Suffer the little children (3/7/2004)
If you use a modern, narrow meaning of the word "suffer", the words of Jesus quoted above would be an appropriate motto for the anti-vaccination movement. What the author of the Gospel of Mark (and Matthew and Luke, who copied him) and the translators writing the King James version of the Bible meant by the word "suffer" was something like "allow". What Jesus was doing was telling adults that, even if they didn't like it, they had a responsibility to ensure that children were protected and had equal rights with adults. He was specifically referring to spiritual rights in Mark 10:14, but by implication He was saying that children should also be cared for properly in the secular or temporal realm.
I don't often get letters or emails from senior members of the clergy, but I received an email this week from the Dean of a rural Australian Anglican diocese. The diocese is opening a new school next year and, in accordance with the instructions of Jesus to care for children's bodies as well as their souls, the school has an explicit policy that all children attending must be fully vaccinated. Predictably, the anti-vaccination liars (or "morons", as the Dean called them) have erupted like a plague of boils. The Dean sent me a copy of his response, and all I can say is that I'm glad he is on my side and I don't think that I would like to be the target of one of his sermons. Here is what he told the complainer:
Dear Ms xxxxx,
I am in receipt of your letter of June 22nd.
I find it very hard to believe that you have had enquiries from "several parents". But given the absolute disdain you and your organisation appear to have for the truth, it is not surprising that such a claim should be made.
The Cathedral College is not under any obligation to explain its policies to crackpot organisations, especially one which is conducting an immoral and dishonest campaign against child health and well-being.
Yours sincerely, etc
The "Trial of the Century" (3/7/2004)
The sudden appearance of Saddam Hussein in a courtroom invites comparison with other legal actions being taken over war crimes and crimes against humanity, although with only 4.5% of the century gone, it is probably premature to say that the trial of Hussein is "The Trial of the Century" as is being suggested by some media outlets. Everyone seems to have forgotten that there was a war to enforce regime change in Afghanistan a few years back, and that there are people being held prisoner at Guantanamo Bay for their activities in that war who have not been brought to trial, or even charged with anything, almost three years after they were captured. As I said about a year ago, this seems to be in violation of the principle of habeas corpus which has been part of the tradition behind United States law since Magna Carta of 1215. The other comparison is with Slobodan Milosevic, who is on trial in The Hague for doing in Yugoslavia what Hussein is supposed to have done in Iraq. The charges against Hussein are a little vaguely worded but they look like violations of international codes of conduct rather than anything which might be against the law, such as it is, in Iraq, so it could be reasonably argued that an international tribunal is a more appropriate venue for his trial. It is interesting to note that in April 2001 there were demands that Milosevic should be tried in The Hague rather than in his home country on just this basis of the difference between what were international and local crimes. How times change. Cynics are suggesting that Saddam Hussein's trial is being scheduled now in order to help someone get re-elected, but I wouldn't know anything about that.
I must point out that I do not support Hussein or Milosevic in any way. Both were undoubtedly evil people who were responsible for atrocities and many deaths, even if they didn't carry out the actions personally. I am against lynching, however, and I want to see them have fair trials and be competently defended. It is respect for the rule of law, the legal process and human rights which differentiates people like us from people like them, and which ensure that we have a justice system as well as a legal system.
November is going to be a busy time. The Australian Skeptics will be holding their annual convention from November 12 to 14. The theme will be "Beyond a Joke", and there will be sessions which highlight the humorous aspects of the weirdness that skeptics encounter every day. I'll be giving a talk (and hopefully also ruthlessly promoting a book or two), but I'm not sure how funny I can be at 9 o'clock on a Saturday morning. The venue will be the University of Technology, Sydney, right next door to Chinatown. Prices and the final list of speakers have not been decided yet, but you can keep checking the convention web site for news.
I don't know when I will have time to write my speech for the Australian Skeptics convention, because the Australian Council Against Health Fraud will be holding its first ever annual conference on November 26, at Westmead Hospital. I'm the organiser for this, so I expect to be very busy around that time, not to mention stressed and anxious. I have some speakers pencilled in and I hope to have the program finalised in the next couple of weeks. Details will appear on the ACAHF web site as they become known.
Every now and then some unwitting racist feels the urge to come out and say that Australia is only part of Asia because of geography and not in any cultural sense. Whenever I hear this I think about the strong common culture which unites Japan, Indonesia, China, Burma, Vietnam, Thailand and Sri Lanka and makes them all "Asian". For some reason, however, the cultural problem is overlooked when describing a country as part of Europe, and geography is all that matters. I was reminded of this when I heard that the two finalists in the Euro 2004 soccer competition were Greece and Portugal. Not only are the two countries at opposite physical ends of Europe, but about the only cultural connection is that they both have soccer teams. Still, what this football match shows is that, despite what some people might think, the similarities between "races" outweigh the differences. Whoever wins, there will be a big celebration in my home town and we are a very long way from Lisbon.
I had another reminder of the meaningless of worrying about where people come from when we went out last night to a little group of shops near my place to buy some take-away food for dinner. My daughter and her friend felt like traditional American food so they had some fried chicken from the KFC run by a Lebanese franchisee. My wife and I bought Portuguese grilled chicken from a shop where the owner comes from somewhere in central Africa and has just about the darkest skin of anyone I have ever met. The lady in front of me in the line looked Japanese, but it was hard to tell because all those "Asians" look the same. Her mobile phone was made in South Korea. To show that we were non-partisan about the soccer we decided to buy a Greek salad from the best place to get one in the area. To get to that shop we didn't have to walk as far as the halal butchery or the Lebanese coffee shop (which used to be an Italian spaghetti restaurant), but we had to pass a Chinese restaurant, a genuine Aussie fish'n'chip shop (run by a Greek family), an Italian deli and coffee shop and a pizza place where you can get that great Australian delicacy, the ham and pineapple pizza (always called "Hawaiian" in recognition of the pizza's Italian heritage). And where do you get the best Greek salad in my part of the world, full of juicy olives and chunks of white cheese? Why, at the Thai take-away, of course. That would be the Thai shop with the owner who has the traditional Thai name of Benjamin.
What I really like about living where I do is that if you had a party and invited all the people from all these shops, nobody would comment about what people looked like or where they or their parents came from. Everyone would have a few beers (except the halal butcher, perhaps) and a good time. They would even welcome a fourth-generation Australian like me, although a fight might break out if anyone found out that a couple of my great-grandparents were Irish Catholics. Not a serious fight, of course, just a friendly punch-up to make a stereotype feel at home.
I'm bigger than Google!! (3/7/2004)
As part of the management of this site I occasionally check to see which sites link to it, and I also check for mentions of the site name or my name to see if anybody is saying anything that I should know about. When I did a check for my name this week I came across the archives of some quackery mailing list where two charlatans were discussing me and The Millenium Project. One of them had developed the theory that I have lists of racists, holocaust deniers, religious bigots and other such loathsome things here as a means of establishing guilt by association in my attempts to derogate "alternative medicine". I like his paranoia, but reality is that I have been listing those other sites since the place opened five years ago. It's all about things that I don't like, and it just happens that quackery gets most of my attention. The other quack then chimed in with that tired old story about how happy he is to be listed here because of all the traffic I send to his site. (He sells magnets with only one pole, therefore qualifying him for a Nobel Prize for Physics any time he feels like getting the paperwork done.) He then went on to say that I was sending him more visitors than Google was! This has prompted me to give him two pieces of advice, which I won't bother sending to him unless he asks me politely. Firstly, anyone going from my site directly to his has done it from a page which tells people what a crook he is, so they arrive warned and prepared to read lies. Secondly, that page doesn't appear above the horizon in the visitor statistics for this site, so if it is sending him more visitors than Google then either he is receiving almost no visitors at all to his site or Google is broken. I don't think that Google is broken.
Web site statistics (3/7/2004)
Moving this site to a new server last month has given me access to a much better system for analysing visitor statistics. One real surprise is that it now appears that the previous analysis software was underestimating visitors by about 50%. It was getting a lot of the other statistics right, like the number of pages displayed and where people came from and went to, but the new higher estimate actually makes more sense when considered along with all the other measurements of site activity and how visitors move around and use the site. I don't know whether this is because the new software does a better job (I have found one place where it uses a different algorithm for estimating) or whether the server software records information differently, but it certainly put a big smile on my face. The more people who come here the more I know that my time spent writing all this stuff is not wasted. Thank you all. When I see that several thousand people bother to come here each day to read my rants it makes me a very happy old webmaster indeed.
It's a miracle, I tell you! (3/7/2004)
See what happens when you pray, sacrifice a lamb, and pay attention to the advertisements late at night on "Adult Contemporary Rock" radio stations? Click here to see what I'm talking about.
Cats and pigeons, rocks in ponds (10/7/2004)
The online version of the British Medical Journal recently published a guest editorial which suggested that there is really no evidence for shaken baby syndrome. Predictably, the anti-vaccination liars have leapt on this, drooling with glee at the thought that they will be able to quote (and misquote) the paper for years to come. A real doctor dropped a mention of The Millenium Project into the conversation and the dribble changed to mouth foam as the liars went feral. I must admit that it gives me great pleasure to be described in terms such as "emotive lunatic" by these people, because a day even momentarily spent annoying them is not a wasted day. I did notice their continued reluctance to actually mention my name and I can only put this down to the name's powerful juju, as surely their expertise in research would mean that they would have no problem finding out what it really is.
One of the responses to the original editorial came from 106 doctors, pointing out the more nonsensical claims, the selective research, and the abysmal quality of the "peer reviewed" journals that seem to be the only places where the editorial writers can get their research papers published. This letter generated its own thread of responses, and one of them came from an Alan Yurko. It seemed far too literate a work for someone who has spent almost all of his adult life in prison for violent crimes, but it did say that it had been transcribed by someone else. Among the lies in it was the claim that Yurko had personally contacted 88 of the 106 doctors to ask for help in his appeals against his murder conviction, but he complained that they all wanted to be paid for their time. Certain details were left out of Yurko's letter, so I sent the following kind and gentle letter to the BMJ. It takes some time for letters to be reviewed and published on the BMJ site, so I will be paying attention over the next day or two to see if it got through.
Alan Yurko did not elaborate on his address, which happens to be a prison cell in Florida. Yurko is serving life plus some extra for the deliberate and premeditated murder of a ten-week-old baby (his supporters always say "his son" but the child was conceived while Yurko was in prison in Ohio serving four concurrent sentences for burglary with violence).
The child had all the usual signs of having been in a car crash, such as retinal bleeding, subdural haematoma, blood in the spinal cord, external bruising to the head, and broken ribs. One strange thing was that nobody mentioned the car crash at Yurko's trial. Another strange thing was that in the time it took for Yurko to get the baby to hospital after he slapped it (yes, he admitted to that) four of those broken ribs had time to start healing. That's right – four healing broken ribs, broken in prior assaults on the child.
I have long ceased being surprised at anything that the anti-vaccination liars say in support of their demented agenda. Denying the reality of shaken baby syndrome and blaming all the signs on vaccine reactions is just another means, like the lies about MMR and autism, which they can justify by their objective of stopping children from receiving protection from dangerous and fatal diseases.
Peter Bowditch www.ratbags.com
Competing interests: Love of children, dislike of child killers
We've got you taped, you're in the play (10/7/2004)
Those words from the Jethro Tull song A Passion Play came into my head when I saw a quack named Darrell Stoddard on television this week fixing people's pains with what appeared to be electrical tape. This wasn't on some advertorial morning show, but on what used to be regarded as the best investigative journalism show on the box. One of the statements which caught my ear was that this tape conducted electricity because it contained Mylar. This plastic is used as the substrate on audio- and videotape and computer backup tapes where electrical conductivity does not seem like a good idea, so I looked in the logical places and found this safety warning from DuPont, who make Mylar:
Because of its good dielectric properties, a thin plastic film of Mylar™ run at high speed can pick up a strong charge of static electricity. This is usually caused by rapidly separating the film from an idler roll or similar equipment. Unless this charge is dissipated as it forms, by using ionizing radiation devices or special conducting metal tinsel, it can build to thousands of volts and discharge to people or metal equipment. In dust- or solvent-laden air, a flash fire or an explosion could follow. Extreme caution is needed to prevent static accumulation when using flammable solvents while coating Mylar™. Solvent-coating equipment should incorporate the means for detecting and extinguishing fire. Plastic wraps used on rolls of Mylar™ may also accumulate static charges, so caution should be taken when unwrapping a roll in a dust- or solvent laden atmosphere
So this quack is using something which the manufacturer says has "good dielectric properties" to increase the conductivity of bicycle tape. This indicates that his spiel is aimed at scientifically illiterate people and that he doesn't care that one of his major claims for his product can be proved to be a lie with almost no effort at all. The organisation promoting his book and selling his $30/metre tape wouldn't care either, because another product advertised on their web site cannot, as far as I know, be sold legally in Australia. What makes this scam worse is its apparent endorsement by a high-rated, supposedly responsible, reputable television news and current affairs show. The quack's site was displaying the words "As seen on A Current Affair" the next day. (Two nights later the show ran a story about someone curing a child's behavioural problems by "detoxing". I think I know what I will be writing about next week.)
I love the disclaimer on the quack's website, where it says in the smallest possible type that can be displayed on a computer screen: "We make no claims on this web page that Biotape™ will stop, heal, or relieve pain. It is offered for sale only for research purposes-to explore the Chinese definition of pain. The only claim we make is that Biotape™ connects the 'broken Chi' (endogenous electrical signals in living tissue) which traditional Chinese medicine defines as the cause of pain". I was trying to think of a suitable nickname for Darrell Stoddard, and I suddenly thought of "tapeworm". How convenient is it that not only does it mention tape, but it is also the name of another parasite?
All of this and some of that's the only way to skin the cat.
And now you've lost a skin or two, you're for us and we for you
I sent the following email to the television program. I do not expect an early answer.
One of the bizarre statements made in the story about Biotape on July 7 was "The tape looks and feels like electrical tape but it contains a polyester substance called Mylar and instead of insulating, it conducts electricity, in this case, our own".
According to DuPont, who make the stuff, Mylar is an insulator. In fact, they have safety advice about how to minimise the danger from static electricity when using it.
Of course, this is just a minor point when the story was about someone who is selling tape for $30 per metre (that he buys for cents a metre) in order to defraud desperate people who are prepared to try anything to ease their chronic pain.
I remember when ACA used to chase crooks through the streets, not give them free advertising.
The Right Honourable Happy Clappy, MHR (10/7/2004)
The framers of the Australian Constitution were very clever people, and one piece of evidence of this is Section 116 of the Constitution which ensures that the country has freedom from religion. Not only was the separation of church and state explicitly stated, but it was done in words which are more precise and less "interpretable" than those of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Australians don't particularly care if politicians have religious beliefs, and members of parliament are quite free to worship whomever they want in any legal way they want. There are certain religious events where it is appropriate for politicians to attend in their official categories (installation of a new Archbishop perhaps, state and VIP funerals, ecumenical services, …) but these are rare and attendance is usually bipartisan. What is almost unheard of is what we saw in the papers this week – a very senior politician appearing as the star turn at a fundraiser for a religious organisation which is so far out of the mainstream that it resembles a real religion only to the extent that the congregation occasionally choruses the name of Jesus.
The religious organisation (it could hardly be called a church, and even the word "religious" seems inappropriate) is called Hillsong, and it claims to attract 15,000 "worshippers" every Sunday to its auditorium near my place. I know someone who was encouraged to go there a couple of times by her neighbours, but as she is a single mother on a disability pension she felt a bit out of place in a room full of people worshipping money. What really frightened her, though, was being in a room full of thousands of people who could be encouraged to simultaneously salute Pastor Brian by raising their arms to a 45° angle. She thought that she had seen pictures of this sort of thing somewhere before. She asked once about pastoral services like having a quiet place to come during the week for reflection and contemplation and the availability of someone who could offer some counselling if she had problems. The person she asked looked at her in bewilderment, unable to comprehend why anyone would expect a "church" to do these things and do them without payment. Churches are places where you sing, pay, pray, pay, sing, pay, salute, sing, pray and pay. And tithe, in case you can't get there one weekend to pay in person. (She eventually went to the Salvation Army, who offered her emotional support and paid her outstanding electricity bill.)
Hillsong claims an income of $18 million a year, but as it also produced what was supposed to be the biggest selling music CD in the country last year and there were no costs for artists' fees or record shop commissions, it is quite possible that this amount could have come from merchandise sales alone. With 15,000 people throwing money into the place each weekend, plus the admitted $10 million collected at the annual conference there is a lot of cash floating about, and when it comes to avoiding taxes and accountability, cash is king. Pastor Brian "donates" his salary back to the "church", so he has no income subject to income tax. It is remarkable, then, that on no income he manages to have a house in a suburb where if you walked into an estate agency with only $2 million to spend on a house the agent wouldn't bother to look up from the form guide, and he has a weekender with extensive frontage to the Hawkesbury River north west of Sydney. (In his case it is probably a "weekdayer".)
One of the reasons that churches are exempt from income taxes is that they are expected to do social and charity work. Hillsong is quite happy to comply with this law and proudly donates $400,000 out of the $18 million towards good works each year. To put that in perspective, the Salvation Army spends about $30 million a year to pay for all its operations in the two states of New South Wales and Queensland, but that salary and expenses bill supports more than $160 million of welfare and charity work. The brother of the politician who appeared at this week's conference fundraiser has said of Hillsong that "It is the total opposite of what Jesus preached", but he is probably biased as he is a genuinely ordained Baptist minister and also the CEO of World Vision in Australia.
It is the matter of taxation which makes the appearance of the politician even more inappropriate. Peter Costello is the Federal Treasurer, the second-most senior member of the government and the minister responsible for all commonwealth expenditure and taxation. That he would appear on stage with and offer wholehearted support for someone who is using a façade of religion to avoid paying millions of dollars in tax and who boasts to the papers about giving his salary away is not only offensive to people who like to see the church kept well away from the state, but also to followers of legitimate religions and the large numbers of ordinary taxpayers who are continually harassed by taxation officials for minor errors and infringements.
The unkind cut (10/7/2004)
Remember the times when our parents told us that in polite conversation the two subjects which should be avoided were politics and religion? In this Internet age, the subject which must never be mentioned is circumcision, not because it is impolite to talk about it, but because any mention of it in any open forum will attract the attention of the anti-circ loons. These people will then invade the newsgroup, mailing list or discussion forum in great numbers to inform everyone about how the foreskin is the most important part of the body, how diseases and disabilities will inevitably follow its removal, how it is much less painful to remove it from an adult than a baby, and probably that Luke 2:21 must not be true because if it were then Jesus would not have been perfect. Some will regale everyone with their attempts to repair the damage done by their parents, using apparatus which sounds alarmingly like it is made from fishhooks, string and a brick, to create what is apparently known in anti-circ circles as a "fauxskin".
The most puzzling claim to me, however, is that circumcision makes men less sexually attractive. Like "sexy underwear", I have always thought that by the time that the relevant object is being examined in detail the matter of sexual attractiveness is of historical interest only. It has been a long time since I went courting, but I honestly cannot remember ever having an existential discussion about my prepuce or lack thereof during the very early stages of a relationship. Of course times were different then, and in these more open and enlightened times maybe instead of men saying "Hello, do you come here often?" to start a conversation, it is the women who say "Hello, are you circumcised?". (I would go out and do some research in singles bars, but my wife has just mentioned the words "rusty secateurs" and "orchidectomy".)
You may wonder what brought all this on. Back in the days when I was actively maintaining my Full Canvas Jacket site I published a disgusting rant from someone supposedly promoting the genital mutilation of girls. (You can read it here.) One of the madder antics of the no-circ crowd is to somehow equate male circumcision with hacking off the clitoris and labia of young girls. The only reason I can think of for anyone to think like this is that they see themselves not as members of the human race but as simply life support systems for their penises. It is tragic that anyone could have self-esteem this low, but insanity takes many forms. I was prompted to write this by an email I received this week about my Full Canvas Jacket page. You will notice how the writer had difficulty using the "Shift" key on his keyboard. Maybe he had only one hand free.
ELECTIVE FEMALE CIRC IS SOMEHOW AN ATROCITY BUT DOING IT TO BABY BOYS ISN'T?
gET YOUR PRIORITIES IN ORDER, MY DEAR GOOD SIR.
In alternative medicine and pseudoscience there are no coincidences. If two apparently unrelated things happen together, then there has to be a connection. Skeptics like to point out that coincidences happen all the time but people only remember some of them, and most of them mean nothing anyway and are not actually that unlikely.
Last Thursday I drove from Sydney to Canberra to attend a meeting of Canberra Skeptics. My daughter Belinda came with me, not specifically to go to the meeting but to meet her friend Bridget who lives in Canberra. The two girls had met in some Internet forum for young people, where they had presumably discussed many matters of importance to teenage girls, including, I suppose, some things that the respective parents are better off not asking about. They had never met physically, and Belinda was quite excited about seeing Bridget for the first time. I waited at the meeting place long enough to satisfy myself that Bridget wasn't a middle-aged man in a raincoat and then left them to their own devices. When I came back a couple of hours later I invited Bridget to have dinner with us and we set off for the Vietnamese restaurant where the local skeptics were gathering before the meeting. After dinner we all went to the meeting, and after that about a dozen of us went looking for somewhere to get a cup of coffee. (This was very important to me because I was about to set off on a three hour drive home. The midlife crisis silver sports car is capable of doing about twice the legal speed limit on the motorway, and I didn't fancy being asleep in it with my foot holding the accelerator down. I have no desire for an early meeting with my saintly namesake (or to hear him say "Ha, ha! You lost!"), let alone John Edward or James Van Praagh.)
At the coffee shop, one of the committee members of Canberra Skeptics produced some brochures advertising a forum they are running in August about global warming and the environment and asked if the people from Sydney could take a few home and help publicise the event. Before you read the next sentence, remember that nobody in the group had ever met Bridget before that day, she and Belinda had never discussed anything about skepticism in their Internet conversations, and she had apparently never heard of the Canberra Skeptics before. Now read on … . Bridget picked up one of the brochures and said: "Are you people involved with this? My father is going to be one of the speakers". Explain that, skeptics.
Apology in advance (17/7/2004)
Next weekend the update to this site will be either late, early, superficial or missing because I have to attend a conference. It's about work, and as it will be principally about the most significant changes for several years to the software product which pays my bills, I have decided that I will have to endure the rigours and hardship of a tropical resort for three days. Put pragmatically, if I don't go I won't have much to eat for the next twelve months.
They call it "Mellow Yellow" (quite rightly) (17/7/2004)
Some time ago a group of martial artists from Bali called Yellow Bamboo tried to get their hands on James Randi's million dollars for proof of a paranormal power. Their claim was that some highly belted and umpteenthly danned member of the organisation had the power to repel attackers using nothing except the power of his mind. They released a video supposedly demonstrating this power, in which a group of Yellow Bambooers ran towards the master and fell over forwards when he gave the signal. The problem was that they were supposed to be hurled backwards, but even Cirque du Soleil haven't figured out how to get a running person to suddenly jerk backwards without using a wire and harness. Experienced martial artists looked at the video and yawned. Randi arranged for someone to conduct a preliminary test but the resulting video from that was useless because Yellow Bamboo had not complied with the testing conditions to which they had agreed. As they had not been able to demonstrate the power under even the least restrictive conditions there was no point continuing to any formal testing, which would have resulted in some expense to which Yellow Bamboo were not prepared to contribute. (It is common for challengers to say that cost of testing is an issue for them, despite their claims that they have powers guaranteed to earn them a million dollars. Why can't they put the airfares on Amex if they are so sure of winning?)
The story of Yellow Bamboo came up in one of the common Randi-bashing exercises which occasionally erupt in Internet forums and someone from Yellow Bamboo accused me of lying. As I don't tell lies, I responded with my own challenge to them. You can read it below, and it is also archived in the Google Groups record of the conversations in the Usenet newsgroup misc.health.alternative.
Here's a new challenge for you. As you can see at https://ratbags.com/rsoles/comment/bennyhinn.htm I also have a special power which can make people fall backwards. If we split the costs, that is, if you give me the cost of a one-way ticket from Sydney to Denpasar, I will come to Bali and I will walk up to your guru and press on his forehead. He can use all of his special mental powers to prevent me (but he can't stun me with a Taser, of course). As my power is several times stronger than his, I will succeed and he will fail.
I can be there on Saturday, July 31. It will cost you $AU947.25. Contact me and I will tell you where to send the money.
Exposing quackery. Yeah, right! (17/7/2004)
In June I mentioned that I was contacted by one of the production staff of a nationally-broadcast television news and current affairs program. They were working on a story about fraudulent cancer cures and were particularly interested in a "black salve" that had been used by a woman to treat breast cancer. I had had an unfortunate experience with this program once before, so it was encouraging to find that this time it looked like they were going to actually do an exposé of quackery and fraud. I did some research for them and pointed them towards some web sites and magazines, and I also lent them some samples of the salve, plus some other quack devices and medications available either online or through alternative health magazines. I had a long talk with the producer and I looked forward to, at last, seeing a reputable television program with a large audience take on and expose some charlatanry.
The show went to air last week and had two intertwined threads. One was the reporter being given a healing session by an Apache Indian. The Apache blew whistles, waved his hands, shook some rattles, swept away spirits with fans made of feathers, and generally performed a series of witchdoctor moves which would have fitted completely into any ancient Tarzan film. Throughout this the reporter's voiceover showed no sign of any skepticism or even any doubt at all about the ridiculous charade. The whole thing would have been hilariously funny if it hadn't been on national television and suggesting to viewers that this might be some form of valid treatment for serious illness.
The second thread was about a man with cancer. He had been told that the statistical survival rate for people with his particular cancer was 10% still alive after five years. He sought a second opinion and misheard the doctor to say that he had only six months to live. (I recommend The Median Isn't the Message by Stephen Jay Gould for an excellent explanation of what expected survival statistics mean. Gould had a cancer with a median survival time between diagnosis and death of eight months. He lived another twenty years.) In this case the man is relatively young, otherwise in excellent health, runs his own successful business, apparently has no family responsibilities to worry about, has supportive friends (both socially and in business), and has enough money to pay for full-time employees to take care of his health. He is not typical of cancer sufferers, but as he has now lived for eighteen months his survival will be touted as a miracle of alternative medicine by quacks and frauds even if he dies tomorrow. If you wonder why I used the word "miracle" it is because that was the last word spoken in the television report, the word which would stick in the mind of a viewer with a terminal disease who might be hoping for just such a thing to happen to them.
Two experts were featured throughout the report. One was a doctor with a reputation for being somewhat intolerant of the claims of alternative practitioners, so there were at least a few moments of sense in the program. The other expert was a professor of complementary medicine at a real university, and he was allowed to get away with the long-discredited tu quoque claim that medicine is the fourth leading cause of death in the United states. This show wasn't supposed to be about things that are wrong with real medicine, it was supposed to be about the dangers of quackery. It is a pity that it wasn't about that either, but instead it promoted the idea that shaking rattles and performing reiki rituals might be worthwhile treatments for desperate people seeking relief from serious diseases. The term "responsible journalism" gets thrown around a lot, but nothing fitting that description was evident on television that night.
UFO – Unlikely Foolish Oddball (17/7/2004)
An Australian UFO believer has declared himself to be a "die hard sheptic watcher". (I assume that he couldn't make up his mind whether to spell the word "sceptic" or "skeptic" so he just picked a key somewhere between "k" and "c" on his keyboard.) Things have been a bit slow in the UFO sighting business around here since a chocolate company stopped using a blimp with a light inside for advertising a few years ago, so the UFO watcher has had to find some way to fill in his time and he has discovered the world of the Blog. For those unaware of the Blog revolution, Blogs are semi-automated websites which require no skills of any kind to maintain and which are used by people with no ideas to talk to almost no visitors. I am generalising of course, and there are some very fine Blogs out there, but the majority are like being stuck in the train next to a stranger who wants to tell you all about his cat. As I mentioned, UFOs have been a bit thin in the sky lately so this particular Blogger, notable only because of his creative use of spelling and grammar, had to find something to fill up all those pixels and has decided to spend his time ridiculing the Australian Skeptics and anyone he can find who is associated with the organisation.
The Blog first came to our attention last week when the President of Australian Skeptics found that there was a photograph there of him which had been copied from another site and then modified to make Richard look like he was related to Satan. The Blogger seems to have an issue with a lady named Lynne Kelly who is currently on tour promoting her book about the paranormal (I mentioned her book a few weeks ago) and the next we heard of him was when he had some silly comments to make about Lynne following a story about her and her book which appeared in a nationally-distributed newspaper. Lynne was the speaker at the Canberra meeting that I mentioned last week and, true to form, our Blogger found the pictures of the event and the preceding dinner on the web and had to make a few more comments. Lynne doesn't particularly mind what he says about her, but this time he decided to sneer at and ridicule a 16-year-old girl because she has a somewhat unusual hairstyle. The nice irony is that while the UFO Blogger can't string two coherent sentences together, the girl is smart enough be taking her final high school exams a year early.
The UFO Blogger is very concerned about numbers. The Blog was created on April 1, 2004, (an appropriate date) and its owner was extremely proud when the number of page views passed the 400 mark. When the count went past 1,000 the blogger.com people who run the system gave him access to some extra features and he was mightily pleased. When I looked at the Blog last Sunday there had been 993 page views since the site counter was started on May 6 (the count had increased by about 60 since the day before and has gone up by about 300 since, almost all caused by we terrible skeptics going there to laugh at it and then hitting the Refresh button a few dozen times to increment the counter). I decided to apply some of my numerology skills to this count, and I found that if you took 993, multiplied it by the number of letters in the Blogger's name and then added the number of letters to the product you got a number which exactly matched the number of page views for the RatbagsDotCom site on Tuesday, July 6, 2004. Eerie, isn't it?
Perhaps the UFO Blogger could use his time more profitably by finding some flying objects which need explaining. I thought that we were supposed to be constantly under the scrutiny of flying saucer crews, and it would be a valuable public service if he could keep us aware of developments. I would caution him, however, that he should wear one of those medical alert bracelets in case he is abducted. He needs to warn the aliens to be very careful when probing him in case they damage his brain.
Telling lies for God (and Mammon) (17/7/2004)
Amnesty International is a very well-known human rights organisation and the word "amnesty" doesn't sound much like any other English word, so if someone came up to you in the street and said something which sounded very like "fund-raiser for Amnesty" you probably would assume that the benefactor was going to be Amnesty International and not, say, the Partridge Protection League or Save the Woodchips. After I published my piece last week about Hillsong I was contacted by someone who had been approached in a local shopping mall by a girl who invited her to a fund-raiser for Amnesty. The girl went on to say that the event was being run by Hillsong. My informant knew enough about Hillsong to not want to have anything to do with them and was also suspicious that there would be any connection between Hillsong and Amnesty so she declined the invitation. The girl from Hillsong then said "God bless you" and went looking for another prospect.
The event being run by Hillsong was part of their annual "Gouge a few million more tax-free bucks" convention, but I suppose there is the remote possibility that they were going to donate one night's proceeds to Amnesty, so let's look at the financials. Hillsong have claimed, and nobody has denied, that they were getting full houses each night, so that means there would have been about 16,000 people in the Homebush Superdome that night. If everyone donated $100, a reasonable assumption given the Hillsong target market, then $1.6 million would have been collected. Deducting a reasonable $150,000 for venue hire and other associated expenses would have left $1,450,000 over to give to Amnesty. As Amnesty International Australia's total revenue from fundraising during the financial year ending December 31, 2003, was $1,436,092 a fund-raising event bringing in more than this on one night would have caused celebration in the Amnesty office loud enough to disturb the neighbours.
I rang Amnesty for a comment and, unsurprisingly, I was told that their fund-raising coordinator knew nothing about this, there were no fund-raising activities carried out by or on behalf of Amnesty in Sydney that week, and that they were in no way connected with Hillsong. They are further investigating the use of their name. Unfortunately there are no laws which prohibit anyone claiming to be raising money for a charity unless none of the money goes to the charity. As much of the money collected at religious revival meetings is cash which can be made to disappear, all Hillsong have to do is produce a receipt for a few dollars donated to Amnesty the day after the "fund-raiser" to win a defamation case against anyone who impugns their reputation or comments on their morals. By the way, Hillsong's unaudited, admitted income is $18 million a year (and is quite probably much higher than that) from their "church" in an industrial estate. Amnesty's total, audited income from all sources across Australia was $10,644,955 last year. I know which one I will be giving my money to.
Strangely, there is one thing that Hillsong and Amnesty have in common – they are both evidence of the non-existence of God. If there really was an omniscient, omnipotent and just God then there would be no need for an organisation like Amnesty, because such a god would not allow the suffering, injustices and atrocities which the organisation exists to fight. Similarly, if there really was an omniscient, omnipotent and just God it is hard to imagine why He would tolerate a pretend church which defiles His name by its worship of wealth.
I thought that you'd want what I want – sorry my dear (17/7/2004)
Listening to sad songs of disappointment like Stephen Sondheim's Send in the Clowns lets me put a proper perspective on my own disappointment that none of my four nominations made it through to the finals of the Australian Museum Eureka Awards for 2004. The good thing is that I've still got my timing, even this late in my career. The competition was tough, it was my first attempt, and I don't think I was the only person to miss out. Well, maybe next year.
We will not be moved (24/7/2004)
The Arabic word Tawhid means something like "monotheism", but its adoption by a group of anonymous cowards suggests that it might also mean "mononeuronal" or perhaps "anorchidic". This outfit started threatening Australia last week with all the usual nonsense out of the Maniacal Muslim handbook – our streets will run with blood, the night sky will be bright with the light of exploding and burning car bombs, the usual drivel that these unimaginative nobodies keep coming up with. They claim to be responsible for the murders of people kidnapped in Iraq that we have seen on television recently, but nobody could tell who those murderers are because they are such gutless cowards that they have to have their faces covered. (As an aside, I get really annoyed when newsreaders and journalists refer to these murders as "executions".) Apparently Australia is going to get the rivers of blood and the burning buses if we don't pull all our soldiers out of Iraq. Well, I have a message for Tawhid, and it is contained in the two pictures below. The first is a pork chop, and I recommend that each member of Tawhid gets one of these and inserts it into his sigmoid colon. The second picture shows the method for testing that the chop is in place properly. Politically correct people may say that I am being offensive to Muslims here. Well, if religious bigots make threats based on nothing except the fact that other people don't share their religion they are asking to be offended and the offence offered should be as loud and as offensive as possible.
It must be true. I read it on the Internet. (24/7/2004)
When commenting on the Tawhid threat, the Australian Foreign Minister actually said on television that it had to be taken seriously because "it was on the Internet". As it is virtually impossible to imagine Mr Downer actually being funny, there is much debate about whether he meant this seriously or was attempting to make a joke.
I had a couple of Internet content experiences while I was writing the piece above. As I am a relic of the 1960s folk culture the title of the piece came immediately to mind. I thought that I would refresh my memory of the song and maybe get some guitar chords for it, so off I went to Google. The only mention of the song in the world's largest search engine is a single note that it was once sung by Joan Baez. No lyrics, no music. I think I have reason to be worried when I hear educators saying that all children need is the Internet to find out everything they know and that libraries will soon be extinct.
The web page which talked about Joan Baez and We Will Not Be Moved (read this before correcting me) was on the site of a well-known magazine and was a very complimentary piece by the magazine's music writer. I will save my rant about the ignorance of journalists for another time, but what caught my eye in this article was the statement that Joan Baez had "promoted the work of up-and-coming songwriters like Pete Seeger". Pete Seeger is 22 years older than Joan Baez, and, as examples, he had written If I Had a Hammer and formed The Weavers before Joan was ten years old. I have enormous respect for both singers, and I don't think that Joan's achievements need boosting by diminishing those of someone who was not only another significant figure in the history of twentieth-century music but played an active role in breaking the stranglehold that the insane Un-American Activities Committee had on the entertainment industry. Joan Baez was able to sing left-wing protest songs without official harassment because Pete Seeger had risked imprisonment to make it possible.
The moral of all this is that not everything you need to know is on the Internet and not everything there is anything you need to know. But you knew that already.
And speaking of cowardly terrorists ... (24/7/2004)
Have you noticed how people who are prepared to die for a cause sometimes have second thoughts when the dying part of the business gets close. Timothy McVeigh was very big on not being afraid to die for killing all those people in Oklahoma City, but as soon as the prison started polishing the gurney, checking the syringes and digging the hole he had lawyers scrambling all over the place trying to convince people that killing him would be cruel and unusual. The method used was neither cruel nor unusual enough, I thought. But I digress ... Last week we saw the convictions overturned of the people who killed 202 strangers in Bali in October 2002. It seems like only a few months ago that we saw television images of the murderers smiling and rejoicing about the many perpetual virgins that they were going to get in heaven after they were executed, but they soon had lawyers working on appeals. Maybe their faith wasn't as strong as they pretended it was, maybe they thought that Allah would be so pleased with them that he would tear down the walls of any prison which held them, or maybe they just decided to abandon Pascal's wager and admit that a long life in prison was better than eternity sharing a hole in the ground with a pig carcass. Whatever the reason, there will be no virgins now and if they try it again they won't be able to use the retrospectivity of the law to get away a second time.
Australian Biologics (24/7/2004)
For some time now the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has been pursuing a quack called Jennie Burke and her business, Australian Biologics, over some false and misleading advertising that the company had been doing. Australian Biologics was (and still is) offering several worthless and useless "diagnostic" procedures which could be used to make people think that they had diseases or ailments which could be treated by quacks. The action was scheduled for court this week but settlement was reached by consent last week. Here is what the ACCC had to say in its media release:
ACCC settles proceedings against Australian Biologics
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has settled, by consent, its proceedings against Australian Biologics Testing Services Pty Ltd and its director, Ms Janette Burke.
The ACCC had instituted proceedings in the Federal Court, Sydney, alleging that representations made in brochures and on Australian Biologics' website in 2001 and part of 2002 were false, misleading, and deceptive. The ACCC alleged that the representations were not supported by scientific (or medical) testing.
Australian Biologics provides medical services including Thermography, Live Blood Analysis and the Bolans Clot Retraction Test. It promoted these services in printed brochures and on the Internet.
Australian Biologics and Ms Burke have undertaken to the court not to make 29 specific claims as to the efficacy of the services. The court also ordered that Australian Biologics forward a notice to all practitioners who referred patients to Australian Biologics and to all patients who used the services of Australian Biologics between 1 July 2001 and 2 July 2004.
The ACCC alleged that Australian Biologics did not have reasonable grounds for making a number of specific statements about Thermography, Live Blood Analysis and the Bolans Clot Retraction Test. Examples of the representations were:
Australian Biologics and Ms Burke have agreed that these tests are not diagnostic tests and the results of such tests are not indicative of a specific medical condition.
"Where claims are made about the efficacy of medical testing services they should have a supportable scientific basis", ACCC Chairman, Mr Graeme Samuel, warned today. "The ACCC is of the view that such scientific support should be of a high standard such as articles published in peer reviewed magazines.
"This is even more important in relation to medical claims which can have a serious impact on a person's wellbeing.
"In this case the ACCC considered it important that any misleading impression about the services in the minds of patients should be corrected".
The ACCC alleged that Australian Biologics breached section 52 of the Trade Practices Act 1974, which prohibits corporations from engaging in misleading or deceptive conduct; section 53(c), which prohibits corporations from representing that goods or services have sponsorship, approval, performance characteristics, accessories, uses or benefits they do not have; and section 55A, which prohibits corporations from engaging in conduct likely to mislead the public about the nature, characteristics, suitability or quantity of services.
Release # MR 125/04
Issued: 15th July 2004
Australian Biologics doesn't bother to mention the consent decree on its web site, but just baldly says "Please follow this link to view the press release". When (or if) someone clicks on the link they are taken to a scan of a newspaper advertisement where what the ACCC says has been expressed in a subtly different way:
There may be insufficient scientific and medical evidence to support all of these claims about our services. These tests are not diagnostic tests and the results of such tests are not indicative of a specific medical condition.
Note the "may be insufficient". No maybe about it, there is NO evidence to support the claims. So, what will happen next? Will Australian Biologics stop testing people and then saying that their tests show that some alternative remedy is needed? Well, of course not! Live Blood Analysis and the other scams practised at Australian Biologics won't be used to diagnose "a specific medical condition", they will be used to diagnose general medical conditions like "weakened immune system", or "presence of toxins", or "chemical sensitivity", and it will be business as usual for Jennie Burke and the quacks she feeds victims to. Business may even be better, because people will have to keep coming back to see if their vague ailments are getting any better. And after a short time, when new names have been found for Thermography, Live Blood Analysis and Clot Retraction Testing, I would expect Australian Biologics (perhaps with a new company name and structure) to be doing what it has always done, and they will point to the advertisement and innocently state that they never said they were not going to be offering Differential Thermal Imaging, Erythrocytic Tomography and Hypothrombology.
|I have been threatened with legal action by Australian Biologics Testing Services Pty Ltd and Jennie Burke over the article above. As a concession, I have changed the article heading. Discussion with lawyers is proceeding. You can see the threat and my initial response here.|
PB August 14, 2004
More UFO nonsense (a tautology, I know) (24/7/2004)
The UFO Blogger I mentioned last week has continued with his obsession with the Australian Skeptics, and it looks like he is going to republish every picture of anyone involved with the organisation that he can find. His latest effort is to ridicule someone who demonstrated that a photograph of a space ship was really just an out-of-focus insect close to the camera. The UFO Blogger's form of debate is to suggest that someone with a PhD in chemistry who applies his mathematical skills to assist banks with the encryption of communications might not be smart enough to use a digital camera. A similar attack was made on me by one of the Blogger's friends, who commented that my business web site didn't give any clues as to what I did for a living. When I pointed out that the front page of the site carries no fewer than six mentions of the software product on which my business is based (it can be more than six if the right random advertisements appear), I received a reply which suggested that I was conversing with someone who could not read, so I abandoned the conversation. The best thing, however, is a picture of me which I think I will have printed on a t-shirt. If these people are examples of the state of UFO research in Australia then the place could be buzzing with aliens and they wouldn't notice.
Comment from the UFO Blogger:
I have it on good authority this is Peter Bowditch – Skeptic Vice President rushing to the Skeptics Canberra chapter function for Lynne Kelly.
I recognise the sports car and that hat, turkey teens and King Richard riding high above his flock. As Peter would say – "The midlife cris