Simon Singh (10/4/2010)
In the middle of 2009, British author and journalist Simon Singh was sued by the British Chiropractic Association over something he wrote about chiropractors. (You can read an edited version of the article here, together with, thanks to the BCA, the offending words.) Simon met a very high hurdle when a judge ruled that he needed to provide proof of the truth of his statement that the BCA "happily promotes bogus treatments". It would seem that the nature of this proof would have to be conclusive evidence that chiropractic does not work and that the BCA knew this but continued to promote it.
An appeals court has overturned this decision, but that doesn't mean that Simon has won. All it means is that the original case against him can proceed but he can now use opinion as a defence. I will gave a fuller report as soon as some lawyers I know have had time to read the fine print, but in the meantime you can read the appeal judgment here.
My latest column for Yahoo!7 News deals with the way that quacks and charlatans seek out vulnerable and susceptible people as targets for their nonsense and fraud. One of the tactics is to advertise in publications that provide a veneer of respectability. You can read the article here.
And speaking of advertising ... (10/4/2010)
The Australian Vaccination Network had planned to run advertisements in a free magazine named Sydney's Child. The obvious intent was to hide their deception in a place where parents would, should and could expect to find good information about bringing up children. Luckily, the magazine editor decided that the purpose of the paper was to provide information, not misinformation, and the advertisements were rejected. One is drawn to speculation about where the many thousands of dollars needed for a multi-city advertising campaign were coming from (the ads were proposed for Melbourne as well as Sydney), given that only a few weeks ago the AVN was about to close its doors because of a lack of funds. Could the poverty of the organisation have been an exaggeration designed to open wallets and purses? But I digress ...
Meryl Dorey from the AVN is raving about this of course. She is annoyed that the ads were rejected sight unseen, ignoring the obvious fact that the refusal was based on the principle that the paper did not want to give publicity to vaccine opponents rather than the specific content of any particular advertisement. I would assume that Sydney's Child would reject proposals for advertisements from adult sex shops on the same basis. Conspiracies involving Big Pharma™ were given the obligatory airing, but it was particularly delicious when Ms Dorey Godwinned herself by raising the spectre of a slippery slope into totalitarianism. You can read Ms Dorey's whine here.
I had to put my oar in, of course, so I sent this email to the paper's editor.
I have just been informed that you will not be running advertisements for the deceptively-named Australian Vaccination Network. With the success they have already had in reducing the vaccination rates in parts of Australia they didn't need to be spreading their vile nonsense to any more parents. Children have already died as a result of their actions (and the parents of at least one of those children were subjected to attack by people closely associated with the AVN).
Vaccination is probably the most successful medical invention of all time when it comes to saving lives, particularly the lives of children, and a magazine devoted to advising parents about how to raise healthy and happy children is not the place for anti-medicine and anti-vaccination propaganda.
You may not be aware that Meryl Dorey of the AVN is claiming that you refused the AVN advertisements because of a fear of backlash from pharmaceutical companies. She has also compared your actions obliquely to the suppression of the press in pre-war Nazi Germany. As Ms Dorey is famous for her acceptance of conspiracy theories (she recently unquestioningly published a claim that the swine flu vaccine was part of a plan to reduce the world's population by 5.5 billion and microchip the rest for mind control) it is no surprise that she sees Big Pharma under every bed.
As a parent, a grandparent and as someone who cares about the welfare of children I am pleased that an outlet for spreading misinformation about vaccines has been closed. Thank you.
Leave Meryl Alone! (10/4/2010)
Some people have been very nasty to Meryl Dorey from the Australian Vaccination Network. Here is a video of someone asking that people leave her alone and stop bothering her.
It's coming back (10/4/2010)
I'm testing the technology now, recording some pilot programs and setting up the procedures and database programming to make it all work, and the Radio Ratbags podcast will be back on the air very shortly. The plan is to have readings from around this site, occasional interviews, and reports on events and functions. Frequency will depend on how much time is available to do it, but the plan is to start off fortnightly and go to weekly when and if it seems necessary. The length of each podcast will be kept to less than half an hour (although this might be exceeded in special circumstances) and subscription will be available through iTunes, RSS feed from here and by listening to individual programs here.
Sensible talk from bureaucrats (10/4/2010)
I have two jobs, one of which is as a casual teacher. The NSW Department of Education and Training has recently updated its Code of Conduct and the following paragraph caught my eye.
7.1 You must not discriminate against or harass your colleagues, students or members of the public on a number of grounds including; sex, marital status, pregnancy, age, race, ethnic or national origin, physical or intellectual impairment or sexual preference. Such harassment or discrimination may constitute an offence under the Anti‑Discrimination Act 1977. In addition, you must not harass or discriminate on the grounds of political or religious conviction.
The last sentence is the one that is important, because it clearly implies that religion, like politics, is a matter of choice, not something inherent in the person, like gender or ethnicity. Nobody is born a Muslim or a Christian or a follower of a particular political party or football team. These are things that people choose to do and which can be changed at any time (although there might be much social or family trouble if you do). It is rather enlightened of a bureaucracy to make the fine distinction between destiny and personal choice.
Of course, in many cases religious belief could be interpreted as "intellectual impairment", but it's still something that is voluntary.
Atheists are a major threat to society (10/4/2010)
There are a million problems in the world that need to be fixed. Climate change, poverty, racial hatred, infant mortality, slavery, wars, ... So what occupied the minds of senior religious leaders in Sydney when they were writing their Easter sermons?
Atheists, that's what. First out of the box was Anthony Fisher, the new Catholic Archbishop of Parramatta, who declared that atheism and secularism led to totalitarianism, terror, mass murder and abortion. You would imagine by now that believers would have tired of pointing the finger at atheists and claiming that lack of religion leads to an essential lack of morality (especially believers in the Catholic Church, unless pederasty has somehow become moral behaviour). The surprising thing is that in his previous job Fisher was seen as the face of the new, younger, almost enlightened and progressive Catholic Church, but it looks like we were all wrong. You can read a report of his address here.
Dr Peter Jensen, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney, was not to be outdone. He simply declared that atheists were really believers who hate God. You can read about this here, but it doesn't seem that the actual sermon is online. His counterpart over at St Marys, Cardinal George Pell, offered similar thoughts. What is bizarre is that the official Easter messages released by both the Catholic and Anglican churches were calls for compassion and fairness and made sense even to non-believers (with the exception of Pell's remark about the lack of atheist charities). What possessed the heads of the churches to let loose at atheists in their Good Friday sermons is a mystery. We can't be that much of a threat, can we?
So what has Viera got to hide? (10/4/2010)
Principal Research Scientist (retired) Dr Viera Scheibner PhD, well known to and highly respected by the anti-vaccination liar community, has several web sites which she uses to peddle her variety of child-damaging misinformation. When I did a recent link check my checking program reported that her sites were returning a "Not authorised" response. I had a look and found that you now have to register to get in to see the idiocy. Well, of course I immediately registered, and got this email message in return:
Hello Peter Bowditch,
Thank you for registering at VieraScheibner.com. Your account is created and must be activated before you can use it. To activate the account click on the following link or copy-paste it in your browser: http://www.vierascheibner.com/index.php?option=com_user&task=activate& activation=~~~~~~~~~~~~~
After activation you may login to http://www.vierascheibner.com/ using the following username and password:
username – ratbagsdotcom
password – ~~~~~~~~~~~
Imagine my surprise when I tried to access the site a few days after successfully activating my logon and got this:
It looks like the powerful juju of my name has struck again. I wonder what is on the site that she doesn't want me to see. Surely if she believes what is there she can't have any problem with a potential critic looking at it. There is also the question of why registration should be needed for a site like hers anyway. If she had a private members' area where anti-vaccination liars could lie to each other that might make some sense, but the entire site? I can't imagine being so paranoid that I wanted to vet everybody who came to my site and only let my friends in.
Homeopathy – so simple a child can understand (10/4/2010)
A true believer in homeopathy was ranting to me about how Professor Edzard Ernst, head of the UK's first university department dedicated to research into "complementary medicine", was not qualified to speak about homeopathy because he didn't have the necessary academic background. I pointed out that all he needed was high school chemistry, but this was rejected as apparently there are many institutions of higher learning who specialise in teaching about the magic of diluted water and you have to attend one of these places for years before you know enough to comment. I immediately revised my opinion about high school chemistry and decided to test whether someone without even this level of understanding could evaluate homeopathy.
With the help of my 7 year old grandson, I made a 12C homeopathic preparation of fountain pen ink. I pointed to the last dilution and asked Sean if there was any ink in it. He looked at me as if I was asking a silly question and immediately said "No". We then drank the glass of water. So there you are, homeopaths. A primary school kid can see how idiotic homeopathy is, so you are either stupid or committing fraud. Which is it?
More homeopathy (10/4/2010)
As the coming week is World Homeopathy Awareness Week I could hardly let it pass without making people aware of how ridiculous homeopathy is, but before I do that I would like to show how despicable some homeopaths can be and how they act with total disregard for regulators and public health. We already know how they disregard the laws of science and the legal concept of fraud.
A homeopath appeared on the ABC television show Lateline during the week. She was featured because the regulatory authority, the Therapeutic Goods Administration, had ordered her to take some action over claims she had been making. She simply refused, on the basis that as she didn't think she had done anything wrong there was no need for her to do anything. This is someone who claims that homeopathy can cure breast cancer. This is someone who claims that there is scientific proof that homeopathy is just as good at preventing disease as vaccination but much safer. I first came across Fran Sheffield when she was shilling her anti-vaccination lies on behalf of the Australian Vaccination Network, and this latest episode just reinforces my opinion of her. Watch the video below and then answer this question: If there are people in prison for non-payment of traffic fines, how is it that this woman is wandering the streets free?
I sent this message to the television program:
Referring to the item about homeopathy on April 8, I am puzzled by the fact that someone so obviously out of touch with reality as Fran Sheffield is given any credence at all. I realise that using her is a subtle journalistic ploy to illustrate the idiocy and venality of homeopaths and a nice way to point out the quackery without risking a lawsuit for defamation, but members of the public might still see her as possessing some integrity.
Having said that, thank you for at least running a story suggesting that there should be better regulatory control of this nonsense. Unfortunately, the TGA's approach seems to be to add credibility to quackery by issuing AUST L registration codes for things that do nothing and then running away when egregious abuses of the system are exposed.
And I still can't understand why Fran Sheffield isn't in prison. Must it wait until the first woman dies from breast cancer after following her ludicrous advice?
I am asked hard questions (10/4/2010)
This email came in during the week.
Hi Ratbags Just looking at your site, you seem to just 'say' a lot of things dont work – with actual scientific proof, I was just interested – can you show me proof of payments to childhood charities that you say you will donate to ..thanks
Then, the next day, this arrived.
Hello again Have you got that proof yet?? Dont worry I will keep asking – and if you block my email and dont answer this email – for me, it will seen as guilty of abusing a situation but I will leave it up to other people to decide. thanks
And here's my answer.
There are three things you need to think about.
Simon Singh again (17/4/2010)
I don't have to write the expanded comments about Simon Singh's successful appeal in the libel case brought against him by the British Chiropractic Association because it is all over. The BCA have decided to drop the action, although matters of court costs still have to be decided. (It is unlikely that Simon will get all of the £200,000 that he has spent back, but he should get at least some of it.) In a sense, Simon was a bit lucky that the BCA decided to quit because there was some legal opinion that the appeal judges who ruled in his favour were wrong at law, but the final result was what all sensible people wanted.
Simon had this to say: "It still staggers me that the British Chiropractic Association and half the chiropractors in the UK were making unsubstantiated claims. It still baffles me that the BCA then dared to sue me for libel and put me through two years of hell before I was vindicated. And it still makes me angry that our libel laws not only tolerate but also encourage such ludicrous libel suits. English libel law is so intimidating, so expensive, so hostile to serious journalists that it has a chilling effect on all areas of debate, silencing scientists, journalists, bloggers, human rights activists and everyone else who dares to tackle serious matters of public interest. In the area of medicine alone, fear of libel means that good research is not always published because those with vested interests might sue, and bad research that should be withdrawn is not pulled because the authors might sue the journal, and in both cases it is the public that loses out because the truth is never exposed. My victory does not mean that our libel laws are okay, because I won despite the libel laws – we still have the most notoriously anti-free speech libel laws in the free world."
I can do no more than repeat what I said when this ludicrous attempt to silence criticism of quackery started.
Are you happy?
Regulator gets anti-scam teeth (17/4/2010)
In 2005 I was dragged into court by a company which had been found by the Federal Court of Australia to be operating an illegal pyramid scheme in contravention of the Trade Practices Act 1974. One of the problems they had with me was that I had identified the loophole in the Act that they were exploiting. Unfortunately, an appeals court ruled that the loophole existed and could be used until parliament changed the law (allowing me to invent a strictly legal pyramid scheme of my own), effectively removing any opportunity for the regulators to control such immoral activity.
This situation has now changed, and new legislation allows action to be taken against scamsters in a much more comprehensive and public manner. There will still be lawyers arguing that immorality doesn't necessarily imply illegality, but it now should be easier to impose penalties on crooks.
You can read the media release from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission here.
Stronger powers means better protection for consumers
Consumers will have greater protection from unscrupulous operators as the first part of the Australian Consumer Law comes into effect today.
"The new law provides a more responsive national approach, through which the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission will be able to deal more effectively with matters that affect many consumers, particularly vulnerable consumers," ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel said.
The ACL gives the ACCC new enforcement powers to protect consumers, including the ability to seek or issue:
Under the new legislation the ACCC can seek financial penalties of up to $1.1 million for corporations and $220,000 for individuals in civil cases for unconscionable conduct, pyramid selling and sections of the law dealing with false or misleading conduct.
"Further the ACCC will be able to deal with 'repeat or serious offenders' by seeking court orders banning them from managing corporations," he said. "This will now be available in cases involving unconscionable conduct, and breaches of various consumer protection and product safety provisions.
"The ACCC will now be able to use substantiation notices to require traders to justify claims they make about products they promote. These will provide a fast-track way to identify if a potentially harmful misrepresentation has been made. Examples could include was/now advertising and claims about food, health, environmental impact and business opportunities.
"Where the ACCC has reasonable grounds, it may now issue an infringement notice in cases of suspected unconscionable conduct, some false or misleading conduct, pyramid selling and various product safety provisions. Infringement notices will enable the ACCC to respond quickly to alleged breaches of these parts of the law and help facilitate a quick resolution of ACCC concerns with traders.
"Infringement notice penalties for false or misleading, unconscionable conduct, pyramid selling and breaches of product safety provisions are $6,600 for corporations and $1,320 for individuals.
"Vulnerable and disadvantaged consumers will particularly benefit from the ACCC's new ability to seek redress through the courts for consumers who are not included in a particular legal action. For example, the ACCC could ask the court to order an unscrupulous trader to provide refunds to consumers affected by misleading conduct."
Unfair contract terms are also covered in the new legislation with provisions applying to standard form consumer contracts. These come into effect on 1 July 2010 and public guidance will be circulated to major business and consumer organisations before then. Mr Samuel said the Federal Government had foreshadowed further amendments to the Australian Consumer Law later this year.
Duty of care (17/4/2010)
People living alone in caves on desert islands and visitors from another planet might be unaware of the continual allegations of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests over the last few decades. Not only was this despicable activity going on but in many cases it was covered up and the perpetrators moved around from parish to parish or school to school. Apparently it was too hard to develop and enforce a policy about this or to take any action because doing any of these things might have damaged the reputation of the church.
You must not develop a relationship with any student that is, or that can be misinterpreted as having a personal rather than a professional interest in a student.
You must not have a sexual relationship with a school student. It is irrelevant whether the relationship is homosexual or heterosexual, consensual or non-consensual or condoned by parents or caregivers.
have a sexual relationship or develop an intimate relationship with a student
use sexual innuendo or inappropriate language and/or material with students
hold conversations of an intimately personal nature, where you disclose private information about yourself
have contact with a student via written or electronic means including email, letters, telephone, text messages or chat lines, without a valid context
give students gifts of a personal nature that encourages them to think they have an individual and special relationship with you.
the law prohibiting sexual relations with a person under the age of consent (16 years)
the law prohibiting sexual relations between a teacher and their student under the age of 18 years
the law prohibiting child pornography.
Seems pretty clear, doesn't it? One wonders why the Vatican with all its resources couldn't come up with something as simple and unequivocal. And what happens to a teacher if he or she breaks the code? The teacher is first removed from contact with the student concerned (by suspension from duty if necessary) and if an initial internal inquiry suggests that the allegations are plausible the matter is handed to the police for investigation. If the police charge the teacher with a crime this can be grounds for dismissal. No coverup, and crimes are treated as crimes. The way things ought to be.
World Homeopathy Awareness Week (17/4/2010)
This has been World Homeopathy Awareness Week, and I just had to have my say about this ludicrous abuse of science, medicine and rational thought. As the publication date for my regular Yahoo!7 article fell during the week the obvious place to deal with the news was there. You can read the article here, and there is a link there to the Yahoo!7 site where you can read the comments people made.