The science goes round and round, and it comes out here (4/6/2005)
I have been doing an archaeological dig in my garage, and I came across a stack of stuff I wrote when I was at university many years ago. As a prerequisite for studying psychology, I had to also do some introductory anthropology and sociology. By coincidence I just happened to pick up a book by Martin Gardner this week in which he wrote about Derek Freeman's criticism of the work of Margaret Mead. This reminded me of some examples of how to do and not to do science that I came across in that particular Behavioural Sciences department. (Please don't bother to tell me that the social sciences are not sciences. I have heard it all before.)
(This article is a bit long for the front page. You can read it here.)
Deja vu, tu quoque (4/6/2005)
I have often mentioned the practice of quackery supporters defending their position not by offering evidence but by attacking real medicine. (It is not only medical quacks who do this, and I expect a significant amount of it from the creationists in the debate coming up next week – "there are problems with evolution, so creation must be true". Also, it was the response from Motorola when I complained about the dismal quality of my daughter's new, expensive, but now useless mobile phone. I finally told Motorola that I didn't care how bad Nokia or LG phones are because it was a Motorola that I had paid for and which was now broken.) This email illustrates the principle nicely:
Dear Mr. Bowditch (Peter),
Your Ratbags website never ceases to amaze.
Before going too far in your highly personalized attacks on people who practice complementary / alternative medicine, and how they make claims for efficacy which are not true; it might be prudent to do a little factual inquiry as to the nature of (now) Professor John Dwyer's medical research while at Yale University until 1987.
He claimed to be able to transplant live thymus tissue from children having surgery, into the arms of other adults (say immuno-compromised AIDS patients), and reported many therapeutic benefits thereof due to "reconstitution of the immune system".
He continued such claims for efficacy via "thymus transplantation" until the late 1990's, even suggesting to set up a clinic for that purpose at Prince of Wales.
When the first authentic thymus transplant was finally made by a leading biomedical researcher at Duke in 2001, she confirmed that he had only been transplanting dead tissue, with subsequent "immune response" due to rejection (like for putting a stick in your arm).
Such thymus-transplants today are used mainly to study the effect of transferring live viruses into an animal host.
These facts are all in the peer-reviewed medical literature. Please feel free to contact any of the authors of such articles, say from Nature Medicine or Annual Reviews of Immunology, if you wish further authoritative opinion.
The Professor Dwyer referred to was, before he retired, the head of the School of Medicine at the University of New South Wales. In October 2002 he was appointed by my state's health department to chair a committee investigating egregious medical quackery, at which point the attacks on him intensified.
All that is really suggested in the email above is that Professor Dwyer once conducted research which lead nowhere, but that, in the way that human nature works, he was reluctant to give up his ideas. Subsequent research showed that he had been going about things in the wrong way. All of this really means nothing and does not in any way reduce my admiration for Professor Dwyer. I happen to disagree with him over the affliction called "Chronic Fatigue Syndrome" as well, but that also really means nothing. What is important is that even if Professor Dwyer had been found guilty of gross scientific misconduct (and there has never even been a whisper of that), this would in no way validate the outrageous, fraudulent and often dangerous practices that he (and I) fight against. When the only defence someone has is to attack the messenger from the other side, then it usually means that what they are defending is indefensible.
Consistently idiotic (4/6/2005)
Some of the weirdest people you find in the anti-medicine world are the anti-chemical loons. Some of them claim to be and appear to be one-trick ponies, in that they concentrate exclusively on one chemical as the source of all ills and world problems. Examples of these dreadful chemicals are milk, aspartame, mercury, fluoride and Ritalin. Why I say they "claim to be" one-trick ponies is that they extend their silliness into opposition to other chemicals, and it is very rare (almost unheard of) to find one who is opposed to one of these chemicals but not others. They are consistent in their idiocy. It's when they extend their complaints without any apparent reason that their true anti-science, anti-medicine (and anti-intellectual) biases show.
I have seen two examples of this lately. The anti-amalgamists have long professed their horror at dentists doing root canal work and have had to invent all sorts of terrible things that can happen to people who have these procedures done to them. All this does is reveal that the anti-amalgamists are really anti-dentists. This was confirmed for me recently when I found out that there is opposition from the same people to dentists offering tooth-whitening services. As there can be no conceivable connection between the three procedures except that they are carried out in mouths by dentists, opposition to all three makes no sense unless the real opposition is to dentistry per se.
I was prompted to write this because of a coincidence which happened a few days ago. I saw an advertisement on television for the sugar substitute Splenda. (This product is made by altering the structure of the sucrose molecule to make it indigestible, so it still stays sweet but provides no calories.) I said to my wife that I supposed that the anti-aspartamistas would be opposed to that too, and, right on cue, arch-loon Betty Martini publishes an article with the title "UK Sweetener Co Admits Sucralose (Splenda) Is Synthetic". Well, duh! The ads say "made from sugar", which sort of suggests to sentient beings that it is synthetic. Of course, I am talking about "sentient beings" and that rules out Betty. And do you want to know why she doesn't like sucralose? It's because it is just like DDT! The amazing thing is that there are people who take this stupid woman seriously.
Old, dead guest writers (4/6/2005)
If you think that the criticism of the nonsense of homeopathy is new, read what Oliver Wendell Holmes had to say about it in 1842. He called his essay "Homeopathy and Its Kindred Delusions".
Coming up shortly (4/6/2005)
Just to make sure I don't have any spare time, I have the following public appearances coming up over the next few weeks. The creation debate will be occupying some time over the next three weeks which would normally be spent on doing things for this site, but I am sure that the trade-off will be worth it.
Carelessness Corner (4/6/2005)
People blithely use the word "nanosecond" without understanding that it is the approximate time taken for light to travel the length of the long side of a piece of A4 copy paper. The shortest interval of time which can be reliably detected by humans is the "ohnosecond", which is defined as the time between asking a computer to delete something and realising that you don't really want it deleted at all. Such an event happened at Ratbag Castle this weekend, and while the exclamation might not have actually been "Oh, no!" it did have four letters in it. (Which reminds me of the late and great television star, Graham Kennedy, who died last week and once famously announced on television that the call of a crow sounded like "Faaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaark!". But I digress ...)
The particular thing deleted was the complete FrontPage copy of The Bear's Progress. In real life I always tell my clients that I have never met anyone with too many backups but I have seen many with one too few. Luckily I take my own advice and I was able to recover most of what had been lost. What I couldn't get back, however, was all the work I had done for this week's update. What this is leading to is that I don't have the time right now to do all the image editing and word writing again, so the next episode of The Bear's adventures will not appear until next week.
A short update this week because I have been spending time preparing my opening statement in the great creation debate. Also, I was called out of town unexpectedly and as well as restricted time to work on the site I only have limited access to a 56k dialup connection (which actually reports a connection speed of 31.2k!) for research and site updating. Cable broadband sure does spoil you for slow connections.
Creation debate (11/6/2005)
The great debate between Australian Skeptics and Answers in Genesis is taking place on the Sydney Morning Herald's Webdiary pages. Read my first submission here.
What should I quote? (11/6/2005)
As part of my preparation for the debate I have been reading parts of the Bible again. Someone claiming to be a Christian started quoting scripture at me during the week so I responded in kind. She then told me that the Bible meant nothing unless you lived your life by it. I asked her if she agreed that disobedient children should be stoned to death (as commanded in Deuteronomy 21:18-21) and that it was a sin to wear mixed-fibre fabrics (Leviticus 19:19), and I also pointed out that several times in Deuteronomy there are instructions to obey all commandments like these. Her response? That I was quoting the Bible selectively. I will repeat that. Someone who selectively chooses which of God's commandments to obey and which to ignore accused me of selective quotation. I said that next time I will quote the whole thing. The hypocrisy of some pretend religionists is sometimes (always?) amazing.
SkeptoBear's World Tour – Day Twelve (11/6/2005)
Still on creationism, one of the places that SkeptoBear and his friends visited was the National Center for Science Education. Read about that, and The Bear's new friend, in the latest chapter of his adventures.
Ian Plimer was right. They tell lies for God (18/6/2005)
The debate between Australian Skeptics and Answers in Genesis is over, the formal part at least. The discussion is still going on in the public forum on the web site where the debate was held, if it can be dignified with the word "discussion". The debate wasn't a complete waste of time, as I learned something about the creationists that I didn't know before. I suspected it, but suspicion is not the same as knowing, and now I know that despite their protestations of being good and faithful Christians they are prepared to lie as much as is needed to avoid exposing the vacuity and idiocy of their particular mental illness.
The question for the debate was "Did the universe and life evolve, or was it specially created in 6 days?", but at no time did the creationists ever even mention six days, let alone provide any evidence to support the claim. Despite this, I was told that the skeptics had not been able to refute the evidence provided for special creation. All evidence offered by the skeptics was dismissed out of hand. I was told that I had offered no evidence, and then I was told that the evidence I had offered really indicated a young earth. That's right – no evidence but the evidence said ... It was said that the references supplied by the skeptics were inadequate, but almost all of the references supplied by the creationists were to where they had said the same thing on their own web site. I was accused of ad hominem attacks when I had never mentioned anybody from the other side, but the other side had no problem naming me and saying that nothing could be expected from me. Each time I asked for some evidence of a young earth I was ignored, except for a ludicrous statement that any potential flaw in a measurement (such as the age of the universe) was evidence that an alternative theory was true. In the face of such sophistry, discussion seems pointless. I do not have Job's patience.
I finally gave the job up as useless when I was told two things. The first was that the debate wasn't about creation versus evolution but was really about creationism versus materialism. In other words, we were being asked to debate not with scientists but with people who believed in a fantasy world. In a fantasy world anything is possible, but I was a bit surprised to see them admit that that is what the world of creationism is. The second thing I was told was that the King James Bible is not a correct translation and cannot be taken literally. I will say that again in another form – people who continually quote the Bible as inerrant truth were telling me that it was not inerrant. More spectacularly, the part that they said was incorrect was the creation story in Genesis 2. They were asking me to believe the Bible and then telling me not to believe the relevant part.
Even then, they couldn't stop lying. To get around the problem that Genesis 1 and 2 provide different sequences for creation, they invented a linguistic property of Hebrew that the language does not have. I happen to know someone who likes to ask fundamentalists if they have read the Bible in the original language like he has, and the word "scornful" hardly describes his opinion of someone who invents a tense in a language in order to deceive people. When I pointed out the consequences of accepting that the King James Bible may not be an accurate translation I was accused of trying to find fault with the Bible, but the fact was that it was the creationists who had suddenly discovered that the Bible was wrong, not me. Here is what I said about the consequences of translation error in the King James Bible:
It is the reliance on the Bible which is most puzzling, however, as our opponents have now stated that the Authorised King James version of the Bible from 1611 is not inerrant and is, in fact, an unreliable translation! That's right – the most important and influential book ever written in the English language (the works of Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer make up the trifecta) is, as many have surmised, merely a magnificent work of literature and not the Word of God. What was God thinking when He let King James's editors put this book together? Why did He allow them to make mistakes? Could it have been a test, or perhaps, as Phillip Grosse suggested with regard to fossils and Adam and Eve's navels, just God being deceptive?
The real question becomes "What else in the Bible is wrong?". If we cannot accept that Genesis 2 is correct, then what can we accept? If translation errors are possible, who is to say that the English translation of the Sermon on the Mount in the King James Bible is anything like a true account of what Jesus said? After all, it was translated from Greek and the author of Matthew was working from a third-hand account of a speech given in Aramaic. Much emphasis has been placed on the lack of first-hand, eye witness accounts of evolution happening, but surely the same caveat must be placed on hearsay filtered through multiple translations. What a mess! If the King James Bible can't be trusted to tell us about the Rising of the Sun, what can it reliably say about the Rising of the Son?
I knew when I started that I was never going to convince any true believer to change his or her mind. The purpose of debates like this for the skeptics is to expose the lies and sophistry of the other side to onlookers, to get practice at debating people with no scruples, and to see if any new lies have been invented since last time. The tactics used by the creationists are identical to those used by the anti-vaccination liars, which is to stand up, tell a monstrous lie which requires a detailed technical response to show the truth, and then sit down leaving the question hanging and no time for an adequate reply. There is no difference in quality between "There are no intermediary fossils" or "There is no way that an eye can evolve" and "Vaccines are made from aborted foetuses" or "Thimerosal in vaccines causes autism". The lie is there, the spectators have heard it, and the liars rely on the fact that scientists take too long to explain the truth and are too polite to shout "That's bullshit!"
You can see the statements I wrote at Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. The entire debate can be seen at the Webdiary site, including the comments by bystanders. Feel free to join in the comment streams, but be prepared to be be horrified by the mindless acceptance of dogma by some people. The debates are at Round 1, Round 2 and Round 3, and comments can be accessed by links on those pages.
If you want to read some truth about creationism see John Stear's excellent No Answers in Genesis, and for a comprehensive rebuttal of most of the creationist nonsense, see An Index to Creationist Claims by Mark Isaak.
And I am still waiting for the first piece of evidence to support the claim that the earth is only 6,000 years old. Any evidence at all, no matter how small. Just something other than "You don't know everything so we must be right".
Speaking of liars ... (18/6/2005)
My mailbox this week has been full of requests to say something about the disgraceful article in Salon.com and Rolling Stone by Robert Kennedy about vaccination. This travesty regurgitates all the old claims and lies about thimerosal and autism, spouted by the same crowd of anti-vaccination liars as last time, like the Geiers and Boyd Haley. I've been busy with other things but as it turns out I don't have to write anything anyway, because my friend who runs the Respectful Insolence Blog has done the writing for me. He described it by saying that "Salon.com has just plopped down on the web the biggest, steamingest, drippiest turd", and I couldn't have put that better myself.
Normal transmission will be resumed shortly (18/6/2005)
Now that the great mass debate is over, I will be able to get back to more pressing issues next week. SkeptoBear helped with the debate, and he made the point that even a bear with a head full of cotton wool knew more about the universe and science than some of the opposition dolts did. He found the whole thing quite stressful and is having a rest for a few days.
Redundancy in English lexicography (25/6/2005)
If you go to thesaurus.com and search for the word "deceit", you get the following list of words. After spending a few days "debating" creationists, I believe that a reasonable case could be made for replacing all these words with the single word "creationism".
The Dust of Souls
Click for larger view
actor, ambidexterity, ambidextrousness, appearance, artfulness, artifice, astuteness, baloney, bamboozlement, banana oil, beard, beguilement, betrayal, blarney, blind, bogue, boondoggle, bum, bunco, bunk, cahoots, canniness, cant, cheat, cheating, chicane, chicanery, circumvention, cloak, complicity, con, con game, concealment, connivance, conspiracy, copy, corruption, counterfeit, cover, cover up, cozenage, cozening, craft, craftiness, criminality, crocodile tears, crookedness, cunning, deceitfulness, deception, deceptive marking, deceptiveness, defraudation, defrauding, diddling, dirt, dirty dealing, dirty pool, dirty trick, dirty work, disguise, dishonesty, disinformation, dissemblance, dissimulation, dodge, double-cross, double-dealing, dummy, duplicity, entrapping, equivocation, facsimile, faithlessness, fake, faking, falsehood, falsity, fast one, fast shuffle, feint, fix, flam, flimflam, forgery, fourberie, frame, fraud, fraudulence, fraudulent artifice, front, graft, guile, guilt, guiltiness, guise, gyp, hanky-panky, hoax, hoaxing, hogwash, hokum, humbug, hustle, hypocrisy, hypocriticalness, imitation, imposition, imposture, improbity, infamy, infidelity, insidiousness, insincerity, intrigue, jazz, jive, juggling, junque, knavery, knavishness, legerdemain, lip service, lying, mask, masking, masquerade, mendacity, mimicry, misleading, misrepresentation, overreaching, paint, pecksniffery, perfidiousness, perfidy, pharisaicalness, phoney, phony, piety, plant, platitude, plot, pomposity, pretence, pretentiousness, prevarication, protective colouring, pseud, pseudo, put-on, racket, rascality, red herring, reproduction, rip-off, run around, ruse, sanctimoniousness, sanctimony, scam, scheme, screen, sell, sellout, shade, shady deal, sham, sharp practice, shell game, shift, show, shroud, simulacrum, skin game, skunk, slyness, smokescreen, snow job, soft soap, sophism, spoof, stealing, sting, stratagem, stunt, subterfuge, sweet talk, swindle, total shuck, trapping, treachery, treason, trick, trickery, trickiness, trumpery, two-facedness, two-timing, underhandedness, unscrupulousness, untruth, veil, whitewash, whitewash job, wile, wiliness.
Kennedy redux (25/6/2005)
Last week I mentioned a disgusting pack of lies written by Robert Kennedy and published by Salon.com and Rolling Stone which set out (and probably succeeded) to frighten parents about the non-existent dangers of thimerosal in vaccines which no longer contain the chemical. If you look at the end of the article on the Rolling Stone site a week after publication you see the following disclaimers. Translated into simple English, they say that the article was not properly researched and the author didn't care if what he said was true or not. The anti-vaccination liars won't care – they will be citing this garbage for the rest of time. By the way, Robert Kennedy spoke at a conference for Ramtha believers earlier this year. If you wonder who Ramtha might be, look here. Kennedy is obviously a journalist with a strong sense of respect for truth and common sense.
The Great Red Dragon and the Woman Clothed in Sun
Click for larger image
NOTE: This story has been updated to correct several inaccuracies in the original, published version. As originally reported, American preschoolers received only three vaccinations before 1989, but the article failed to note that they were innoculated a total of eleven times with those vaccines, including boosters. The article also misstated the level of ethylmercury received by infants injected with all their shots by the age of six months. It was 187 micrograms – an amount forty percent, not 187 times, greater than the EPA's limit for daily exposure to methylmercury. Finally, because of an editing error, the article misstated the contents of the rotavirus vaccine approved by the CDC. It did not contain thimerosal. Salon and Rolling Stone regret the errors.
An earlier version of this story stated that the Institute of Medicine convened a second panel to review the work of the Immunization Safety Review Committee that had found no evidence of a link between thimerosal and autism. In fact, the IOM convened the second panel to address continuing concerns about the Vaccine Safety Datalink Data Sharing program, including those raised by critics of the IOM's earlier work. But the panel was not charged with reviewing the committee's findings. The story also inadvertently omitted a word and transposed two sentences in a quote by Dr. John Clements, and incorrectly stated that Dr. Sam Katz held a patent with Merck on the measles vaccine. In fact, Dr. Katz was part of a team that developed the vaccine and brought it to licensure, but he never held the patent. Salon and Rolling Stone regret the errors.
Note: In January 2011 Salon retracted the entire article.
Alternative idiocy (25/6/2005)
Many supporters of alternative medicine behave as if alt-med is a religion, and they make constant statements of faith. If any challenge is made to their holy scriptures they either ignore what is said or pretend that by saying something twice it will become fact. Two examples of this happened to me in just one day this week. The first was someone who demanded evidence that anyone said or believed that liver flukes cause cancer. The person doing the demanding is a strong supporter of cancer quack Hulda Clark, so I quoted the following material from Clark's web site, where Clark is quoting Clark's book:
For many years we have all believed that cancer is different from other diseases. We believed that cancer behaves like a fire, in that you can't stop it once it has started. Therefore, you have to cut it out or radiate it to death or chemically destroy every cancerous cell in the body since it can never become normal again. NOTHING COULD BE MORE WRONG! And we have believed that cancers of different types such as leukemia or breast cancer have different causes. wrong again!
In this book you will see that all cancers are alike. They are all caused by a parasite. A single parasite! It is the human intestinal fluke. And if you kill this parasite, the cancer stops immediately. The tissue becomes normal again. In order to get cancer, you must have this parasite.
How can the human intestinal fluke cause cancer? This parasite typically lives in the intestine where it might do little harm, causing only colitis, Crohn's disease, or irritable bowel syndrome, or perhaps nothing at all. But if it invades a different organ, like the uterus or the kidneys or liver, it does a great deal of harm. If it establishes itself in the liver, it causes cancer! It only establishes itself in the liver in some people. These people have isopropyl alcohol in their bodies.
All cancer patients have both isopropyl alcohol and the intestinal fluke in their livers. The solvent, isopropyl alcohol, is responsible for letting the fluke establish itself in the liver. In order to get cancer, you must have both the parasite and isopropyl alcohol in your body.
(From: "The Cure for all Cancers", p.1f.; copyright notice)
The response was to completely snip the quote from Clark's site and repeat the question "Just who believes that all cancers are caused by a liver fluke?"
The second case was a repetition of the nonsense from Professor Boyd Haley that 49.5% of the chemical compound thimerosal is another chemical compound altogether. Another anti-vaccination and anti-amalgam loon was cited as an authority. I made the following comment to the writer. At the time of writing I have not received a reply, but if I get one it will almost certainly consist of a mixture of abuse, non sequitur, appeal to authority and nonsense.
Don't let your sugar bowl get near a naked flame. Sugar is 31.25% natural gas (methane) by weight. Wait, it's 68.75% carbon dioxide by weight, so that will probably put out the fire. If the CO2 doesn't work, sugar is also 62.5% water by weight so that might help. It's a pity about the 54.2% ethanol by weight, though, because that could make it flare up again.
Can you see how idiotic it is to talk about one chemical compound being x% of another yet? If not, don't go near sugar because you might burst into flame, drown, suffocate and get drunk.
Did I mention that sugar is also 87.5% carbon monoxide by weight and will poison you? And the 37.5% carbon by weight will make a mess of your clothes (unless you squeeze it real hard and turn it into diamonds).
Picture stuff (25/6/2005)
I received some comments about the images I used to illustrate the piece I wrote last week about the great creation debate, specially the Dali drawing of Lucifer. I wanted to use another image from the same Divine Comedy series this week, but I found that the very informative site about the series which I had been using for a reference had disappeared. There are several sites out there dealing with Dali's illustrations for the book but none of them seem to have a complete set of quality images, and the one I was using also had commentaries which showed how the pictures related to the text. As I think that this is one of the most amazing collections of pictures I have ever seen, I am putting together my own collection and you can see the first stage here.
On a related matter, I am often asked how I can appreciate anything religious when I reject religion from my personal life and belief system. I tell these people to look at the pictures and statues, visit the cathedrals, temples and mosques, listen to the music, and remember that these things were all made by humans. The creators of these wonders may have been inspired by a god, but no god actually helped with the work.
Whales have been in the news around my place this week. It is whale migration season here, and a couple of humpbacks dropped in to Sydney Harbour to pay the locals a visit. They splashed around, stayed a few days and then, like all tourists, moved on to the next place on the itinerary. The real news, however, has been the International Whaling Commission meeting in South Korea, where the Japanese again tried to get the civilised world to let them blow up whales without restrictions.
I have no objection to people killing animals for food as long as the animals are treated properly before slaughter and killed humanely. I object to Australia's live sheep trade to the Middle East because it fails on both counts, and I object to whale killing because the method of slaughter is barbaric and, in any case, there is absolutely nothing which can be obtained from a whale which is essential for human existence. I don't object to whale hunting because whales are some sort of special smart creature, either. I just think that the days when it was acceptable to kill an animal by using an explosive spear are gone. A spokesman for the Japanese whaling industry put the case against whaling perfectly when he told a press conference that whale tasted just like beef. Unfortunately, none of the reporters at the meeting were rude (or honest) enough to call out "Then why don't you just eat cows, idiot?"
Australia is one of the leading nations in the fight against whaling, a position we are entitled to take because we once had a thriving whale killing industry. Nobody seems to know how to stop the Japanese if they decide to just go ahead and start mass killing in Antarctic waters, but the answer for Australia would seem to be quite simple. Ban whaling ships from entering any Australian port except in an emergency, and even then forbid refuelling or replenishment of supplies.
Now that I have finished agreeing with Greenpeace, I will move on to agreeing with a fundamentalist religious sect.
In December 2004, Mr Justice Higgins, sitting as the Victorian Civil and Administrative Appeals Tribunal, found that the Catch The Fire Ministries and two of its pastors had breached the law by vilifying Muslims. This week the judge ordered that CTFM should apologise and also pay for newspaper advertisements announcing the decision. The two pastors have announced that they will go to prison rather than apologise. Apparently the form of vilification had included reading aloud excerpts from the Qur'an which could be construed as promoting violence against kaffirs. (I chose the word "kaffir" because it is a term used in Islam to vilify non-believers.) The obvious sequel to this would be Christians trying to catch Muslims publicly reading passages from the Bible where God orders His followers to kill non-believers and then running off to court to complain about hurt feelings. Thus the madness continues.
I had hardly heard of Catch The Fire Ministries before this nonsense broke out and I don't particularly like what I see of their philosophy, but they have a perfect right to be as silly as they like provided that they don't do any real damage. All that the Islamic Council has achieved by initiating this action is to give CTFM's loopy ideas a huge amount of publicity and provide an opportunity for bigots from all sides to shout at each other outside a courtroom (and appear on television doing it, of course). If people want freedom to practice their religions (and there is very little restriction on that in Australia provided that live animal sacrifices and abuse of children are not involved) then they have to allow people of other faiths to practice theirs. By definition, anyone who follows a particular religion believes that outsiders are unforgiven heathens. Freedom of speech and freedom of religion both demand that those heathens be allowed to say almost anything, without regard to the feelings of people outside their circle.
One unintended consequence of anti-vilification laws is that they don't stop the vilification, they just make it less visible. If people and organisations are free to speak their minds then the public is able to judge them on what they say. If they are not allowed to say anything except in private, then there is no way to see the top of the slippery slope. The answer to hate speech, or any other form of offensive speech, is more speech, not suppression.
(Someone once commented that an atheist is just someone who believes in one fewer god than do many religious believers. The corollary to this is that an atheist must also have one more source of vilification than a religious person, because an atheist is outside everybody's circle. Luckily, God gave atheists thick skins.)
Dr Death (25/6/2005)
I was criticised recently for lack of balance in my choices of which forms and instances of medical fraud to feature here. The specific complaint was that I didn't have a page on this site about Dr Jayant Patel, late of Bundaberg Hospital in Queensland, Australia. My first response was that I don't have a page about every quack or charlatan in the world, not even all those whose web sites are listed here. My second response was that Dr Patel does not appear to have a web site himself, and nobody seems to have one supporting him. My third point was that Dr Patel was not practising quackery but was just a dangerously incompetent doctor. That wasn't good enough, and it was claimed that by not having something to say about him I was condoning his behaviour and I was exhibiting a double standard by criticising quacks but not members of something called "evil organised medicine". In fact, I was protecting him by not calling him a quack and it was all part of some form of cover-up.
To people outside Australia (and those within who have been in a coma or otherwise disconnected from the world for the last few weeks) the name Dr Jayant Patel might mean nothing, but he was a doctor who managed to get a job at Bundaberg Hospital by lying about his qualifications and overseas experience. It now seems that he may have been directly responsible for the deaths of something like 87 patients. He may not have deliberately killed them, but his negligence and ignorance did. His hiring has revealed a huge hole in the recruitment practices of whoever it was that let him have a job, and the extent of the damage has shown that better methods of whistleblowing are required. Dr Patel has fled the country and nobody knows where he is.
Quackery supporters are using Dr Patel as an example of the dangers of real medicine as compared to the absolute safety of alternatives. I have been challenged to name a single alternative practitioner who has killed 87 people. The facts are that real medicine has methods to deal with disasters like this, but alternative medicine hasn't even any useful system of adverse event reporting. There is a government enquiry under way, the recruitment and reporting problems are being identified and corrected, Dr Patel will be charged with criminal offences (manslaughter at least, possibly even murder), his extradition to Australia will be sought as soon as he is located, and he is looking forward to a long time behind bars. This was not a case of medical fraud, but one of a failure of management. It is a tragedy and a disgrace, but something is being done to stop it happening again.
One delightful irony of this whole matter is that Dr Patel apparently said that it was not necessary to wash hands between patients because germs mean nothing. It is rather bizarre to see people holding these comments up as examples of the incorrect thinking of real doctors when those same people accept chiropractic, naturopathy, energy medicine, acupuncture, homeopathy and other magical medical paradigms in which pathogenic organisms play no part. But then, hypocrisy is never short on the ground when quacks start criticising medicine.