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November 4, 2006

This week's excuse (4/11/2006)
See the gardening secateurs that I was using to trim a bush when the branch broke and my hand slipped? See the finger on my other hand that got in the way of the blades? See the finger after the doctor finished the repair job? See how I temporarily have one fewer typing fingers than usual? The secateurs can cut through about 1cm of tree branch and lopping off a finger would be no trouble at all, so I suppose I should consider myself lucky that the damage is restricted to a cut going around 50% of the circumference of the finger and there was no damage to tendons or bone. I don't think that there will be much guitar practice around my place for the next week or so. As for the autism resulting from the mercury in the tetanus shot, I will just have to wait and see how bad it gets.

Seriously, typing is difficult enough with fewer than the usual fingers (I have to change which fingers I use for which keys) and it is also quite uncomfortable because of the way I have to hold my hand (and the finger hurts), I have to watch for any adverse interaction between the antibiotic and my normal diabetes medication (there shouldn't be any, but they share some unpleasant possible side effects), the particular antibiotic I am taking doesn't seem to have any effect on blood glucose (although it can cause false readings in certain circumstances!) but stress and infection do so I have to be wary, and everyday things like tying shoelaces and turning on a tap to get water for the tea can't be as automatic as usual. Consequently, I will have to limit what I do here this week.

Lie with a question. Answer with a lie. (4/11/2006)
Last August I mentioned that the Australian Vaccination Network had conducted a lie-to-the-parents a seminar and I graciously allowed that a suggestion that children receive "up to 50 vaccines by school age" was not strictly lying as the real number, 10, does literally fall into the category of "up to 50". Of course it also would be literally true for claims of "up to 1000", "up to a million" and "up to a googolplex", but perhaps even the AVN places limits on its own mendacity.

The truthI have just received a media release from the AVN announcing another of these liefests, and this one is addressing four questions. Two of these questions illustrate the deceptive disingenuousness typical of organisations like AVN, where the wording of the question is all that is necessary to start the fear running in the listener and the answer is really just icing on the cake. I do notice, however, that the "up to" has disappeared from in front of the "50". I have sent the following message to the President of the AVN, and I eagerly await a reply.

Dear Ms Dorey,

I have been sent a copy of the media release about your seminar at Byron Bay on November 15. I notice that you will be addressing two questions which could reasonably be assumed to have very short answers, so I am intrigued about how you plan to expand the answers.

Overvaccination – Are 50 vaccines by school age too many?

The obvious answer to this is "Probably, yes". It is however a very strange question. The list below shows all the vaccines currently recommended for children up to school age. (I have omitted the Pneumococcal polysaccharide (23vPPV) and Hepatitis A which are only recommended for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in high risk areas.) The numbers in brackets are the doses of each vaccine in the schedule.

As this list shows, there are eight vaccines addressing twelve diseases, given in a schedule of 24 doses. None of these numbers is 50. I am at a loss to understand why the number 50 is mentioned in your question unless the question is purely rhetorical and simply intended to create a climate of fear and doubt in the minds of parents who are concerned about their children's health and welfare. It might be much wiser in the future to stick to the wording used in previous seminar promotions as it can be argued that saying "up to 50" when the number is really 8 is not strictly dishonest. Of course, it still depends on your definition of "dishonest", and your definition might differ from mine.

Cervical cancer vaccines – are our babies at risk of this sexually transmitted disease?

The only sensible answer to this question is "No", so I wonder why you are asking the question at all. There is no suggestion that the HPV vaccine should be given to "babies", but even if there were it is obvious that prevention of disease should be started as early as possible. Cervical cancer is a major killer of women around the world and I am sure that you would agree that any action which can reduce this toll should be supported. I believe that I have heard you say that you are not opposed to vaccination per se but just want it to be safe, so I assume that you are not opposed to the HPV vaccine on safety grounds as there has not been any opportunity to gather after-market reaction statistics.

Again, I wonder why you are asking this question. I hope that the intention is not to cast doubt on a vaccine by using some weird appeal to morals, as has been done with the Hepatitis B vaccine, as if offering protection against disease somehow encourages undesirable behaviour. Surely, if parents are worried about their adolescent children engaging in sexual activity the correct approach is consultation, discussion and education about morality and appropriate behaviour while simultaneously ensuring that the children have protection against any serious consequences (even up to a death sentence) should they have an occasional lapse of judgment or grace.

I would be happy to discuss this on the AVN mailing list should you ever permit me to subscribe, but without access to that forum I have little choice but to conduct the conversation in public on my web site.

Top Ten Signs You're a Fundamentalist Christian (4/11/2006)
This list has been travelling around for some time. I don't know who originally wrote it and there was a bit of anonymity about the person who sent it to me, but I like it and it bears repeating. If the original author would like to contact me I will of course acknowledge its provenance.

  1. You vigorously deny the existence of thousands of gods claimed by other religions, but feel outraged when someone denies the existence of yours.
  2. You feel insulted and "dehumanised" when scientists say that people evolved from other life forms, but you have no problem with the Biblical claim that we were created from dirt.
  3. You laugh at polytheists, but you have no problem believing in a Triune God.
  4. Your face turns purple when you hear of the "atrocities" attributed to Allah, but you don't even flinch when hearing about how God/Jehovah slaughtered all the babies of Egypt in "Exodus" and ordered the elimination of entire ethnic groups in "Joshua" including women, children, and trees!
  5. You laugh at Hindu beliefs that deify humans, and Greek claims about gods sleeping with women, but you have no problem believing that the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, who then gave birth to a man-god who got killed, came back to life and then ascended into the sky.
  6. You are willing to spend your life looking for little loopholes in the scientifically established age of Earth (few billion years), but you find nothing wrong with believing dates recorded by Bronze Age tribesmen sitting in their tents and guessing that Earth is a few generations old.
  7. You believe that the entire population of this planet with the exception of those who share your beliefs -- though excluding those in all rival sects – will spend Eternity in an infinite Hell of Suffering. And yet consider your religion the most "tolerant" and "loving."
  8. While modern science, history, geology, biology, and physics have failed to convince you otherwise, some idiot rolling around on the floor speaking in "tongues" may be all the evidence you need to "prove" Christianity.
  9. You define 0.01% as a "high success rate" when it comes to answered prayers. You consider that to be evidence that prayer works. And you think that the remaining 99.99% FAILURE was simply the will of God.
  10. You actually know a lot less than many atheists and agnostics do about the Bible, Christianity, and church history – but still call yourself a Christian.

The Yurko Story, the final chapter (4/11/2006)
On October 31, baby slaughterer Alan Yurko pleaded guilty to three charges of burglary and one of aggravated theft. He will be sentenced on November 21. A charge of drug possession had been dismissed a few days earlier. (It looks like he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time when the police raided a house looking for cocaine and scooped up everybody who was on the premises at the time. Someone without the resources to find a $250 bail deposit is not likely to be a useful customer for a coke dealer.) The absurdity of the cocaine possession charge was compounded by the fact that he was facing a sentence three times as long as he served for the death of baby Alan. Because he couldn't raise bail, he was imprisoned for more than a year before the charge was dismissed, although this might be moot as he was also being held on the burglary charges.

I have commented before that it is difficult to have any sympathy for someone who beats a child to death, but there is a real possibility that Yurko might not have needed to return to a career in crime if promises made to him when he was being used as a poster boy by the anti-vaccination liars had been kept. After all, he doesn't appear to be a very competent burglar because he keeps getting caught. I recently raised the matter of the way he had been abandoned by his erstwhile friends as soon as his usefulness to them was over with one of his strongest supporters and she was quite open about it. Her position was that he had gone back to his old haunts and companions so anything that happened to him was his fault. She had no time for my argument that he wouldn't have needed to go back to crime if the job offers and pretences of friendship had been real. She simply didn't care what happened to him now, and it was time to move on to new ways of campaigning against vaccination. Still, why should I expect even a hint of human decency from people whose pleasure in life is endangering the lives of children?

How ignorance kills (4/11/2006)
Elli Perkins believed the nonsense from Scientology that there is no such thing as mental illness, so she would not let her son Jeremy have treatment for his schizophrenia. He is now receiving treatment at the state's expense, because on March 13, 2003, (L. Ron Hubbard's birthday) Jeremy stabbed his mother 77 times. The CBS program 48 Hours covered the tragedy on October 28, 2006, and you can see the video below.

November 11, 2006

Time out (11/11/2006)
There will be no update to this site next week as I will be attending the Australian Skeptics national convention. If you can make it to Melbourne for either or both of the two days there is still time to make a reservation. As I did last year, I will buy a beer for anyone who can tell me the secret password.

Your money is in safe hands (11/11/2006)
The ANZ is Australia's third-largest bank by market capitalisation. Her Majesty has her salary from her above-top-secret government job paid into an account at the ANZ. Customers and shareholders of the ANZ probably assume that their money and the bank's assets are being carefully managed. At least we can be sure that the stacks of banknotes are kept in a very tidy condition. It gives a whole new meaning to the expression "arranging your finances".

I suppose I asked for this! (11/11/2006)
In response to last week's list of signs that someone is a fundamentalist Christian, regular visitor and correspondent Richard Scheffler sent me a list of ten signs that someone is an Australian. To allow for Australian Goods and Services Tax he sent 110% of the list. My only quibbles are that no Australian thinks that a koala is a bear and Number 10 is obviously about people from New Zealand. And what's wrong with travelling with a stuffed bear?

  1. You misspell common words like "color" and "honor."
  2. You believe a large island is actually a small continent.
  3. You know all the words of "Waltzing Matilda."
  4. You know "Advance Australia Fair" exists but know none of the words.
  5. Your head of state is a woman who lives thousands of miles away with no apparent qualifications for the job. In addition, she can't understand a thing you say.
  6. You pronounce "Aus" as "Oz" as in "The Wizard of..."
  7. You think Mel Gibson is a great actor.
  8. A large marsupial is a feature of your country's achievement of arms.
  9. Another nasty tempered, foul smelling, slow moving marsupial is the symbol of your national airline. You think said marsupial is a bear.
  10. You have strange feelings about sheep.
  11. You travel with a stuffed bear.

Should I be skeptical? (11/11/2006)
The products of the Heineken corporation are very highly rated at my place. Now I find that not only do they make excellent beer, but they also run lotteries and want to give me a million pounds. Somehow, however, I feel that one of the world's largest brewers would have their own domain and wouldn't need to use a Hotmail address to write to me. They might even know that Australia isn't part of Africa.

Do people really fall for this nonsense? (And yes, Heineken do have a warning about the scam on a web site. It's a pity that it's not on the site where people are most likely to look.)


Dear Lucky Winner,


We are pleased to inform you of the result of the just concluded annual final draws of Heineken Annual Promo. The online Heineken Annual Promo draws was conducted by a random selection of email addresses from an exclusive list of 29,031 E-mail addresses of individuals and corporate bodies picked by an advanced automated random computer (TOPAZ) search from the internet. However, no tickets were sold but all email addresses were assigned to different ticket numbers for representation and privacy. After this automated computer ballot, your e-mail address emerged as one of (12)twelve winners in the fourth category for the second prize with the following data:

Ref Number: ASL/941OYI/02/SHYN
Batch Number: 14/28/0046
Ticket Number: 025-11464992-750

You as well as the other winners are therefore to receive a cash prize of 1,000,000.00 (ONE MILLION POUNDS STERLING ) each from the total payout. Your prize award has been insured with your e-mail address and will be transferred to you upon meeting the requirements, statutory obligations, verifications, validations and satisfactory report. Please note that your lucky winning number falls within our African booklet representative office in West Africa as indicated in your play coupon. To begin the claims processing of your prize winnings you are advised to contact our licensed and accredited Processing manager/security company for SECOND category winners with the information below: You are required to fill and SUBMIT the following informations to the Processing manager via email below

ANNUAL INCOME:..................................
NEXT OF KIN...........................................

Your Reference and Batch number at the top of this mail: Please you are adviced to complete the form and send it immediately to our Promotion manager through email or fax for prompt collection of your fund.

Overseas Claims/United Kingdom Payment Unit
Name : Mr. Lesley Macdavidson
Email :
Phone : +44 (0) 7024035466

You are to keep all lotto information away from the general public especially your reference and ticket numbers. (This is important as a case of double claims will not be entertained).

NOTE: All winnings must be claimed within 20 days from today. After this date all unclaimed funds would be included in the next stake. Remember to quote your reference information in all correspondence with your Promotion Manager.

Members of the affiliate agencies are automatically not allowed to participate in this program.


Note that this program was largely promoted and sponsored by a group of philanthropist, industrialists from the internet hardware industry and some other big multinational firms who wish to be anonymous.

Thank you and Accept my hearty congratulations once again!

Yours faithfully,
Mr. Allan Brown
HEINEKEN Games/Lottery Coordinator.

Hotmail is evolving – be one of the first to try out the Windows Live™ Mail Beta

Essential television (11/11/2006)
Next Thursday I will be going to the Sydney MindBodySpirit Festival with a reporter from the television program A Current Affair. I don't know when the segment will go to air, but as the MBS festival is only on for four days and ACA only runs on week nights I would assume that it will appear on either Thursday or Friday night.

If you have never been to one of these festivals I can highly recommend a visit, although you will have to have your emotions under control otherwise you will fluctuate between deep sadness and consuming hilarity as you walk past the often crazy exhibits. Most of it is harmless fun, however, if you allow "harmless" to include "taking money under false pretences". A lot of it is voluntary taxation, some of it is dangerous quackery (although this seems to have been getting better over the years), and some of it is even good and useful. I always manage to buy something, even if it's only a bottle of chilli sauce or a CD of relaxing music inspired by swimming with dolphins.

Admitting a mistake (11/11/2006)
One of the defining differences between science and pseudoscience is that science is a work in progress and mistakes are recognised, acknowledged and fixed. In pseudoscience however, and particularly in pseudomedicine, no mistakes are allowed as apparently a single admission of being wrong could cast doubt on the entire edifice. (Religious nuts have a similar problem, which accounts for the continued existence of Creationism.)

Probably the most important advance in the area of public health made over the last few months has been the availability of a vaccine against the human papilloma virus, strongly linked to cancer of the cervix. As this form of cancer is a major killer of women around the world and the methods of testing for its presence are less than perfect, having a vaccine is wonderful news. If you are not opposed to vaccines, of course.

The following saga was played out on the Usenet newsgroup this week, and shows how mad things can become when an anti-vaccination ideology is combined with a total resistance to admitting any error.

  1. A news release is posted about how the HPV vaccine has been approved for distribution in the US. The poster is well known as an opponent of vaccination (although she denies this, of course), so it is reasonable to infer that she posted it as part of a scare campaign. (She is also well known for failing to understand material she quotes from other sources, so there is a bit of "doubt benefit giving" here.)
  2. I rather slyly and sarcastically congratulate her on the message and for bringing us the good news. I do not expect a coherent response, as another thing this poster is famous for is absolute concrete thinking so sarcasm, allegory, metaphor, etc go over her head at an altitude which almost puts them in orbit.
  3. A discussion starts up between me and another person in Australia about the situation in our country. The vaccine has been made available but it costs $465 per dose to the end consumer. If it was subsidised by the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme it would cost a maximum of $29.50, with the rest of the manufacturer's price being paid by the PBS. The body responsible for making recommendations for inclusion in the PBS, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, has recommended that the vaccine not be included in the PBS at this time. (You can see a media release about the PBAC recommendation here.)
  4. The original poster butts in with a comment about the CDC and its "vested interest" in Merck.
  5. I reply that we are talking about Australia where the CDC has no influence and the vaccine is manufactured by Commonwealth Serum Laboratories (CSL).
  6. Without bothering to see what, if anything, I had said in response to the comments mentioned in 4, the poster then offers the following bizarre non sequitur as full comment: "The PBAC has vested interest".
  7. I ask for evidence of this and receive the following: "It's all over the net--but you knew that". The response to my pointing out that the PBAC's refusal to allow the vaccine into the PBS must have cost CSL tens of millions of dollars is "And the four stockholders, and the 58 members who have a vested interest. Look it up".
  8. I do indeed look it up, and provide links to the PBAC, the PBS and the list of the 14 (not 58) members of of the PBAC. I also reiterate the nonsensicality of suggesting that a committee which takes possibly hundreds of millions of dollars out of the pocket of a vaccine manufacturer is somehow acting in that company's interests. At $465 per dose the demand will be limited, but at $29.50 every sane woman between 10 and 26 will be rushing to get the shot with every shot returning just as much to the manufacturer as those provided at full cost.
  9. Now here's where things get really weird. The poster responds to this by removing everything that I have said, reverting to the single statement "The PBAC has vested interest". She then reproduces in full a quite insane magazine article from 2003 in which I am outed as being a member of the Illuminati. (The article was not a surprise to me. It amuses me so much that I have had it available for download from here for a very long time.) She finishes off with "Now watch Peter try to trash Jennie Burke".
  10. I ask what Jennie Burke has to do with Gardasil, the PBAC, or anything else even remotely related to the conversation.
  11. The reply is to remove my words, repeat the full text of the mad magazine article and say "He is so predictable".
  12. I give up and look for something more useful to do.

The amazing thing about this is that it seems to have arisen out of a misunderstanding of the roles of the CDC and PBAC in the US and Australia respectively, and could have been solved by simply saying "Ooops! I didn't notice that the country under discussion had changed". But that would have been impossible because that would have been admitting error, and this particular poster does not accept the concept of error and accuses people of lying all the time. (Except Hulda Clark, of course, who was simply mistaken when she called a book The Cure for All Diseases.)

You might think that this is an isolated incident and not representative of all alternative medicine supporters. Unfortunately, it follows a well-established pattern of alternauts rejecting anything which contradicts or conflicts with what they think they know, even if admitting being wrong makes no difference. You can see some more about this phenomenon here.

November 25, 2006

I'm back!! (25/11/2006)
It's been a hectic couple of weeks. There was TomKat's wedding in Italy, the launch of the Pope's new book (unfortunately too far away in time from the wedding to combine the two events in a single trip), Thanksgiving dinner at the White House, my daughter's 18th birthday, and the Australian Skeptics National Convention. I'm still catching up after all the excitement (and catching up with real life work as well) so this week's update will be a little patchy. Normal transmission should resume next week.

The Australian Skeptics 2006 National Convention (25/11/2006)
The convention was excellent, and a couple of speakers provided some useful (and informed) input into the debate about climate change, global warming, and what we are and could be doing about both. The 2007 convention will have the environment as its main focus, and I am looking forward to hearing speakers from all parts of the spectrum. This is something which we might have only one chance to get right, and (unlike, say, Holocaust denial and the people who deny the existence of AIDS or mental illness) there are respected scientists with differing views who can all make useful contributions to the debate. My own position is that while I might joke about how global warming could benefit me by moving Ratbag Castle from the middle of Sydney to the eastern suburbs and a water frontage, it will be no joke if we really do get it wrong and Manhattan, Melbourne and most of Bangladesh disappear. This is one case where I believe that the precautionary principle should be employed and if we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions we should, but we have to be wary of extremists on both sides of the argument.

The other main thrust of the convention was the media and how it interacts with and can be used by the skeptical and critical thinking movement to spread the word. Unfortunately, I came back from the convention to find that Australia's most respected television network is replacing its premier science program over the summer break with a series touting the successes of psychic investigators. I don't mean people who investigate psychics – the show is about people who use psychic powers to do the investigating. This time of year is called the "silly season" in medialand, but I never expected the Australian Broadcasting Corporation to be at the vanguard of the silliness.

It is traditional to award two prizes at the Australian Skeptics convention – Skeptic of the Year and the Bent Spoon. The name of the first award doesn't leave room for much confusion, and the 2006 Skeptic of the Year is Dr Karl Kruszelnicki. Dr Karl works for the ABC (among other jobs) and wears colourful shirts, so nothing more needs to be said to explain his win. The Bent Spoon Award is "presented to the perpetrator of the most preposterous piece of paranormal or pseudoscientific piffle" and this year went collectively to the retail pharmacists of Australia for their practice of overcoming both their professional training and cognitive dissonance to sell homeopathy and other nonsense alongside real medicines.

This convention was also the occasion for the announcement of the inaugural Australian Skeptics Prize for Critical Thinking, which went to Dr Martin Bridgstock for his university course encouraging critical thinking. A special award was made to Kylie Sturgess, a high-school English teacher, who has managed to teach thinking in an English class rather than a science class.

You can hear some of the voices from the convention here

Updates and catchups (25/11/2006)
Here are some follow-ups to things which have been mentioned here in the past:

Email of the week (25/11/2006)

Don't you just love this? I don't like scamsters selling sugar and pretending that it can cure things, and that makes me a homosexual? I think this email says much more about the mental state of the writer than it does about me.

Date: Mon, 13 Nov 2006 22:57:23 -0600
Subject: About mannatech
From: Harrison Salisbury

You're a homo--you have no idea how well glyco helps the body. Wow! Stop fighting that which is doing so much good. It will knock you're socks off if you looked at it without the pride barrier.

Is he talking about gay pride? You can see more about the Mannatech scam here.

Just for fun (25/11/2006)
My friend Richard from the Mystery Investigators has suggested building a collection of photographs of skeptics reading Richard Dawkins' latest book, The God Delusion, in different places. I hope to have a review of the book here shortly (as well as a review of Unintelligent Design by Robyn Williams), but in the meantime, here is Cody The Religion Hating Dog relaxing on my front porch and waiting for the next Bible-thumper to come along. The reason I say "religion-hating" is that the JWs and Mormons don't need to ring the bell to tell me they are about to start proselytising because I wouldn't hear it anyway over the barking, growling and other signs of doggy displeasure.


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