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.