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).