eye because of the plank in his own. Given the proliferation of allegations of child sexual abuse within the church, it seems foolish to suggest that only atheists might engage in such behaviour, and that only atheists might damage the innocent children. As to opposition of the idea, well, in a society such as the one we live in, it is not always a popular thing to declare that you do not believe in god. While I have no particular problem in doing so myself, I am also aware that employment law in Ireland holds specific provision for an employee to be fired from an educational or medical institution on the basis of their religion. In a country where you cannot be discriminated against because of your gender, age, race, etc., you can still, legally, be discriminated against for your religion, or lack thereof. Until these provisions are removed, I can understand why people would feel it best to not appear, name a photo, on a public registry of people who think that god is nonsense. It would be fair to say that Stahl is an extreme example of clerical overreaction, and as he is unlikely to be able to create such a registry, I feel we have little to fear. As it has been some time since his original post, and the list has yet to materialise, I suspect that it never will. However, while Stahl is an extreme example, there are others, much closer to home, who also seem eager to look outwards and point fingers when examining the declining popularity of the church.

Bishop Boyce, who will soon be publishing his own report into clerical sex abuse, seems equally eager to apportion blame where it is not due. While his comments briefly acknowledged the fact that clerical sex abuse was a problem, he was quick to remind us not to ” worry and fret [as this] makes the anguish fester within us. We do not deny them but rather take them as our share in Christ’s redeeming sufferings.” While those who suffered at the hands of the abusers are still, in some cases, fighting for that abuse to be acknowledged, we may all be relieved to learn that the priests, too, are suffering because the ramifications for covering up the abuse for so many years are akin to the suffering of christ, and while it may seem trivial, it will ultimately bring them closer to christ the redeemer, and the peace and happiness they so richly deserve. Quite.

I suspect that the reason people are turning away from the church is not down to the influence of secular society or demonic atheists, but because they have become tired of hearing about abuse stories, and tired of the cover-up culture that has, sadly, become synonymous with the church in Ireland (and abroad). Even as evidence of more wrong-doing is uncovered, some within the church continue to make excuses – Monsignor O’Callaghan, of the Cloyne diocese, maintains that the abusers should not be held to account because many of them are now old and ill (though, somewhat hilariously, he has been told to shut up and stop helping by his former peers), and at the suggestion that the seal of confession should be broken where the confession concerns child abuse, Cardinal Brady was quick to claim it as a treasured right, and mark the debate as one of religious freedom and not law:

Freedom to participate in worship and to enjoy the long-established rites of the church is so fundamental that any intrusion upon it is a challenge to the very basis of a free society.”

“For example, the inviolability of the seal of confession is so fundamental to the very nature of the sacrament that any proposal that undermines that inviolability is a challenge to the right of every Catholic to freedom of religion and conscience.”

Brady is not alone in this opinion, and several priests and religious people have come out in support of this position, some stating that they would rather go to jail than break the seal of confession. By dressing this up as a religious rights issue, it is easy to avoid the reason for the debate in the first place – no one is saying that religious freedom should be suppressed, but child abuse is not a fundamental part of the catholic religious dogma, and covering it up is not a religious issue, it’s a legal one. The laws of the country are there to be obeyed by everyone, and that means that when a priest confesses to child abuse, more than 1500 times, it is not ok to conceal that fact simply because you said a prayer afterwards, or because he told you while you both sat in a special box.

There are so many examples like this that it would be impossible to link to them or discuss them all. It is all behaviour which speaks to a lack of maturity and an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s own actions and I believe that it is this, and not the mere existence of atheists, which has fundamentally damaged the church and encouraged believers to turn away. For as long as priests continue to make excuses, conceal abuses, and blame problems on external influences, the decaying heart of the church will continue to fester, and people will continue to leave. It should be clear to those involved that people are not interested in hearing the justifications of desperate men and women, and that “it was a long time ago” or “he’s very sick now” are not considered valid excuses. It should be clear that caveat-filled apologies are not sufficient to restore the faith of the abused and their communities. It should be clear that it is time for genuine repentance, and genuine change. It is time to stop focusing on the outside, and look to the problems within. It is time, quite literally, to practice that which you preach.

Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye. Matthew 7:5, King James Bible


Current Affairs Science

Who’s afraid of the big bad wolf?

Boiron sue completely innocent blogger because he dared to tell the truth about homoeopathy!!!!!11!!11! Can it possibly be true? Well, no, not exactly, and one thing this case will serve to demonstrate well is the fact that you can’t say much without facts, and that it’s easy to lose sight of them in all of the fuss. To any who don’t know what I’m talking about, here is a summary:

  • Blogger Samuele Riva posted an article about homoeopathy, including a picture of a particular product made by Boiron
  • Boiron sent a letter (in Italian) to the internet provider in question demanding the removal of the article, etc. (Several translations of the letter appeared to show Boiron taking exception to a number of points in the blog.)

Already, comparisons between this case, and that of BCA vs. Singh are being bandied about, and the picture of Samuele Riva as David to Boiron’s Goliath is forming rapidly, but I think that the whole situation deserves further scrutiny before Riva is painted as a hero of modern science. As the letter is originally in Italian, some of the translations have been a little shaky (several machine translations have been doing the rounds), and as the legal wording is likely to be quite important in such a case, it’s difficult to understand the spirit of the letter without being able to read it, fluently, in its original Italian (and in the context of Italian law). As I can do neither, I can only look to the translations, as others have been doing.

A selection of the points Boiron seem to be complaining about are as follows:

  • The unauthorised inclusion of a picture of their product
  • The caption associated with the picture (the total nothing that according to Boiron is the cure for influenza… diluted 200C does not contain any molecule of active ingredient!)
  • A further article, including a picture, and caption associated with the picture (Seriously damages the intelligence (of the person buying it))

The letter also contains some other points, such as demands for removal of internet services, denying Riva’s access to his blog, etc. All in all, it’s the kind of letter that I’m sure anyone would be intimidated to receive, and I have little doubt that this was the intention, and while I recognise that Riva has a right to state his opinion, there are things he could have done differently that may have prevented this letter arriving in the first place.

As unpalatable as it may be, the simple fact of the matter is that people tend to be rather lax about copyright on the internet. We take images from websites without crediting them or asking the owner, and often use them repeatedly without asking the owner. This is as wrong as it would be to copy a chapter from a book and claim it as your own. Copyright law means that you cannot just take the first image you find and use it with impunity – if that image belongs to someone else, and you haven’t asked their permission to use it, and they haven’t stated that it’s there for the taking, then you are breaking the law by using it. In this respect, Boiron do have the right to request that their image be removed, as I suspect they were not asked for permission to use it, and were certainly unlikely to give permission given the context in which it would be placed.

The next major point is to do with the caption of the image – “the total nothing that according to Boiron is the cure for influenza… diluted 200C does not contain any molecule of active ingredient!” We know that one part of this sentence is fact – a 200C dilution can not include a single molecule of the active ingredient. This has been tested and proven repeatedly, and it is an established fact. In this respect, Boiron really have no complaint, though I would welcome the situation in which they were legally obliged to provide proof that this statement was untrue, should it arise. The first part of the sentence, though, is a bit more tricky. The author states that Boiron say Oscillococcinum is the cure for influenza, and if this were true, it would be both laughable and sad. A thorough scouring of their promotional media, however, has failed to turn up a single instance of Boiron stating that Oscillococcinum is a cure for influenza – the strongest claim they make is that is is used “to reduce the duration and severity of flu-like symptoms”. They don’t claim to cure the flu, and it’s quite likely that this is a conscious decision made as a result of legal advice given to them – quite simply, they’re not stupid, and they haven’t come to be the largest manufacturer of homoeopathic products in the world without learning a thing or two. Whether or not their employees believe in the efficacy of the product, their literature is carefully crafted to avoid the mention of an outright cure, and instead employs the same terminology as often found advertising other products with questionable scientific background (e.g. may help to improve x, etc.). By putting words in their mouth, Riva left himself open to criticism and sanctions – to say that they claim it’s a flu cure is, factually speaking, untrue.

The last point I’ve highlighted refers to another use of a product picture, and the caption accompanying it – Seriously damages the intelligence (of the person buying it). This is a comment which, I believe, falls into a bit of a gray area. While I make absolutely no pretence at being a lawyer, I’d imagine that Boiron will argue that this is a serious slight against their product and a claim about a side-effect which doesn’t exist. In this, and only this, respect, this is similar to BCA vs. Singh, because it can possibly be argued that this is use of opinion, etc. on the part of Riva. For a better discussion of where this particular argument may go, I suggest you look up the various rulings for the BCA/Singh case, as they explain it far better than I could.

Let me be absolutely clear – I don’t like what Boiron are doing, and I think it is a disproportionate response, but to cast them as the big bad wolf without any consideration for the blog itself is neither rational, nor critical, nor sensible. Libel laws are, in many countries, downright punishing, and sadly, open to abuse, but here’s the rub – if we want the law to change, to better protect bloggers and authors and anyone else who wishes to share an opinion, then we also have to play nice with the existing laws. Direct criticism of a company or their product is a difficult thing to do, and there is a fine, often poorly defined, line between valid criticism and outright libel. You can be critical of a company or product if you have evidence to back up that criticism, but you cannot invent evidence to support a criticism. You can share your opinion of a product or company, but you can’t put words in their mouth. In short, you can’t libel a company simply because you don’t believe in their product, and you can’t use their copyrighted imagery to help you libel them. I have sympathy for the position that Riva now finds himself in, but I also hope that others take this as a cautionary tale and learn from the mistakes that were made. Check your facts, and then check them again; don’t make claims that you do not have evidence to support, and above all, write responsibly.


Edit: This blog post also appears on The 21st Floor.

Current Affairs

Keep Calm and Carry On

“The car’s on fire!”

“Which car?”

“Your car!”

It’s almost 4am, and this is how I have woken up. Without even thinking, I run downstairs and start to fill something, anything, with water. I sprint to the front door and throw it open, realising as the handle burns my fingers, and the heat singes my face, that the fireball I’m looking at is beyond this tiny bit of water I’ve brought. A moment later, it hits me. The smell is everywhere; burning plastic, petrol. The noise is deafening. There are loud bangs, little explosions, the repeated beeping of a car horn. I rush backwards and close the door, and then I’m suddenly upstairs again. As I’m standing, watching the fireball engulf our front garden, the window cracks with the heat, and I call the fire brigade again, crying, and begging for them to come before it’s too late. I can see neighbours and friends outside on the street calling the emergency services, and shouting at us to stay back from the windows. It’s almost 4am, and my dad’s car, parked just inches from our front door, has been set on fire.

Our home, and the car burning white hot. Though you can't see, I'm watching from the upstairs window.

A few months ago, I learned what it feels like to be afraid in your own home, to be afraid to close your eyes and go to sleep in case something happens, to jump at every noise. A few months ago, we were the victims of an arson attack which destroyed my dad’s car and damaged the front of our home. Every window in our house had to be replaced, as they cracked and buckled under the heat. The driveway was ruined, and needed to be dug up and resurfaced. The garden, my mum’s pride and joy, was singed and blackened, and the grass and flowers died. Our front door melted, and had we not opted for toughened glass in the porch, we suspect it would have collapsed entirely. Our beautiful wooden floor in our hallway was damaged and stained – water leaked in when the firemen sprayed the house, and soot and debris were walked into the grain when they came in afterwards. We are lucky – the noise of the tyres and other car parts exploding woke us up, and we are all safe. The damage to the house has now been repaired, the damage to our sense of self and safety has taken a little longer. When someone targets your home, it’s more than just physical damage that needs to be repaired. Your home is somewhere you should be able to feel safe, and when something like this happens, you don’t feel safe any more. Your home has been violated, and for those who’ve set the blaze, it’s just another night.

It is because of this recent experience that I feel so keenly for those in the UK who also don’t feel safe in their own homes, as people riot, damaging and destroying property with reckless abandon. The news has been dominated by stories of rioters damaging shops and homes, looting, and setting cars, buses, and premises ablaze without any regard for the people they might hurt. In some cases, rioters have shown what can only be described as callous disregard and contempt for those whom they’ve injured, terrorised, and stolen from.

Terrorised might seem like a strong word to use, but I believe that it accurately describes what is happening at the moment – innocent people are being terrorised by a few opportunists who have used the death of a young man as an excuse for violence and thuggery. People are afraid to leave their homes, afraid to be out on the streets, and afraid of what might happen. These riots are not political protests. They are not motivated by systematic oppression of the people of the UK. They are not comparable to events in Syria, or Egypt. They are far removed from the original, peaceful march intended to highlight a desire for an inquiry into the death of Mark Duggan.

By 6.30am, the burnt out husk of my dad’s car had been removed from our driveway, and we were left to sit with our own thoughts. At 9am, friends, family, and neighbours began to show up at our front door, brushes and hoses in hand, ready to help us clean up and make sense of what had happened. No one asked them to come, but they came, because an attack on one member of our community is an attack on all of us. We swept, hosed, and cleaned as best we could, some neighbours prepared lunch for us, and the shock of the night gradually settled. In the UK, communities are rallying around to show that they, too, will not be bullied. Heartening images show people willing to give up their time to clean up a mess that they had no part in creating, to restore their community, even though a few choose to destroy it. Though some media outlets chose to condemn modern technology, and the part it has played in the riots, people have shown the power of positive online campaigns, organising riot clean up groups, and encouraging people to aid those who are disabled, or may need extra help and support dealing with the riots or staying safe.

Efforts to identify those involved in the looting and destruction are ongoing, and I encourage you to do what you can to help (though I hasten to point out that vigilante justice is not the goal, and should absolutely not be encouraged). If you know someone who is involved in the looting, now is not the time to stay silent. Those involved should be identified, and reported to the police, because no one should be too scared to go to sleep tonight.

Current Affairs Science

Lava bacteria and germy soap pumps?

Crossposted from The 21st Floor:

I don’t often watch adverts, but every now and again, I’ll see one that annoys me so much that I actively seek it out. The culprit this time: Dettol, and their two recent adverts for for Complete Clean, and their “No Touch” handwash system.

I’d like to first address Complete Clean, as, to be honest, it’s Complete Rubbish. It opens with a bold declaration – “Fact: some bacteria are almost indestructible. They can even survive in lava”. Well, this is undeniably true. A number of organisms have been discovered living (and thriving) in temperatures previously thought to be hostile to all life; they are known as hyperthermophiles. They were first discovered in hot springs in Yellowstone National Park (in 1969), and since then, have been found in (and on) several other environments, such as deep sea hydrothermal vents. Organisms in this class have been known to survive temperatures of up to 130 degrees Celsius, and some have even been able to reproduce in environments heated to 122 degrees Celcius (e.g. Methanopyrus kandleri). This statement is made over what appears to be a close-up of some bubbling lava, but what is then revealed to actually be a spill on a stove-top, and it’s at this point that Dettol begin to engage in something I like to call not-quite-false advertising –  “Fact: some bacteria are almost indestructible. They can even survive in lava, so think how easily the bacteria in your kitchen could survive.” Holy nonsense! I’d better run out and buy some cleaning products right now to protect my loved ones and children! Or, maybe I could just turn off my stove, since hyperthermophiles thrive in hot environments, such as those of 60 degrees Celcius and above, so unless I’m running my stove constantly, and in the vicinity of a hot spring, I’m probably ok.

There are numerous laws in place to prevent companies from lying when advertising their products, so instead, several companies seem to be resorting to this not-quite-lying. Granted, it’s true that there are bacteria that can survive in lava. And it’s also true that bacteria can survive in my kitchen. To link the two facts, however, while not technically lying,  is about as close to lying as you can get. As I’m unlikely to start cooking with lava any time soon, the likelyhood of my kitchen becoming infested with hyperthermophiles is extremely low (M. kandleri can only survive in anaerobic conditions, for example!), and even if it were to become infested with them, there’s no proof that they are more harmful than any other organism which I might find in my kitchen. The fact that hyperthermophiles exist has no impact on the existence of common kitchen bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, and other such organisms, particularly since most of these organisms could not co-exist in the same environment (Salmonella being unable to survive after an hour at 55 degrees C, for example). In truth, linking the two makes as much sense as declaring that “Black bears enjoy eating honey; think of the damage bee stings could do to your children!” It’s not technically false advertising, but it is blatantly manipulative, and at its heart, dishonest.

I might be temped to call this campaign a fluke, or a one-off, if I hadn’t then seen the numerous advertisements for the new “no touch” hand washing system, which will enable your adorable little darlings to handle all sorts of scary things like frogs and normal household waste, and then wash their hands, all without having to touch a “germy soap pump”. Now, before I even begin to examine the science behind this silliness, I can’t help but point out the most obvious flaw in this advertisement – they are touching the germy soap pump immediately prior to washing their hands. It wouldn’t matter if the germy soap pump was liberally coated in raw chicken fillets and puppy excrement, because immediately after touching it, they will be removing any potential contamination by washing their hands. This, surely, is a sensible enough reason for most to leave this expensive and nonsensical product on the shelf. If not, we’ll examine some of the facts they present as part of the advertisement.

“Fact: Your soap pump can harbour hundreds of bacteria”. Well, once again, that’s undeniably true. A soap pump, like any surface, may harbour bacteria if the conditions are right. Those bacteria are most likely to be kitchen and bathroom bacteria (since these are the places where one is likely to place a soap pump), and as such, are likely to include our old reliable Salmonella and E. coli, as well as some new favourites such as Shigella and Cholera. Who would want to touch a soap pump laden with such disease causing bacteria? Well, someone about to wash their hands, since hand washing has been shown to effectively curb the spread of all of the above conditions by effectively removing the bacteria from the hands, and thus preventing transmission. A soap pump may harbour bacteria, but so may any number of surfaces in a typical house. Basic hygiene practices will effectively prevent infection by those bacteria, so long as, after you touch the “germy soap pump”, you use the soap you’ve pumped to wash your hands. At the end of the ad, we’re treated to a scene where a mother kisses a child’s (hopefully clean) hand – don’t they know how dangerous “germy mom mouth” is?!

Humans are, for the most part, pretty robust. We have reasonably effective immune systems which, over time, build up immunity to any number of common illnesses – this is why vaccinations are effective, and it is why we have been able to almost eradicate some diseases altogether; it is why being exposed to common bacteria in childhood is important. By the time we enter adulthood, we have immunity to most common bacteria, and knowledge of the hygiene practices that will keep us safe from the rest, but companies like Dettol are changing that. There is increasing evidence that children who are living in over-sterilised environments are missing the opportunity to develop these basic immunities through a lack of exposure to the bacteria in question, and this may be linked to a rise in a number of autoimmune diseases. Of course you should wash your hands after preparing raw chicken, but if your child is crawling on the floor, there’s probably no need to sterilise the entire surface for fear of lava bacteria. Go on, live dangerously – touch the germy soap pump.