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Nigerian scam foiled! (2/7/2005)
Gotcha! You thought I was talking about the Nigerian letters and that perhaps someone had done something about them. Wrong. This was a different kind of Nigerian scam altogether. In April the sleazy preacher Benny Hinn had a tour of Nigeria and was expecting to rake in some very big bucks indeed. Unfortunately for the Hinn bank account not enough people turned up to see him. The crowds were still large by the standards of some other countries, but in a place like Nigeria with a low per-capita income it takes very big crowds indeed if the expectations of someone like Hinn are to be met. What made the failure especially beautiful is that Hinn had a public melt-down at the third of his shows and started screeching to the faithful about how disappointing and unappreciative the Nigerians had been and how much money he was losing on the trip. Magic! You would pay to see it. Read all about it here.
A blip on the radar (2/7/2005)
Remember the multi-level company which tried to have this site shut down because they didn't like me mentioning their adventures in court? (They had been found to be acting in breach of the anti-pyramid-scheme provisions of the Trade Practices Act 1974.) Unfortunately the judge who made the decision died before he could bring down his final orders and there will be a delay until a replacement judge can be briefed. In one surreal moment, someone from the company told me that they were negotiating with the judge and he had agreed that they were acting legally. The clown who told me this didn't know that I knew about the untimely death of Justice Selway, but he probably wouldn't have cared anyway.
The Bear is Back!
See Day 13 of the adventure here.
Hillsong Church (4/7/2005)
My local Pentecostal cash collector, Hillsong, is back in the news this week. Their annual conference is now on and initial reports are that the venue which nominally holds a maximum of about 16,000 people is packed to its 30,000 capacity. I assume that loaves and fishes are on the catering list. Again, prominent politicians are appearing on stage and offering support for the organisation, although how much of this is because they believe in the principles of the organisation and how much is vote chasing is unknown.
Hillsong doesn't like talking about money, but Pastor Brian Houston, who runs the place, appeared on television over the weekend and said that the income was "about $40 million" but he wasn't quite sure. I suppose that when you don't have to account to anyone for the money then weighing it and making a guess is as good as counting it. When I say that they don't like talking about money I am referring to the executives who run the corporation. The parishioners are very ready to talk about money, and are eager to assure me that spending about $700,000 out of an income of $40 million on good works is extreme generosity. They also like to tell me about how the Bible commands tithing. Someone wrote to me back in April with all the usual comments, and then wrote to me again this week with a subtle accusation of hiding from the truth. You can read his original email here.
Here is this week's conversation:
From: "Daniel W"
Subject: I sent you an email earlier in the year
Date: Sat, 02 Jul 2005 19:09:58 +1000
Hi, I sent you an email earlier in the year and you didn't bother putting it on your website so could you do so? or do you only put on the ones that you want?
I usually post emails to my site, although I don't necessarily do it immediately they come in. In this case I put it aside for some reason. It is on the site now.
I would like to comment on some things you said. Firstly, I would like to thank you for saying that you enjoy reading my opinions even though you don't necessarily agree with them. It would be a dull place if everyone agreed with everyone else, but I have found some people who profess to Christianity yet would like to silence any conflicting opinions.
Secondly, I agree that the correct name for the business generally referred to as "Hillsong" is Hillsong Church Ltd, an Australian public company limited by guarantee. When you are next speaking to any of the directors of this company you might like to clear up something which is puzzling me. Why did the company formerly named "Sydney Christian Life Centre Limited" change its name to "Hillsong Church Ltd" on the same day that "Hillsong Church Limited" changed its name to "Hillsong Christian Life Centre Ltd". You might also ask them what Hillsong Emerge Ltd does and why separate incorporations are required for Hillsong Church Incorporated and Hillsong Youth Services Incorporated. I can guess what Hillsong Media & Performing Arts Incorporated does.
Third, as you seem familiar with the financial affairs of the various Hillsong entities, please fax me a copy of the accounts. As there seems to be quite a network of incorporated bodies and legal entities at the same address, if possible I would like separate profit and loss statements and balance sheets for each body as well as consolidated accounts. (I know that some of these documents have different names because of the different legal status of companies versus non-profit bodies, but the principles still apply.)
Lastly, the verses you quoted from Matthew 22 show Jesus giving explicit instructions that people should pay taxes. Is Hillsong Church Ltd planning on paying any corporate income taxes in the immediate future?
David Icke (2/7/2005)
Aficionados of loopiness may be aware of David Icke. Icke is famous for promoting the idea that many world leaders, such as the British Royal Family and various members of the Bush family, are lizards. That's right - lizards. He claims that these people have the ability to "shape shift" between human and reptilian forms. In one wonderful exchange of craziness, I once witnessed a conversation between David Icke and Duncan Roads, editor of Nexus Magazine, where they both agreed that the House of Windsor was definitely lizardly but they had a large disagreement over whether Princess Anne had ever been witnessed doing a shape shift. David said "yes", Duncan said "no". It is a matter of great pride to me that I have been mentioned by name on one of David Icke's web sites, together with the suggestion that I might be a member of the Illuminati. (No, I am not making this up!) This email arrived this week:
Are you saying that David Icke is crazy?? Do you know what that means?? No, obviously not, has he been stamped by our whip snapping government as having a mental health problem? No, and have you or anyone else got the right to say who is 'crazy' or not? No, so really please don't label people Thank you.
It is essential for the protection of the New World Order that David Icke be silenced. You may think that all he does is tell people that kings and presidents are lizards and that this is just harmless buffoonery, but this information needs to be kept from the general populace lest they panic like those New Yorkers who heard the famous Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds. Thirty-four years ago this weekend, on July 3, 1971, Jim Morrison was murdered in Paris by agents of the Illuminati, murdered because he dared to style himself as The Lizard King. If you add the digits of "1971" you get 18, break that into three equal parts for the day of the month on which the murder took place and you get 6+6+6. Morrison was 27 at the time. 27 is 9+9+9, but was Morrison's body facing up or down when the death was discovered? Think about it. You have been warned.
Why you should not forget your flu shots! (9/7/2005)
Cough. Gurgly, congested chest. Blocked nose. Watery eyes. Aching in the joints. Headache. Nausea. Sore throat. Extreme tiredness. (Bright side - no autism from thimerosal in missed flu shot.) Paracetamol. Pseudoephedrine hydrochloride. Strepsils. Last lemons from the tree to make hot juice and honey drink. Lots of cups of hot tea. Bed rest. Can't think of anything to say about London (or Madrid or Bali) that I didn't say about New York in September 2001. Back to bed. Back here next week. Sorry.
Thank you (16/7/2005)
I would like to publicly thank all the people who sent me nice "get well" emails during the week. I will answer each of the messages personally during the next few days. This site started out as a hobby to amuse myself, but it has now grown to the point where it is a regular part of the lives of many thousands of people. This response is very gratifying and encouraging, but it is also humbling and means that I have a responsibility to keep being interesting and informative. The increasing visitor numbers and the complimentary emails I receive (which far outnumber the hate mail) tell me that I am doing something right, but every now and then even the best managed one man band can have problems if the piccolo player calls in sick when the theremin player is on vacation and the first violin has been called for jury duty.
I wasn't joking when I talked about missing flu vaccinations. Last year I got all out of sequence. I went to the US in January and had to have a shot before I went because there was an epidemic going on there. That meant that I had to have my shot in December but the 2004 formulation for the Australian winter hadn't been released so I had the 2003 version. By the time May came around and the 2004 vaccine was available it seemed that the vaccination I had had would be sufficient, and this turned out to be the case. This year I simply forgot. Actually, I didn't forget, I just didn't get around to it in time. I won't make the same mistake next year.
Being sick and then spending two days out of town giving talks about herbal medicines meant that I had some catching up to do at work (another one man band where nobody does any work while the boss is away), so this week's update is a grab-bag of short items. I was planning to take next weekend off to go to Amnesty International's annual general meeting, but even I am suffering Millenium Project withdrawal syndrome so I have cancelled the trip and it will be business as usual here. Amnesty will just have to save the world without me.
Every two weeks I run a link check on this site, and there are usually some broken links. If a link stays broken for the same reason for three successive checks it is removed from the listings, but a record is kept in the database which builds the list pages. After the last check there were about 80 of these old links so I went through them to see how many were really extinct. I found about ten where the site had reappeared and another ten where the site had been resurrected under another domain name. About fifty have gone forever or had such generic names that it was useless trying to ask Google to find them again. (An example was a site called "People with cancer".) I now have ten dead sites which I would like to add back to the list if they ever come back to life, but I won't be shedding many tears if they stay dead forever.
One thing I have noticed over time is the diminishing number of racist sites. When I first set up the collection I had almost 300 of them but the number is now down to an even 100, so I have taken the category listing back to a single page. It was once thought that the Internet would allow for the expansion of racism by providing a platform but all it really did was to demonstrate that supposedly monolithic organisations like the Ku Klux Klan were really just collections of splinter groups full of madmen fighting amongst themselves. Racism hasn't gone away, of course, but it seems to be nowhere near the Internet threat that it was once assumed to be. This is why organisations like Hatewatch withered away as well, but you know what they say about liberty and eternal vigilance ...
In the aftermath of the bombings in London the newspapers seem to be full of people trying to explain the motivations of the murderers and trying to find explanations for why they did what they did. I am not the least bit interested in any justification for the murders. These people simply decided that they would go out and kill a lot of strangers because they didn't like the strangers for some reason. Making excuses for the murderers just puts a veneer of legitimacy on their actions. If they believed that they were acting out of religious principles and that killing all those other people would somehow advance the cause of their religion then they were simply adding another data point to the evidence of the ridiculousness of religion. If they thought that their particular religion was being demeaned or ridiculed then that religion now requires more demeaning and ridicule.
Sense of Humour (16/7/2005)
I have often commented on the apparent lack of humour of many people who believe in witchcraft, superstition and woowoo. It seems, however, that sometimes those on the "Us" side can also miss the point if things are too subtle or not explained carefully. There has been a story in the media over the last week about a man who killed a three-year-old boy by boxing with him. Apparently he was worried that the boy might grow up gay and thought that teaching him to be violent might prevent this from happening. There is nothing funny about this, of course, and if the stories about the father's religious motivation are true then this is yet another case of belief in superstition causing someone to become insane.
Where things got funny is when someone rather tastelessly pretended to be some sort of fundamentalist Christian and posted messages to some newsgroups saying that the father should be rewarded rather than punished for ridding the world of a potential pervert. The messages were cross-posted to newsgroups populated by atheists and homosexuals, and the author then sat back to watch the fun. What was funny was not the message, which was an obvious troll and about as funny as a broken leg, but the reactions of people who take themselves far too seriously. Extreme atheists grabbed onto the message as an example of the intolerance of all religious people and over-sensitive gays went into melt-down about the possibility of the murderer getting a medal instead of a sentence. Hey, guys, it was a JOKE. An unfunny, tasteless and unnecessary joke, but a joke none the less. Settle down and direct your energies towards real problems. Bigotry and religious nonsense won't be defeated by jumping at shadows.
What have I done to deserve this? (16/7/2005)
I have somehow ended up on the mailing list of the Beloved Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba. Every day messages drop into my inbox offering peace and enlightenment. The question is - can I resist the temptation to send money and buy my way into heaven (or whatever afterlife followers of the Beloved Bhagawan Sri Sathya Sai Baba participate in)? I think I can hold out, but if I suddenly disappear into a puff of ash there will be delays in updating this site until I can get broadband access at the ashram.
During the week I went to Canberra to give a couple of talks about herbal medicine. When I got back I found that an author had sent me a book on the very subject of the deadly chemicals found in nature. It would have been very useful to have had the book before I went, but I didn't know it was coming. It has the wonderful title How to Poison Your Spouse the Natural Way, and I will have a review of it here next week.
Vaccines and foetuses (23/7/2005)
One of the lies told by anti-vaccination liars is that the ingredients used in vaccines include parts of aborted foetuses. One of the materials used in the manufacture of rubella vaccines is a cell line derived from a legal abortion carried out in 1962. This is a tissue culture, very many generations removed from its source, and could only be considered aborted foetal tissue in the minds of people with, well, no minds at all. It is used to grow the organisms used to create the vaccine and is as much an ingredient of the vaccine as the acid used to prepare the sheet steel before pressing into body panels is a part of a car. None of these facts are of interest to anti-vaccination liars, of course, as their objective is to find anything which can possibly be used to frighten parents out of vaccinating their children.
In 2003 the anti-vaccination liars joined forces with the anti-abortionists to request a ruling from the Catholic Church about this use of the products of abortion, with the obvious expectation that they would receive an immediate knee-jerk condemnation of the practice and would therefore be able to threaten vaccinating parents with an eternity in Hell. What really happened was that the Church spent a long time considering the matter and talking to scientists and people who might know what they are talking about. The Pontifical Academy for Life has just released its findings. No, the Church does not like the use of anything to do with abortions and recommends that alternatives be sought, but that doesn't mean that Catholics can't vaccinate their children. This is how the ruling finished:
To summarise the summary, it says that while the Church does not like it, in the absence of any alternative it is permissible for Catholics to continue to vaccinate their children because of the overarching responsibility for the welfare of children. That is what the words "morally justified as an extrema ratio due to the necessity to provide for the good of one's children and of the people who come in contact with the children" mean. And are the anti-vaccination liars lying about this? Of course they are. That is what they do. The Australian Vaccination Network issued a media release with the deceptive title 'Vatican says, "Parents must oppose vaccines from human foetal remains"'. Other liar sites have similarly misrepresented the Church's ruling.
Yet another person wrote to me during the week trying to claim that the anti-vaccination liars are not opposed to vaccinations. That person was mistaken. There is nothing that is too evil for these people to do in the pursuit of their deranged objective of placing every child in the world at risk of death or serious injury. It is almost incomprehensible to sane people that anyone could hate children so much.
Book review (23/7/2005)
I have written a review of a book called How to Poison Your Spouse the Natural Way. This is a nice book about the real and perceived dangers in food. You can read the review here.
Skeptics Convention (23/7/2005)
Australian Skeptics will be holding their 2005 National Convention on the weekend of August 13 and 14 at Bond University on the Queensland Gold Coast. I will be giving a talk about the cult-like operations of MLM motivational organisations and there will be other speakers on topics as diverse as nuclear power, the treatment of addiction, the effect of violence in video games and David Hume's thoughts about miracles. You can see the full list of topics and speakers and book for the convention here.
The Bear is here again! (23/7/2005)
See Day Fourteen of SkeptoBear's World Tour here.
I love a good conspiracy. I was digging through some old emails and I found someone who had been asking questions about the deaths of Grace Kelly and John F Kennedy Jr. I had replied:
Here's the clue on the Grace/Di/Jack (both senior and junior) story. First of all, the killing of JFK Jr was a either a smokescreen or just someone from the UN keeping their hand in. The real conspiracy was with his father.
The first thing to notice is that JFK, Grace Kelly and Princess Di were all assassinated in cars. This, however, was just for convenience and had nothing to do with why they were assassinated. The real reason is given in a quite clear link between the people. Think about this - JFK's last name started with "K". Grace Kelly's maiden name started with "K". Diana lived in Knightsbridge before she was married and Kensington Palace afterwards. Another "K". Put them together and what do you have? "KKK". That's right. The assassinations were a warning to the Klan to stay out of CIA and FBI business. There is only room for so many three-letter organisations and the conflict had been simmering along for a long time. The killing of Diana, underlined and in bold because of her association with two "Ks" (three if you count her interview with Phillip Knightley), was the final message.
Publication in the peer-reviewed literature (23/7/2005)
Medical quacks and pseudoscientists don't like being told that they would have more credibility of their work was published in peer-reviewed journals. Often they will attack the peer review process itself and try to pretend that because it is not perfect is is not useful. Of course it is not perfect, because it is an invention and construction of humans not gods, but it is still better than the alternative of being able to say, claim and publish anything at all. All that this imperfection means, however, is that you can be a bit more confident when you read something in a peer-reviewed journal because you know that more than one person has read the paper before publication. Errors can still get through, though, as can be shown by The Lancet's publication of Dr Andrew Wakefield's nonsensical vaccine fiction and Social Text being fooled by Alan Sokal's postmodernist hoax. (The case of Nature publishing Dr Jacques Benveniste's memory of water paper was a special case, because the editor was trying to make a point about bad science.) Sometimes the flaw in the research just doesn't get seen by the reviewers, and I saw a case of this a few years back.
When I was studying perception at university we had a guest lecturer who told us about his latest research. He couldn't wait to tell us all about his amazing discovery, and was very proud that his paper had passed all the checks and reviews and was about to be published in a prestigious journal. He had shown that the sense of smell diminishes with age, and that older people could not smell as well as young people could. The experimental method had been to expose people of various ages to the smell of broccoli and ask them to identify it. Older people were much less able to identify the smell, so he claimed that this showed that they could not smell as well.
Any questions? I was the first, and I said something like: "My grandfather owned fruit and vegetable shops, my uncle ran a wholesale vegetable distribution business in the largest farm produce market in Australia, my parents ran fruit and vegetable shops and for the first five years of my life I lived over one of the shops. I never saw broccoli until I was about 15 years old. Is it possible that the older folk couldn't identify broccoli not because they couldn't smell it but because it was a smell that they had not experienced when young and therefore simply could not recognise"?
He had never thought of this possibility! The result was amazing. He actually crumbled in front of the class. It looked like his face was going to fall off. All he could think of was the letters to the editor in the following issue of the journal which was about to publish his work.
In another example of not thinking out the research properly (although this one was caught before much time had been wasted) I was talking to someone who was working on a Master's thesis based on the discriminatory hiring practices of the university. The problem seemed to be that while 55% of undergraduates were women, only 11% of the tenured staff were women. I pointed out that undergraduates were not the pool from which academic staff were hired. The proportion of women dropped only slightly (to between 45% and 50%) for people doing Masters degrees, but only 10% of doctoral candidates were women. As all academic staff were expected to hold doctorates it looked like the university was doing better than the average. My suggestion was to research ways that women in their late twenties with young children could be encouraged and assisted to continue their education and that this would be a much better than any form of affirmative action. She seemed to understand what I was saying, but you can never tell with ideologues.
Where's Sylvia? (30/7/2005)
The web site belonging to fraudulent psychic Sylvia Browne has been unreachable for the last four weeks. What is happening? The world needs to get in touch with Sylvia in order to be warned about coming momentous events. If her site had been working I am sure that there would have been warnings about bombs in London and Egypt, Rupert Murdoch would have known that his son Lachlan was about to resign from his executive positions at World Domination Inc and return to Sydney, the IRA would not have needed to pretend that they were disarming because Sylvia could have told the authorities where to look for the guns, the people of my state would not have been startled by the resignation of boss politician Bob Carr, and I would have won $19 million in Lotto today because Sylvia could have given me the numbers. Perhaps she has been so busy preparing the paperwork for James Randi's challenge that she just forgot to pay the bill at the ISP and her account has been closed. I wish I knew a real psychic who could tell me what is going on.
Sylvia's sabbatical has not deterred her followers, however, and one of them has written to me using what I can only assume is the Outlook Express "Dog's Breakfast" template. (It used to be called "Mad Woman's Breakfast" but the name has been changed to reflect the more sensitive times in which we now live.) If you click on the image below you can see it in all its amazing colour and movement. I was very impressed by the use of the rather neglected subjunctive mood in the second sentence, but the rest of the email suggests that this was an aberration.
A study reported in the latest edition of the New England Journal of Medicine has confirmed what had been found in previous studies, which is that the herbal preparation Echinacea has no more effect on the onset or progress of colds and flu than doing nothing. The alternative medicine industry has welcomed this news and has announced that it is pleased that the ineffectiveness of this herb has been finally established and that the useless weed can now be withdrawn from sale and people with colds can stop wasting their money.
Like hell they have! Alternative medicine never rejects anything, no matter how much research reveals uselessness or even danger. No alternative product ever brought to market has ever been declared by the industry to be ineffective. In this case the immediate response of the industry was to declare that the research was flawed because the number of subjects in the trial was not large enough, the trial used the wrong species of Echinacea, the medicine used was from the wrong part of the plant, and the dosage used in the trial was too small. Observant readers may notice that there is a certain amount of internal inconsistency in claiming that all of the last three objections can be true simultaneously. It makes the last objection more interesting to find that when the Australian Consumers Association tested a large range of commercial Echinacea products there was some difficulty in actually finding any active ingredient at all, let alone three times what was used in this latest trial.
So here's the challenge for the Echinacea manufacturers. Get some funding (from NCCAM if you can't afford to do it yourself), get the correct number of test subjects together, use sufficient quantities of the correct parts of the right plants to treat people with colds, and demonstrate that the stuff is better than a hot lemon drink (in other words, demonstrate that it does what you say it does). Don't claim that NEJM won't publish your positive findings, but if they refuse, make a big noise in the media about it and force them to eat humble pie. Go on, you can do it. We are all waiting. Prove us wrong. If you can.
Just out of interest, I looked up Echinacea in my Modern Herbal textbook. It tells me that the species used in alternative medicine was the one used in the study, that the roots are used (as was done in the study) and under "Medicinal Action and Uses" it says: "Echinacea increases bodily resistance to infection and is used for boils, erysipelas, septicaemia, cancer, syphilis and other impurities of the blood, its action being antiseptic. It has also useful properties as a strong alterative and aphrodisiac. As an injection, the extract has been used for haemorrhoids and a tincture of the fresh root has been found beneficial in diphtheria and putrid fevers". What, no colds?
The final chapter in SkeptoBear's 2004 World Tour will
appear here next week.
Click here to read the story so far
Dawn comes up like thunder (30/7/2005)
In November last year I had an email conversation with Dawn Winkler who runs an anti-vaccination liar outfit called "Health Advocacy in the Public Interest". Actually, I had several conversations with her as she had the rather unsettling habit of answering a message with multiple replies, thus making coherent discourse difficult. As this was combined with delusion, lack of reading comprehension, inability to face facts, and just plain outright lying I finally gave up when my bizarrity quotient was exceeded. Ms Winkler has decided to contact me again, and, true to form, she sent more than one message. Here are those messages (sent eight minutes apart) and my kind and gentle replies.
You are polite and you gave up our conversation?
I am mentally ill?
<Ms Winkler then went on to quote something I had written to a hospital, warning them about her>
I am not a psychiatrist, so I am not qualified to make a diagnosis, but you certainly appear to be delusional, paranoid, phobic and sociopathic. You freely confess to "seeing" such non-existent things as eight-year-old autistics who shit their pants and cannot speak and other children with "green snot" constantly running down their faces. Normal people do not see these things. You seem to believe that there is some massive conspiracy involving pharmaceutical companies, but you believe this without evidence. You are fearful of non-existent threats such as mercury in vaccines which do not contain mercury, even though all evidence suggests that no harm would come from the mercury anyway even if it was there. You engage in activities which, if successful, would lead to the deaths or damage of countless children, but you show no concern whatsoever for these children. On that last point, I am possibly wrong to call it "sociopathic". "Psychopathic" is probably a better word.
Am I a "child killer"? Because that's how you word the introduction to our conversation.
I am not accusing you of being like some of the heroes of the anti-vaccination movement and actually directly murdering children yourself. There are, however, ways of indirectly killing children. Anyone who actively denied food to children, causing them to starve to death, would be be called a child killer. Anyone who denied water to children, causing them to die of thirst and dehydration, would be called a child killer. Anyone who denied medical care for children suffering from life-threatening illnesses or injuries would be called a child killer. People who place children in harm's way by using them as soldiers or to clear minefields are called child killers. Nobody would dispute the "child killer" label in these circumstances.
You, on the other hand, actively advocate that children should be denied protection against life-threatening and disabling diseases, and the inevitable result of such advocacy, should it be even partially successful, is the death or permanent harm of many children. If you got everything you wanted, the deaths would be counted in the tens of millions and the blind, halt and lame in the hundreds of millions. You would sentence children to death. You are no different to the examples listed above. Get the words "Child Killer" embroidered onto a baseball cap. Put the cap on. It will fit perfectly.
Guest contributor (30/7/2005)
I was feeling a bit rushed this week so I called on my old friend Bertrand Russell to save me some work by contributing an article. He decided to write about religion and came up with not one but two pieces - Why I am not a Christian and Why I am a Rationalist. Enjoy!