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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.

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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…

 

Categories
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..

<snip>

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 !

<snip>

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