Pan Pharmaceuticals – if it ducks like a quack (5/7/2003)
The saga of Australia's largest contract packager of alternative medicines continues, but there have been no reported cases of people suffering from deficiencies of snake oil since the factory that threw these things together from a distance was closed down. I have written several pieces about Pan here, and a longer article pulling it all together was published in the June 2003 edition of the Skeptic, the journal of the Australian Skeptics. You can read the article here. The editor of this fine publication must have been short of material for this issue, because a speech that I gave earlier this year about medical quackery was also included in the June 2003 edition. You can read an edited version of the presentation here.
The Magical Mystery Museum (5/7/2003)
On the equinox in March, a group of friends and I went to a celebration of occultism and nonsense held at a local historical museum. We wondered what business it was of a museum to promote superstition, and we were rebuffed when we asked permission to have a stall promoting rationality. I wrote about the experience here at the time, and a longer article was published in the July 2003 edition of the magazine Australasian Science. My article is not on the magazine web site (they don't put up the entire content each month – my work appeared as the Naked Skeptic column for July), but you can read it here.
Censorship – bad or badder? (5/7/2003)
Australia has an official system of classification of films, videos, computer games, DVDs and television programs. None of these items can be supplied to the public without an official classification based on criteria related to level of violence, depiction of sexual acts, promotion of criminal activity, and so on. Generally there is little controversy about the classification process, although there might be some occasional disputes over where the boundaries of civilised behaviour might lie. Concessions are made under certain circumstances, and probably the most well-known of these is that a special classification can be requested for films to be displayed only at film festivals. In these cases the rules can be relaxed because the audiences are supposed to be somehow more sophisticated. Two controversies have come up in the last week over films and film festivals. One is over a film that was not granted classification but people want to show it anyway, and the other is over a film that has been granted classification but people want to stop it being shown.
The first case is over a film called "Ken Park". This was intended for showing at the Sydney film festival but for some reason it was submitted for classification for general release, not specifically for display at the festival. It was deemed not suitable for a general audience and refused a classification, making it illegal to show it in Australia. As festival classification had not been sought, how it would have fared in those circumstances is open to speculation but irrelevant. The film depicts the lives of some young adolescents and reportedly contains scenes of actual, not simulated, sexual intercourse, fellatio (as a form of incest) and masturbation. To make everything legal, the actors playing the roles are all over eighteen years of age but have been selected on the basis that they look much younger. While this description might remind some people of pornography it is apparently really art. I haven't seen the film, but I doubt that civilisation would collapse if people watched it. I also doubt that there will be any noticeable effect if people are prevented from watching it. In any case, anyone who wants to see this sort of thing just has to get out a credit card and wait for the next spam message with the word "lolita" in the title.
The second case is much more clear cut. The Melbourne festival has received approval to show a film about the Holocaust denier David Irving. Objections are being raised on the basis that Irving's words are racist and offensive. So what? The best way to counter the nonsense promulgated by Irving and his ilk is to shine a bright light on it. There is no valid comparison between restricting people's rights to watch children masturbating and restricting the rights of free speech. The protestors who want to arrange public showings of Ken Park would be performing a more useful service to society if they showed the Irving film instead and invited a claque to sit in the audience and laugh at it. The people who want to ban Irving's words would do us all a favour if they would just rent some porn videos instead and stay home and watch them.
Got nothing to say – get Bolen to say it (5/7/2003)
It must be time for another quack to appear in court, which means it is time to start defaming the witnesses again. (This is often the only defence that charlatans have.) I sense that it is that time again because the surface of the swamp has started to wobble and bubbles of gas with the stench of rotting carcasses are arising from the depths and breaking through the slime. Everyone's favourite public relations man, Tim Bolen, is again spouting forth drivel, defamation and lies. You can see a couple of recent examples of his newsletters to "millions of health freedom fighters" plus a letter from Bolen to someone who didn't want to be on his mailing list on the Tim O'Ranter page. This page was created as a memorial to Bolen's brain and conscience, both of which have long departed from this world. (Memo to Tim Bolen – if you don't like what I say, sue me. You will have as much success as you did last time.)
Speaking of lunatics and law suits … (5/7/2003)
I received a telephone call last week from someone who thinks that by calling his web site "awesome" I am somehow infringing his right to freedom of religion. When he first started worrying about this, he said that I was violating Section 116 of the Australian Constitution. That complete section states: "The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth". As I am not the Commonwealth and neither make laws nor employ people in positions of public trust, I completely fail to see how this can apply to me, except in the mind of a madman.
The name of this person used to be Dolf Boek, and you can see his web site here, where he sets out his explanation of how God and the universe work. Or something. I originally commented on his site in Quintessence of the Loon, where I said:
The page that first caught my eye on this site had the unusual title "Is Israel True to its Jewishness? A Parable on the Lost Password as the Name of God", but that was just the start of a magical journey through a philosophical and theological masterpiece. You can only imagine the flash of insight I had into the workings of time when I read "The Pythagorean Quaternary 1+2+3+4 = 10 (and its corresponding artificial Quaternary 1+2+3+2 = 8) is afteral a canon of transposition (metathesis) which through the symbollical association of numbers, effects a philosophical change upon the obligation of Sabbath commandment by substituting an occulted metaphysical architecture which are imposed upon the 10 (Words) Commandments as the canon within Scripture". Have you ever seen such a concise synthesis of religion, history, mathematics and language? Awesome!
This displeased Mr Boek (as he was then called), and you can see his objections here, including an actual letter from an actual lawyer. Apart from the occasional mention of me in newsgroup messages, I heard nothing from him since then until the telephone call last week. He has now called again and told me that the wheels are in motion and I will be hearing from his lawyers. He also rang the CEO of the hosting ISP for this site and told him the bad news, including the fact that I am also going to be sued for linking to the publicly available records of the Victorian Civil and Administration Tribunal, apparently on the basis that my referring to a court case is a breach of his privacy. The strange thing is that he wouldn't tell the CEO his name, as apparently it was changed from "Dolf Boek" last week and he doesn't want to tell anyone what it is now.
I have two things to say to the person formerly known as Dolf Boek. Firstly, if you are planning to follow the example set by the performer formerly known as the performer formerly known as Prince and adopt just a symbol for a name, you should look out for the work of Hermann Zapf who designed an excellent symbol font for Lynotype. I am sure that there will be something suitable for you in the appropriately named "Dingbats" font. Secondly, if you think that linking to your web site and calling it "awesome" and "a theological masterpiece" is somehow belittling the brilliance of your intellectual discoveries and that linking to the public record of an occasion when you lost in court is an invasion of privacy, then you will be very excited about what happens if you sue me. If you go ahead, I promise to notify every television station, radio station and print outlet in Australia that I can reach of your theory as expressed on your web site and of the fact that you lost badly in the VCAT hearing. I will also point out to them your hypocrisy, in that you expect the right of freedom to say whatever you like on your web site but will not extend that courtesy to me. I also promise to publicly ridicule you at every opportunity, although the approximately 9,700 Usenet messages from you archived in Google Groups indicate that you are perfectly capable of doing this yourself.
Oh, and one more thing related to Tim Bolen (5/7/2003)
One of Bolen's acolytes who posts everything he says to Usenet newsgroups has written a review of my Green Light site. This person is famous for countering any comments about Bolen's trash by completely snipping all critical comments and just repeating the complete text of Bolen's lies. Strangely, she has accused me several times of writing like Tim Bolen. Her saying this is probably an actionable defamation, although there is the possibility that it is a complement as she seems to think that Bolen's rantings are suffused with some sort of quintessential truth. The review of the Green Light is notable for the many quotes which are used as evidence that the site is "sick" but which do not actually come from that site. I have come to expect much dishonesty from the supporters of quackery, but this is a priceless example of sophistry and deceit that deserves to be preserved for ever.
Shaken Baby Syndrome disgust (12/7/2003)
One day the makers of ipecac and other emetics will have to do something about the competition from the anti-vaccination liars. Why should anyone pay for some medicine when all they have to do to induce vomiting is to read something written by these people. Someone wrote to an anti-vaccination mailing list this week asking for help in setting up a scheme to discredit witnesses who appear for the prosecution in court cases where people are charged with shaking babies to death. She was a bit worried that there might be some real child-killers amongst her collection of supporters. Here are two paragraphs from responses by Bronwyn Hancock, an Australian vaccination opponent:
In relation to your concern over the possibility of including parents who are guilty, it is important to be aware that evidence so far indicates that NO-ONE is guilty of shaken baby syndrome. Not only is there is no evidence to date that shaking a baby will cause those injuries, but researchers have tried to reproduce the so-called "indicative" injuries in monkeys by shaking them WITHOUT SUCCESS. So don't be taken in by ANY of their propoganda.
Babies seem to be designed to be able to take lots of movements – perhaps this is in part nature's design because they cannot protect themselves from them. How many times have babies fallen off tables, cried for a little while and then been right as rain as if nothing had ever happened? Babies would also bob up and down a lot getting carried by running mothers.
This last comment is particularly interesting, as the most recent Shaken Baby Syndrome case in Australia ended in acquittal because the defence said that the blood in the eyes and the two subdural hematomas were the result of the child tripping over the day before he died. So a fall can cause the damage, or vaccines can cause the damage, but shaking can't. Actually, that paragraph supports what I have been saying for some time, which is that the injuries seen in these murdered babies are far too severe to have been caused by normal handling. That is why these deaths are suspicious, and why the killers usually end up in prison.
I have a video made by and featuring Bronwyn Hancock, and it is one of the most revolting things I have ever seen in my life. It consists of a parade of liars, with each seeming to want to outdo the others in hypocrisy, venality and deceit. Hancock's use of the word "propoganda" (sic) might cause some to suggest that her video would not look out of place if listed among the works of Leni Riefenstahl, although Riefenstahl would certainly not have wanted her name associated with anything like this. Her objections would not have been only on technical grounds (her ability as a director was obviously infinitely greater than whoever threw this piece of anti-vaccination garbage together), but because her reputation had already suffered enough damage from the apparent support she gave to evil in Triumph of the Will.
Patenting the genome (12/7/2003)
It was long thought that about 95% of human genetic material was what is called "non-coding" or "junk" DNA. It was assumed to have no purpose, although it does serve the function of providing a larger target for genetic mutations, thus reducing the chance that any single, random point mutation in the genome will affect useful genes. A few years ago, an Australian doctor, Dr Malcolm Simons, discovered recurring and meaningful sequences in the junk DNA which suggested that while it doesn't code for the essentials of life, it may play a part in how the 5% of coding DNA goes about its work. Dr Simons joined up with an entrepreneur and they patented junk DNA, not just for humans but for all organisms. Be aware that they did not patent what it does, or what it can't do, or what can be done with it, or any real discovery about it. They patented the fact that it existed, and started asking for royalties. Instead of a double helix structure, DNA had been redefined as intertwined dollar signs.
The normal convention in cases like this is for patent holders to request and receive royalties flowing from the commercial exploitation of their intellectual property. This case is different, as the patent owners do not just pursue anyone making, for example, drugs based on junk DNA, but go after anyone doing research. As far as I can tell, the company does no biomedical research of its own but instead employs lawyers to comb through medical and scientific journals in a hunt for anyone doing research involving junk DNA. Upon finding any evidence, the researchers are then served with a demand for money. The company likes to point out that these demands are only for small amounts, and even say that the royalties do not cover the costs of collection. What these licences do provide, however, is precedent for demanding significant royalties should any of the research eventually be commercialised. If the right judge can be found, it could even be possible for royalties to be demanded for commercialisation of research which had once involved junk DNA but did not exploit it in the marketed product or service.
Dr Simons will not profit from this in any way. He no longer has any involvement, financial or otherwise, with the company owning the patents (although the reasons for the divorce seem to be private) and is now broke, while the company rakes in millions of dollars from his discovery. The real tragedy is that he is in the late stages of a form of cancer, multiple myeloma, for which there is no cure. Ironically, the real hope for a cure for this disease is in research into junk DNA, the very research which is inhibited and may never even be started because of the greed of people enforcing patents over something which they did not invent, which they cannot even describe precisely, and which is an integral part of every human on the planet.
(You can read more about this story here.)
[As an aside, the picture above is in what is called "GIF" format, which is a method of compressing data. In 1994, the computer company Unisys noticed that there was a world wide web that was growing in popularity and that lots of people were using GIF files and that Unisys held a 1985 patent on the mathematical function (called Lempel-Ziv-Welch compression) on which GIF was based. Unisys then decided to start collecting licence fees from all sorts of people. They spent years being exposed to ridicule and probably never received enough royalties to cover the real cost of enforcement and the intangible costs of the public relations disaster. The US patent expired in June 2003.]
Speaking of intellectual property … (12/7/2003)
The ludicrous claim that I was infringing the trademark rights of multi-level marketer Nutrition for Life has been listed at the Chilling Effects Clearinghouse. You can see the full details here.
But wait, there's more … (19/7/2003)
I had to let this one through the spam filter. The spammer who sent me the following email must be using software that looks for the names of other pyramid schemes, probably on the assumption that if you are in one of them you are either gullible enough or greedy enough or unprincipled enough to join another one. Note the subject of the email! Nobel Prize? Right!
Date: Wed, 16 Jul 2003 04:12:49 -0500
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Subject: Nutrition for Life. . . . . ogoj
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"We ask for miracles in regard to the Supreme Court" (19/7/2003)
It must be difficult being God, as even God must be occasionally tempted to strike down dead some of the people who claim to speak for Him. A recent example of this was when the preacher and all-round gay-basher and fool Pat Robertson asked the followers of his television show (it could hardly be called a church) to pray for a miracle. In fact he wanted them to pray for three miracles. The miracles he wanted were to have sufficient harm come to three judges of the US Supreme Court that they would be forced off the bench. As Justices of the Court can only be removed in exceptional circumstances (no judge has ever been impeached or dismissed) and they can chose to stay there for life if they want to, Robertson could only have been asking God to do one of two things – retrospectively cause one or more of the three people he wants gone to commit some offence which would make that particular judge resign as a matter of conscience, or cause severe illness or death either to the judges themselves or to their loved ones.
Would you want to believe in the sort of God who could even be imagined as answering prayers like these? It makes a mockery of any religion that anyone claiming any measure of authority could even suggest it. As I said when I first wrote about the fake faith-healer Benny Hinn, preachers like this are evidence that there is no God, because any decent God would refuse to tolerate these assaults on His good name and would take action to stop it.
And it came to pass after these things … (19/7/2003)
Britain, Australia and the United States have a lot in common. All three countries speak a variety of English, all have a form of representative democracy where the citizenry might not universally like the government in power at any particular time but everyone is usually prepared to wait until the next election to do anything about it, all recognise that the military power is subservient to the civil power, all recognise to a degree the separation of powers between the legislature, the executive of government, and the judiciary. In the matter of the legal systems, all share a common heritage descended from Magna Carta of 1215. In particular, I would like to mention two articles from that document:
39. No freemen shall be taken or imprisoned or disseised or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor will we go upon him nor send upon him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.
40. To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay, right or justice
These two articles are often regarded as the foundation of the principles, respectively, of trial by jury and habeas corpus (the right to be brought to trial). Commitment to these principles has come into question lately in the matter of the supposed terrorist suspects imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. It was announced recently that a few of the people who have been imprisoned there for the last year and a half would be brought to trial soon. Coincidentally, it was revealed that work on an execution facility was proceeding nicely. As the majority of the suspected Taliban or al-Qaeda terrorists held there would be expected to be Afghanis, it seemed strange that the first few selected for military trial (without a jury) would be mainly Australian and British. It wasn't in alphabetical order either, as the Australian chosen, David Hicks, comes later in the alphabet than Mamdouh Habib, the other Australian being held. It would not be racist to point out that "Hicks" is a much more "European" name than "Habib". So, why would the British and Australians go to the head of the queue, with the real possibility of being the first people to try out the new killing room?
Another thing that Australia, Britain and the United States have in common is that they are the three partners in the "coalition of the willing" which fixed up Iraq a few weeks ago. (It has been fixed, hasn't it?) The benefits of this action to Australia and Britain have been a bit hard to identify since then (one benefit Australia looks like getting is the loss of about a billion dollars a year in wheat sales to Iraq), so something needed to be done to get those countries to reaffirm their commitment to the cause. What better way than to go to that other great document that is inextricably linked with the cultures of all three countries – the Bible? Maybe I've been hanging around conspiracy theorists for too long, but testing the two countries by putting them in the position where their citizens were being placed at risk for a principle reminded me very much of the story of Abraham and Isaac in Genesis 22.
People think I'm Benny! (19/7/2003)
Life is becoming surreal! I have become somewhat used to people writing to me complaining about my comments about the slimy faith healer Benny Hinn, but now I have received some emails from people who think either that I am Hinn or that I need to be copied on emails to him. You can see these amazing mistakes here. But just look at these pictures. It's easy to see how someone could become confused.
When censorship goes mad (19/7/2003)
I was at a client's office during the week and I had a few spare minutes while some bulk data was being loaded into a database. Rather than just sit there watching a counter tick over, I took the opportunity to check the appearance of this site. (I do this because it is the only way I can ever see for myself how the site looks with different, screens, browsers, operating systems, etc). You can imagine my surprise to find that The Millenium Project home page was blocked by Deerfield's GateFilter software because it apparently had a 35% chance of containing material of an offensive sexual nature. (Someone has since pointed out that this is probably lower than the percentage of the web as a whole.)
I couldn't think of any reason for this, so I connected through an anonymous proxy (which shows how useless these filters are) to have a look and the best guess I could make was that GateFilter was objecting to some words I had used when commenting about the censorship of the film Ken Park. I went to Deerfield's web forum for dealers (I sell their products) and there were several complaints about GateFilter blocking innocuous sites but letting the ones in the porno spam through, so you can't look at safe stuff but farmyard antics are OK. One priceless example was a site for a British distributor of electronic spare parts and components. Even the Deerfield people were puzzled about why this got a 100% danger rating, and they wrote the rating software! Weird.
This was a filter on an office network. The nature of the business will almost inevitably mean that the company's suppliers and target markets will have innocent words on their sites which will trigger the filter simply because, like all key-word filters, it is incapable of resolving ambiguity. I would imagine that certain pages of the company's own site will be blocked – especially the ones that talk about strips, screws, things that are bare and 18, things that have more inches than other things, and dark places off highways.
Not all offices and businesses have such strange censorship policies, though. At a recent presentation of the software product which underpins my consulting business the prospect became quite apologetic about some shortcuts to her client sites on her Windows desktop. She works for a company which develops software for secure payments for online services where the only identification is likely to be a credit card number and a Hotmail address. Now, what sort of business works like that and only charges a small number of dollars a week for membership? That's right – there was "My Computer" and "Network Neighbourhood" and "Sophie's Slutorama" and "Things with inches" and …. Not that I noticed, of course. Or cared. She assured me it was "strictly legal".
What's new? (19/7/2003)
I don't know how good tarot, palm reading and other thingomancies are for predicting the future (actually, I do) but I do know that there is a form of palm reading which can show you the recent past. The Millenium Project now has a facility which allows you to download the latest front page update so you can read it on your Palm or other handheld device or PDA. You need to get some free software, but like most programs for the Palm and its cousins it's easy to install and configure. You can find instructions here which will help you get started, but after that the process is almost automatic. Whenever you HotSync your Palm you will get the latest news from here.
[This feature was dropped in October 2008 because mobile phone technology had bypassed this method of reading web sites.]
This child was not wanted (19/7/2003)
How do you tell your child that you wish that he had never been born and that he is just a financial burden to you? How do you make sure that he will be regularly reminded of this fact throughout his life? One way is to sue a doctor for performing an operation with a known failure rate because he didn't do a perfect job.
The newspapers and electronic media around my place this week have been full of a story about a woman being awarded a very large sum of money because she had a baby some years after having a sterilisation operation. She informed the surgeon at the time that her right ovary and fallopian tube had been removed in a previous appendectomy operation, so all he had to do was tie off the left tube. The doctor rather incautiously did not check on this while he had her cut open, possibly through a fear of being sued for doing exploratory surgery even a short distance away from the specific place for which he had received authority from the patient (a fear which it now seems would have been well justified). When she fell pregnant a few years later she could have had an abortion (any religious objection to abortion would surely also imply objection to tubal ligation as a means of contraception) but instead she chose to proceed with the pregnancy. Then she heard about lawyers. She is making the usual noises about how she loves her son very much (but not enough to pay for him like the rest of us have to do for our children, planned or not) and how she didn't do it for the money but just to send a message to doctors (so why did she do it at all or why doesn't she give the money to charity?). One result of this incident is that doctors are already talking about refusing to perform elective surgery where there is a risk of failure, because the insurance protection against fatuous claims like this is too expensive.
There was a very nice photograph in the paper showing the mother and her son smiling broadly. She is smiling because she has just won the lottery. He is smiling because he doesn't understand what is going on.
Leviticus. Like the parson's egg, it's good in parts. (26/7/2003)
Anyone who has ever had the pleasure of reading the God Hates Fags site belonging to fire and brimstone gay bashing preacher Fred Phelps will be aware that the Bible has an explicit warning in Leviticus 18:22 which says "Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination". This verse has been quoted often around my part of the world recently because the Uniting Church has, shock, horror, decreed that homosexuality is no longer a barrier to ordination (or whatever it is that the Uniting Church calls becoming a minister).
The Uniting Church was formed a few years ago by a merger of the Methodist, Congregational and Presbyterian Churches (some parishes chose not to unite, although this reluctance seemed to be based on such Earthly criteria as the values of certain parcels of real estate and the income streams from private schools, rather than on theological or doctrinal differences), and is generally considered to be the most progressive of the major Christian sects. It was no surprise to most people that this church would be the first to recognise that society has long allowed this particular love to speak its name. The Church has had women preachers for as long as anyone can remember (and has even had a woman as head of the organisation in Australia), and has generally been second only to the Salvation Army in its work with and compassion for the less fortunate members of society. One of Sydney's first drop in, no-questions-asked refuges for society's dregs was the Wayside Chapel, and I have never heard anyone say a bad word about its founder, Ted Noffs.
It was no surprise that the troglodytes in other sects would come out to protest about the Uniting Church destroying civilisation, but what was surprising was the conservative reaction from within the Church itself. There is talk of schisms and disunitings and rebel parishes breaking away. We have come to expect this sort of thing from the major institutional sects, as witnessed by the recent uproar in the Anglican Church about the possibility of a homosexual bishop, but the Uniting Church was supposed to be more relaxed about change. (As an aside, it is often pointed out that the churches most opposed to homosexual and female clergy are the ones where the clergy wear dresses. Warning! Old, bad joke approaching – If a Catholic priest who is sacked is said to be "defrocked", is a Methodist minister in the same situation just unsuited?)
Many of the objectors quoted the aforementioned verse from Leviticus. The problem with accepting this as an unbreakable commandment is that that same book makes several statements about what is and is not allowed, and there is some confusion over which rules have to be obeyed. Some Christians seem to believe that it is possible to be selective about which rules to keep and which can be broken, but this attitude must undermine the inerrancy of the Bible. Surely it is all correct or none of it is, a problem for any sacred text interpreted in a fundamentalist and absolutist way.
As examples, in Leviticus 20:13, God gets a bit more specific about what should happen to homosexuals when He says: "If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them"; in 20:9 there is an instruction that children who curse their parents must be killed (in Deuteronomy 21:18-21, God goes a bit further and orders the death penalty for children who are just disobedient); in 11:6 we are told not to eat hares because they "cheweth the cud" (??); in 11:10 we are prohibited from eating oysters, prawns, lobsters and calamari; in 11:19 we are told not to eat bats (because they are birds!); in 15:19 we are instructed to quarantine menstruating women; in 19:19 we are told not to wear polyester and cotton blend shirts; in 19:27 men are instructed not to trim their beards; in 19:28 tattoos are prohibited; in 24:16 there are explicit instructions to kill blasphemers (including the method of killing); in 25:45-46 we can find the instructions on how to get and keep slaves; and let's not forget that women are only worth half as much as men (27:3-7). If you don't obey all these laws to the letter God will have some of your children eaten by your enemies (26:16), some eaten by wild animals (26:22), and you will have to eat the rest yourself (26:29). It's just as well that God only meant the parts about homosexuals being bad and was joking about the rest, isn't it?
National Science Week (26/7/2003)
It will be Australia's National Science Week from Saturday August 16 to Sunday August 24. Events are being held all over the country, but two that should not be missed are the Great Australian Science Show in Melbourne over the weekend of the 16th and 17th, and the Australian Skeptics National Convention in Canberra on the following weekend, 22nd to 24th. I will be lurking around the Australian Skeptics display at GASS, and at the Convention I will be part of a panel discussion on medical quackery on Friday night and presenting a paper about the way that conspiracy theories epitomise the symptoms of gullible thinking on the Saturday. If you can get to any of these events, please introduce yourself.
Barking mad anti-vaccination liar (26/7/2003)
A week or two ago I mentioned Australian anti-vaccination liar Bronwyn Hancock and her comments about the impossibility of shaking a baby to death. A few days ago she issued an announcement that something she had written had been published on Joseph Mercola's quackery web site. I read it and it was the usual collection of lies about how there was no evidence of the safety or effectiveness of any vaccines, just evidence of their danger. I wrote to her with a polite question about whether she found children's funerals amusing, and her reply contained the following paragraph:
And please tell ME, because it is very important I know this before I inadvertently mislead anyone else, what research have you studied which has demonstrated that shaking babies CAN cause retinal haemorrhaging and subdural haematomas? Despite a thorough study of medical research on this subject we have found NONE – indeed medical researchers have on the contrary unsuccessfully tried to get that result from shaking monkeys, but we are always open to new discoveries. After all, perhaps those researchers who failed with this had not done the careful study that some parents apparently have done (earning themselves a Bachelors degree in Baby Shaking perhaps?) to develop the special skill of how to shake a baby in the particular way required in order to get those injuries.
So there you have it. Conclusive proof of madness. How would this woman like the tests of shaking babies to be carried out? Would she volunteer her own child to be one of the shaken ones? Does she think that child restraints in cars are useless and save no lives because no tests have ever been done by throwing children at dashboards and windscreens at 100kph to see what harm came to them? Of course, like many lies, there is a kernel of truth in what she suggests. All shaking does not result in fatal or crippling injuries, so parents do not have to be worried that they will harm their children just by the normal rough and tumble of life. But this is even more evidence that the damage seen in critically shaken babies is not accidental and is caused by very violent behaviour. Also, until I receive some evidence in the form of a valid citation I am going to treat the claim that tests with monkeys have shown that it is impossible to produce SBS symptoms by shaking as a lie. I can't find anything in PubMed about this (although I may have been using the wrong search criteria), so until shown otherwise I am prepared to rely on the assumption that someone who lies quite often is quite often telling lies.
|Two out of three ain't good enough (26/7/2003)|
|I was talking about censorship here recently, and another example, this time of voluntary self-censorship, has come up. It would have been hard for anyone with access to any news medium in the last week to have missed the story about the killing of Saddam Hussein's two sons. I don't think that there will be many people mourning these deaths, and the consensus seems to be that a trifecta might have been better because Dad could still be out there somewhere. The censorship issue has arisen over publishing photographs of the bodies. The photographs are certainly available to any news outlet that wants them (although it has been suggested that Donald Rumsfeld's glee at releasing them looked a little hypocritical when you remember his recent outrage at the Iraqis publishing pictures of dead US soldiers), but many have chosen not to display them and there have been discouraging noises coming from politicians and others. The usual reason given is taste, yet some of the most famous and well-known news pictures of the last century were of people either recently dead or actually being killed. Three examples are given at the right of this page.|
I don't think my life will become either richer or poorer depending on whether I see the pictures of the dead Uday and Qusay or not. On balance, however, I will always take the position that it is better to publish (maybe with a warning) than to hide things. Sometimes it is just necessary to know that something is really finished and that it is never coming back. The public deaths of Mussolini and the Ceausescus meant that Italy and Romania could get on with recovery because there was a definite closure point. If half the rumours about atrocities in Iraq are true then the public proof of these deaths may enable the Iraqi people to put some of their fear of persecution behind them. Showing the bodies also limits the chances of followers claiming direct authority. You don't meet many people today who still believe in Italian Fascism, but I have come across a lot of Nazi supporters who seem to believe that the absence of a body somehow proves that Hitler was immortal.
Speaking of evil … (26/7/2003)
About half a century ago a new musical genre was invented. It shocked and horrified many wowsers and religious bigots who predicted that rock and roll would lead to the inevitable collapse of all morals and even of civilised society. Young men would become sex- and drug-crazed animals and girls would throw off all modesty and descend into harlotry and drinking. The churches would empty and the VD clinics would fill. None of this happened, of course, just as it didn't happen when jazz or the waltz first appeared to similar cries of despair. It seems that society can survive all sorts of cultural assaults and just keep on going, so perhaps all censorship is futile.
And speaking of rock and roll and sex- and drug-crazed young men, today is Mick Jagger's 60th birthday and the silly old thing is still getting up on stage and telling everyone about how he is a little red rooster who can't get no satisfaction. I hope that I can be as disgraceful as Mick when I'm his age. I will settle for half as rich, though. Happy birthday, Mick.
Someone is not happy (27/7/2003)
I received the following email on July 26, 2003:
Date: Fri, 25 Jul 2003 15:02:26 -0400
From: "Dr. John A. Allocca"
I would like to know why you have listed my website under medical fraud? All of my products has undergone extensive studies. I have lectured to various medical societies around the country. Some of my products are FDA approved. I would like a reason.
John A. Allocca, Sc.D., Ph.D., C.C.N.
Medical Research Scientist
Allocca Technology and Healthcare Research
I had a brief look at the Allocca site, but there was too much implied quackery and deception there for me to respond immediately. As the email arrived on the day when I was preparing the normal weekly update to this site, I decided to leave my reply until I had had time to properly consider what I had to say. This was not good enough for Dr Allocca, and this arrived the next day:
Date: Sun, 27 Jul 2003 08:53:59 -0400
From: "Dr. John A. Allocca"
Subject: medical fraud
I did nothing to deserve being put on your website for medical fraud. My devices are FDA approved and formulas patented and proven.
If you do not remove me from your website, I will contract your local authorities because what you are doing is fraud by putting a company on a list without any explanation.
I have the following information below on you.
John A. Allocca, Sc.D., Ph.D., C.C.N.
Medical Research Scientist
Allocca Technology and Healthcare Research
The registration details for the ratbags.com domain followed. I will not reproduce them here as they are freely available from many places on the Internet. I have had them quoted to me before as if this implies some form of threat ("We know who you are!"), but these details are not secret.
I was a little surprised that Dr Allocca (who does not appear to be a medical doctor, although this impression might be given to people are not too observant) was so impatient. His anxiety to be removed from The Millenium Project listing has piqued my interest, so I will have to do a more detailed examination of his claims which, on face value, would put him in a very good position to win one or more Nobel Prizes. I will publish my findings on this site, so he will no longer be able to claim that I am "putting a company on a list without any explanation". In the meantime, I would just like to point out that a patent does not mean anything except that the device is not a blatant perpetual motion machine, and that complaints about the content of Australian web sites should be addressed to the Australian Communications and Media Authority. Details can be found under the heading "Online services content regulation".
If Dr Allocca feels that he has a legal case to have the listing of his site removed from The Millenium Project then he should consult a lawyer. In the meantime, I will treat his threat as if it were made on legal grounds.