Friday, 23 December 2011

Wasps and the Evolution of Language

Just like living things, language evolves - and sometimes in the same way. When a population splits into two isolated groups, both evolve differently. *

In the 11th century, the modern French word guerre was pronounced gwerra. When the word arrived in England (courtesy of the Norman invaders after 1066), it was effectively isolated from the original language 'population' among British speakers who learnt French. The word mutated and lost the G so we pronounced it, after a few more mutations, as war. Roughly: gwerra to werre to war. Dropping the E on the end of the word is a common mutation.

Mediaeval scribes often used signs as shortcuts. In the 11th century, the word for school was written and pronounced escole (compare with escuela in Spanish, also a Romance language - which means derived from Latin). Later, it was written with an accent at the start as a scribes' sign that there was an S after the E . It's now written école and the S has been dropped from pronunciation. But before that happened, it came over here as escole, from which we got school.

The circumflex was a scribes' sign with a similar purpose, for example hôpital and forêt were pronounced hospital and forest.

People in some parts of France, like Paris, sound the E on the ends of some words as a short UH as in uh-huh. More technically it's called a schwa. So école would be écol - uh.

In the 12th century, the modern French word guêpe was written guespe and pronounced gwesp. The English mutated it by dropping the G and pronounced it wesp and then wasp.

Sometimes words split into further separate speaker populations after the initial isolation to create a kind of sub-species. In some parts of England like the West Country where I'm from, the G of guespe didn't die off but the W did. As G is not hard when followed by E (as in gesture) and the final E of guespe was sounded as a schwa, pronunciation went gwesp - jesp- jespa and that's why we yokels call wasps jaspers.

What the connection is with the old song 'Oh Sir Jasper do not touch me' is not known.

*If you're a linguist, yes I know I'm simplifying and being a little elliptical.

Monday, 12 December 2011

A Christmas Ghost Story

It's traditional to tell stories about ghosts and spirits at Christmas. Let's imagine it's a still, icy, night. Small things die silently in the dark and the light of the full moon glints on sharp, merciless teeth.

In 1990, consultant psychiatrist and hypnotherapist Dr Alan Sanderson M.B., B.S. (London), M.R.C.P., D.P.M., M.R.C. Psych. returned to clinical practice after years of 'personality research'. He found psychiatry 'still stuck in the pharmacological morass' so he came up with the Spirit Release Foundation (SRF) 'to train medical practitioners and others to help people who are troubled by spirit attachment'. The SRF's members 'share a belief in the primacy of spirit and the soul’s development through reincarnation' (although they claim not to be religious).

What might spirit attachment be? According to the website:

'A minority of those who die fail to make their transition from this physical world successfully. They become what is known as ‘earthbound’, because they remain mentally attached to the earth plane and so cannot progress. Reasons for this include a traumatic death, concern over some unfinished business or anxiety for a loved one on Earth. Attached spirits may manifest in a variety of ways. They may attach to a person, or to a place with which they were associated in life, that place becoming haunted'.

Basically, it's ghosts haunting buildings and possessing the living. Even though the therapy is aimed at medical practitioners (among others), there is no attempt at scientific evidence on the website. One practitioner does explain the mechanism on their own website: 'Everything in the universe is made up of energy, spirit release simply deals with energies most of us cannot see and for the most part are unaware of... Spirit Release is really all about how external energies can, on occasion, affect our energy system in detrimental ways'.

'Energy' is the alternative medicine practitioner's friend, an undefined, unscientific term to explain pretty much anything. It is not the capacity of a physical system to perform work. This 'energy' is not measured in joules, kilowatt-hours or kilocalories.

Diagnosis is hardly more scientific:

'Some of the more common symptoms of spirit attachment can be: lack of energy, memory disturbance, behavioural change, mood change, addictive behaviour, relationship problems and hearing disturbing voices. There may be bodily pain and other physical symptoms. The degree of attachment also varies. Some individuals are scarcely affected, while in rare cases the individual's body and mind have been taken over completely. There may, of course, be other reasons for the presence of these symptoms, which a practitioner should investigate'.

The range of symptoms is so vague and general that almost any condition can be ascribed to attachment. The caveat that there may be other reasons for symptoms has the appearance of responsibility but how many practitioners are qualified to diagnose symptoms - and then hand the patient over to medical care (thereby losing their fee)?

Why aren't doctors spotting that their patients are troubled by earthbound spirits?

'Spirit attachment is not uncommon and is often misdiagnosed because many practitioners are not aware of it and because the symptoms might fit a number of possible diagnoses. In some instances attachments exacerbate an existing complaint with similar symptoms. They may be the reason that recovery from a complaint is very slow.'

The implication is that trained doctors are getting it wrong with their insistence on using their medical training. Even if a patient has been diagnosed with a genuine medical condition, it could be made worse by spirit attachment. They really have covered all the bases.

How do they cure this terrible problem that no-one had heard of until the SRF came along?

'Spirit Release is a two fold process. Firstly it involves releasing earthbound spirits from their condition of attachment in a compassionate, non-confrontational way, by contacting the spirits and communicating with them. Spirit helpers are then called upon to move the spirit on to its rightful place in the universe. The person who has been affected by the attachment is also offered healing, counselling or other therapeutic help, including advice about psychic protection'.

So basically, they give the spirit a hug and call it a taxi? Once they've dealt with the dead, they help the living too -possibly because the dead don't have credit cards.

Pretty much anyone can be affected:

Spirit Release is also about 'freeing the ‘stuck’ aspects within ourselves that invite spirit attachment, which may involve looking at past-life patterns, ancestral karma and any difficult influences that stem from childhood or later life'.

This is their version of preventive medicine (or maximizing your market share).

Therapy takes two forms. 'The Interactive Approach involves putting a client into an altered state of consciousness, through a form of hypnosis, in order to allow any attached spirit to communicate safely through them. A dialogue ensues, in which the spirit is induced to leave'.

Hypnosis is a tricky process, it's very easy for an inexperienced or unethical therapist to plant ideas, deliberately or otherwise. There can also be issues with False Memory Syndrome. There is a huge amount of trust required - a patient is hypnotised and when they come round they're told that the spirit possessing them has been persuaded to move on. This treatment is open to considerable abuse, aided in part by the placebo effect.

Alternatively, the 'Intuitive Approach is made through the psychic awareness of the therapist who learns how to communicate directly with a spirit. This does not necessarily require the active involvement of the client. It may be practised directly or at a distance'.

There's no indication of what happens if the spirit doesn't want to leave. The process as described is very benign, very low-key and reassuring as if it's no more than having your ears syringed.

If you feel there's a spirit inside you, there's a list of practitioners in your area.

The SRF may be a small group but they shouldn't be too readily dismissed. For example, the SRF website also suggests that gender dysphoria could be caused by spirit attachment and that Spirit Release is an alternative treatment to gender realignment surgery. They are part of a larger movement ascribing a whole range of problems to spirit possession. The Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) who are mostly GPs believe that mental illness among other problems can be caused by possession. There have been exorcists working with the NHS for forty years, as I wrote about here and you can read another piece I wrote on exorcism here.

The main problem with both the apparently cuddly SRF and the much less fluffy CMF is that practitioners' world view is predicated on unseen entities, some malevolent, some misguided. They are creating a problem and offering a solution to people who could well be in a vulnerable state and in need of proper medical attention. Even if the SRF are just treating people with more money than sense, they are dealing with people's mental and possibly physical well-being. Although the SRF claim that they are not a religious organisation, theirs is the same mentality as the churches that use violent - and sometimes fatal - methods to exorcise people, whether these are African evangelical churches or both the Catholic Church and the Church of England with their trained exorcists.

It would be interesting to know what church exorcists make of these rivals. As with religions, they can't all be right with their competing world-views of demons versus disincarnate humans.

Another problem is that anyone with a few hundred quid to spare can become a spirit release therapist. It costs £30 a year to be a member of the SRF and the Foundation Course costs £210. There's a leaflet about the upcoming London one here.

This way of thinking also leads people to blame outside agencies for problems in their lives rather than either taking responsibility or getting medical help. It can create a dependency on therapists. There's a kind of contamination theory at the root of the SRF; they are making people believe they have been 'infected' and need to be 'cured' except that they're not talking about bacteria or viruses, but the dead- truly alternative medicine.

This is a Christmas ghost story with no Tiny Tim happy ending.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Happy Families?

The Government is trying to rebuild society on the basis of a Victorian card game. But only a minority of people now live in a family like Mrs Bun the Baker's wife, Mr Plod the policeman or Miss Dose the Doctor's daughter

The Government's flagship free schools and academies have to sign up to strict rules introduced by Education Secretary Michael Gove to teach children the ‘nature of marriage’ and its ‘importance’ for family life and bringing up children.

Religious and political campaigners against gay marriage claim that marriage is only for a man and a woman and that allowing gay marriage would undermine the bedrock of society and destroy family life.

But now there is research by think-tank the Centre for the Modern Family (funded by Scottish Widows) which shows that eight out of 10 people describe their family set‐up as not the traditional two married parents and two or more children. Just 16% of people define themselves as part of this kind of family that the Government thinks is under threat.

Although the Government and religious campaigners might see it as their mission to repair society and restore their concept of family values, they are increasingly out of step with the people they claim to represent who are more likely to describe single‐parent, same‐sex, or unmarried couples as ‘proper’ families. 57% of people no longer believe that a couple with children needs to be married to be a family. 77% of people believe that single parents can be a 'proper' family and 59% believe that same sex couples can be a family.

The public doesn’t just disagree with the Government's image of a family. People feel alienated by the emphasis put on a ‘traditional’ model of family life. 22% don’t believe their family is valued by society and 18% feel judged because of their family set‐up while 52% claim the Government does not take their family set‐up into account. It should also be borne in mind that whatever high ideals are promoted, not everyone gets to choose their circumstances, especially when times are hard.

NSS President Terry Sanderson said in The Telegraph: "For children brought up by unmarried parents or single parents being told that marriage is the only valid family arrangement will be totally contradictory to everything they know about the world. It is telling our children that their own family structure is somehow inferior."

However, both the Government and ‘traditionalist’ religious groups are very good at ignoring data that don’t suit their agenda and carrying on regardless. No matter how many statistics are thrown at them, it's water off a self-righteous duck's back. Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith recently called on the Government to preserve the traditional family as 'the most vital part of society'. He made a clear distinction between marriage and cohabiting, claiming the 'relationships are not the same - and there are consequences for us all'.*

When did these ideal families exist apart from in a pack of Happy Families cards? Certainly not within living memory of many MPs, including David Cameron. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 1961 only 38% of families consisted of a married couple with two or more children.** That was before the swinging Sixties kicked in, before the Pill was widely available, before the Women's Movement gained momentum and before homosexuality was made legal. These are all things blamed for destroying the ideal family.

Just in passing - how many Tory MPs have had affairs or got divorced? The unscientific answer is - too many for them to be preaching at the rest of us. This is 'don't do as we do, do as we say' politics. Or maybe I just think that because I'm not married.

* Speech at the Janet Young Memorial Lecture 4 November 2011

** ONS Social Trends 40 (2010 edition) p 14.

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Have A Nice Day

People often complain about being 'ordered' to have a nice day by shop assistants or coffee shop workers or pretty much anyone American.

I'm no grammar nazi but here's the thing. 'Have a nice day' is not an imperative, an order. It's a subjunctive, expressing a hope or wish (it also has other uses).

Other examples of this use of the subjunctive are:

Get well soon
Long Live the King
Live long and prosper
Goodbye (god be with ye)
Hallowed be thy name
(Have a) Happy Birthday
(Have a) Happy Christmas
The old English 'Wassail', a contraction of 'Waes Hail' means 'be healthy', a kind of early version of 'have a nice day'. If/when the NHS falls apart we might want to revive it.

It's harder to spot a subjunctive in English because there is no special verb form to indicate it as there is in other languages. In French, for example, 'hallowed be thy name' is 'que ton nom soit sanctifié' and the soit gives it away.

This may not make it any less annoying the next time someone says 'have a nice day' and you know they don't give a toss but at least now you can be annoyed for the right reasons.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Save Our Souls - on the NHS

Should the National Health Service be tending to our spiritual health and if so, how far should it go?

This week, during a debate about an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill, tabled by psychiatrist and crossbench peer Baroness Hollins, the Archbishop of York called for the words ‘spiritual health’ to be inserted into a clause about the duty of the secretary of state, the NHS Commissioning Board and clinical commissioning groups to improve the quality of services.

Spirituality is already covered in healthcare guidelines even though there is no evidence-base for it and even though its use is so broad as to be almost meaningless as I wrote about here. For example, going to football matches is considered a spiritual act by some healthcare providers, including the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Guidelines often assume that everyone is spiritual and has spiritual needs that the NHS must cater to. NHS Scotland’s past guidelines stated: ‘We are not human beings seeking spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings seeking what it means to be human’.

The NHS already forks out £29 million a year for hospital chaplains and again there is no evidence that they improve the patient care. In fact, many of the country’s best hospitals spent the lowest proportion of their expenditure on chaplaincy services.

The debate around the amendment wasn't just about some sort of wooly feel-good spirituality. The Archbishop of York’s idea of treating the spirit goes beyond what most people would consider the domain of doctors and nurses. During the debate, Dr John Sentamu told peers: "I am one of those who believe that human beings are psychosomatic spiritual entities."

He then explained how he freed the spirit of a girl who was terrified after seeing a goat sacrificed. Visits from a GP, psychiatrist and psychologist did little to help, he said, but then he said a prayer, anointed the girl and lit a candle on his visit. Shortly after, he received a phone call saying the girl was no longer terrified and was talking again. "That was not mental or physical illness; there was something in her spirit that needed to be set free," he told his peers.

This is a very particular interpretation of the word ‘spiritual’. A spokesman for the Archbishop said the case of the young girl just involved a standard prayer of healing. With candles and anointing to set her spirit free? Although Sentamu did not directly describe his actions as exorcism, they were very close to standard exorcist practice. He is not, by the way, a medical doctor. He is, however, someone who determines the laws and policy of this country along with all the other bishops in the Lords. Even so, as a lawyer he should know that one anecdote does not constitute evidence.

However, his statement isn't that outrageous when you know that the NHS has already been quietly working with exorcists to treat patients for at least 40 years.

Dr Rob Waller, a consultant psychiatrist and an honorary clinical lecturer at the University of Edinburgh was formerly part of a medical support group for the local Catholic exorcist at Bradford District Care Trust. It met monthly to discuss cases and whether they should be dealt with by the church or by a doctor. He said: “There was a similar set-up with local imams, and the Church of Scotland has links with psychiatrists and considers exorcism.” He also said that every consultant psychiatrist will see a “handful of patients” in their career requiring “some kind of deliverance ministry”.

It sounds so much more innocuous when you call it deliverance - although maybe not if you've seen the film of that name.

Professor Robin M. Murray, head of Psychiatric Research at Kings College’s Institute of Psychiatry, who this year was awarded a knighthood for his services to medicine, said: “Not all psychiatric problems respond to conventional treatments. So while I don’t know of any scientific evidence that exorcism works, I would have thought it reasonable for a [hospital] chaplain to carry this out.”

This is a scientist saying that a procedure with no evidence is reasonable.

However, Dr James Woolley, consultant psychiatrist at the Springfield Hospital in southwest London, doesn't believe in demonic possession or exorcism. There are many psychiatric syndromes characterised by a patient believing they are possessed and, for that reason alone, Woolley says, it would be “reckless and unprofessional” to recommend exorcism as an avenue of treatment. “The psychosis could get worse, and being in a highly paranoid state is associated with the risk of harm primarily to yourself and potentially to other people.”

Reckless and unprofessional. There is a possible placebo effect but the ethics of placebos are complex and still need evidence to justify their use.

In the mid-1970s, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Donald Coggan laid down strict guidelines on exorcisms (deliverance) which were to be carried out only by an appointed diocesan exorcist after consultation with a doctor. The Church of England has 44 exorcists, one for every diocese, appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Next time Rowan Williams is sounding off in the media, bear in mind that he is in charge of these men. The interview for appointment must be interesting.

There's a story in the Mail today about a nurse who asked Jesus to help when a baby was dying of a heart attack. While this is an extreme case, and she was struck off (and it is the Mail) the dangers of introducing any level of non-evidence-based behaviour into healthcare should not be treated lightly. The current trend for 'holistic' treatment opens the door to worse care, not better. At a time when the NHS is facing severe cuts, surely the most important thing is to treat patients and keep them alive long enough to worry about the state of their souls?

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

White Poppies or Red on Remembrance Sunday?

In 1933 the Co-operative Women's Guild produced white poppies to be worn on Armistice Day - which became Remembrance Sunday. The Guild made it clear that the white poppy was not intended as an insult to the people who died in the Great War - a war in which many of the Guild women lost men - but a challenge to the continuing drive to war. In 1934 the secular Peace Pledge Union (PPU) was founded; it joined them in the distribution of the poppies and later took over the project.

Conscientious objectors were often treated very badly during times of war even though the Military Service Act of 1916 made it legal to object to fighting. Some went to war in non-combatant roles (for example, as stretcher bearers at the front, facing great danger - and they did not receive military pay) while others refused to have anything to do with the war effort. Objectors had to go before a tribunal, which was notoriously harsh and there was no shortage of people (often women) handing out white feathers to 'cowards'. Many objectors were religious - mostly Quakers - but not all.

Many of the "conchies" in the First World War were imprisoned in Richmond Castle, North Yorkshire. They were paraded through the town as a form of humiliation or threatened with execution. Life was also hard for their families, dealing with the 'shame' and the objectors often found it hard to get work afterwards. Given the harsh treatment of the men who would not fight, they were hardly cowards.

Ian Hislop made an excellent programme about them in 2008.

In World War II, there were nearly 60,000 objectors under the National Services (Armed Forces) Act of 1939. Treatment was less harsh but they were still stigmatised. In some countries today, objectors are still harshly treated. Forces Watch has issued recommendations on how the British Forces should deal with objectors within its ranks. It states that 'The procedure for registering a conscientious objection is not safeguarding the rights of those in the armed forces and, through lack of awareness, some could end up facing court martial and a criminal conviction'.

White poppies are still not without controversy. For example, the Royal Canadian Legion is staunchly opposed to them. In 2007, the BBC's Head of Editorial Policy said that TV presenters wearing anything other than the red poppy would 'undermine the trust of the audience'. The white poppy project is also accused of diverting funds from the British Legion who have been raising money for ex-service people since 1921. Some people see the pacifist ideals of the PPU as naive or misguided.

So what colour poppy will I be wearing? I am broadly a pacifist but not entirely; there are some justifiable wars. I don't think that we should have stayed out of World War II, for example. There are also morally justifiable interventions in other countries' wars. On the other hand, recent governments have been too quick to get involved in overseas wars for less than honourable reasons. And I support the right of anyone to be a conscientious objector.

Consequently, I have bought a white poppy and will also be wearing a red one. It might appear over-liberal to be a pacifist (or in my case, a semi-pacifist) but it's a genuinely-held and considered moral position. I'm aware that, as a woman, I would never have been conscripted and had to act on my beliefs.

It's important to recognise the bravery and sacrifice both of people who fought to defend us and the ones who went to war in non-combatant roles or who followed their conscience and didn't go at all. I will explain this to people who ask why I'm wearing one or who are hostile.

White poppies can be bought online from the PPU or from some outlets like the Quaker House on Euston Road in London.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Doctor Jesus - Refreshing the parts that other doctors cannot reach

I wrote a while ago that Doctor Richard Scott is being investigated by the GMC for preaching and trying to convert patients. Now Dr Mark Huckstep, an Oxfordshire GP, has been disciplined for bringing God into the surgery too after NHS Oxfordshire received complaints. He has been investigated by NHS watchdog the National Clinical Assessment Service (NCAS) and the General Medical Council (GMC).

Dr Huckstep admitted he used his Christian beliefs as a "complementary therapy" for patients and refused to refer women for abortions because the killing of an unborn child by doctors is a “morally wrong act which also damages women emotionally and psychologically”.

Doctors are permitted by GMC guidelines to pass patients wanting an abortion on to other colleagues if the procedure is against their beliefs, but not to pass judgment on the patient or the procedure. Christian anti-abortionists often use the line that abortion harms the woman, as I've written about several times - most recently here. Just to be clear - there is no evidence of serious harm to women who have abortions, despite the lies (yes, lies) about cancer and mental illness.

Is faith a 'complementary therapy' and, if so, should a doctor be using it in a clinical setting?

Huckstep claims that “This was discussed at length with the PCT approximately seven years ago. We came to the agreement that my Christianity could be treated as a form of “complementary therapy” in addition to usual treatment – ie I would first treat patients according to best practice guidelines, hand them the prescription if there was one, and then ask their consent to talk with them about their lives from a broader point of view than what would be possible if one believed that science could explain our human condition adequately.

“If the patient consented, then I was free to discuss more metaphysical issues such as the meaning of their lives, their struggles with feelings of guilt, shame and meaninglessness, their fear of death, etc, and to suggest books that may help in confronting these issues. Such discussions were always in addition to normal treatment, if time allowed. They were not instead of normal modes of treatment.”

Huckstep's defence was that, because he is certain God exists, “It would be impossible to relate to patients pretending that science could answer their deepest needs when I am fully aware it cannot”.

This defence is very similar to the one used by Dr Richard Scott. He's claiming that he refreshes the parts that other doctors cannot reach. Which is fine if you're a beer, not so good if you're supposed to be keeping people alive long enough to worry about shame and meaninglessness.

He says he did it 'if the patient consented'. It's already been demonstrated by the Scott case that patients are often vulnerable when they come to see a GP and may not feel able to say no. What's more, GMC guidelines state that any discussion of faith should be introduced by the patient, not the doctor as this can easily be an abuse of their position of power. This should be an opt-in, not an opt-out.

The story was featured in the Oxford Times. One of the comments on it is 'He certainly never asked my permission before embarking upon his religious spill (sic), and he certainly kept me waiting over half an hour before being seen and during my consultation he disappeared off a couple of times to do other things'.

So why did the PCT agree to let him do this? They didn't.

A spokesman for the PCT said “The PCT has discussed with Dr Huckstep in the past about his religious beliefs but the PCT has always made it very clear that his religious convictions were not to be imposed on any patient who did not share his views. The PCT did not use the term complementary therapy nor feel that this term in any way reflects its views.”

Huckstep sounds like a bit of a disaster as a doctor anyway. He was also suspended for his 'catastrophic' approach to admin which could have put patients lives at risk -as featured on a recent C4 Dispatches. So it sounds like his real doctoring wasn't even treating the parts of patients' lives it should have been.

Following the investigation, NHS Oxfordshire said Huckstep could return to work under strict conditions, which include a retraining programme.

He has not returned to work as a doctor. His work as a speaker spreading the Good Word about Jesus probably keeps him busy. The sick people of Oxfordshire will have to find something else to treat the human condition. Antibiotics, maybe.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

A Tank Engine is For Life, Not Just For Christmas

Just as Christmas arrives in the shops earlier every year, stories about how secularists and atheists are killing Christmas arrive in the papers earlier. This year, Sainsbury's had mince pies with a sell-by date of early October. Also in October comes the story that all references to Christmas have been taken out of a new episode of Thomas the Tank Engine.

In an episode called Keeping up with James, the trains compete to carry presents to children. There's a decorated tree and a choir. But instead of using the word Christmas, there are “winter holidays” and a “holiday tree.”

This early in the year the goose can still get into its jeans but the Christian soldiers have already locked and loaded. The Mail and the Telegraph are, not surprisingly, making a big deal of this.

Hilary Fortnum, daughter of Thomas author Reverend Awdry, told them she feared political correctness was eroding Christmas and that - predictably - the programme had "taken Christ out of Christmas". Just for good measure, she added that “Local councils won’t advertise Christmas carols and nativity plays in case they are sued for not being inclusive”. It's not clear what her evidence is for this claim but we can soon expect stories about schools not putting on nativity plays any more and how the lack of children putting tea towels on their heads is damaging the British tea towel industry as well as the soul of the nation.

Ann rent-a-quote Widdecombe predictably commented that “It is another example of the politically correct brigade trying to airbrush Christmas out of our lives”. Most of us would be pretty happy if Christmas was airbrushed out of our lives until at least late November.

Hit Entertainment who make the series said references to Christmas were removed because the episode is on a DVD designed to be sold all year round. They added “It was not a seasonal release specifically aimed at a Christmas audience, but we do put out seasonal releases that have Christmas in the title. Last year we had Christmas Express and next year we are planning another Christmas title.’ So it's nothing to do with being politically correct, it's to do with making money.

UK Christians complaining about discrimination and persecution should perhaps look at the growing persecution of Christians in Pakistan. In one far from isolated incident a twelve-year-old girl from a Christian family was kidnapped, raped and beaten for eight months in an attempt to make her convert to Islam. Other incidents include attacks on churches and the homes of Christians, discrimination in housing, education and employment and false allegations of blasphemy, which can potentially result in a death sentence. Or there is Youcef Nadarkhani, the Iranian pastor arrested and sentenced to death because of his faith.

But no, British Christians with their unelected bishops in the House of Lords, exemptions from equality laws and one third of state-funded schools will continue to bang on about being discriminated against and sidelined, particularly when they want the right to be homophobic. They will whine about Winterval and the birth of Little Baby Jesus not being what it used to be. And all this even before Halloween.

Friday, 7 October 2011

In the Year of Our Lord

The latest threat to everything we hold dear is the BBC ordering its staff to stop using BC and AD and use CE and BCE instead.

The BBC has been accused of ‘political correctness’ and not surprisingly, the Daily Mail is lamenting the end of civilization (again). Is the BBC really turning its back on 2000 years of Christianity? Tell that to the producers of Thought for the Day or Songs of Praise.

The Mail also reports that the Government has stepped in to protect BC/AD. They just will not let this story go, running another version of it with Andrew Marr getting all worked up, saying he would still use BC/AD - unlike the sinful Jeremy Paxman and Melvyn Bragg who use BCE/CE. Even WH Smith uses BCE/CE alongside BC/AD. What is the world coming to? Just as well Ann Widdecombe was on hand to talk to the Mail to bring us to our senses.

Then the Vatican jumped on the bandwagon, accusing the BBC of ‘historically senseless hypocrisy’ – which of course the Mail reported, with a lovely picture of Jesus to remind some of us of our sins. How many times can you write the same article in slightly different words? Many, many times.

Except that it isn’t true. The BBC said in a statement: ‘The BBC has not issued editorial guidance on the date systems. Both AD and BC, and CE and BCE are widely accepted date systems and the decision on which term to use lies with individual production and editorial teams.’ The advice about which terms to use referred only to the religion section of the BBC website. BBC’s head of religion and ethics, Aaqil Ahmed said ‘For our religion and ethics programming on BBC television and radio we generally use AD and BC”. He added "It is a shame that people seeking to make mischief should cast a shadow over the wonderful celebration of our Christian religious heritage that is Songs of Praise" - a resounding rejection of Christianity if ever I heard one.

The Mail even quotes the BBC at the end of their articles - in the interests of fairness and balance, of course - but then continues to flog the dead horse into a bloody pulp over the following days.

Incidentally, these so-called new terms (CE and BCE) became standard in schools nearly a decade ago. They stand for the Common Era and Before the Common Era. I've long wondered why AD is in Latin (anno domini) while BC is in English (before Christ). Couldn't someone have translated BC, just for consistency? AC for ante Christus, perhaps? Maybe they decided that sounded too much like anti-Christ. (My Latin is way rusty is the -us ending right?)

The story then took another twist. The ever-opportunistic Lord Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, told the Mail that people of other religions do not object to BC/AD but that ‘In reality, we know it is the increasingly ill-tempered secularists, groups such as the National Secular Society, throwing tantrums at the mention of Christianity, not the Chief Rabbi or Britain’s imams’. I work for the NSS and can state categorically that the only time anyone has a tantrum is when the biscuit tin is empty. And that's me.

But even the gatekeepers of All Things Decent slip up sometimes. This article in the Mail's science section (yes, they have one) had the dreaded 'new' dating system in it for a while until the Thought Police spotted it and changed the date to 1045AD. Phew, close one.

The Mail has been reported to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) for continuing to run a misleading story. However, as Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre is chair of the PCC, the complaint may not get very far.

Friday, 30 September 2011

40 Days of Treats

The anti-abortion group 40 Days For Life are back outside the offices of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas) in London.

They are saying Hail Marys, displaying models of foetuses and handing out leaflets. This time there is a counter-campaign. Instead of setting up a rival protest or taking on the demonstrators, which could make things even more difficult for women who go to bpas, Carmen d'Cruz and Liz Lutgendorf decided to ignore them completely and focus on the bpas staff. They've organised 40 Days Of Treats for the staff who have to deal with the protesters being outside every day. The plan is for every day the protesters are there, they will take the staff a little treat to show support for them and for the right to choose.

I went in to the bpas offices in Bedford Square, London WC1 today and took them strawberries. I figured that if everyone else is taking them cakes and snacks it might be a good idea to take a healthy treat - we don't want to kill them with kindness.

The leaflet being handed out by the protesters says 'You can stop injustice' on the cover, along with words like homelessness, racism, sexual trafficking and poverty. What's inside has nothing to do with any of this. It's the usual collection of highly emotive language and images plus misinformation of the kind Nadine Dorries is no stranger to.

It talks about the 'preborn' - in the same way that eggs, flour, fat and sugar are precake, perhaps. There is also the usual list of Terrible Things that will happen if you have an abortion, both physical and psychological, along with gory descriptions of abortions. Along the way there is also a quick shot at stem cell research.

The leaflet has an article associating abortion with eugenics and denies that the world is over-populated. This focuses on falling birth-rates in Europe and says that 'far from rapaciously expending resources, developed societies have consistently figured out ways to make fewer resources stretch further'. The fact that this is partly by exploiting the third world where overpopulation, famine and disease are still rife isn't mentioned. The warning about falling European birth rates reads like an alarmist call to repopulate Europe by banning abortion.

They are also against abortion after rape and incest which, they say, makes everything worse for everyone concerned. There's a promo for pre-marital abstinence and lifelong monogamy too.

The logic of many of their arguments defies analysis. They quote 'scientific evidence' that has been repeatedly debunked and give only the skimpiest of sources.

As just one example, the source for 'women who abort are 144% more likely to physically abuse their children' is given only as Acta Pediatrica 2005. This is a monthly journal so that's hardly being transparent. They claim that there are full citations on their London website but if they are there then they're so well hidden even their search facility can't find them.

You can read the research paper here. It's a study of mostly black, low-income women in Baltimore. Its conclusions are 'However, counter to expectations, maternal history of induced abortion was not linked with enhanced risk for neglect after the effects of a number of variables associated with neglect were controlled' and 'the data were gathered in only one geographical locale and the study adopted a retrospective methodology that relied primarily on self-report assessments, which could compromise the integrity of the data gathered as well as the generalizability of the findings. A final limitation pertains to how the abuse and neglect cases were selected'.

This is pretty typical of the way anti-abortion groups misuse research and statistics, as I've written about several times before.

Anyway, on to happier and more cake-based matters.

If you want to join Carmen (left) and Liz (right), the campaign runs until November 6. You can follow 40 Days of Treats on Twitter @40daysoftreats and read the blog for updates. The plan is to spread the campaign to bpas offices in other parts of the UK so you don't have to be in London to join in.

Monday, 19 September 2011

John Gray on science and religion

John Gray's talk on Radio 4's Point of View called Can religion tell us more than science? (transcript here) claims that 'too many atheists miss the point of religion, it's about how we live and not what we believe'.

Gray maintains that 'We tend to assume that religion is a question of what we believe or don't believe'.

Firstly, who is this 'we'? Secondly, don't be patronising by pretending to include yourself and then showing very clearly why you're not one of we.

He blames this assumption on western philosophy (yes, all of it, apparently) and 'the dull debate on atheism'. Again with the patronising. He continues: 'In this view belonging to a religion involves accepting a set of beliefs, which are held before the mind and assessed in terms of the evidence that exists for and against them. Religion is then not fundamentally different from science, both seem like attempt to frame true beliefs about the world'.

Religion is not just that, it's also about morality, among other things. It tells us how to live. Science, on the other hand, makes no attempt to tell us how we should live. Nor is it based on a supernatural world view but on observable evidence. The activity of science is about how to interpret that evidence. Religion decides what the truth is, science attempts to uncover it. So yes, fundamentally different.

Gray likes his generalisations. He lays the blame for the false view of religion partly of the feet of Frazer and his book The Golden Bough, which he says has been 'immensely influential'. He claims it lies behind the assertions of the 'new atheists'.

Many atheists and others know that there are many reasons to belong to a religion, some cultural or social, some historical and some emotional. The majority of people do not objectively analyse their religion or weigh up the relative evidential merits of all of them before plumping for one. Some aspects of religion, like creation, are examined by some believers in an attempt to find evidence and even then, they are trying to justify their beliefs to others, not to themselves. Only a small number of theologians and thinkers actively examine their beliefs as a whole. It's not common practice to weigh up the evidence for the Sermon on the Mount or accepting Jesus as your personal saviour in order to win eternal salvation.

And religions do rest on what we believe - take the Credo, for example, which is Latin for 'I believe' and is followed by a list of things the believer believes in. They don't like it very much if you think it's just words when you're preparing for First Communion. Belief, or dogma, matter very much to the Fathers of the Church. Heresy is about believing the wrong things, so are schism and apostasy. They're not just about doing the wrong thing but believing the wrong thing and then acting on it.

He continues:'the idea that religion is a relic of primitive thinking strikes me as itself incredibly primitive.'

Again, this is not the only or the dominant thought about religion among atheists who he is far too keen to tar with the same brush. The human mind has not evolved a great deal since primitive times. It is not now a sophisticated machine compared with the neolithic brain. One common idea is that religion is a by-product of the way our brains evolved (see Pascal Boyer, for example) - and the way they still function, which is why we still have religion. There are elements of religion that come from early societies which are not relevant today but which still form part of the core beliefs but many of these are to do with identity and difference as much as trying to explain the universe in an animistic or divinely controlled way.

Then he gets to the nub of his argument: 'Practice - ritual, meditation, a way of life - is what counts. What practitioners believe is secondary, if it matters at all.'

This is a little simplistic to say the least. Actions are informed by beliefs. And beliefs do matter to the people who hold them. There are rituals that are performed without conscious analysis of the beliefs that underpin them but that doesn't mean the beliefs themselves are unimportant. One way they matter is in defining the difference between one set of believers and another. Rituals can be comforting, they can bind groups together and they can structure our time but without the beliefs they rest on, they would not have the hold on the mind that they do. And there would be nothing to distinguish them from any other ritual behaviour. He's positing a kind of religion as OCD.

When he says that it's actions that count - what does he mean by 'count'?

Gray then turns to science. 'Scientific inquiry is the best method we have for finding out how the world works, and we know a lot more today than we did in the past. That doesn't mean we have to believe the latest scientific consensus. If we know anything, it's that our current theories will turn out to be riddled with errors. Yet we go on using them until we can come up with something better'.

This is where there is a bit of slippage between his uses of 'belief'. Scientists don't believe a theory, they know that it is either true or that it's the best current approximation of the truth. Non-scientists don't believe theories either, they accept that some expert or other knows what they're doing. Not all our current theories will one day fall apart.

He says: 'If science produces theories that we can use without believing them, religion is a repository of myth.' This is a bit of an odd if...then scenario. Science doesn't produce theories we can use without believing them because no-one believes a theory, they either know it to be true or the current best guess, as I said. So his initial statement is false. Moreover, religion is not a repository of myth to the people who believe it, it's revealed truth except for the half-hearted who just go along for a bit of a sing. And while it contains stories or parables, it also contains instructions on how to behave that rest on the basic tenets. If you don't believe those tenets to begin with, then your actions are empty.

He then says: 'Just as you don't have to believe that a scientific theory is true in order to use it, you don't have to believe a story for it to give meaning to your life.' He's being a bit slippery with his use of 'true' here. Knowing that a scientific theory may be a workable approximation is not the same as knowing that a myth didn't actually happen while containing useful guidance to behaviour or insight into the human mind.

Apparently, 'some of the ancient myths we inherit from religion are far more truthful than the stories the modern world tells about itself'. Well yes, some myths are better than others but this nostalgia, this 'myths aren't what they used to be' approach overlooks the fact that there are also non-religious myths that contain lessons about ourselves. Privileging religious myths without any kind of quality control is fruitless.

Darwin's theory of evolution , he says is 'unlikely to be the final truth'. Who says it is? There have already been plenty of refinements, additions and corrections to it.

He then attacks the 'myth of salvation through science. Many of the people who scoff at religion are sublimely confident that, by using science, humanity can march onwards to a better world'.

There is no such generally held myth. Rational people think that some parts of science can be a useful tool for improving our lives. This is partly based on evidence - medicine and technology have demonstrably improved lives. That the improvements have yet to benefit most of the Third World is not a failure of science but of politics and, in some cases, religion (for example, banning condoms for HIV/AIDS prevention, contraception and so on). Moreover, many scientists are more than aware of the destructive potential of science - nuclear war and global warming for example. They are not singing hymns to the power of science. Gray says that 'it can't save the human species from itself.' as if this were some great insight.

He claims that science is a human invention, just like religion. Yes, they are both the products of the human brain but religion is entirely made up whereas science methodology is based on phenomena. It's a bit like comparing cheese and a pyramid - not a comparison that tells us anything very useful about either.

Evangelical atheists, he says ' think human life would be vastly improved if only everyone believed as they do, when a little history shows that trying to get everyone to believe the same thing is a recipe for unending conflict.' Historically, when attempts have been made to try and get everyone to believe the same thing, these things have generally not been evidence-based but ideological. Getting everyone to believe that we'd better look after the planet rather than letting it fall apart is not such a bad idea.

Gray concludes that we should 'stop believing in belief' because 'What we believe doesn't in the end matter very much. What matters is how we live'. So if you feel like joining a religion, 'just go into the church, synagogue, mosque or temple and take it from there'. Should you just do what you're told without examining why? Follow the rituals and never mind the theology? Just taking it from there may not do you much good in some religions or denominations if you happen to be female or gay.

Gray is seriously misrepresenting science and all but a handful of the most extreme atheists - who in fact are not very scientific in their approach, lacking an understanding of human nature. But he is also misrepresenting religion, selling it short as deeds not words - and without any kind of assessment of what price you or others may have to pay for that kind of cavalier, mindless approach. Never mind, let's all just sing a hymn together, it'll be a marvellously uplifting, bonding experience. Better still, sing it in Latin so we don't have to worry about what the words mean. He's right that it's how we live that matters, but he's wrong about everything else.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Dorries - Weebles Wobble But They Don't Fall Down

MPs have rejected Nadine Dorries’ bid to change the law on abortion counselling for women by 368 votes to 118.

During the debate, Dorries continued to use discredited ‘facts’, unsubstantiated anecdotes and emotional statements, brushing off challenges from MPs who are also doctors and might be presumed to know what they're talking about.

She portrayed herself as a valiant David struggling alone against the well-funded Goliath of the left-wing media and Abortion Rights. At one point, she even claimed ‘I’m broke’. She allowed interventions from as many supporters as she could, some of them vehemently anti-abortion, despite claiming that she isn't and that the debate wasn't about abortion in principle. She also still persistently denied that any knowledge of how Right To Know are funded.

At one point, Dorries bemoaned the fact that she had lost Cameron's initial support for her amendments. She blamed Dr Evan Harris, saying that he is blackmailing the Prime Minister and the Government. At this point, there was uproar in the House. It will be interesting to see if she dares to repeat this potential libel outside the safety of parliamentary privilege. Stewart Jackson MP described Julian Huppert MP as 'Dr Evan Harris' vicar on earth'. Evan will now grow a moustache to twirl in a fiendish way, with any luck.

She didn't stand unchallenged, however. There were MPs who spoke strongly against her and Diane Abbott said 'this is a shoddy, ill-conceived attempt to present non-facts... the opposite of evidence-based policy making'. So it's not just men who oppose you, Nadine.

Julian Huppert pointed out that the current system works well and that what is needed to reduce abortion numbers is better access to contraception and better SRE (sex education) for both boys and girls. It's not known if Evan was hiding under the seat with his hand up Huppert's back at that point although it might be worth asking Huppert so say 'bottle of beer' as a test.

Health Minister Ann Milton ended the 90 minute debate, commenting ‘the amendments won't work for women’. However, she also said that the Government supports the ‘spirit of amendments’; there will be a consultation and another vote in Parliament – so there is yet more work for campaigners to do.

Dorries has claimed that she ‘won the war’ and will continue the fight both for this and for a reduction of the upper time limit on abortions. Like the Terminator, she will be back. Unlike the Terminator, she won't come back reprogrammed as a good guy. She is relentless and, as she has apparently no political ambition, there is little her party can do to restrain her. Expect her tactics to get even more anecdotal, emotive and evidence-free.

She is also still blaming the LibDems, saying on her blog (with no sense of irony) that ‘politics yesterday was certainly at its dirtiest and most complex’.

The amendments were originally tabled by Dorries and Frank Field MP. He pointed out during the debate that his name had somehow been left off them and added that he would not now be supporting her. Field also said 'We should be more concerned with facts, and less concerned with trying to put our sticky fingers into other people’s souls and pronouncing that they have failed'.

He asked Dorries to drop the amendments but she refused so the House divided.

Members voting in support included Cabinet Ministers Iain Duncan Smith, Liam Fox and Owen Paterson while George Osborne, Nick Clegg, both Milibands, William Hague, Ed Balls and Ken Clarke voted against the amendment. David Cameron was not present. You can read the full division list to see how your MP voted here.

One effect of the anti-abortion lobby is that the other side fall over themselves to say they are not pro-abortion but pro-choice. No one wants to be heard saying abortion is a good thing. But why not? It's not an easy thing, it's not anyone's ambition to have one but, if you need one, it's the only choice. For me, it's a good thing that abortion exists, that it's legal, affordable, safe and relatively freely available. So in that sense, I am pro-abortion in the same way that I am pro assisted dying.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Nadine Dorries - Fact and Fiction

Nadine Dorries MP wants women to see 'independent' counsellors before they have an abortion, not go to abortion providers like Marie Stopes International or the British Pregnancy Advisory Service because they have (she says) a vested financial interest which she compares with pension mis-selling. She is proposing an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill on September 6th to ensure this happens, along with Frank Field MP.

She is also on record saying that her political blog is '70% fiction and 30% fact... I rely heavily on poetic licence'.

Let's take a look at her being poetry in motion.

Research by Education For Choice has found that 'independent' is a word that belongs in Dorries' 70% category. And her comments about the 'financial interests' of BPAS and others are based on about as much evidence. [ETA] On Newsnight last night, Dr Evan Harris pointed out that the Department of Health’s own website warns against independent advisers.

Dorries is being backed by the Right To Know campaign. Despite describing this as 'our campaign', she now says 'I have no idea how they're funded'. She's also being poetic about their motivations, saying 'They may be ideologically driven'.

She has said that abortions are currently done before women have time to think what they're doing. Does she really mean this? Has she thought through the implications of saying that women are incapable of making their own rational decisions? Be careful you don't get distracted by thinking about shoes or you might accidentally have an abortion.

Then she claimed that Dr Evan Harris 'lost it' on an interview with Sky TV - an interview which she refused to share with him, insisting on being recorded separately. In it, Evan pointed out yet more flaws in her argument. It's not obvious what he he lost. His bus pass, possibly.

Dorries is being advised by the Christian Medical Fellowship, whose own interesting relationship with the truth I've already covered, for example here. So not only are her words 70% fiction, she is also consorting with fictionalists (I've made that word up because I'm bored of calling them LIARS).

The Right To Know campaign are bandying about the 'fact' that 30% of women who have abortions go on to suffer mental health problems. This claim is based on a paper from the British Journal of Psychiatry. The paper's conclusion is, quite reasonably, that abortion is not without consequences for some women.

However, the paper also states ‘The evidence is consistent with the view that abortion may be associated with a small increase in risk of mental disorders’. That's may be. It also states that ‘the overall effects of abortion on mental health proved to be small’ and could be the result of ‘uncontrolled residual confounding’. This means there could have been other factors influencing the results that they failed to rule out. That's being honest because it's an academic paper not a work of fiction.

Most tellingly, the conclusion says: ‘Specifically, the results do not support strong pro-life positions that abortion has large and devastating effects on the mental health of women’.

So that's another bunch of fictionalists she's consorting with.

She claims that the number of abortions would be reduced by 60,000 a year if women had independent counselling. Presumably she arrived at this figure by thinking of a number and then adding a load of noughts as there is no evidence to back it up. Her story-telling stops at this point rather than considering what might happen to these 60,000 babies in terms of supporting both them and their parents. For her, the happy ending is a full-term pregnancy. In this respect, she's close to the Catholic Church's position.

Dorries wants us to go back to being a Christian nation with Christian values. But the ruling classes' relationship with these values has always been a marriage of convenience, using them to justify or condemn whatever and whenever it suited them. Moreover, 'Christian Britain' is a nostalgic idyll for a time and place that existed alongside the land of the Care Bears and belongs in the 70% of words put together in a sentence that look like they might be true but in fact aren't. Besides, back in the days of Yore when we were at least nominally a Christian nation, the only people who really benefited were upper middle class white men - much like the ones who still dominate the House of Lords and the Tory party.

The latest from Dorries is this gem 'I wonder why someone would provide a quote to a national newspaper when they obviously have no idea what they are talking about?' I'm not even going to go there.

She has also said 'I have chosen the 'fact' I wish to believe'. That would be the fact that is 70% fiction, presumably.

It's almost too easy to take her arguments apart. When her bill amendment was first raised, many people said it was nothing to worry about, it would disappear and pro-choice campaigners were getting worked up about nothing. But now it looks like the Government could turn her fictions into fact, which means that no one will live happily ever after.

There's a good analysis of the almost total lack of evidence for changing the current abortion counselling position on the Nothing Special blog.

Next time will be less of a tirade, honest.

UPDATE 1 September 2011: The Government has done a U turn on abortion counselling but the free vote could still go either way next week. This means that MPs can vote according to their conscience rather than the party line.

UPDATE 2 September 2011: It's gone up from 30% to 'twice as likely' to suffer mental health problems post-abortion. She's done a loaves and fishes job on the stats.

Pro-choice groups are supporting an amendment by the Libdem MP Julian Huppert:

All organisations offering information or advice in relation to unplanned pregnancy choices must follow current evidence-based guidance produced by a professional medical organisation specified by the secretary of state.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

Doctor Jesus - Curing Cancer With Ribena

Ofcom has ruled against the evangelical channel Believe TV for promoting Ribena and an olive-oil soap as a cure for cancer and other diseases, including heart disease, ovarian cysts and a bit of an achey back. The soap can also 'grow new kidneys'.

There's no need for a scientific analysis of why these things can't cure cancer or anything else. There's no need for randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled, peer reviewed testing. Whether it's olive oil, Ribena or any other substance, these are just props. They have no inherent curative properties, which is why they are not cures for specific problems. Paul Lewis of Believe TV has also claimed that a bath with Miracle Olive Oil Soap can help if you're behind with your mortgage. What really cures is faith - it's the active ingredient. God can work through anything if you believe. If they don't work, it's because of a lack of faith.

It's the products' USP and a marketing ploy that must be the envy of all advertisers - if a product doesn't work, there's no money-back guarantee because it's the consumer who's faulty, not the product.

What's more, if a tumour or a bad back does disappear, it can't be proven that it wasn't cured by faith even if the patient was receiving conventional treatment at the same time.

This is where miracle cures are different from other forms of alternative medicine, which always have some sort of pseudo-science theory behind them.

Many adverts involve an element of faith, which could be described as the triumph of hope over reason. We believe that products will make us more successful, more attractive or thinner, that they will make us live longer. We have faith that the companies will do what the adverts say they will. If they don't work, we often have legal recourse or we can switch to another brand.

Paul Lewis and others like him are not selling a lifestyle, they're selling life. The stakes are much higher than promising shinier hair. And there is no other brand, he has a monopoly.

There is a kind of transformative magic at work like the one that changes the communion wine and wafer into the real body of Christ. Any bit of bread or bottle of wine will do. It's the same process that shamen and witch doctors have used for millennia, an infusion of magic.

As cultural norms evolve, so does who we trust and believe. Miracle workers are culture-specific; the shaman evolves into the tele-evangelist. Their props are also culture-specific; Ribena wouldn't work in a culture where it wasn't a known brand, for example. The transferable commodity between cultures and down through history is faith, the human propensity to believe the unbelievable.

Paul Lewis knows that people who buy Miracle Olive Oil Soap wouldn't rub a toad on themselves because that's not the current cultural practice. He and others like him know that they can operate only within certain cultural parameters using culturally familiar artefacts and familiar practices like taking a bath. Olive oil is a benign substance (with Biblical connotations) and while Ribena may seem an odd choice, it's comfortingly familiar with overtones of childhood nostalgia. It's just good marketing sense.

With culturally-embedded practices and a clause to prevent claims for refunds, it's a win-win situation. It's also why, no matter how many times Ofcom or the Advertising Standards Authority ban the promotion of a cure, there will always be another one.

The Doctor Jesus series is here, here, here, here and here.

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Bell, Book and Candle

Exorcism is not just unscientific - the concept of evil makes us all Bart Simpson.

BBC's Sunday Morning Live today had a discussion about exorcism and a woman claiming that it cured her alcoholism. Leaving aside the scientific aspect - regular readers will know what I'd say on that - there is another aspect to consider.

Belief that bad things are caused by an outside agency is the supernatural equivalent of the Bart Simpson defence - a bigger boy made me do it.

The word 'evil' is problematic. It's used by non-believers to describe certain sorts of human behaviour and by believers to describe the agency of the devil. Both use it to identify something that is allegedly inhuman, alien or Other. And that's the problem. Whether it's alcoholism, homosexuality, mental illness, unruly children, child abuse or serial killing, 'evil' sources the cause as something outside human nature.

Even though many non-believers use it as a catch-all with a whole range of nuances, there is still too often a sense that this is not regular human behaviour. But it is, everything humans do is human nature, we can't just pick the bits we like or easily understand. Neither is it evidence of our 'animal nature', something to be tamed or that we must rise above, it's part of human complexity.

A secular authority uses the judicial system to deal with this 'evil', some religions use exorcism.

Exorcism - or deliverance as some churches call it - is founded on a victim mentality that is perversely comforting. We are not responsible. We are at the mercy of supernatural attacks and only God can protect or liberate us. In addition, sometimes it's the most religious who are the most assailed so it becomes almost a badge of piety to be possessed. The woman on Sunday Morning Live who blamed possession for her alcoholism was handing over responsibility. She saw alcoholism and other afflictions not as a disease or as a choice but as something that was inflicted on her, something which she had no power herself to overcome.

Like many of us, she wanted to blame someone or something for what happened to her. No one can help being born with a propensity for alcoholism or psychopathic behaviour but 'blaming' our genes or environment isn't satisfying. As humans, we look for something with human-like intentions because that is both easier to conceptualise and to distance from ourselves.

One response to her was that whatever gets you clean is good. But this way of thinking leaves people like her open to further possessions. Anytime something bad happens, responsibility is handed over to the devil. If God doesn't deliver you the first time, keep going until he does. Not only does this attitude make us victims, it infantilizes us, holding us in a suspended state of child-like irresponsibility, pushing away both blame and understanding.

A watered-down and more secular version of this Devil-think is the idea of luck, which looks to ascribe outside causes to agencies that can be propitiated or neutralised through ritual. It may appear less harmful than a belief in possession, but it's part of a continuum, a position that acknowledges science but then over-rides it. It's like instances where people know there is a scientific reason for something happening - livestock dying or being burgled, for example - but then go on to ask why here, why now, why me? And the answer is something Outside.

Calling behaviour evil can be a way of saying 'it couldn't happen here, we're not like that'. But as we saw in Norway recently, it can and does happen in all of our 'heres'. Putting photos of killers with red-eye in the paper and calling them the face of evil really doesn't help prevent that. We're all capable of behaviour that we're not proud of and the only way to prevent it, either as an individual or a society, is to recognise it, not to think of it a some sort of alien invader.

We're not Mediaeval peasants who can execute a pig for killing a child or blame a curse for making our crops fail but our minds haven't changed in just a few hundred years. Belief in exorcism or even (bad) luck is still a kind of contamination theory: something infects us or attacks us or breeds inside us - something that can be contagious and that has a cure of the same order. Whether we think it's the devil or some sort of allegedly secular evil, this is sci-fi/horror movie thinking.

Max von Sydow is not going to turn up to fix us and neither is Sigourney Weaver. The Alien is us.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Lying for Jesus (Yet Again)

The pro-choice charity Education for Choice has first-hand evidence that pregnancy crisis centres based on a 'Christian ethos' are using scare-mongering, emotional blackmail and lies to try and put women off having abortions. The Guardian coverage of the story tactfully talks about 'inaccurate information' but let's call it like it is. Lying.

EfC sent women undercover to centres including some run by the organisation Life. One of the undercover EfC women was given a leaflet that claimed 85% of abortions are carried out using vacuum aspiration. It stated that 'the unborn child is sucked down the tube' and that 'the woman should wear some protection. She has to dispose of the corpse.'

Another centre tried to persuade the woman to put off the decision and another handed out its 10-step 'road to abortion recovery', including steps entitled 'guilt and shame' and 'forgiveness'. The EfC women were shown baby clothes and talked to in emotive terms to manipulate them. There were also the usual lies about mental illness and cancer caused by abortion.

I'm confident in calling these lies because I've looked at some of the research the claims about cancer and mental illness are based on.

The Government is considering farming out services to 'independent' organisations, which would include those with religious motivations. In this instance, it appears that 'independent' mean 'independent of scientific fact and the NHS's own guidance on abortion'.

MP Nadine Dorries wants women to be forced to go for counselling before they can have an abortion - and this counselling cannot be provided by any organisation that also carries out abortions, for example Marie Stopes International.

Her original intention was to make this change an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill but it is now possible that the change will be made without a parliamentary vote. It appears that her ally Frank Field MP could be working with the Department of Health to introduce these new counselling arrangements via regulatory change instead.

If practices at the organisations investigated are anything to go by, this would be very bad news indeed for women and their partners. Only two out of the ten centres EfC visited gave accurate advice and only one mentioned centres which provided abortions. These are not good odds for someone who chooses to go for counselling and even worse odds for anyone being forced to have it.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about a consultation on advertising pregnancy advice centres. The proposal is that they must state whether or not they will refer for abortion. Perhaps they should also be required to display their beliefs on large signs outside the building. Then women would really be able to make an informed choice about whether to go in or not. Some would and that's up to them.

This Government is constantly banging on about transparency so any proposal to use organisations that base their activities on lies, subterfuge and ulterior motives masked as offering 'choice' does not bode well for the Big Society.

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Memento Mori - Dealing With Death

Some evolved survival mechanisms are the skeleton in the cupboard.

The death of celebrities or large numbers of regular people provokes an outpouring of shock, public grief and an intimate examination of their lives which, with the benefit of hindsight, led inevitably to their deaths.

The reaction that we are pleased to have is that the death of Amy Winehouse and the deaths in Norway provoke empathy both for the dead and for their families.

At the same time as feeling empathy, we have another reaction that it's not always quite as comfortable to admit to. Publicly-reported deaths always serve as a memento mori, a reminder of the fragility of life. The death of young people provokes particularly complex reactions; both Winehouse and most of the Norwegian dead were young.

News of any death creates cognitive dissonance, the discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. So empathy for the dead and grieving creates and becomes entangled with fear of our own death. It's uncomfortable to feel sorry and afraid at the same time; we want the empathy but not the fear. Humans are (as far as we know) the only animals to be aware that we will die and we have to deal with that when we're reminded of it.

Memento mori means roughly 'remember you will die'. It's also used as a term for artefacts. These date back to antiquity but became widespread in Mediaeval times. They were a means of reminding people that death - and Judgement - were never far away to keep them close to the Church. Images of skulls, skeletons and the Grim Reaper are widespread in religious art for this purpose. The Book of Common Prayer still has the line 'In the midst of life we are in death. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust'. Carpe diem and all that.

As well as being aware we will die, we also have the ability to push this thought away. At the same time as empathizing, we also remind ourselves that Winehouse was an addict whose life was a mess and that we don't live in Norway.

We start to collect reasons why such deaths could never happen to us - this is the survival mechanism. This reaction can tip over into blaming the victim - Winehouse brought it on herself, for example. Some of the coverage majors on the 'fact' that she'd been on an 'ecstasy and booze binge'. Her many appearances while drunk or drugged are poked into, along with comments on her appearance - 'Amy also appeared unhealthily thin, with scabs on her face and marks on her arms, wearing scruffy clothes' in the Sun, for example. Her 'friends' are quoted as saying they were afraid for her before her death, that it was inevitable.

The shock of Norway is that it was Norway - a low-profile country where nothing much ever happens from an outside perspective. But it was Norway and we don't live there, we dodged the bullet through the good luck of geography. Calling the massacre of over 80 people (at the time of writing) a national tragedy helps bind their nation together but it also serves for the rest of us as a comfort that it wasn't our nation.

There is sometimes a certain Schadenfreude in our response too, a pleasure in the suffering of others. It's a comfort for us not being rich and famous to see how screwed up the lives of celebs are. But on this occasion the Norwegian deaths complicate the freude because the dead were not rich and famous, they were nobodies like us - and that brings it closer to home. This weekend, the Schadenfreude is less pleasure and more relief. We're not rich and famous but at least we're not Norwegian. It's not a laudable response but it's a human one just as much as the emotions and reactions we're more proud to own.

However, our success in telling ourselves that it couldn't happen here can come back to bite us when it does, especially when the perpetrators are home-grown. Freud might have called it the return of the repressed. The Norwegians had successfully insulated themselves; according to the BBC, 'Norway has had problems with neo-Nazi groups in the past but the assumption was that such groups had been largely eliminated and did not pose a significant threat'. We're all human, we're all fragile but this time it wasn't us and couldn't have been us - until it is.

The desire to read these stories or watch the news coverage may seem callous, something we shouldn't do, something tabloid and nasty for the better-educated to tut about - but it is part of the survival mechanism, the distancing process, insulating ourselves from death. Even the more rational media play into this, for example by listing other musicians who died young of overdoses or suicide - Hendrix, Cobain, Joplin etc, mentioning the 27 Club - some 38 musicians who died age 27.

The media aren't really doing anything that we don't all do, even if on an unconscious level. We may not like all of our instincts, and some we should probably not give in to, but covering them up or identifying them as something other people do, people we look down on, is not realistic. Doing that is also another human response though. Human beings are complicated buggers.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Always Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide? Part 3

Should students be accepted for medical school if they have no intention of treating certain people or conditions?

A survey shows that a significant number of medical students think doctors should be able to refuse any procedure that contradicts their beliefs. The procedure that causes the most contention is, as always, abortion.

Not all of the respondents were religious; non-religious students thought opt-outs should be a right too - 35% thought there was a place for conscientious objection. The survey also found a prevelance among the religious to object to certain procedures and patients.

In general, support for a doctor's right to refuse any procedure that troubles their beliefs was highest among Muslim medical students at 76.2% while 54.5% of Jewish students thought the same, as did 51.2% of Protestants and 46.3% of Catholics.

More than double the number of Muslim students than non-believers would refuse an abortion when contraception failed. A higher percentage of Muslim students than others would object to prescribing contraception. Nearly eight percent of them also stated they would object to ‘intimately examining a person of the opposite sex’. The survey didn't ask how students would feel about examining LGBT people which, along with not exploring the reasons for objections in the non-religious, is a limitation.

Doctors opting out of treating certain patients is only part of the problem. Some students are refusing even to learn certain areas of medicine in the first place.

It was reported in the Sunday Times four years ago that some Muslim medical students were refusing to attend lectures or answer exam questions on alcohol-related or sexually transmitted diseases because they claimed it offended their religious beliefs. This was corroborated by both the BMA and the GMC. Professor Peter Rubin, chairman of the GMC’s education committee, said: “prejudicing treatment on the grounds of patients’ gender or their responsibility for their condition would run counter to the most basic principles of ethical medical practice”.

GMC guidelines recognise the right of freedom of expression for medical students but state that this 'cannot compromise the fundamental purpose of the medical course: to train doctors who have the core knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviour that are necessary at graduation'.

The GMC also specifically states that a foundation level doctor cannot practise while refusing to examine patients on grounds of gender or those patients whose illness can be attributed to their lifestyle. Guidance drawn up by the GMC advises doctors to refer a patient to a colleague if they object to a certain procedure or treatment. They must also give patients enough information so they can seek treatment elsewhere within the NHS. In some situations, doctors' consciences can (and should) be accommodated but the foundation level doctor is often the first one to see acute patients and any delay in treatment could have serious implications.

The research paper on the survey concluded that ‘Once qualified as doctors, if all these respondents acted on their conscience and refused to perform certain procedures, it may become impossible for conscientious objectors to be accommodated in medicine’. It also states that ‘The views of large numbers of Muslim students are contrary to GMC guidelines, and thus the medical profession needs to think about how it will deal with the conflict’.

Although Muslim students are clearly a growing problem, Muslims are not the only ones to object to certain procedures. The Christian Medical Fellowship, which has 4000 members, is also strongly anti-abortion, for example. Almost a third of the students surveyed wouldn’t perform an abortion for a congenitally malformed foetus after 24 weeks, a quarter wouldn’t for failed contraception before 24 weeks and a fifth wouldn’t even perform an abortion on a minor who had been raped.

Some of the reporting of this survey has gone straight to worse-case scenario and ignored the finding that a lower percentage of students would refuse to carry out a procedure than actually objected to it. However, the percentages are still significant and the situation needs to be addressed while respondents are still students. If the number of medical students prepared to carry out a termination when they qualify is shrinking, then women will find it hard to access abortion safely and quickly in the future.The UK may be drifting towards the situation in Italy where nearly 70% of gynaecologists refuse to perform abortions and 50% of anaesthetists refuse to assist on moral grounds even though abortion is legal.

While the GMC is holding out against students' right to pick and choose what they learn, the question remains - why do people want to become doctors if they are only going to treat certain patients or conditions, and where do they think they will practice this limited form of medicine? It's not just women's needs that are taking second place to beliefs; the provision of universal healthcare is being challenged too. Perhaps medical students need to be triaged when they apply to colleges and clearer limits set on the conscience to make sure that patients' needs always come first.

I wrote a response to the GMC consultation on conscience opt-outs for the National Secular Society some time ago.

In Part 1 I looked at the affect on women of pharmacists being able to opt out of selling emergency contraception if it's against their beliefs. I also wrote a consultation response for the NSS on this subject. It's not just in the UK where conscience is becoming a problem. In Part 2 I looked at the debate in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on doctors' opt-outs.

Update 3 August 2011
In related news, a Christian midwife is refusing to wear trousers because Deuteronomy 22:5 says that it's wrong to wear the clothes of the opposite sex. Trousers are part of the uniform for hygiene purposes and the hospital is so far sticking to its guns saying that wearing them is 'proportionate'. Let's hope she never wears clothes of mixed fibres and doesn't have pierced ears.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Barking Up The Wrong Tree

I was taught at school always to read the question before answering an exam. Basic, really.

In 2009, the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP) ran a consultation on changing the rules for advertising Post Conception Advice Services (PCAS). I wrote a response for the National Secular Society, sent it off and waited to see what happened.

The new rules would allow more PCAS to advertise and would also ensure that adverts were not misleading about the services they offered - principally whether they would refer a woman for abortion or not (some can't if they're run by nurses and some won't if they're Pro-Life). There were certain restrictions about when adverts could be run - not close to children's programmes, for example.

BCAP were well aware that adverts might cause offence to some people who have a moral or religious objection to abortion but considered there were strong public health grounds to justify showing them and that the 'specific consumer interest in question is that of pregnant women'. It took into account the fact that 'these are legally available services offering a range of advice and that providers should be permitted an appropriate level of freedom of expression to advertise'. it also stated that 'offence taken by some members of the audience is not in itself sufficient reason to prohibit a particular category of advertising'.

I wondered why there had been no results of the consultation published.

This week, we got an email from BCAP saying they were running the consultation again.

The new consultation notes explain that the 2009 consultation resulted in 27,000 responses from people stating they were offended by the proposals, mostly on religious or moral grounds. However, 'most respondents appeared to have misunderstood what was being proposed' and 'few respondents commented on the specific question of whether it is appropriate to allow a broader range of PCAS (including commercial services) to advertise and whether it is sensible to require services that do not refer for termination to say so'.

27,000 is an awful lot of 'offended' people. So offended that they didn't bother to read the questions properly. Or maybe they did and just wanted to have a rant anyway.

Some of these responses were:

* BCAP's proposal will encourage promiscuity among young people and divorce sex from mature relationships.

* BCAP's proposal will promote abortion as a means of birth control.

* BCAP's proposals are in conflict with the Audio Visual Media Services principle that audiovisual commercial communications shall not cause moral detriment to minors.

* Abortion providers mislead women into thinking that abortion is a quick-fix solution to a problem pregnancy with no harmful consequences.

The consultation notes also say - 'you need only write a second time should you feel that your understanding of the proposal has changed'.

This is a polite way of saying - rant as much as you like, we'll still ignore you. Maybe it will make a difference, maybe they will get another 27,000 misguided rants. The NSS response does not need to be submitted again.

If you believe abortion is wrong for moral or religious reasons, that's your prerogative, as is saying so publicly. Replying to a consultation that exists only in your head is neither persuasive nor productive. All you achieve by barking up the wrong tree is frightening the squirrels. Don't be surprised if they throw nuts at you.

If you want to respond to this public consultation, it's here.

I'll be attending the Pro-Choice rally next Saturday.