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August 6, 2011

Attention! Attenuation! (6/8/2011)
I did my usual monthly link check on this site and found that everyone else has been busy at letting web sites die, changing domain names for existing sites, reorganising sites so that web pages have new URLs, deleting pages and generally making nuisances of themselves. By the time I had got about half-way through fixing things I figured that I had a choice – keep fixing broken links or write something. So here is a short something.

Make your count count (6/8/2011)
August 9 is Census Day for Australians and one of the important questions is about religion. If you are a Christian, a Muslim or a Calathumpian answer the question truthfully. Ignore the bigots who have been saying that if you put anything except Christian the government will build a mosque in your street for the million Muslims. This is as likely as the government building a ladies-only gym in your street if you don't tick "male".

If you are an atheist or just someone who chooses to practice no religion at all, tick "No religion". Ignore the fools who are suggesting that you should make a farce out of the census by putting down Jedi or Pastafarian, because these will simply be ignored. We are having enough trouble in this country with school chaplains and opposition to ethics classes and misrepresentation of the establishment clause of our constitution, and the best ammunition against this is for the census counters to declare unequivocally the proportion of Australians who don't want or need religion in their lives.

See more Jesus and Mo here

A night out with the spirits (6/8/2011)
With nothing better to do on a rainy Saturday night, I joined some friends for a ghost tour of the cemetery around the non-longer-used St Bartholomew's Anglican Church at Prospect, west of Sydney. It wasn't very ghostly, despite the age of the graves, and one of the highlights of the night was literally the the way that the guide said "literally" literally all the time. Literally. There were people there from an organisation named "Soul Searchers" who had ghost detection equipment, but I didn't hear any whoops of joy from them so either the ghosts were shy that night or the detectors were not calibrated for the type of spirits found in the area. At least there was a light rain at some points in the night to provide the right atmosphere. And for those of you who believe that there are no coincidences, when I got into my car to go home this was playing on the radio. True. And I have a witness!

One of the ghost stories was that back in the 1960s and 1970s, young couples who parked their cars in the cemetery to do some courting reported seeing winged horses plunging through coloured mists and other unexplainable visions. Why this should be notable was not explained, as it was the style of the times and almost completely unremarkable. Some said that if you didn't see visions like this back then you weren't going to the right parties. A spectre from that era was seen sitting on one of the graves, but there was some dispute over whether he was a ghost or something temporal. I don't have an opinion, because I didn't see him myself.

What I did see was the grave below. It has several occupants, including two children who died within days of each other with scarlet fever. Another is someone who was severely burnt and received the standard treatment of the time for burns – butter. Nobody dies of scarlet fever today (I had a sore throat last week probably caused by streptococcus, the infective agent of scarlet fever. I sucked some antiseptic lozenges and took some paracetamol and it got better.) and even people with quite extensive burns can be saved and rehabilitated. I invite peddlers of quackery to stand with me next to this grave and tell me what they would offer today to save the lives of the children and the burn victim. Do they have anything better than what was available 150 years ago? I know the answer, but I wonder if they would be prepared to admit the truth.

Something wicked this way comes (6/8/2011)
I mentioned last week that I had attended a session about creationism in a church. The session was part of a series being held by the church to discuss matters of concern to people of faith. So far they have talked about the anthropic principle (the universe appears to be designed precisely to allow us to be in it – is this coincidence?), the existence of free will (if we have free will to act however we like does this conflict with the omniscience of God, who must know what the future holds?) and the creationism session we attended. The next topic is the existence of evil. This is the most difficult problem for any member of a monotheistic faith who believes in both the omnipotence and perfect goodness of his god, and is usually addressed by hand-waving and sophistry. I look forward to the discussion on the night, but meanwhile here is a graphic description of the problem from the point of view of an atheist.

Congratulations (6/8/2011)
Last month I mentioned that some of my friends had got together to run skeptical meetings on the New South Wales south coast, several hours drive from where the majority of the population lives. I couldn't make it to the inaugural Skeptics in the Pub but I will definitely try to get to some in the future. The first meeting attracted 30 people (which is a good crowd for some similar functions in Sydney!) and even got coverage in the local papers. All the organisers should be congratulated on the success of their first effort and I hope that they can keep the enthusiasm going.

A new world record (6/8/2011)
It was proudly announced on Facebook that the sign below had been erected in some unfortunate town in the USA. Prominent anti-vaccinators were asking for people to donate money to pay for it. The person who had the sign erected is well-known for her opposition to reality and was really proud to announce it on her Facebook page and boast about how she was exercising her freedom of speech.

That commitment to free speech was sorely tested when some sane people started asking for evidence for claims such as, for example, that measles is a deficiency disease caused by lack of Vitamin A so there is no need to kill children with a vaccine. Meryl Dorey from the Australian Vaccination Network weighed in with allegations of physical threats against her and other defamations (she was the one who was elsewhere trying to solicit funds for the sign). I responded to these allegations and then – boom! Dissenters were blocked from even looking at the picture and their comments were removed. Normally this takes some time, but I was blocked less than a minute after posting my comment. I am claiming this as a new benchmark in suppression of dissent. In future I will be looking for just seconds between freely speaking and being censored if people want to feel that they are honoured members of the anti-vaccination lying community.

These people have a commitment to free speech and tolerance of dissent which exactly matches their commitment to telling the truth about vaccines. In other words they lie. But that is not unexpected, because that is what they do.

And does the sign even exist? I know someone who has the ability to drive past and look. Nobody is going to be too surprised if the actual sign at the location tells people to buy cars or burgers. Did I mention that anti-vaccination liars lie?

See more XKCD here

August 13, 2011

Sue away, scammer (13/8/2011)
There was this product called Sensaslim. It was an obvious fraud. It was promoted by someone with a history of slimming treatment fraud (although they forgot to mention that to prospective investors). The promoters lied about the science. They lied about its efficacy. They sued Dr Ken Harvey because he complained to the Therapeutic Goods Administration about the product (exploiting a loophole that prevented the TGA from doing any investigation while there was ongoing litigation related to a product). They went broke and couldn't pay their bills. Here is what the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission had to say:

ACCC takes court action against Sensaslim for alleged misleading claims

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has instituted proceedings against Sensaslim Australia Pty Ltd (Administrator Appointed) (Sensaslim), Mr Peter Clarence Foster, Mr Peter Leslie O'Brien, Mr Adam Troy Adams and Mr Michael Anthony Boyle.

The ACCC alleges that Sensaslim and several of its officers engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct and made false representations in relation to the identity of Sensaslim officers, the Sensaslim Spray and the business opportunities offered by Sensaslim.

The alleged conduct includes:

  • Failing to disclose the involvement of Peter Foster in the business of Sensaslim;
  • Falsely representing that the Sensaslim Spray was the subject of a large worldwide clinical trial when in fact no such trial was conducted;
  • Falsely representing that Dr Capehorn, an obesity specialist, gave unqualified support to the effectiveness of the Sensaslim Spray and the purported clinical trials;
  • Falsely representing that Michael Boyle was managing the business of Sensaslim;
  • Failing to disclose that Michael Boyle was intending to resign as Director immediately following the launch of Sensaslim;
  • Falsely representing that Sensaslim franchisees were already participating in, and profiting from, the Sensaslim franchise, that a Sensaslim franchise had a certain earning potential and that there was a "money back buy back guarantee".

The ACCC is seeking court orders including declarations, injunctions, penalties, compensation orders, orders that Sensaslim officers be disqualified from managing corporations in the future and costs.

In the Federal Court NSW on 20 July 2011, Justice Yates made orders by consent granting leave for the ACCC to proceed against Sensaslim Australia Pty Ltd (Administrator Appointed) up to 27 July 2011.

Orders are extended to 27 July 2011 that Foster, O'Brien and Adams be restrained from taking further steps to make representations regarding the efficacy of the Sensaslim Spray where the basis for the representation is a clinical trial or scientific report, unless the clinical trial was conducted and is the subject of a scientific report which has been published in a peer reviewed scientific journal.

The matter has been adjourned for further hearing to 27 July 2011.

Release # NR 126/11
Issued: 21st July 2011

Peter O'Brien, mentioned above, responded this week with the following media release:

Sensaslim director files million dollar law suit against Dr Ken Harvey

Friday, 12 August 2011 15:00 Press Release

Brisbane, August 12, 2011
Sensaslim, the slimming spray company which claims its product is the most effective weight loss aid in the world, hit back at Dr Ken Harvey yesterday by filing a million dollar law suit against the sceptic they describe as a "chronic complainer".

Australian director Peter O'Brien personally filed in the Supreme Court action for libel and defamation against Dr Harvey following his calls for the product to be withdrawn from the market.

In a writ filed in the Supreme Court of Queensland, Mr O' Brien claimed that Dr Harvey had no grounds for calling for SensaSlim to be withdrawn from sale given that there are no safety issues over it.

"The TGA authorised SensaSlim for sale on the basis of its unique formulation and active ingredients," Mr O'Brien said. "It is issued with a TGA Listing number approving it for sale as a weight loss aid."

The Sensaslim Solution formulation combines five of the most thoroughly researched weight loss ingredients over the past 30 years. It uses all natural active components extracted from rare fruits and minerals, which together, act to stimulate the body's natural fat burning processes, reduce cravings of sugar and carbohydrates, maintain energy metabolism, inhibit fat synthesis, increase fat oxidation, encourage lean muscle mass and decrease body weight.

Sensaslim also contains a natural analgesic which acts to desensitise taste receptors on the tongue.

"For any product to be withdrawn from the market it has to be because of a safety issue, and Dr Harvey knew that," Mr O'Brien said.

"He was attempting to create headlines and be mischievous and we are calling him to account." he said. "He is a man pursuing a personal vendetta and is followed by a small group of people who pride themselves on being sceptics and cynics'

"It is one thing for him to disagree with our advertising, but it is completely outrageous to call for a product to be withdrawn from sale simply because he is against all things natural,"

Mr O'Brien said Dr Harvey was a "chronic complainer on the complementary healthcare industry who becomes louder and more vengeful and spiteful as he realises he becomes less relevant."

"What Dr Harvey can't tolerate is the growth in the natural nutrition and healthcare industries, at the cost of big pharmaceuticals," Mr O'Brien said.

"Australians spend more money on complementary medicines and therapies than they do on prescription drugs, and he hates that," he said. "He is living in the past and is motivated by his own personal self-interest."

This is the first weight loss product to uniquely act on all four areas of the body �"� mouth, nose, stomach and brain �"� to promote weight loss. It is the first to be launched in an easy-to-use mouth spray format, which works nine times faster than pills.

Sensaslim promotes behaviour change, decreases taste and olfactory sensation, suppresses appetite, and promotes thermogenesis (the breakdown of fats.) Appetite is reduced after only a short period if taste or smell is reduced.

Spraying Sensaslim on the tongue three times a day, 10 minutes before eating, desensitises the tongue and sends a message directly to the brain that you are no longer hungry. The safe, fast-acting spray acts as a source of will power to swiftly suppress appetite and control hunger, without hunger pains.

Australia was the first country to launch SensaSlim.

I was wondering how Mr O'Brien was going to pay his lawyers for this, seeing as apparently he still owes money for the last failed attempt against Dr Harvey. I thought that any lawyer who took on this case would be a fool. Remember that old saying about how people who represent themselves have fools for both lawyer and client?

I will be following this closely, but I don't expect that Mr O'Brien's action is designed to do more than provide an opportunity to continually declare that Dr Harvey is being sued and hope that some mud will stick.

See more by Randy Glasbergen here

Birthday (13/8/2011)
Thursday this week, August 11, was the birthday of Robert Ingersoll, one of the 19th century's greatest thinkers. To celebrate, I have added another of his works to the collection here. It is "What Would You Substitute for the Bible as a Moral Guide?" It joins two other works by Ingersoll – "Which Way?" and "Why I am an Agnostic".

I have the feeling that many more Robert Ingersoll works could find their way to this site in the future.

Here are some teasers:

Which Way?

There are two ways, -- the natural and the supernatural.

One way is to live for the world we are in, to develop the brain by study and investigation, to take, by invention, advantage of the forces of nature, to the end that we may have good houses, raiment and food, to the end that the hunger of the mind may be fed through art and science.

The other way is to live for another world that we expect, to sacrifice this life that we have for another that we know not of. The other way is by prayer and ceremony to obtain the assistance, the protection of some phantom above the clouds.

One way is to think -- to investigate, to observe, and follow, the light, of reason. The other way is to believe, to accept, to follow, to deny the authority of your own senses, your own reason, and bow down to those who are impudent enough to declare that they know.

One way is to live for the benefit of your fellowmen -- for your wife and children -- to make those you love happy and to shield them from the sorrows of life.

The other way is to live for ghosts, goblins, phantoms and gods with the hope that they will reward you in another world.

One way is to enthrone reason and rely on facts, the other to crown credulity and live on faith.

One way is to walk by the light within -- by the flame that illumines the brain, verifying all by the senses -- by touch and sight and sound.

The other way is to extinguish the sacred light and follow blindly the steps of another.

One way is to be an honest man, giving to others your thought, standing erect, intrepid, careless of phantoms and hells.

The other way is to cringe and crawl, to betray your nobler self and to deprive others of the liberty that you have not the courage to enjoy.

Read the rest here.

Why I am an Agnostic

For the most part we inherit our opinions. We are the heirs of habits and mental customs. Our beliefs, like the fashion of our garments, depend on where we were born. We are molded and fashioned by our surroundings.

Environment is a sculptor -- a painter.

If we had been born in Constantinople, the most of us would have said: "There is no God but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet." If our parents had lived on the banks of the Ganges, we would have been worshipers of Siva, longing for the heaven of Nirvana.

As a rule, children love their parents, believe what they teach, and take great pride in saying that the religion of mother is good enough for them.

Most people love peace. They do not like to differ with their neighbors. They like company. They are social. They enjoy traveling on the highway with the multitude. They hate to walk alone.

The Scotch are Calvinists because their fathers were. The Irish are Catholics because their fathers were. The English are Episcopalians because their fathers were, and the Americans are divided in a hundred sects because their fathers were. This is the general rule, to which there are many exceptions. Children sometimes are superior to their parents, modify their ideas, change their customs, and arrive at different conclusions. But this is generally so gradual that the departure is scarcely noticed, and those who change usually insist that they are still following the fathers.

Read the rest here.

What Would You Substitute for the Bible as a Moral Guide?

You ask me what I would "substitute for the Bible as a moral guide."

I know that many people regard the Bible as the only moral guide and believe that in that book only can be found the true and perfect standard of morality.

There are many good precepts, many wise sayings and many good regulations and laws in the Bible, and these are mingled with bad precepts, with foolish sayings, with absurd rules and cruel laws.

But we must remember that the Bible is a collection of many books written centuries apart, and that it in part represents the growth and tells in part the history of a people. We must also remember. that the writers treat of many subjects. Many of these writers have nothing to say about right or wrong, about vice or virtue.

The book of Genesis has nothing about morality. There is not a line in it calculated to shed light on the path of conduct. No one can call that book a moral guide. It is made up of myth and miracle, of tradition and legend.

Read the rest here.

And someone else's view ... (13/8/2011)

All in a good cause (13/8/2011)
Showing concern for the souls of animals as well as humans, Western Sydney Freethinkers went to a park and sold cupcakes to raise RSPCAmoney so that the RSPCA could look after the rights of puppies and kittens. (Marketing rule: When trying to get money from people for animal welfare, the words are "puppies" and "kittens", not "dogs" and "cats".) The day was very successful, with all of the comestibles being sold. Special thanks go to Bronwyn Pinchbeck and Bea Bowditch for doing the cooking and cake decorating. One odd observation was that of all the people who walked past, the only group which did not buy a single cake was people walking their dogs. Apparently having a pooch as a fashion accessory places a limit on generosity towards animals.


See more Wumo here

(And yes, the image is 666 pixels wide. Be afraid.)

True skeptics versus false skeptics (13/8/2011)
Last week I talked about an anti-vaccination sign that was being proudly touted across the social media world. The person who claimed to have paid for the sign has a reputation for (putting it politely) being loose with the truth, so there was doubt that the sign really existed. There was some talk that the picture might have been faked, particularly as some of the text on the sign appeared to be a little too clear when compared to other parts of the picture.

Like all true skeptics, people sought the truth. The billboard advertising company was contacted and said that such a message had been displayed. The sign is a digital one, which accounts for the sharpness in the photograph, but also means that this particular message might have been displayed for only long enough to take a picture (the advertising company did not say where the sign was or how long the display had run).

The actual location was finally tracked down. I cropped the image when I put it up here last week, because what surrounded it wasn't of real interest at the time, but what I cut out showed the signage on a pharmacy chain store next to the billboard. Someone contacted the pharmacy chain and got this response:

Thank you for contacting us. This photo looks doctored to me but we are looking into it this afternoon. As you may know, both CVS/pharmacy and our MinuteClinic health clinics provide numerous vaccination services. While the billboard in this photo does not look real, our store locations are leased sites and we do not own the properties, so hypothetically speaking a landlord could allow this without our consent. But again, we are in the process of identifying this location (we have a dozen stores in Evansville) and will look into it.

I think that there might be words between the billboard advertising company and the pharmacy chain about the sort of signs that should be allowed outside reputable health care outlets.

So we were wrong to suspect that the sign might be a fake. Does this cause us any distress? No, because unlike people who tell lies about vaccines, we are prepared to change our minds when evidence is produced. That's the way science works. That's the way reasonable people think.

See more Bad Chemicals here

August 20, 2011

It's been a bad week for Sensaslime (20/8/2011)
Last week I mentioned some crooks that had been attracting much regulatory attention to their bogus slimming product. Their reaction had been the standard way out for people who can't back up their claims – they reached for lawyers and started suing. In a nice piece of irony, the court system turned on them this week. Here is a media release from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.

ACCC takes contempt action against Sensaslim director

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has commenced proceedings against Peter O'Brien alleging contempt of court.

Mr O'Brien is the sole director of Sensaslim Australia Pty Ltd, which is in liquidation.

On 16 June 2011, the ACCC obtained interim orders to preserve money held in the Sensaslim account with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Material filed in court in support of the application included information from some Sensaslim franchisees.

The ACCC alleges that Mr O'Brien authored or authorised a communication sent to franchisees of Sensaslim Australia Pty Ltd which had a tendency to interfere with the administration of justice.

The ACCC is seeking a declaration, penalties and costs against Mr O'Brien.

A directions hearing has been set down in the Federal Court in Sydney for 31 August 2011.

Separately, in July the ACCC instituted proceedings alleging that Sensaslim Australia Pty Ltd (administrator appointed) and several of its officers engaged in misleading and deceptive conduct and made false representations. The next court date for this matter is scheduled for 17 August.

Release # NR 144/11
Issued: 16th August 2011

See more Close to Home here

Speaking of lawyers ... (20/8/2011)
There Enough duck for an entire homeopathic manufacturing industryis a very large company in France which appears to exist solely to defraud its customers. It is Boiron, and they manufacture homeopathic "medicines". Their biggest selling product is an influenza treatment called called Oscillococcinum 200C. It is made from duck liver, and the 200C part of the name says that there is not a single molecule of anything duck-related in the bottle. In fact, it says that there is not a single molecule of anything except water in the bottle. Unfortunately, the 200C admission of uselessness and fraud is as far as truth in labelling goes. The manufacture of 200C anything requires 800 manufacturing steps, so it is highly unlikely that Boiron do anything more than make sure the water they bottle is clean and sterile enough not to cause any health problems in the marks who buy the stuff. It is also certain that the ducks of the world are safe, because one duck could provide enough liver for many decades, maybe centuries, of raw material.

To put 200C into perspective, a homeopathic preparation at 40C would only need one atom of active ingredient in the entire universe. 200C is a concentration of one atom in the number of universes which has 320 zeros in it. Or, put another way, 200C is something totally unachievable. To say that it has been made is evidence that the speaker is either deranged or lying. Boiron makes a lot of money, so we can assume they are not deranged.

Boiron have decided that they don't like it being pointed out that their best-selling product has nothing in it except water and their customers could save money by turning on a tap, so they have sued an Italian blogger for defaming them.

Here More duck than Boiron have ever usedare some facts about Oscillococcinum 200C:

Another Skepticamp (20/8/2011)
The second Australian Skepticamp will be held in Melbourne on October 22. The format for these events is all audience participation. There are no big-name invited speakers (although big names are free to turn up), no paid speakers, no cost to attend and no pre-announced program. Speakers are free to announce their topic in advance, but on the day anyone can take a vacant 15 minute slot and have their say. I'll be there, and my topic will be "Do be a dick", where accommodationism, excessive politeness and tolerating people who know they are lying will receive some attention.

Early information about the event can be found here, you can book your free ticket here, and there's even a Facebook page. Go on, you know you want to.

Read about the first Australian Skepticamp here.

See more from Judy Horacek here

It's been a bad week for Nimrod (20/8/2011)
In July I mentioned that I had risked stroke from hypertension by sitting through a two-hour anti-vaccination seminar presented by chiropractor Nimrod Weiner. I have acquired the PowerPoint slides from the seminar and I am working up a road show in which I show the slides and point out the lies, inaccuracies and misinformation. Unfortunately, telling the truth takes longer than lying so I have to do some rewriting and editing to get the show down to a length where it doesn't drive the audience crazy, but I think it can be done.

This week, things turned very nasty for Mr Weiner, who just happens to be Vice President of the NSW Branch of the Chiropractors Association of Australia. The first thing to happen was that Australian Doctor magazine released an audio recording of one of his seminars to a readership who had been somewhat incredulous about reports of what had been said. Australian Doctor does not have an open web site, but you can download the audio recording here (there are several sound files inside a zip file).

The story was picked up by the national newspaper The Australian, who had this to say:

AUSTRALIA'S health regulator is facing calls to investigate a prominent chiropractor who said vaccines contain "toxic poison".

In a public talk, the Sydney chiropractor linked vaccines to asbestos, thalidomide and cigarettes, and said they contained bits of aborted fetus. The chiropractor backed the debunked research of deregistered British doctor Andrew Wakefield – which suggested the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine might cause autism – as "scientifically good".

The parents and pregnant women who attended the talk in March were told "homeopathic vaccines" – which are regarded as scientific nonsense by most experts – were safer than conventional vaccines.

The comments by Nimrod Weiner, who is vice-president of the Chiropractors Association of Australia (NSW), were recorded by Australian Doctor.

They were condemned as "outrageous" yesterday by the Australian Medical Association.

In his talk, Mr Weiner said vaccine makers grew germs such as the chicken pox virus "on human fetus, because it's the best medium to grow it on".

Read the rest here.

Next was the breakfast show on the ABC's Radio National, where their web site has the summary:

The nation's chiropractors are on the back foot this morning after being accused of undermining public health policy by not taking a positive stance on childhood immunisation. The Australian Medical Association made the accusation after a prominent Sydney chiropractor told a public meeting that he did not support the science of vaccination.

Nimrod Weiner said vaccines contain a variety of toxic ingredients including mercury and human foetus, and believes that homoeopathic vaccines are a healthier alternative. His comments have angered the medical community, which is now calling on Australia's Chiropratic Board to investigate the matter.

You can listen to the program here:

Finally, the online magazine The Conversation asked Professor Robert Booy (an actual vaccine expert) to comment. His remarks were published under the heading "Having a crack: what do chiropractors know about vaccinations?" I added a comment, which said:

I'm afraid Professor Booy was far too polite. I sat through one of Mr Weiner's anti-vaccination seminars recently and it was atrocious.

I gave a presentation last night in which I went through the PowerPoint for the seminar and pointed out the errors and deceptions. The number of things he got wrong exceeded the number of slides, and what made it worse was that the truth about many of the pieces of misinformation has been pointed out to Mr Weiner and his anti-vaccination ilk on multiple occasions. What is surprising is how quickly the falsehoods can be uncovered, an example being comments about information being withheld from Australian parents despite that information being in brochures from Immunise Australia that are given out freely at hospitals, doctors surgeries and daycare centres.

I used to try to be polite to anti-vaccination campaigners. I am rapidly reaching the point where politeness needs to be abandoned because of the danger they present to children's health.

I have the feeling that Mr Weiner's regular anti-vaccination seminars could be entering a hiatus while he waits for the heat to die down. Of course, if he wants to do business as usual then I am sure that there will be no shortage of people making his business their business.


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