Thursday, 29 April 2010

Playing Dirty Politics - attacks on Dr Evan Harris



There are very few scientifically literate, evidence-based and openly secular MPs in parliament. Dr Evan Harris has been the LibDem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon since May 1997 and is standing again at this election. I've never voted LibDem but I do support him for his work on scientific research, medicine, free speech, equality and secularism. He backed Simon Singh in his libel case and has actively supported Skeptics in the Pub, a group I belong to - most recently in our 1023 homeopathy campaign. He is the LibDem spokesman for science and serves on Parliament's Human Rights Select Committee.

There have been boundary changes in his constituency and it would take only a 7% swing for him to be replaced by Nicola Blackwood, a fundamentalist Christian Tory.

She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. Her profile on their website says that her political activities and voluntary activity are 'both classically Conservative and classically Christian'. It continues: 'along with many Christians, she is concerned that the right to freedom of religion is being undermined without proper understanding of the potential consequences for faith groups or the wider community. In particular, she fears that the voice of Christians and people of other faiths on key issues of conscience is too readily dismissed in public debate'.

This is not the place to unpack those statements but the National Secular Society website has plenty of evidence for why she is so very wrong.

Perhaps sensing Evan's alleged vulnerability, the sharks have started circling. Several groups have attacked him, some with a closer regard for the truth than others.

Some Christians are playing dirty. There is rap sheet against him written by the Reverend Lynda Rose that has been widely distrubuted in his area, calling him 'one of the most outspoken secularists in Parliament' and bringing up the old Dr Death tag. Secularist is not a term of endearment here.

The leaflet points out with a condemning finger that he is in favour of liberalising the law on abortion, that he promotes 'contraversial' embryonic research and the legalisation of euthanasia. He is, they say, against faith schools and the right of adoption agencies to turn away gay couples. He is also in favour of compulsory sex education in primary schools. Oh, and he wants the pledge to God removed from the Scouts' oath.

In other words, he is threatening the very fabric of decent society.

While the pro-life, anti-choice Reverend Rose claims 'It is a purely factual leaflet', members of the scientific and skeptical community generally have a higher threshold of evidence than she appears to. The evidence-based Dr Harris has a different view too. He told the Oxford Mail: 'It is a pity that, instead of putting up a candidate to contest the election, an anonymous group (...) is distributing an inaccurate personal attack leaflet in this constituency (...) I am proud of my record of speaking out on medical ethical issues and of course no candidate will agree with everyone on some of these divisive issues but I have always been prepared to debate the issue with any group'.

Another group who prefer emotive smear campaigns to facts are the Animal Protection Party, and they are fielding a candidate. According to them, Evan is an 'aggressive secularist' in favour of 'attacking the brains of monkeys'. He is also 'the drug companies (sic) chief mouthpiece in parliament' where 'he uses his position to attack herbal remedies, vitamins and homeopathy as 'untested', while promoting animal tested prescription drugs'.

I'll just point out that the alt med industry is worth billions a year and leave it at that.

The APP also accuse him of advocating 'the use of hybrid human/animal 'Frankenstein' embryos for research'.

If you're going to play the mad scientist card, at least get the right mad scientist. It was not Frankenstein who made hybrids, it was Dr Moreau, as in The Island Of... Even if you haven't read HG Wells' book, there have been several film versions.

Christina Odone had a rather unimaginative go at him in the Telegraph too, and yes, she did call him Dr Death. His response was :

"How sad that she resorts to snide personal comments which she has publicly condemned in others. Why not just stick to the issues?

"On the issues, it is true that, in common with 80% of the country and a majority of Christians, Lib Dems support – on a free vote for MPs and peers – the legalisation of assisted dying for the suffering terminally ill of sound mind. This is very different from “euthanasia” which would include involuntary and non-voluntary euthanasia (non-consenting or where no capacity to consent) which we of course oppose.

"On abortion, there is no party policy. I support – as does 80% of the population and the Church of England – the right of women not to be forced to go through pregnancy and give birth against their will. Abortion, when it happens, should take place as early as possible and our current laws should be amended to make access to early abortion easier to prevent delays."

Attacks on him are nothing new. The Mail notoriously had a go back in 2007. But this is election time so the stakes are a bit higher than usual.

After the lies, some facts.

These are some things he has worked on:
  • repealing the blasphemy laws

  • defeating the government on their proposed religious hatred laws

  • campaigning for an end to the discrimination practiced by faith schools in admissions and employment

  • promoting reform of libel laws

  • promoting the updating of laws allowing stem cell research and campaigning for the passage of the HFE bills

  • LGBT equality - his 1998 amendment forced the government to review and repeal discriminatory criminal laws

  • heading the parliamentary pro-choice campaign that defeated anti-abortion amendments in the Commons in 2008

  • being the main link between Dignity in Dying and the House of Commons in the campaign to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill

If you should feel moved to, you can support him here.


UPDATE: Evan lost by 176 votes, which made George Pitcher of the Telegraph very happy. A hung Parliament may not last long, and there is talk that Evan will stand again.









Sunday, 18 April 2010

Menopause Magnets

Menopause is still largely a taboo subject, rarely mentioned in mainstream media and then often in negative or jokey terms. It's seen as a time of loss, of change for the worse, a decrease in femininity, the start of old age and decrepitude. Despite the best efforts of some women to promote The Change as just another life phase, a time of increasing wisdom, there is rarely anything good said about it in Western Culture, along with plenty of scare stories about HRT.

The recent emergence of Cougar Women appears positive. These are older women who are still sexually active, often with younger men. The trouble is, the main Cougar message appears to be that it's fine to be older as long as you don't look like you are. Being a Cougar is about cheating time, not about celebrating the sexuality of older women.

It's no surprise then that women are anxious about the menopause. Taking HRT is seen as, at best, a gamble, a necessary evil. Doing nothing is rarely presented as an option. Which makes women a prime target for 'alternative' remedies.

One of these is LadyCare, a magnetic device worn in the underwear.

The website claims that 'LadyCare may help to reduce or completely eliminate the symptoms of menopause'. It goes further: Ladycare 'may prove to be one of the greatest natural solutions for the alleviation of menopause symptoms'- including 'Feelings of Doom'. By invoking the N word (natural), it plays on women's fears of side effects (because natural things are safe and soft and fluffy, of course. Like deadly nightshade, ricin, cyanide, hemlock and death cap mushrooms).

What is it? According to the website, it's 'a small powerful, static magnetic device that simply attaches discreetly and comfortably to your underwear' and which should be worn about four inches below the navel.

That's it. That's the sum total of the information about how it works. There is a link that will take you to an 'extensive list of trials'. There has been one trial. Ladycare was worn day and night for three months by 508 women. There is also, apparently, the LadyCare Double Blind Trial underway with results expected in January 2010. It's mid-April now and no signs of any such results.

Although they are careful to use words like 'may' and 'reported', they are clearly making a link between wearing the magnets and symptomatic relief. There is also a warning that users 'may experience a slight detox effect' for the first 24 hours of use, including mild nausea and headaches. This would suggest that there is some active process going on.

What could it be? I've written before about therapeutic magnets, on that occasion magnets sewn into hijabs to alleviate a range of symptoms with some background to magnet therapy and also a link to a BMJ article.

Why don't magnets work? Blood is not ferro-magnetic. In other words, yes there is iron in blood but it does not respond to magnets, not even really really powerful ones. Which is just as well or anyone in an MRI scanner would explode.


To get technical, a therapeutic effect is unrealistic because any magnetic effect is entirely overwhelmed by the thermal motion, not to mention haemodynamic forces, in flowing blood. Incidentally, there are only about 3 or 4g of iron in the body anyway, and not all of that in the blood.

LadyCare is at best a placebo, at worst a health threat.

The magnets 'may' also cause weight loss - one of the listed problems associated with menopause. The website reports a 'median weight loss of 14lbs' in the 508 women trial. Cougar women must be thin and look like Courtney Cox.

More worryingly, there is a question in the FAQs about whether diabetics can use LadyCare and the response is: 'We've had many cases reported of sugar levels being reduced with the use of LadyCare'. The use of the word 'reported' is a get out of jail free card but the association is there.

There are testimonials but anecdotes are not evidence. Expecting to feel better often leads to feeling better especially if women follow the one bit of common sense advice on the website about leading a healthy lifestyle - diet, exercise and relaxation.

LadyCare uses various sales tactics: the promotion of the product as natural, feeble science, testimonials - and fear.


HRT is discussed in what starts out as a reasonable tone: 'In some cases, HRT may be the right thing for women who find themselves unable to function without it for a while (...) So, be kind to yourself, accept whatever decision you have made...'. But then there are a series of images of (mostly tabloid) newspaper headlines that shout things like 'HRT is linked to cancer', 'HRT raises cancer and stroke risks' and 'Millions in HRT danger' followed by a long list of serious HRT side-effects.

LadyCare, it says, has no side effects. That's because it has no effects. The mention of the 'slight detox effect' is bunkum. It's safe because it does nothing except possibly make you feel a bit more positive.

The man behind LadyCare is Dr Nyjon Eccles BsC, MBBS, MRCP, PhD. His CV is here and says, among other things, that 'He is primarily a general and naturopathic physician and has special interest and experience in complementary nutritional supportive treatments that promote well-being and recovery'. He runs the Chiron Clinic in Harley Street that offers a whole slew of alternative and complementary treatments which are, it claims, evidence-based. Which is an interesting use of 'evidence'.

His published research includes a study of 35 women with dysmenorrhea (painful periods) in 2005 that found a reduction in pain and irritability. Thirty five women do not make for compelling evidence and irritability is not exactly measurable on a scientifically quantifiable scale.

To sum up: There is nothing on the website that explains how LadyCare works. Probably because there is no evidence that magnets do work. Or because ladies don't need to know about all that science stuff. They've got more important things to worry their heads about. Especially when they're having hot flushes, mood swings, sleep loss and vaginal dryness. This is yet another product exploiting women at a vulnerable time in their lives purporting to be both scientific and natural when it is nothing of the kind. You might as well put a lucky rabbit's foot down your pants. Or a photo of Dr Nyjon Eccles.

Ladycare is made by Magnopulse Ltd, a self-proclaimed 'leader in magnotherapy' who started out selling pet-related magnetic products and then moved on to treating humans. Quackometer reports that in 2007 Magnopulse were forced to change their advertising about other magnetic products by the Office of Fair Trading.

LadyCare costs £19.95 including p&p, or you can buy it in Boots for £19.49. Boots is, of course, the place that sells homeopathic remedies not because there is any evidence they work but because people like them.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Religion, sex and death - election style




It must be election time. The main parties are parading their religious beliefs in order to court what they imagine to be the faith vote.

Both Cameron and Brown's Easter messages are likely to alienate more people than they attract though - both non-believers and people of other faiths. Gordon Brown said that 'the Christian Church is the conscience of our country' and that the visit of the Pope in the autumn would 'make this a special year for the UK'. I'm not sure what meaning of 'special' he was using.

Cameron's Thought For The Day style homily included: 'No matter what faiths we follow, we can all draw strength from Christ's message of hope, of a new beginning and a promise of a new dawn'. It is to be assumed that he will be drawing strength from other religions, too. Or not.

The Tories have gone further than Labour (so far) in parading their religious credentials. In an interview with the Catholic Herald, Cameron pledged to lower the abortion limit, block assisted dying and allow schools to teach PSHE (sex education) any way they like.

On abortion, he said the limit should be reduced to 20 or 22 weeks, His reason for this is 'the way medical science and technology have developed in the past few decades'. He doesn't go into details and blatantly ignores scientific evidence.

Foetal viability was rigorously examined by the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology in 2007. The Committee concluded that:

'While survival rates at 24 weeks and over have improved they have not done so below that gestational point. Put another way, we have seen no good evidence to suggest that foetal viability has improved significantly since the abortion time limit was last set, and seen some good evidence to suggest that it has not.'

This conclusion is shared by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Foetal viability means survival of foetuses who are alive at variable times during the pregnancy or the capability of surviving the neonatal period and growing up into an adult.

To put this into context, in 2007, 89% of terminations happened before 13 weeks. In 2005, only 1.3% happened between 20 and 24 weeks.

Are Catholics in this country so different from those in America and Australia? 64% of US Catholics disapprove of the statement that abortion is morally wrong in every case and 72% of Catholics in Australia say decisions about abortion should be left to individual women and their doctors. Cameron may well be scuppering himself with all but the most hard-line Catholic voters, let alone with the rest of us.

His argument against assisted dying is that there is a 'line to be drawn between allowing nature to take its course under some incredibly painful circumstances and on the other hand allowing doctors or others (however well-intentioned) to accelerate death. I think it would be wrong to tread over this line, because there are very serious implications for our families, and for our society as a whole'. The biggest danger he sees is 'that terminally ill people may feel pressurized into ending their lives if they feel they've become a burden on loved ones'.

He presents no scientific research, no statistics, no information from countries where assisted dying has long been successfully carried out. He just goes for the scare tactic. He also commits the hoary old mistake of of assuming that nature is good and right. Perhaps he'll remember that when someone close to him needs an organ transplant or cancer treatment. And he seems to have forgotten (or ignored) a poll showing that over 80% of people in the UK are in favour of assisted dying. Never let the facts get in the way of rhetoric.

When it comes to sex education, he thinks that 'schools should be allowed to teach it in a way that's consistent with their beliefs, and parents should be free to decide whether or not their children should take part in these lessons... I'm a big supporter of faith schools'.

He may think this is a vote-catcher but he is putting the health and well-being of the next generation at risk by allowing religious schools to keep them in ignorance or mix facts with faith.

As I wrote about PSHE before, it's hard to see how a school with a strong religious ethos will be able to teach the facts and get its religious message across without these two aims coming into conflict. Children in faith schools are often the most in need of accurate, impartial information as devoutly religious parents are unlikely to be willing or able to give it to them.

Proposed Conservative amendments would strike the requirement from the current PSHE proposals that teaching should 'endeavour to promote equality', 'encourage the acceptance of diversity' and 'emphasise the importance of both rights and responsibilities'. They would mean that schools would not be required to teach PSHE and also allow parents to withdraw pupils of any age.

The danger is that young people have no way of judging the quality of any sex and relationship teaching they do get until it is too late and they fall pregnant or get an STI. And how will young gay people cope in a school whose religion actively disapproves of homosexuality? The irony is that good PSHE would help reduce abortion rates overall and help women face the decision on whether to have a termination in a more informed way, which could reduce the (already small) number who need late ones.

The Tory party's stance on equality wasn't helped when Chris Grayling, the Shadow Home Secretary, said that Christian B&B owners should be allowed to turn away gay couples. Hotels should take anyone but Christians should be allowed to say who comes into their homes - even though these homes are businesses for tax and legal purposes like hygiene and health and safety - laws which Christian B&B owners would of course observe because they don't happen to clash with their bigoted beliefs. The law says that services must be provided to everyone without prejudice. Grayling's message appears to say that belief puts you above the law.

It's not just the Tories who are pushing the religious agenda. Religious groups are trying to give the impression that they can deliver masses of voters. In previous elections when parties running on the Christian ticket stood, they failed in no uncertain terms. In the last European election, the Christian Party averaged only 1.6% of the vote, despite having a candidate in every constituency.

A group called Westminster 2010 has made a declaration which includes pledges to

'protect the life of every human being from conception to its natural end and we refuse to comply with any directive that compels us to participate in or facilitate abortion, embryo-destructive research, assisted suicide, euthanasia or any other activity that involves intentionally taking innocent human life'.

and

'support marriage - the lifelong covenantal union of one man and one woman as husband and wife. We believe it is divinely ordained, the only context for sexual intercourse (...) and we refuse to submit to any edict forcing us to equate any other form of sexual partnership with marriage'.

So - no abortion, assisted suicide, embryo-based research, civil union, sex outside marriage or divorce. By refusing 'to submit to any edict' they are partly referring to equality law. That's law passed by Government and approved by the Queen (they're very keen on saying this is a Christian country based on Christian values because the Queen is Head of State and Head of the Church).

This manifesto is signed by five senior clerics, a peer, the chair of the Mission and Public Affairs Committee of the Church of England, the principals of three theological colleges and senior staff of around a dozen Christian associations and campaigning groups. That's a lot of heavy pressure put on MPs, threatening them with lost votes if they don't promote the same values. Blackmail is now apparently part of the democratic process. It should be noted that less than 3% of the population go to Church of England services at Easter, the festival on which the whole religion rests.

No wonder Brown and Cameron are bending over backwards to appease the religious voters. Except that the days of people receiving political guidance from the pulpit are long gone. Very few people now vote on single issues. Voting for a party purely on its stance on abortion, for example, is likely to land you with an MP or party you disagree with on many other issues, like tax, health care or foreign policy.

Not one of these religious messages puts women's and gay rights or health and well-being or personal choice before faith. Not one of them is evidence-based. Not one is even humane. Vote for the Dark Ages.