Thursday, 27 December 2012

A Bigot is for life, not just for Christmas

This Christmas, instead of the traditional platitudes about peace on earth and loving each other, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster used his festive address to attack same sex marriage - again. And a High Court judge joined in.

One thing these two have in common is an interesting use of statistics. I've already written about how equalities are not a numbers game. Either a group of people is equal to others or they are not, regardless of how many of them there are. This is perhaps the most important point to be made when numbers are being brandished as the killer blow in an argument - although it is important to point out where statistics are being abused.

High Court judge Sir Paul Coleridge thinks the government shouldn't be wasting its time: "So much energy and time has been put into this debate for 0.1% of the population, when we have a crisis of family breakdown".

Statistics on the percentage of the population identifying as lesbian, gay or bisexual vary but nowhere is a figure this low cited. Not everyone feels comfortable reporting their sexuality, but as a rough indicator of how wrong the judge is, in 2006, the first full year of civil partnerships, there were 231,454 marriages and 16,100 civil partnership between LGB people. That works out as 6.96% as a comparative proportion.

Archbishop Vince Nichols claims that during a "period of listening" held by the government, those who responded were "7-1 against same-sex marriage".

However, the government consultation run earlier this year found that 53% were in favour. This took account of the petitions received as well as 228,000 direct consultation responses, including the huge petition opposing any change from the Coalition for Marriage.

Within the consultation itself, 63% said religious marriage ceremonies should be available to everyone.

I've written before about the consultation and the religious opposition, despite the fact that the government has made it clear that no churches or other places of worship will have to perform gay marriages.

Vince Nichols also tries another tack, claiming that a change in law would not be democratic. He claims that "There was no announcement in any party manifesto, no Green Paper, no statement in the Queen's Speech. And yet here we are on the verge of primary legislation. From a democratic point-of-view, it's a shambles. George Orwell would be proud of that manoeuvre, I think the process is shambolic."

He is basically accusing the government of sneaking legislation through against the wishes of the electorate.

However, on May 3 2010, three days before the general election, the (shadow) equalities minister Theresa May launched the Tory's contract for equalities which included the plan to introduce same sex marriage. The section on civil partnerships states “We will also consider the case for changing the law to allow civil partnerships to be called and classified as marriage.”

If people wanted to vote differently based on this sole issue, they had time to make that decision. Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone has tackled the nonsense of this claim in her blog.

Democratically-elected MPs will be allowed a free vote and the Bill is expected to be introduced in the New Year. As this letter to the Telegraph shows, the MPs and Lords against gay marriage are very much in the minority.

It's not clear what the Archbishop thinks would constitute a democratic process. Legislation by petition? His version of democracy is more akin to a theocracy where a tiny minority made of religious leaders and fundamentalist believers rules the rest of the population. If the government were being truly Orwellian, the law would have been changed without any consultation or vote and history would have been rewritten to remove any trace of the previous status quo. When Nichols says Orwellian, what he means is 'legislation I don't like'. That's the trouble with democracy, you don't always get your own way. On the up side, you do get the freedom of speech to express your Yuletide bigotry.

The Pope used a Christmas address to say that gay marriage will 'destroy the very essence of the human creature'. He doesn't need to use dodgy statistics because he has a direct line to God and is never wrong.

31 December update: Vince Nichols is at it again. He has latched on to this like a ferret and will not let go until his teeth meet.

Monday, 17 December 2012

The mind of a killer

It's traditional to tell horror stories at Christmas. This year, the media have got a real live one.

The media are falling over themselves trying to 'understand' why 20 children were killed at Newtown. Hacks, amateurs and psychologists who should know better are speculating about the motives and mental state of the killer.

We need a reason and we need to know that Adam Lanza was a monster, not 'normal'. Not like us or anyone we know so we can keep the horror at arms' length. All of this speculation is like the stories small children tell themselves when they're scared of the dark. They're comforting.

The monstering of this child-killer who was little more than a child himself is the same as the monstering of child abusers. We need to know they have the mark of Cain on them but now that 'evil' alone is not a reason that many of us accept (or that sells papers), we have to resort to psychology, or what passes for it. (I wrote about the problem with blaming evil here).

The best the media have come up with so far is the fact that he was shy and didn't have a Facebook page. Unless Adam Lanza left a detailed written explanation for his actions, we may never know why he did it, which is something that discomfits the media and a lot of us.

The worst the media have come up with includes details of how he shot his mother in the face, that the school principal should have had a high-power rifle in her office, self-proclaimed 'heart-wrenching' photos, blaming Lanza's 'paranoid gun-crazed mother', confusing his alleged Asperger's with mental illness. And on. And on.

President Obama has said that the dead children were 'called to God', another comforting fiction. America's current principal God was bound to be dragged into it at some point and Obama's narrative is one way of forestalling 'why did God let this happen?', of making sure everyone knows his god is one of the good guys in this story. Except, what kind of bastard god kills children for reasons we mere humans are not privy to as he moves in mysterious ways? Obama didn't mention whether this god of his had also called the six adults who were killed.

The focus on why Lanza did it is also a convenient distraction from how he did it. With guns. Legal guns. For us in the UK, gun laws are not a key issue, so the media focus on the deaths. The fact that one of the dead children was British gives them an excuse they don't need to wallow in their foetid mire.

The list of American school shootings is a very long one. And every killer did it for a different reason or complex set of reasons and circumstances. Even if Lanza's motivation is understood, it won't stop the next one. Does it matter why he did it? Should someone have spotted the signs? There's going to be a lot of 20/20 hindsight, a mixture of accusations against society and individuals or the shrugging off of accusations (by the NRA, for example).

There's also a kind of 'it wouldn't happen here' self-reassurance being promoted by certain parts of the media so we can tuck our children into bed feeling superior to the gun-toting frontier mentality of the colonials.

It's a very human response to feel for the bereaved and to need to know, to understand, but this need can infantilize us, make us content with bedtime stories to ward off the monsters, real or imagined. Meanwhile, the media have given themselves a big fat Christmas present.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Evil That Men Do

The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.

At a Scarborough Borough Council meeting, councillor Colin Haddington called for Jimmy Savile's body to be exhumed and removed from the cemetery. Savile’s nephew Guy Marsden said he supports the families of other people buried at Woodlands Cemetery who want the body moved away and would also support plans to dig up and cremate Savile. The gravestone has already been removed but exhumation may not be simple as it's reported the coffin is encased in concrete.

There's a lot more going on than simply removing the body of a man that many people admired and now revile.

There’s a long tradition of removing or mutilating corpses of people who have committed an offence during their lives. It's a symbolic act – sometimes politically symbolic, sometimes morally or culturally.

It’s as if removing Savile will distance him from society, cast him out. He can't be brought to trial, but he is effectively being tried posthumously, his remains have been judged unfit to lie with others. Savile was a practicing Catholic and his removal would be a kind of excommunication from the community of the dead, like the burial of certain categories of people in unconsecrated ground. In this context, burning his body is a symbolic way of wiping him out.

In 897 at the Cadaver Synod, Pope Stephen VI had the corpse of Pope Formosus disinterred and put on trial. He was found guilty and thrown into the Tiber.

When Harold I Harefoot, king of the Anglo-Saxons, died in 1040, his half-brother Harthacanute succeeded him and had his body disentombed, decapitated and thrown into an animal pen or a river, according to different sources.

John Wycliffe was burned as a heretic 45 years after he died in 1384.

Oliver Cromwell was exhumed, hanged for a day at Tyburn, beheaded and the head put at the end of Westminster Hall.

In 1917 Rasputin was exhumed by a mob and set fire to.

Other practices included digging up and mutilating the bodies of people suspected of being vampires to prevent them rising and the use of murderers’ bodies for dissection, denying them a burial.

There are three main reasons for doing this – to punish the dead, to warn the living and to appease the living.

Some Christians believed that that the body had to be buried whole facing east so it could rise facing God on Judgement Day. Burial in unconsecrated ground, dismemberment or other destruction therefore prevented resurrection and condemned the person to Hell.

Posthumous punishment could also be a sort of restitution to the living – anyone who had suffered at the hands of the dead person, a kind of revenge of the powerless. It's also a very good way to make a political point. Desecration of the dead was taken very seriously, so making an example of a corpse could also serve as a warning to the living, to make them fear for their souls, their family reputation or their own honour.

Even though (most of us) no longer believe it's necessary to be buried whole to be resurrected or that a dead person (or at least their soul) can be posthumously punished, even for the non-religious, the thought of their body not being treated in the way they want after their death can be a hard thought to deal with.

In some cases, there is also a sense that the ground may in some way be contaminated by the presence of the body of someone who has done something terrible, as if some essence of them or their crimes remains. It's a human trait that the evolved instinct to avoid or destroy physical sources of contamination becomes symbolic, applied to behaviour or beliefs.

This seems to be the case with Savile, as some families are upset to have their dead relatives buried near him. There is also an implication that the memories of the living will be tainted by the knowledge of who is lying near their dead, that Savile is in some way haunting them. Digging the body up is a kind of exorcising the ghost or staking the vampire.

It will be interesting to see if the contamination stays with the grave and others are reluctant to use it if he is removed.

Separating a rapist or paedophile from society in this way also serves to reassure the living that they and their dead loved ones are good people, untainted, deserving to rest in peace. Savile is not like us. Except that child abusers and rapists are not a separate category of humanity, however much we might like to think they are and try to mark them as Other.

There may also be some kind of expiation of guilt for anyone who should have seen or done something, either in the alleged Savile cases or with other abusers. And society as a whole has failed the victims so society as a whole must be seen to condemn his acts, public opinion now replacing religious censure.

In some cases, this becomes self-righteous outrage, more about being seen to behave in a particular way than achieving anything tangible (like changing laws to protect the vulnerable). This can trigger a kind of mob mentality; although we no longer have physical witch hunts and pitchforks, there is Twitter.

Sometimes there is good evidence, sometimes only rumour and myth. The living can sue for libel, the dead can't - which is why sometimes the truth only comes out after someone is dead and the only recourse is to punish the corpse or the reputation. But sometimes posthumous punishment backfires as the reputation of the punishers is itself destroyed by history.

Savile chose as his own epitaph 'It was good while it lasted'. If the investigations prove the allegations to be true, what will last is the haunting of the living, both the victims and the rest of us in varying degrees. Ritual cleansing by fire or removal or other means may sound primitive or irrational, but sometimes it helps draw a mental line under a life.

11 January update: The police report on the Savile investigation has now been released.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

What doctors don't tell you

Warning: May cause apoplexy.

Since 1989 husband and wife team Lynne McTaggart and Bryan Hubbard have been running a website called What Doctors Don't Tell You. Now they are publishing a magazine with the same title.

It wasn't easy finding a copy, which is a mercy. One newsagent in Camden told me he received an unsolicited batch yesterday and sent them straight back because he didn't like the look of them.

Who are McTaggart and Hubbard? She has form as an anti-vaccination campaigner. In one of her books, The Intention Experiment, she says that the universe is connected by a vast quantum energy field and can be influenced by thought. He recommends vitamin C as a treatment for cancer and they complain about the Cancer Act which prevents them promoting their 'cures'. So I think we know what we're dealing with.

There is a bit of common sense here - get some exercise, don't eat junk - but my main issue with WDDTY is that the average reader has no way to tell crap from Christmas and, for some of the articles, nor do I without reading every single research paper they mention to check all the trials and tests were randomized, placebo-controlled, double-blind, peer-reviewed and had sound methodology and good sample sizes. But I do know when I'm being obviously manipulated. I may not be a rodentologist but I can smell a rat a mile off.

The main message of WDDTY is BE AFRAID. BE VERY AFRAID.

Doctors misdiagnose, make mistakes in prescriptions, constantly break the law by treating patients like 'lumps of meat' and not discussing treatment options properly. If your doctor doesn't kill you, your dentist will by X-raying your teeth. Whipping up fear that a visit to the doctor might kill you is McTaggart and Hubbard's strong suit. Even worse, it might kill your children. This is the trump card as the main audience for magazines like this is women. Around 80% of the pictures of people in WTTDY are of women (I'm not sure about the dogs and the piglet).

There's more. The antidepressants your doctor prescribes you will probably kill you. So will painkillers. Two thirds of people on prescription drugs end up in a worse state because of them. Cancer screening doesn't save lives. Sunblock causes diabetes. Prescription drugs 'are playing a big part in the mental and physical decline of the elderly, and may even be a contributor to premature death'. Note the 'probably' and the 'may even': there's a lot of that in WDDTY.

It's one scare story after another. But there is some good news. Forget about medicine, don't go to the doctor, take supplements. Pretty much every article has a suggestion of a 'proven' alternative to medicine which is either dietary supplements or 'alternative' medicine. Oh, and homeopathy works! This has been proven by a Swiss study that relies on 'real-life' cases rather than academic studies, they say.

There is a long list of superfoods too. Because they're natural. And natural is good. Unlike doctors and prescription medicines, which are unnatural and very very bad.

WDDTY is big on food allergies too. There are lots of stories about various conditions caused by them. Perhaps this is because the magazine is 'supported by some of the world's leading pioneers in nutritional, environmental and alternative medicine'.

Whatever is wrong with you, or whatever you fear you might get in the future, supplements will see you right. It's a bit like psychics who make a prediction then, if you say it hasn't happened, they tell you it soon will.

In the same way that cigarettes are nicotine delivery systems, WDDTY is a supplement advert delivery system.

There is a huge range of unscientific and anti-science propaganda here, all the usual cobblers that a proper scientist could spend weeks demolishing. There are also a couple of articles that are more worrying.

The first is the case study of Nerissa Oden. She says 'I healed myself of severe dysplasia (abnormal cell growth) and HPV (human papillomavirus) in just six months'. How did she do this? 'A friend who is a chiropractor and nutritionist suggested I get tested for hidden food allergies'. Nerissa also went to a naturopath 'who recommended a list of vitamins and supplements that I should start taking'. Nerissa turned down a biopsy and a D&C (dilatation and curettage). After six months on the special diet, she got a good result on a Pap test but then fell off the diet wagon and got a bad result, so she went back on the diet for another six months and upped the supplements.

Bingo. A Pap test came back normal and a gynaecologist declared her cured.

At the end of the article is a handy list of 'helpful supplements'. There's a surprise. It's like a kind of cult. A cult of idiocy.

Why is this worrying? It may cause women to self-diagnose, self-treat or turn down life-saving medical procedures. It will certainly cost them a lot because supplement manufacturers are not charities. It will put readers in the hands of unqualified, unregulated shysters. It may make them take an equally irrational and dangerous approach to other health issues and other areas of life. And if not them, then their children (see, I can play the kiddie card, too).

The second article, the longest one in the magazine, is about HPV vaccines. They are evil. Lynne and Brian don't seem to have read Nerissa's story where she lists all the cancers that HPV can cause and says how serious it is. Nor do they seem to know that the NHS and Cancer Research UK says that it's the second most common cancer in women under 35. In the editorial, they say it's not a serious issue and the article says it's 'uncommon'. But, given how inaccurate and unscientific the rest of the magazine is, why would this article be any different?

The article, by McTaggart, says that cervical cancer is a third world problem, a 'disease of poverty and unhealthy living'. She talks about the huge number of side-effects but lists only the serious, scary ones. The article bombards the reader with statistics and 'facts' and ends by claiming that the vaccination will 'at best' save 40 lives in the UK while harming huge numbers.

She accuses drug companies of using extreme scare tactics to promote the vaccines and make money - which is a bit rich when the magazine is shot through with scare stories to promote supplements and alt med. Incidentally, the supplement market was reported as worth 27 billion dollars in the US in 2009, and growing.

I don't know if the vaccine is safe or not. I don't know if it's as effective as it claims. I don't know how many lives it will save. But I'm much more inclined to listen to the opinions of scientists than quacks peddling what I do know are unproven and potentially dangerous treatments. There's some common sense about the vaccine 'controversy' here.

If this post has given you apoplexy, take a vitamin supplement and you'll be fine. I'm a doctor* and I'm most certainly not telling you to buy this magazine.

*Not a medical doctor. I may start a magazine on all the things that humanities PhD doctors aren't telling you.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Bullies and predators

You may have heard by now that there is a man who comes to Skeptics in the Pub in London who is making women the subject of unwanted sexual attention. That's putting it politely. He's hitting on women, being inappropriately physical/sexual and generally behaving like a dick.

Michael Story has written about this here. Because of the stupid libel laws in this country, the Offender cannot be named publicly, which makes him harder to deal with.

I'm one of the hosts of London SitP, along with Carmen and Sid. When I started going to SitP, very few women came. Sometimes I was the only woman there at the King's Head in Borough. Over the years, we've worked hard to encourage women to come and now a lot do. We want them to feel safe and comfortable. This isn't a major problem, we don't want to blow it out of proportion, but we do want to act responsibly and nip it in the bud.

This shouldn't need saying but apparently it does - this is not acceptable behaviour. There are no excuses. You are not 'just being friendly'. If you were, you'd be doing it to men too. You are not lord of the manor and women are not your personal fiefdom. Your position in the Skeptic community does not give you immunity. Even though the law may protect you, there are other ways we can deal with you - and we will.

I went on the Slutwalk march on Saturday and listened to stories at the rally of women being raped and sexually harassed because men thought they had the right. Although these stories were at the more extreme end of male behaviour, SitP will not tolerate any kind of behaviour that makes women feel uncomfortable because it's all part of the same loathsome mindset.

This kind of sexual predator behaviour is a kind of bullying and, like all bullies, the Offender is relying on silence. I've been bullied in the past; I know how it makes you feel and I know how hard it can be to do anything about it so I know it's a lot to ask you to speak up. But we will sort this out.

Bullies and predators pick their victims carefully. It is not your fault he does this to you. You have not 'led him on', you do not 'deserve' this. He is the one in the wrong. You're not 'making trouble' or 'causing a fuss' by telling us. And anything you do say will be treated in confidence, so you don't need to fear any personal consequences - which is another way bullies maintain their power.

The vast majority of men at SitP would never dream of doing anything like this but the Offender affects them too, making them question their own behaviour and making them wonder what to do if they witness him in action. But guys - man up and speak up.

I've seen comments from some men who are understandably angry and think the answer is for a bunch of guys to tackle the Offender. It isn't. However good your intentions, don't go caveman as this makes women into feeble little victims who can't look after themselves.

We'll deal with this in an adult way and we'll deal with it together. It will get sorted, we promise.

Carmen, Sid and I really strongly encourage you to tell us if you see or suffer from the Offender. We will back you up and anything you tell us will be treated in absolute confidence. You can leave comments here (which in no way implies that you've been directly affected unless you make that explicit), you can email us, DM us on Twitter or tell us face to face. That's @tessakendall, @carmenego or @sidrodrigues.

But DO NOT name him publicly.

If it turns out there is more than one Offender, we'll deal with that too. If you're not in London and you're having a problem, we can still help but we want to put our own house in order.

The Offender is not some mega-nerd who doesn't know what he's doing but if you're a guy who has problems reading signals and body language, a good rule of thumb is - if in doubt, don't do it.

This is Hayley Stevens' commentary on the situation.

Our next meeting at the Monarch is on October 15 and we hope to see lots of you there. We'll also be at Conway Hall on Sunday for more skeptic fun. I may update this to keep up with any developments so check back later.

Monday, 17 September 2012

Pickles' History is Bunk

Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles recently said that 'Britain has welcomed people of many other faiths to live among us over the centuries … Indeed, it is the Christian ethos that has made Britain so welcoming'. In the same article, he talks about ‘long-standing British liberties of freedom of religion’.

But a quick look at our history shows that we certainly haven’t always welcomed people of other faiths and our 'liberties of freedom of religion' are not very long-standing at all. In fact, we haven’t even welcomed Christians if they weren’t the right sort. It’s the religious equivalent of Ford’s ‘any colour as long as it’s black’.

This is a far from exhaustive list.

A group of (Christian) Cathar refugees who fled to England were tried by an ecclesiastical court in Oxford presided over by the King. They were found guilty of heresy. They were branded on the forehead, whipped through the streets, stripped to the waist, and sent into the countryside to die of exposure in the snow.

The expulsion of the Jews from England by Edward 1. This was not formally overturned until 1656.

Fourteenth century
Persecution of Catholic heretics, including the Lollards. John Wycliffe was a Lollard who believed that everyone should have access to the Bible and made the first translation from Latin into English.

Fifteenth century
1401 - Henry IV introduced the death penalty for heresy. There was no definition of the offence, so heresy was whatever the Church said it was.

Archbishop Arundel then decreed that no one should translate any part of the Bible into English or read any of Wycliffe’s writings either publicly or privately or be burned at the stake as a heretic. Because Wycliffe had escaped punishment for heresy, he was tried a second time in 1415 (after his death) and this time condemned. His body was disinterred and burned in 1428.

Sixteenth century
Around 1520 the diocese of Lincoln alone was convicting over 100 people a year for the crime of "not thinking catholickly".

The persecution of Catholics under Elizabeth I. The Recusancy Acts punished anyone who did not attend Church of England services, including fines, the confiscation of property and imprisonment. They were repealed in 1650. In the 1560s, Oxford and Cambridge were ‘purged’ of Catholics. Priests were executed.

The persecution of Protestants under Mary I (aka Bloody Mary). Around 300 were burned at the stake and many more were imprisoned.

Seventeenth century
The Corporation Act of 1661 – no one could belong to a town corporation unless they took the sacrament according to the rites of the Church of England. The Test Act passed in 1673 imposed the same test on holders of civil or military office. This excluded Roman Catholics, Protestant Dissenters/non-conformists and Jews from public office.

The Quaker Act of 1662 – this made it illegal to refuse to take the Oath of Allegiance to the King and country or to hold secret meetings. Quakers believed it was wrong to swear any oath.

The Toleration Act of 1689 - freedom of worship was given to non-conformists, but not to Catholics. These were Protestants who did not conform to the Church of England, for example Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Quakers. However, they were still excluded from political office and from universities. It was not until the Doctrine of the Trinity Act in 1813 that penalties for being a Unitarian were repealed.

John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim’s Progress, was imprisoned for non-conformist preaching.

Nineteenth century
1826 University College London was the first university in England to be established on an entirely secular basis, admitting students regardless of their religion (or lack of it). Before this, education was dependent on belonging to the Church of England.

1829 The Catholic Relief Act followed the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts the previous year. Catholics were finally allowed to hold government and public offices as well as attend universities.

Jewish emancipation was not fully achieved until 1890.

1888 The Oaths Act. Until this point, MPs taking their seat in parliament had to swear an oath on the Bible. After this, they could affirm, so non-believers could finally sit in Parliament.

The lie of 'liberty' and the Christian 'ethos'

Apart from the expulsion of the Jews in the thirteenth century and the denial of Jewish emancipation until the late 19th century, all of this persecution and discrimination was by Christians against other Christians - right up until the nineteenth century. Not exactly long-standing British liberties.

The examples from earlier times show just how discrimination was an integral part of orthodox belief. There never was a golden age of tolerance or liberty.

Moreover, there is no one 'Christian ethos' that has existed throughout our history, it has shifted and changed over the centuries to suit the men in power. The Christian ethos has sanctioned the persecution and expulsion of Jews, the persecution of Catholics, the persecution of Protestants, the persecution of non-conformists.

The men in charge of defining the Christian ethos decide who is in and who is out, hand in glove with the State. Moderate, reasonable believers are not well served by the State's definition and enforcement of this ethos exactly because it is so malleable and open to abuse. Today's ethos includes discriminating against women and LGBT people. Tomorrow's may well have a whole new set of rules on who is and is not acceptable.

Pickles should visit Northern Ireland and parts of Scotland to see just how welcoming and libertarian different types of Christian are to each other. State-endorsed religion does not unite, it divides.

Having an established Church does not guarantee freedoms, it legitimises the orthodoxy of the least tolerant, the least welcoming and the least libertarian. It certainly does not represent the average believer.

Thursday, 30 August 2012

The miracle of chocolate?

Stories about the potential health benefits of chocolate surface on a fairly regular basis. Those of us who would happily mainline chocolate may latch on to these stories but, as with most things, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Three stories picked at random:

In the latest news story, a Swedish study published in Neurology has found that chocolate may protect men against strokes. It found that men eating the most chocolate in the study group (63g/2.2oz) were 17% less likely to have a stroke.

In 2011, the BMJ published a study which found that the highest levels of chocolate consumption (more than two bars a week) were associated with a 37% reduction in cardiovascular disease and a 29% reduction in stroke compared with the lowest levels.

This study noted that 'Recent studies (both experimental and observational) have suggested that chocolate consumption has a positive influence on human health, with antioxidant, antihypertensive, anti-inflammatory, anti-atherogenic, and anti-thrombotic effects as well as influence on insulin sensitivity, vascular endothelial function, and activation of nitric oxide. These beneficial effects have been confirmed in recent reviews and meta-analyses, supporting the positive role of cacao and cocoa products on cardiovascular risk factors such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels, atherosclerosis, and insulin resistance'.

In 2010 an American study found that older women who eat dark chocolate once or twice a week could be lowering their risk of heart failure. The study notes that one or two 19-30 gram servings of dark chocolate a week led to a 32% reduction in heart failure risk. This fell to 26% when one to three servings a month were eaten. But women who ate chocolate every day did not appear to reduce their risk of heart failure at all.

So there does appear to be some health benefit to eating chocolate. However (here comes the bad news), every study says that the fats and sugars in chocolate (even dark chocolate) have potential negative health risks. And every study suggests that it's the flavanoids in chocolate that appear to confer benefit.

Further research will probably show that a cacao-derived pill would confer the benefits and none of the risks. Which is no fun at all.

It's not just chocolate that contains flavanoids, they are also found in all citrus fruits, berries, onions (particularly red onion), parsley, pulses, tea (especially white and green tea) and red wine.

So all the articles that appear to be good news for chocolate eaters could just as well herald onions as potential lifesavers - except that wouldn't make for such good headlines.

It's unlikely that a bag of onions will replace a box of chocolates as the romantic gift of choice for men who forget their partner's birthday or their anniversary and stop off to pick something up on the way home from work. The British Onion Producers Association is not going to start paying for TV adverts modelled on the Milk Tray Man or ones with skinny women eating onions in suggestive ways.

But if you care about your loved one's health, giving them an onion would be a really romantic gesture. Shortly followed by it hitting your head.

A chocolate-covered onion. So wrong.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Oh I Do Like To Be Beside The Seaside

Does living by the coast make you healthier?

The BBC is reporting that ‘People living on the English coast are more likely than those living inland to say they are fit and well, an analysis of census data suggests.

‘The researchers said living in areas such as Skegness, St Ives or Scarborough was linked to a "small, but significant" improvement in health’.

The Telegraph has the headline 'The sea air? It really is healthy'.

Before we go any further, there is a big difference between feeling well and being healthy. Two different claims are being made, one about quality of life, the other about levels of health. The first is subjective, the second objective and therefore measureable.

People taking alternative medicine often report 'feeling better', sometimes through the operation of the placebo effect. But this doesn’t mean that they are better - and, in the case of alt med, this 'feeling' may even be dangerous if it leads to avoiding proper doctors.

A notable example of this inconsistency is a study done at Bristol Homeopathic Hospital, which 'found' that 75% of children with asthma 'felt better' after treatment. The flaws in this claim were pointed out by both the BBC and Dr Ben Goldacre. Conditions may also be self-limiting (they would have got better on their own) so external factors like treatment (or where you live) can be irrelevant. Or the condition may be periodic so the patients may be experiencing a period of less intense manifestations after a more extreme one (reversion to norm).

Then there is the problem of self-reporting, which is notoriously unreliable.

The researchers of the current study analysed data from 48.2 million people in the 2001 England census. As part of the census, people were asked ‘over the last 12 months would you say your health has on the whole been: good, fairly good or not good?’

There is a recognised psychological tendency that if people are asked to think back over a period of time, they will remember the most recent events more strongly as these memories are more salient. So if they are feeling well at the time of the census, they are less likely to focus on episodes of illness early in the year.

There is also a tendency that means a long period of illness ending in a short period of wellness will be considered more bearable (and may be reported as better health overall) than a long period of wellness ending in a short period of illness.

And how do you accommodate the 'mustn't complain, stiff upper lip' section of the population, the hypochondriacs and the ones who love a good moan?

So both self-reporting and 'feeling better' should be ringing alarm bells in the reporting of this story.

The study the media are referring to is called ''Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing?'

It was conducted by the European Centre for Environment and Human Health at the Peninsula College of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Exeter.

The study points out that 'robust evidence of direct, environmentally-induced salutogenic (health promoting) effects is scarce'.

The researchers investigated the relationship between people who reported their health as ‘good’ in the 2001 census and how close they lived to the coast. They found that people living under 1km from the sea were 1.13 percentage points more likely to say they were in 'good health' than than people living over 50km from the sea.

So it's a pretty small effect even if it is big enough to be statistically significant.

One interesting finding was that the effect was stronger in the most deprived areas because living by the sea 'may mitigate some effects of living in a deprived area'.

Or because wealthier people generally feel better anyway because they have better diets, living conditions and so on, so living by the sea adds less to their overall quality of life. Or because wealthier people who move to the seaside tend to be old and older people generally have poorer health. The study didn't differentiate between people who had always lived by the sea and those who had moved there or how long they need to be there for the effect to become observable.

It noted positive effects of seaside living as 'increased physical activity, stress reduction and positive emotions'. While going for walks on the beach would have a health benefit, the other two effects are subjective and harder to quantify.

Although the study says that there is an observed correlation between feeling healthy and mortality rates or the results of health surveys, its results don't definitively support this finding and the conclusion is only that 'coastal communities may have better physical health due to the stress-reducing value of greater leisure time spent near the sea' (my italics). It also concludes that more study is needed.

To be fair to the BBC and the Telegraph, the study doesn't always clearly distinguish between health benefits and a general sense of well-being. But it is certainly not the break-through study the headlines suggest.

The BBC had a related story in April, reporting that a study of 2,750 people presented to the British Psychological Society examined the effects of different types of outdoor environments on people. It found that in six different age groups the seaside was always identified as being a 'more positive experience' than inland parks or country walks.

So there does appear to be a small quality of life benefit to living by the sea, especially if you're poor, but there is still no clear evidence that it is healthier.

The answer to the study's title 'Does living by the coast improve health and wellbeing?' is 'health - maybe, wellbeing - probably' - which doesn't make for very good headlines. Living by the sea could be a kind of placebo.

Incidentally, nothing on earth would make me move to Weston-Super-Mare.

Monday, 25 June 2012

The Emotional Eating Kit

There's an ever-growing number of stories in the media about the rise of obesity and related diseases in the UK - hardly anyone can be unaware of the scale of the problem. For most people, this is a serious health issue. For others, it's a marketing opportunity. Bach Remedies have not been slow to milk the cash cow.

According to them, it's not what you eat, it's why you eat.

The Emotional Eating Kit contains 'three flower essences that can help with comfort eating and offer a helping hand with diet and healthy living regimes'. It is 'the first product available in the UK of its type to specifically help deal with the emotions linked to comfort eating'.

What are flower remedies?
Bach's remedies were invented in the 1930s by Dr Edward Bach (pronounced Batch), originally a medically-trained doctor.

He was guided to choose his remedies by his psychic connection to plants, then suspended them in spring water and let sunlight pass through them. There is no part of any plant in any remedy, just its vibrations.

His theory was that by correcting the body's vibrations with plant vibrations, the body would then be able to heal itself. There is no explanation on the web site of the physical mechanism by which the remedies operate, no attempt at science, no placebo-controlled, double-blinded, randomised testing reported in peer-reviewed papers. There is this:

'Each remedy is a correcting vibration for a state of mind or emotion that needs to be gently rebalanced. Since the body is a direct reflection of the mind, transforming negative vibrations into positive good vibrations allows the body to respond naturally with better health'.

In other words, it's a 'cure' based on an idea not dissimilar to a Beach Boys song.

You can read more about each of the 38 remedies here along with a whole welter of New Age nonsense.

This is not herbal medicine

Flower remedies are not the same as herbal medicine based on plants that contain chemicals that have tangible physical effects - and side-effects. There are no side-effects of the Bach remedies because:

'Bach Flower Remedies can be taken by anyone, safely and without fear of side effects, overdosing or addiction. Since flower remedies work on a higher vibrational frequency they will not interfere with other forms of treatment. No harm comes from choosing the wrong remedy as it will cancel itself out if not needed'.

The self-cancelling and lack of interaction with other treatments would be very useful for real medicine (and herbal medicine), but strangely, no research time and money have been given to these remarkable attributes.

Bach experimented with homeopathic remedies in the early days and this claim bears more than a passing resemblance to homeopathic claims, particularly because there is no active part of the plant used, just its vibrations.

In other words, they can't harm you because there's nothing in them. They can't interact with other treatments because there is nothing acting in the first place.

The Emotional Eating Kit

The three remedies in the Kit are Cherry Plum, Crab Apple and Chestnut Bud.

Cherry Plum 'When you fear you might lose control of your diet, Cherry Plum can help you to think and act rationally'.

Chestnut Bud 'When you find yourself repeating the same dieting mistakes, Chestnut Bud helps you gain knowledge from your experience'.

Crab Apple 'When you feel unclean or dislike something about yourself, Crab Apple helps you accept yourself and your imperfections'.

It's a tiny therapist in a bottle!

Just for good measure, the Kit also claims to help with detox, that magic word so beloved of advertisers. Sense about Science say that 'Detox has no meaning outside of the clinical treatment for drug addiction or poisoning' and there is much other evidence that 'detox' is just shorthand for 'a good way to separate people from their money'.

There's no point asking how these three plant vibrations work to alter brain chemistry and the complex physical/mental interactions involved in comfort eating or 'feeling unclean' (whatever that means). There are no rational answers.

Instead, ask if it really matters that people who are genuinely trying to change their eating habits are being gulled into buying them. Of course, the advertising uses the weasel words 'can help' so that if it doesn't, there's no come-back. And it won't.

There is no quick fix
There's nothing wrong with occasional comfort eating. If you're doing it so often that it's a problem, then it's going to take more than a few drops of Dr Bach's magic potion to fix it. If any one diet or dieting aid worked, then we would only need to use it once. The diet industry would be tiny, not a multi-billion pound industry.

Losing weight and keeping it off is hard. If it were easy, we'd all be skinny. It involves commitment to life-style changes, possibly with professional help. There is no quick fix.

Contributing factors to being overweight include lack of exercise, the easy availability of food, constant junk food advertising and the high levels of fat and sugar in many foods, even some we think are healthy.

High fructose corn syrup is in most junk foods; it has an effect on the brain that make us crave them without ever feeling full.

Comfort foods are comforting/rewarding because these were the foods that were in short supply when we were hunter-gatherers. If you craved them and felt good after eating them, you'd put more effort into finding them and be more likely to survive to pass on your comfort-eating genes. In other words, an evolved survival strategy has come back to bite us because our bodies haven't evolved as fast as our societies.

And that's before we even address the complex psychological reasons for overeating.

The placebo effect
If the Kit works, does it matter how it works?

A systematic review published in 2010 by Professor Edzard Ernst concluded: 'All placebo-controlled trials failed to demonstrate efficacy. It is concluded that the most reliable clinical trials do not show any differences between flower remedies and placebos'.

If you use one alternative product, there's a good chance you will use others too. You're not just buying a product, you're buying a whole way of thinking based on magic and faith.

Something that works by placebo, if at all, is a kind of gateway drug to heavier dependency and self-diagnosis of possibly serious conditions. You're more likely to ignore evidence and rely on anecdote (my gran's neighbour took it and felt lots better) not just in this area but in others too.

And that's if it works. Remember the get-out clause 'may help'?

A couple of weeks ago, a full-page advert for the Kit appeared in the Saturday Guardian magazine because the prime market for all things 'alternative' is middle class women.

But who knows, you may be the one person in the history of the universe who proves the entire body of scientific knowledge wrong. If you are the miraculous exception, you may well find yourself stuck full of probes, every bodily fluid and tissue dissected, analysed and written up in scientific journals. Bits of you will end up in specimen jars. A gene mutation may be named after you. Are you feeling lucky?

But, in the end, it's up to you. It's your life, your body and your money.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Dr Jesus in the dock

In May last year I wrote about Dr Richard Scott who was being investigated by the General Medical Council for aggressively preaching at a vulnerable patient. Scott practices at the Bethesda Medical Centre in Margate, which is run by six Christian GPs.

The GMC has now reached a verdict and the findings are published here.

Scott's lawyer, Paul Diamond, works for the Christian Legal Centre and is no stranger to cases like this. He said that 'a degree of deference should be given to an experienced GP who is embedded into the local community, particularly one who has a reputation for the care he provides to his patients.'

Scott didn't give any deference to a vulnerable patient, or his beliefs. Deferring to someone simply because they are a figure of authority is a demand generally made by dictators and Victorian patriarchs. The GMC agreed and said:

In deciding whether to issue a warning the Committee must apply the principle of proportionality and weigh the interests of the public with those of the practitioner.

In other words, there should be no deference if it's harmful to patients. The GMC is not anti-religion or anti-Christian. The findings stated that GMC guidance acknowledges the role of faith issues in medical care and the right of doctors to raise such matters within the consultation provided that it is done with the patient’s consent and with sensitivity and respect for any faith they might have...on this occasion your behaviour in presenting your faith to Patient A had exceeded the boundaries set out in the guidance and, to use his words, “had gone too far.”

Way too far. Scott was found guilty of saying that:

If Patient A did not turn towards Jesus and hand Jesus his suffering, then Patient A would suffer for the rest of his life.

His own religion could not offer him any protection and that no other religion in the world could offer Patient A what Jesus could offer him.

The devil haunts people who do not turn to Jesus and hand him their suffering.

You told Patient A that you were not offering him anything else because there is no other answer and that he will keep suffering until he is ready to hand his suffering to Jesus.

This is way beyond offering to pray with a patient or asking them if they would like to discuss their beliefs. Scott was once a missionary in Africa; his behaviour in the surgery suggests that he is of the fire and brimstone school, threatening and bullying people into accepting his faith, conjuring images of the devil to batter them into submission. So much for 'first do no harm'. What's more, so much for 'God is love'.

The GMC found that Scott's actions also contravened Paragraph 33 of Good Medical Practice: You must not express to your patients your personal beliefs including political, religious or moral beliefs, in ways that exploit their vulnerability or that are likely to cause them distress.

They warned Scott that Further serious or persistent failure to follow GMC guidance will put your registration at risk.

In other words, he could be struck off. But further action relies on further evidence that he is ignoring the ruling. This means that other patients would have to be brave enough to stand up against this figure of authority, know enough to take their complaint to the GMC and be strong enough to give evidence at a hearing. Not everyone may be capable of doing this either against Scott or other doctors who behave in the same way.

The Committee ruled that this warning be attached to Scott's registration:
During a consultation with a patient in August 2010 you expressed your religious beliefs in a way that distressed your patient. You subsequently confirmed, via National media, that you had sought to suggest your own faith had more to offer than that of the patient. In this way you sought to impose your own beliefs on your patient. You thereby caused the patient distress through insensitive expression of your religious beliefs.

The warning will stay on his registration for five years.

Scott called the hearing 'a charade'. This translates as 'I didn't get my own way' or 'How dare they enforce the rules that I agreed to abide by when I became a doctor?'. Possibly, he stamped his feet as well.

Entirely predictably, the Christian Medical Fellowship has responded with its usual wailing about 'the growing marginalisation of Christian professionals and the rise of militant secularism in Britain’s institutions.'

Christian Concern commented that “Our society seems to becoming more and more repressive, with ordinary, decent people being reported to the authorities and disciplined, not for committing any crime, but just for expressing their Christian beliefs.”

Ordinary, decent people do not bully and threaten the vulnerable, they do not abuse positions of authority and they do not expect special exemptions from rules or laws when it happens to suit them. Whether a practice run by six Christian GPs who advertise their faith on the practice web site is serving the whole community in which Scott is 'embedded' is another matter.

ETA: 18 June

Christine Odone writes her usual ill-informed propagandist response in the Telegraph. However, she does make a good point that the GMC 'allows doctors to promote the healing effects of homoeopathy, chiropractic and reiki, also known as palm healing — which are all unsupported by Western, evidence-based medicine but are backed by belief systems'.

Dr Scott would of course claim that there is plenty of evidence that faith heals and has also spoken in favour of homeopathy.

This doesn't mean the GMC ruling on Dr Scott was wrong but it does suggest that they are inconsistent in their approach and need to be more stringent about evidence-based medicine.

ETA: 20 June
There's an interesting take on the story and the alleged efficacy of prayer by Dr Robert Winston.

ETA 22 June

Dr Scott has now told Pulse magazine that he is not going to change his behaviour.

He said: ‘If anything it will make me even more determined to do it. I showed the GMC all the statistics that showed that spiritual care really helps people's health. Doing God is good for your health. That is the message we tried to get across to the GMC, which they abjectively (sic) failed to grasp.'

He also said: ‘We have evidence-based medicine and if doctors are not providing spiritual care they are actually harming patients.'

It appears that Dr Scott and the GMC have a different interpretation of 'evidence'. They also appear to have a different interpretation of what abiding by a code of practice means. Scott appears to be saying that all the generations of doctors who have been keeping their beliefs out of the surgery have in fact been doing harm to their patients. That's a pretty big accusation.

In addition to spending years learning how the body works and how to fix it when it goes wrong, medical students really should be learning how to preach the gospel. And if they're not Christian, they'd better convert pretty damn quick because believing in any other faith is tantamount to gross medical negligence. Atheist doctors are just criminals.

Scott also ignores the difference between having a faith and being bullied. Some people may derive a sense of well-being from their beliefs, and may avoid more harmful behaviours because of them. But being told that your god is inferior and that the devil is after you when you're already ill or in a vulnerable state is not likely to make you feel better.

Dr Scott also said that the GMC had downplayed the severity of the warning. ‘It's a drag, because if someone else complains to the GMC, then it's two yellow cards equals a red.'

Yes, it's a real drag when you're forced to obey the rules. Bummer, dude.

Scott may see himself as a martyr but his reaction is neither scientific nor humane, two of the main requirements of a doctor. It's just plain arrogance.

Niall Dickson, chief executive of the GMC, said: 'Our guidance is clear - doctors must not impose their own beliefs on their patients or cause them distress by inappropriately expressing their own views. This is not about religion, it is about respecting patients and making sure doctors do not use the incredibly privileged position they hold to push their own beliefs, however strongly held they may be.'

Watch this space.

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Skeptics Versus Religion

In Nick Cohen's Guardian review of Mark Henderson's book The Geek Manifesto, he suggests that skeptics are being cowardly in not taking on religion.

Is religion a legitimate skeptical target and if so, which aspects of it should we be tackling?

There are already certain aspects of belief that skeptics do take on. For example, the pseudo-scientific claims of creationism or Intelligent Design and its teaching in schools. In September, Alom Shaha will be talking about science versus religion in the classroom at London Skeptics. The 40 Days of Treats campaign was run by two skeptics, who took on religious opposition to abortion. Claims of faith healing are regularly reported to Advertising Standards; one of the more recent was HOTS Bath.

Skepticism promotes rationalism, evidence and scientific thinking. It's not about what or how much we know but about how we know it. If new evidence challenges established thinking, then that thinking changes. This isn't the U turn dreaded by politicians or proof of weakness in the methodology, it is the methodology.

There are skeptics who take on the basic tenets of religion but should this be the basis for a campaign or something we should do more of? I would suggest not. I advocate the generally secular position that beliefs should be a personal matter, that religion should have no special privilege in law-making, healthcare, equalities, education and so on. Beliefs matter less than actions. Yes, actions are founded on beliefs but that's where legislation comes in.

It's easy to find holes in the logic of any religion, flaws in the reasoning, contradictions and scientifically unverifiable claims. It's easy to point and laugh, sneer at and condemn people's genuinely-held beliefs. We need to acknowledge that none of us is as rational as we might like to think. Atheists are not more intelligent than believers and simply pointing out the flaws or evils in religion is not going to make it go away. We need to be humane as well as rational, understanding the many complex reasons people believe what they believe. There is a role for intelligent satire but for some skeptics ridiculing 'truth' claims is a sport that makes them feel good about themselves but what else does it achieve?

What might we want skeptical activism to achieve? One of the first rules of campaigning is to identify your goals.

Do we want an end to all religion? That's not going to happen. Fewer people believe and actively practice religion (in the West) than in the past, but that's not a trend that will carry it into oblivion, largely because of the way the human mind has evolved combined with social factors.

Do we want laws and professional bodies' best practice to be evidence-based and not give in to religious demands for special treatment? Do we want to raise awareness or influence policy-makers (or both)? Do we want to attempt huge campaigns (that may demand more resources than we can realistically provide) or do we want more grassroots activism, tackling individual claims and inequities? These questions all need to be addressed.

We already promote science and evidence-based thinking so that people have access to information about alternatives to belief and its effects should they want them. We do this on a small scale at our meetings and conferences. Brian Cox, Simon Singh and David Attenborough (who might not identify as a skeptic) have been making science programmes for years that have mass appeal, along with many others.

What other areas of religion should we then be tackling?

Should we be involved in clashes between religion and equalities, for example women's rights under sharia law? Should we be running a gay marriage campaign to counter the strong religious opposition or a campaign against the ever-growing number of state sponsored faith schools? There is clear evidence that the majority supports gay marriage and doesn't want more faith schools but is this the kind of evidence we need to take action on or are they purely secular matters?

The atheist bus campaign promoted scepticism about the existence of God but that was scepticism with a C, not with a K, and it was a humanist campaign. It has been suggested that every school should be sent a copy of Origin of Species in response to Gove sending the King James Bible but this would be an empty (and expensive) tit-for-tat gesture.

Secularism and skepticism are obviously not mutually exclusive but it's about the focus of activism, about branding.

One area where skeptics could do more is in the clash between religion and healthcare, where there are usually clear evidence, facts and research as opposed to religious propaganda, unsubstantiated claims and downright lies. The Christian Medical Fellowship and their like (including Nadine Dorries) write propaganda and lies about abortion, mental illness, contraception, doctors' right to proselytize in the surgery and conscientious objections. Add to this pharmacists demanding the right to refuse to sell the morning after pill, therapists claiming to cure homosexuality and medical students refusing to bare their arms to scrub up. And the Vatican (among others) consistently opposing stem cell research. I've written about all of these matters, in some cases more than once, if you want some background.

I suspect that part of the reason we haven't done much in some of these areas is that they cover so-called women's and gay issues and skepticism has historically been very much a heterosexual male domain. But this is changing, as the number of women now coming to Skeptics in the Pub meets and the 40 Days of Treats campaign run by skeptics Liz Lutgendorff and Carmen D'Cruz shows.

Two ways to take direct action are to write to MPs and ministers, and to respond to consultations. This may not seem like a very exciting or high-profile activity, but your MP should respond to your letter and they often assume that for every voter who writes, there are many others who agree, especially if it's a personal, individual letter rather than one obviously copied from an organisation's template. Consultations often inform legislation and best practice. For example, the Secular Medical Forum's recent response to a consultation on Personal Beliefs and Medical Practice, makes some good points.

And then there's good old fashioned talking - to family, friends, people in the pub, at school parents meetings and at work. Not haranguing, not lecturing, just talking. It's what Christians would call bearing witness.

I don't believe that skeptics avoid religion out of cowardice but we do need to think more about what we can do in this area, to define our targets and our responses to them. There is no single skeptic opinion on any one subject but many shades and variations, so I'm not hoping for a mass, homogenous uprising. I am hoping that Nick Cohen's comment and this response will open a debate.

Friday, 25 May 2012

20/20 Vision

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (formerly known as the Inquisition) have published a guide on how to tell if religious visions are genuine.

The guide was written in 1978 but they are publicizing it now because, they say ‘Today, more than in the past, news of these apparitions is diffused rapidly among the faithful thanks to the means of information (mass media)’. The Congregation is concerned that people will be mislead and that a cult could start around a false vision before they have chance to intervene.

Although they’ve embraced the modern world enough to publish this document online, the criteria in it are thoroughly antique. They note that ‘modern mentality and the requirements of critical scientific investigation render it more difficult, if not almost impossible, to achieve with the required speed the judgments that in the past concluded the investigation of such matters.’

In the past only a few people would initially know about an alleged sighting. The local priest would contact his bishop who would contact the Vatican who could take their time to decide if the apparition was real or not, everyone else would fall into line with the ruling and they’d get on with the important business of building a gift shop and making signs that said ‘Pilgrims please form an orderly queue here’. Or they'd burn the visionary as a heretic and that would be an end of it.

If they did decide the apparition was real, they’d send along someone to make sure that the message was correctly interpreted or kept secret – either because it was such garbled nonsense that no one could make head nor tail of it or so they could stage-manage what bit of propaganda they wanted the message to contain. The Three Secrets of Fatima are a good example.

But now there is pesky science and people who do not take the Vatican’s word without questioning, so they have to come up with a handy guide to ruling on holy manifestations to try and nip any false claims in the bud. They would also find it harder to ignore someone who claims to have seen Holy Mary if the vision was tweeted right round the world before they could intervene. And even harder to get away with burning them as a heretic.

They’ve established a set of positive and negative criteria to help distinguish if it really is the Virgin or one of the thousands of saints popping in for a visit, a deluded or criminal human act or perhaps the Evil One trying to mislead the faithful.

Does this check list include anything even vaguely scientific? It does not.

Positive criteria

Moral certitude, or at least great probability of the existence of the fact, acquired by means of a serious investigation.

This is the equivalent of ‘if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it must be a duck’. There is no indication of what a 'serious' investigation would entail. Even as a first-stage triage, this list is seriously wanting.

Personal qualities of the subject or of the subjects (in particular, psychological equilibrium, honesty and rectitude of moral life, sincerity and habitual docility towards Ecclesiastical Authority.

Is the person who had the vision a) a good upstanding Catholic b) sane and c) not a trouble maker.

Sanity is obviously a useful metric when someone claims to have visions – assuming that God never chooses to send one of his posse to visit the mentally ill.

He apparently also never sends a vision to anyone who does not lead a moral life (in the Catholic sense) so it would seem that He has changed his modus operandi since sending a vision to Saint Paul to make him change his ways. Presumably someone who thinks it's OK to give an abortion to a nine year old who has been raped would not be an acceptable witness.

Habitual docility means that the person never questions the Church and always does what their priest or the Pope tells them. Preferably someone too dim or poorly educated to understand Church doctrine in the first place, let alone question it. This may be why holy manifestations tended to be seen by peasants, children and nuns in the past.

Healthy devotion and abundant and constant spiritual fruit

If the vision leads to the faithful becoming more faithful, to doubters being converted and the power of the Catholic Church being extended, then it’s a good vision.

God would never send Mother Mary or a saint down to criticize the Church. That would be a false vision, obviously.

Negative criteria

Doctrinal errors attributed to God himself, or to the Blessed Virgin Mary, or to some saint in their manifestations, taking into account however the possibility that the subject might have added, even unconsciously, purely human elements or some error of the natural order to an authentic supernatural revelation.

If you wake up to find Mary at the foot of your bed or in a cave (she's fond of caves), ask her to explain exactly what the heresy of the Cathars was. Make sure you write it all down to rule out human error. Correct spelling and grammar will score extra points.

Evidence of a search for profit or gain strictly connected to the fact.

Tricky one. Even visions that are certified genuine by the Vatican lead to financial gain – mostly for the Church. But that’s probably OK. What they don’t want is some attention-seeker or shyster taking money from the credulous faithful by selling unauthorized merchandise.

Gravely immoral acts committed by the subject or his or her followers when the fact occurred or in connection with it.

Bit of a no-brainer, this one. Mary Magdelene appearing to a group of people telling them to have an orgy would be a bit of a give-away, especially if she provided them all with condoms.

Psychological disorder or psychopathic tendencies in the subject, that with certainty influenced on the presumed supernatural fact, or psychosis, collective hysteria or other things of this kind.

They've already covered this, the fact it appears again suggests that it's their get-out clause of choice for any vision they don't approve of or can't control. They know that these days saying the vision was caused by the devil wouldn't play as well as it did five hundred years ago so they co-opt science to do their dirty work for them. There are some who would argue that seeing visions is a symptom of mental illness.

It is of course, entirely unreasonable to expect the Vatican to have strict scientific criteria for testing divine visions. However, it’s not unreasonable to expect them to know a few basic facts about human psychology. They do mention human error but only in the context of doctrinal errors, not relating to the whole experience. They don't doubt that visions happen, only whether they are the right sort of visions.

For example, there is the unreliability of witness statements. It has been shown time and time again that even the best intentioned people consistently get it wrong. People also have a tendency to say what they think the tester wants to hear. It could be hard to distinguish between an over-zealous follower and a con artist who'd done their homework, for example.

The human mind sees intention and agency where there is only coincidence and patterns where there are none. Human perception is notoriously unreliable. Who hasn't seen the face of Jesus in a piece of toast?

How is collective hysteria defined? Presumably they mean a lot of people getting worked up about an unapproved apparition - if it's one they like, then bring on the mass pilgrimages with thousands of people 'seeing' the same thing (like Medjugorje) or queuing to be healed (like Lourdes).

People constantly think they see ghosts or other supernatural phenomena, which scientific research explain as having natural causes (eg weeping statues) or as artefacts of the way our minds work. Why should saintly visions be any different, unless the Vatican believes that God somehow helps them discern fact from fiction because they're in closer contact with him than the average punter.

This isn't about being more rigorous or scientific, it's not even about protecting the faithful, it's about control and protecting the brand. The invention of the printing press was bad enough but the twentieth and twenty first centuries have presented the Vatican with a series of increasingly tough challenges. Access to information and speed of communication are a threat to Vatican hegemony; this flawed and risible attempt to wrest back some control will do nothing to disarm that threat.

On the other hand, this could all be part of an elaborate advertising campaign. Think you saw the Virgin Mary? Should have gone to Specsavers.

Monday, 21 May 2012


Labour MP Keith Vaz has tabled an early day motion calling for more stringent government controls on violent video games. In the motion, he mentions Anders Breivik who shot and killed 69 people in Norway last year and who claimed to have prepared for the attack by playing Call of Duty.

In 2010, Vaz called for clearer rating of violent games after a shooting in Sweden when the game Counter-Strike was implicated and last year he tabled a motion about Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 and claimed similarities between game scenes set in the London Underground and terrorist bombings in 2005.

Martin Robbins has neatly demolished Vaz's so-called evidence in his Guardian article.

But Vaz isn't doing anything new. In earlier times, whenever something terrible happened, the devil or other supernatural malignancies were blamed. This lead to all sorts of consequences, from throwing salt over your left shoulder to burning 'witches'.

Some people still blame the devil and there are still exorcisms, sometimes of children, sometimes with fatal consequences. Those of us who consider ourselves more secular and enlightened now often blame technology for the evils of society. I wrote here about social networking destroying the fabric of society, causing a loss of empathy, the destruction of the English language and even suicide - and here about how the internet 'causes' depression.

What all of these accusations have in common is that they place the blame on something outside of ourselves, something Other. No normal human could possibly do something so terrible without some outside influence. We saw the same reasoning (for want of a better word) when the media was full of stories about satanic child abuse. We like our photos of Breivik to look sinister and evil.

We like to think that we are mostly well-behaved animals. We may rob a bank, lie to our nearest and dearest or even stab someone in a pub while watching football on TV. These are considered within the comprehensible parameters of human behaviour. But when there is a large-scale horror or something truly 'inhumane', then we look for an external agency.

Everything humans do is part of human nature, even the actions that revolt or frighten us. Human behaviour doesn't just cover the nobler acts, or even the criminal but understandable ones. If a human does it, it is a human act, not an inhuman or inhumane one.

Not everyone is capable of doing what Breivik did. The problem is that we don't know if we are or not, we fear there may be something lurking within us like a hidden cancer that might one day reveal itself. Some people do terrible things. They may be people we know or people we're related to. They may even be us. There will always be acts that apparently come out of nowhere, too close to home for comfort, that we can't neatly ascribe a cause to. This causes a kind of cognitive dissonance, so we displace our anxieties onto the Other, whether that is a supernatural malign influence or technology - which is something most of us don't really understand and many of us are anxious about even though it was invented by humans.

We also fear threats to our society (real or imagined), which is where some of the internet scares come from, as well as our responses to terrorist activities. We like things to stay comfortably the same but they never do so rather than accept that change is part of life, we blame something or someone for forcing it on us. That could be a change to our society or, just as frightening, a change in the way we think about what it means to be human.

When he blames Call of Duty, Vaz is no different from a Mediaeval peasant blaming the evil eye for making his crops fail. The evil eye could be warded off, games can be banned or heavily regulated, giving an illusion of control and understanding.

Blaming outside agencies or freaks of nature is comforting but we need to grow up and put the comfort blanket aside. If we do blame games for violent actions and suppress or heavily regulate them, then the next time there is an atrocity, we'll have to come up with some other cause, some other thumb-sucking excuse.

I wrote about other aspects of passing the buck onto 'evil' here.

Friday, 18 May 2012

Let's talk about sex, baby

To promote his new book How to think more about sex Alain de Botton took part in a live Q&A on the Guardian website.

I’m no porn evangelist. I’m well aware of the darker side both for people who make it and consumers. But de Botton is being far too paternalistic, simplistic and over-general both about porn and about sex. He makes too many assumptions both about porn users and people who work in porn. Even in the restrictive format of a Q&A, there are some serious flaws in his thinking.

The ultimate point of sex is to escape from an otherwise depressing loneliness to which we're all prone. 
What we call 'sexy' are those moments when we're accepted by someone else, leave behind the cold anonymity of the normal world and end up, for example, licking the inside of someone's mouth.

The ultimate point of sex is reproduction. Even leaving aside the biological/evolutionary motivation, the point of sex for most people is … to have sex. Because it’s fun, not as some sort of salvation or escape. Maybe occasionally, but not always, not ultimately. He may find the ‘normal world’ cold and anonymous, but most people have friends, family and other social networks. And what is the ‘normal’ world? That’s a very loaded term. Many of us would say that sex is a normal part of our world. As for ‘licking the inside of someone's mouth’ – he must be a rubbish snog.

We avoid sex not because it isn’t fun but because its pleasures erode our subsequent capacity to endure the strenuous demands which life places on us.

Who avoids sex for those reasons? He provides no evidence, even anecdotal, for any of his assertions. He’s verging on the moral preaching here – life is about earnest toil and struggle and any distraction from it is to be avoided. Most of us can manage to balance putting the bins out and having sex and we don’t neglect our children or our jobs for sex.

We shouldn't have to choose between being human and being sexual (the Ancient Greeks knew this very well).

The Greeks may not be the best role model, given their treatment of women as second class citizens. He doesn't make any distinction between male and female attitudes to porn or even touch on the serious issue of gender politics and porn/sex/sexuality.

Ideally, porn would excite our lust in contexts which also presented other, elevated sides of human nature – in which people were being witty, for instance, or showing kindness, or working hard or being clever – so that our sexual excitement could bleed into, and enhance our respect for these other elements of a good life.

Something like an episode of Frasier, perhaps. He gives no examples of how we might achieve this. He seems to be suggesting a porn scenario where a kind gentleman helps an old lady across the road on his way to do brain surgery on a small child, then some lovely lady or gentleman (or both) sees him, is inspired by his deeds and they have sex while making sparkling conversation about Proust.

Or perhaps a woman delivers a stirring speech at the UN about human rights and then gets her kit off backstage. Or has sex while making a stirring speech at the UN. And there would be kittens.

For BDSM fans, a domme disciplines a sub while reading from improving literature – something by Monsieur Alain, perhaps.

No longer would sexuality have to be lumped together with stupidity, brutishness, earnestness and exploitation; it could instead be harnessed to what is noblest in us.

Who is doing this apparently obligatory lumping? What is stupid sexuality?

He’s conflating porn and sexuality here, especially by mentioning exploitation, which is a serious flaw. It’s true that there is an exploitative element to some porn but he proposes no solution to that. Someone would still have to make his ideal porn. Or is he proposing that it is made by people with high moral ideals and exquisite good taste who want to inspire us to noble acts? Vicars, maybe? Or philosophers? What is noblest in us, anyway?

As currently constituted, pornography asks that we leave behind our ethics, our aesthetic sense and our intelligence when we contemplate it. Yet it is possible to conceive of a version of pornography which wouldn't force us to make such a stark choice between sex and virtue – a pornography in which sexual desire would be invited to support, rather than permitted to undermine, our higher values.

Do we 'contemplate' porn? His language throughout is prissy and even a bit snooty.

Has he never seen any porn that is aesthetically pleasing? He’s been looking at the wrong sort. And who is he to decide what other people consider aesthetic? How does he think our intelligence might be engaged by porn? Perhaps by having a pop-up with a crossword in it.

Sometimes all we want is down and dirty sex – does that make us bad or inferior people? He veering too close to telling us what is good sex and bad sex and not just setting himself up as a moral authority but also an intellectual and aesthetic judge. Besides, do we really care if the lighting lies like dawn on the hills of Umbria?

Does porn force us to make a choice between sex and virtue? Do we suppress our ‘higher values’ while we watch it or is it just another facet of our lives? Not everyone is deadened or brutalised by using it. He is making far too sweeping a generalization here, implying that the effect of porn is the same on everyone and that we are all at risk of becoming brutish beasts.

What are his higher values? Is it impossible to hold them while also being purely physical for a short time? There’s almost a duality being suggested here between our physical, sexual selves and our ‘better’ selves. Or, as some religious thinkers have put it, our low animal selves and our spiritual selves. The brutish self is to be suppressed or, if possible, destroyed.

Philosophies of sexual liberation appeal mostly to people who don't have anything too destructive or weird that that they wish to do once they have been liberated.

He doesn’t say what he considers destructive or weird but he is assuming too much – does he know what every campaigner or liberation philosopher thinks? It’s only when people feel liberated that they can explore their sexuality and discover what he may consider their weird side.

Pornography, like alcohol and drugs, weakens our ability to endure the kinds of suffering that are necessary for us to direct our lives properly.

He doesn’t appear to think that porn can be part of a balanced life and implies that it’s something we turn to as an escape or a distraction rather than engaging with our problems. Alcohol and drugs may be used as an escape but so may curling up on the sofa with a book and a pack of Jaffa cakes. We’re not children who need to be told how to run our lives, prevented from stuffing ourselves with sweeties rather than eating dull but healthy vegetables. He doesn't talk about weakening our moral fibre but he might as well have.

Some people use porn to enhance their relationships. Some people use it because they can’t have sex, for a whole range of reasons.

In particular, it reduces our capacity to tolerate those two ambiguous goods, anxiety and boredom. Furthermore, pornography weakens our tolerance for the kind of boredom which is vital to give our minds the space in which good ideas can emerge, the sort of creative boredom we experience in a bath or on a long train journey.

People are watching porn in the bath when they could be contemplating their existence? Thinking about life and watching porn, even a lot of porn, are not mutually exclusive. For all he knows, if someone isn’t watching porn they could be playing on their PS3. Why single out porn as a way of avoiding Big Issues?

It is at moments when we feel an irresistible desire to escape from ourselves that we can be sure that there is something important we need to bring to consciousness – and yet it is precisely at such pregnant moments that internet pornography has a habit of exerting its maddening pull, thereby helping us to destroy our future.

Yes, we really should be writing a symphony or a book telling other people how to live their lives to give ourselves a rich future.

His criticism of the easy availability of online porn is close to the wailings and warnings of other people that the internet is destroying our minds/children/civilization.

I would like to see porn that he approves of. He really should put his money where his mouth is and make some rather than just handing down moral imperatives from on high. Show us your money shot, Alain.

Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Always let your conscience be your guide? Part 4

The Christian Medical Fellowship is at it again. This time, it has gender reassignment surgery in its sights. And just like all the other times, its relationship with facts is non-monogamous.

Dr Peter Saunders of the CMF is claiming that doctors risk disciplinary action if they refuse to carry out gender reassignment surgery. He says this is yet another symptom of how Christian doctors are being marginalised and penalised for their beliefs.

However, the Royal College of Surgeons has confirmed that gender reassignment operations are not something a general surgeon would be expected to do. There are many different kinds of surgery involved and like other areas of specialist surgery they require training. A doctor who had objections wouldn’t elect to be trained in this area in the first place.

So where is the problem? Has Dr Saunders read the story of the boy who cried wolf?

Not surprisingly, the Mail has written Doctors 'forced to carry out sex-change ops' under rules meant to 'marginalise Christian medics'.

They got the story from Dr Saunders’ blog Christian Medical Comment where he claims that ‘Legislation and regulations are being used to marginalise Christian health professionals in Britain. British medicine in the 21st Century now involves practices which many doctors regard as unethical. A significant number of doctors do not wish to be involved in sex-change operations or prescribing contraceptives to unmarried couples.’

He gives no evidence for what this ‘significant number’ might be.

The CMF website says things like
God created each of us in his image, male and female, and he doesn't make mistakes… This issue has tremendous implications for society at large and the institution of marriage in particular… the doctor's duty in treating his/her patients is to restore people to what God originally intended … giving sex change treatment goes beyond this remit.
In his rant blog, Saunders refers to the General Medical Council’s current consultation on personal belief and medical practice, including conscientious objections. Draft guidance says
‘You may choose to opt out of providing a particular procedure because of your personal beliefs and values’ and adds ‘The exception to this is gender reassignment since this procedure is only sought by a particular group of patients (and cannot therefore be subject to a conscientious objection)’.
Gender reassignment surgery has been available on the NHS since 1999 and the Equality Act 2010 prohibits doctors from discriminating against people who are undergoing gender reassignment treatment. So this is not just something the GMC has come up with on a whim, it’s the law.

Although his blog mostly relates to surgery, Saunders also mentions GPs with religious objections who would not currently be allowed to opt out of referring a patient to a specialist or providing related treatments.

It appears that he has not read his own web site. For example, one doctor writes:
I would emphasise that I am no expert in this type of problem and would be happy to refer him to a psychologist to explore his request further.
This may be a fudge to avoid being accused of discrimination but it would ensure that the doctor’s beliefs would not affect the patient. It also means that Saunders does not even represent all CMF members or Christian doctors.

The GMC consultation closes on 13 June. The CMF’s response to the consultation is here.