Friday, 20 December 2019

Nonsense on Stilts 2019

Blimey, it’s been a bugger of a year, hasn’t it? Here we are again with a roundup of the mad, the bad and the dangerous in health, diet, the supernatural and the plain daft.

To whet your appetite, here’s a clever and funny illustration of how 'improper correlation or extrapolation of data can result in dangerously flawed conclusions'. In other words, how to lie with numbers. Sound familiar? This data fandango is called Cigarette smoking: an underused tool in high-performance endurance training

Let’s ease in with a quick one.

Pink Himalayan sea salt ‘is a triumph of marketing over science and common sense… In fact, its vaunted “84 trace minerals and elements” include several poisons and many radioactive elements’. But it is pretty, like Barbie salt.

Back in the 2017 round-up we looked at Miracle Mineral Solution (MMS) claims to be a cure for autism among other things. And here it is back again. 

A British man who was part of the Global Healing Christian Mission was charged for carrying out illegal medical trials and touting industrial bleach as an MMS cure for HIV, malaria and cancer in Uganda.

And in America, Genesis II Church of Health and Healing promotes a miracle cure for 95% of all diseases. Yes, it’s our old friend industrial bleach, a chemical that cannot be sold for human consumption in the US. The Church is charging $450 or $800 per couple for membership and packages of sacraments. Which are packages of bleach. Very sacred.

The World Health Orginisation has added anti-vaxxers to global health threats along with air pollution and Ebola. Measles cases spiked in 2018 due to a ‘gaps in vaccination coverage’ according to the WHO, and diphtheria is making a comeback.At the end of 2019 the WHO reports serious outbreaks in 33countries worldwide while low trust in vaccines is a global crisis. Samoa has declared a state of emergency it’s that bad.

Meanwhile, middle class parents in the UK who think they know the meaning of ‘evidence’ are still not vaccinating their kids. If they eat enough kale, they’ll be fine.

As if not vaccinating children wasn’t enough, now the anti-vax dementia has spread to pets. “They are sentencing their dog to death from one of the most shocking, horrible viruses you can imagine,” says vet Sam Kovac. “If a disease as contagious, as horrific and with a high mortality rate as parvovirus existed for humans, this conversation would be so different.”

There is no such thing as autism in dogs. No such thing.

Is the third Monday in January the most depressing day of the year? No. Blue Monday is a MADE UP THING. This says it all: 'it's the result of a (...) formula thought up by a psychologist'. Thought up is a polite way of saying  HE MADE IT ALL UP. Mental health charity Mind commented: 'We think [it] is dangerously misleading'.

There’s always someone trying to sell us something to shove up our ladygardens. Now the Goddess Vaginal Detox Pearl will cleanse our wombs of our past sexual partners. Just shove the pearl made of herbs and supplements up your vagina and pray away the ex’s bad energy.  Yes, all you men, there is bad energy coming out of your manhood. You’re meant to leave it in for 24 hours. Can we all say Toxic Shock Syndrome?

It occurred to me that there is no equivalent male product to cleanse them of the vibes of evil ex-girlfriends. Then it occurred to me that there is. It's called beer.

Is your vagina a vegetable? No? Is it a lovely treacle pudding? No? Then don’t steam it. Vaginal steaming involves sitting over a hot water and herb mix to ‘cleanse’ it. Steaming and other treatments, including vulva facials, are now available at some salons and spas. And yes, Gwyneth Paltrow does recommend them. Dr Vanessa Mackay, a consultant and spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (aka someone who actually knows what she’s talking about), says it is a myth that the vagina requires extensive cleaning or treatment. What’s more, steaming has caused serious burns.

I was reluctant to Google vulva facials but on your behalf I boldly went.

Not surprisingly, “I do not recommend vajacials,” advises Dr. Millheiser, OB-GYN, professor at Stanford University Medical Center. “They are not medically necessary and women should not feel like they need to get them done… Most estheticians who perform vajacials are not trained in vulvar skin… Vajacials always leave you prone to infection, including STIs”.

Never let the truth get in the way of a good scare headline. A study of 300,000 adolescents and parents in the UK and USA shows that only 0.4% of wellbeing in adolescents is associated with technology use. Comparatively, eating potatoes has nearly as negative an effect, and wearing glasses has a more negative effect on adolescent mental health than screen use. And yet this story refuses to die, like a zombie of wrongness.

Is too much screen time bad for children generally, though? Shouldn’t they be outside bouncing a ball or skipping or throwing stones at squirrels or whatever children did in the olden days? Endless media reports say yes, the evidence says – ‘some research suggests that young people who report higher social media use show slightly lower levels of wellbeing, most of these findings are unreliable and their conclusions might amount to little more than statistical noise … results indicated that 99.6% of  the variability in adolescent girls’ satisfaction with life had nothing to do with how much they used social media’. So yes, it’s just another moral panic and the squirrels are safe.  BUT THE INTERNET IS EATING CHILDREN’S BRAINS.  Shh, now.

Of course, technology can very seriously damage your health if you spend your time on alt med sites. An oncologist’s experience of dealing with patients who ditch treatment for ‘alternative’ medicine:

‘But what I have learnt in the last few years is that cancer patients in search of alternative cures are more deeply entrenched than ever in their beliefs. Thanks to the rise of social media, the ability to filter out conflicting viewpoints and a bevy of supporters for every outrageous idea, these people arrive convinced about their theories. Arguing with them is a fool’s errand…. This is despite the fact that patients who solely choose alternative therapies have a greater than twofold risk of mortality, and those with early-stage cancers such as those of the breast and bowel face a four to sixfold increase in mortality compared with those who have standard therapy.’

Do dietary supplements and vitamins boost brain health? No they do not.

According to figures from the US, sales of so-called ‘memory supplements’ doubled between 2006 and 2015 to $643m. More than a quarter of adults over 50 in the US regularly take supplements in an attempt to keep their brain in good health.

But a global panel of experts says there is little evidence that these supplements help healthy older people, and that they could even pose a risk to health. “The big problem is that these things are being marketed to people as if they have evidence,” said Linda Clare, professor of clinical psychology of ageing and dementia at the University of Exeter.

Never mind, just skin up and chill out. Cannabis is turning out to have real medicinal benefits – but also a great potential for exploiting the gullible. Sellers in the UK are careful not to claim any specific medical benefits for their products because of a lack of clinical evidence. Products range from CBD water (sold in clear bottles that mean the sensitive compound swiftly degrades), to cooking or massage oils, pills, chewing gum, transdermal patches, pessaries (oh great, something else to shove up there), gin, beer and lube (I hate to think…). Lab tests analysed high-street offerings and found that more than half of the most popular CBD oils sold do not contain the level of CBD promised on the label.

A wellness company has withdrawn a £250 IV fertility drip after experts said it could "exploit vulnerable women". Get A Drip offers therapies including the slim drip, anti-ageing drip and mood-boost drip at places like Westfield shopping centre in London. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said there was "no evidence" its treatment could improve fertility.

Products start at £75 for ‘basic hydration’ - using a solution of salt, bicarbonate, potassium and calcium - and rise to £3,000 for a three-stage skin brightening therapy, which adds the antioxidant glutathione and a high dose of vitamin C. Katherine O'Brien, associate director of communications and campaigns at BPAS, said the fertility drip offered an unproven "quick fix at an extortionate cost".

 Even the Daily Mail has finally got on board with both vaccine promotion and the anti-homeopathy campaign. They quote NHS Chief Simon Stevens who ‘accuses practitioners of spreading toxic 'misinformation' about jabs, which poses 'a significant danger to human health'. He also wants the medical watchdog to de-list the Society of Homeopaths from its official register of professional organisations, saying the body's inclusion sends a message to patients that homeopathic remedies are as safe and effective as clinically-tested medicines.  And that is very probably the only time the DM will feature in one of these round-ups in a positive light.

The latest miracle cure-all is celery juice. For this we can thank the Medical Medium aka Anthony William who claims he communicates with the Spirit of Compassion to get ‘extraordinarily accurate health information that’s often far ahead of its time.’

He claims that celery juice reverses inflammation by starving pathogenic bacteria and viruses, and that it provides relief from cancer and diabetes. Also, (randomly) raspberries remove viral debris from the bloodstream.

 And yes, La Paltrow’s website Goop is promoting him. This is not just some minor passing fad. He has more than 2 million Instagram followers and another 3.4 million on Facebook. Although his site claims to ‘reveal truth about chronic illnesses you won't hear anywhere else’ it also says none of the information he provides should be considered ‘a promise of benefits, a claim of cures, a legal warranty or a guarantee of results to be achieved.’ The Spirit of Compassion clearly has a good spirit lawyer making sure it never says anything it could get sued for.

If you’re bored with your current diet, try the werewolf diet. Famous people do it so it must be good. 

ETA: A late entrant in the skeptic Parade of Shame. The steaming pile of dangerous bollix and supplement ads preying on the vulnerable and desperate that is the magazine What Doctors Don't Tell You has rebranded as Get Well. Its current front page is touting a cure for autism involving dietary change, a mercury detox and cranosacral therapy to balance the bones of the head. More red flags there than a communist rally. The National Autistic Society has commented that the claims are 'deeply irresponsible'.

The magazine is on sale in many supermarkets. If it's in yours, let them know how much harm it does - preferably on Twitter as they hate being publicly shamed. If they say it's 'customer choice' ask when they'll start stocking guns.


Uri Geller said he would stop Brexit using the power of his mind over Theresa May. I wrote this first in March and now here we are in December and still no result. 

But he has now claimed that he gave Boris a magic spoon that helped him win the election so it would seem he has switched sides on Brexit. Just when I was about to start taking him seriously …

In April he claimed on Twitter that he caused the burst pipes in the House of Commons that closed it down for the day: ‘Yes I did it @HouseofCommons! I bent the pipes, and I won't apologise, you all deserve it!’. So he’s confessing to vandalism and criminal damage, then?

Some research ‘finds’ that psychopaths like black coffee and other bitter tastes. What is this fascination with telling people they may be a psychopath? Or with telling everyone that you are? It could be quite a handy way for signposting if someone you’ve just met is a twat though. The police are hardly going to be rubbing their hands at this brilliant new way of solving crimes. Forcing suspects to drink black coffee or eat a radish isn’t going to make it into the training manuals any time soon.

Can regular oral sex help prevent miscarriage by boosting the immune system? According to research, ‘questionnaire results showed that the women who hadn't lost any pregnancies were performing more oral sex on their partners than average’. Correlation, as all good little skeptics know, does not equal causation.

The media of course love stories about sex, especially when they can use pictures of women on their knees servicing a man.

Anyone who has had a miscarriage can do without this cruel nonsense and all women can do without being told that their health and happiness depend on cocks.

There’s an excellent and thorough takedown of the ‘research’.

If you speak Italian, why not pop over to Rome and learn how to become an exorcist? The Catholic Church has opened its exorcism course up to all denominations. “Many young people display a certain attraction and interest toward themes tied to esotericism, magic, the occult, Satanism, witchcraft, vampirism and contact with a presumed supernatural world” apparently. Although if it’s just a ‘presumed’ supernatural world rather than a ‘real’ one, what’s the fuss about?

Does practice make perfect? Malcolm Gladwell became a cheerleader for the idea that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become brilliant at something but research has now proved this wrong because researchers ‘used unusual methods that inflated their chances of finding results deemed statistically significant’.

‘The deliberate practice view and the 10,000-hours rule fall prey to the single-cause fallacy: trying to explain complex human behaviour with a single source. Human skill is complex, and a number of factors, both environmental and genetic, and their interactions, contribute to explaining differences across individuals.’

There are two morals to this story, Firstly, that Gladwell got it wrong. Secondly, the man who came up with the 10,000 hour idea in the first place explained why Gladwell had got the wrong end of the stick back in 2012. From which we learn that so-called revolutionary, breakthrough research may not be. People have short memories. At best, this new research confirms and adds to what we already knew.

A hidden door sealed shut behind a fake wall in Nottingham's most haunted building was opened to reveal a five-pointed pentagram star made from charcoal, a grubby old teddy bear and a collection of white candles burnt to their stubs. "Since we've opened it, a few people have complained of having headaches. My daughter, who never gets headaches, got a really bad pressure behind her eyes," says Marie, who isn't bothered by skeptics or non-believers, according to the article. Good for her. Hail Satan.

For an excellent skeptical look at popular myths about history, you can’t get better than the Going Mediaeval blog. Lazy journos and others get taken to task with wit, swearing and great accuracy. So-called Renaissance art?There’s no such thing as the Dark Ages? Ghengis Khan? Plus lots of sex. 

In other news from the Middle Ages, Cardinal Newman has been made a saint. His two miracles were: ‘In 2000, Jack Sullivan, from Boston, Massachusetts, had just completed the second year of a four-year course to become a deacon when he was struck by crippling back pain. "I certainly needed a divine favour at that moment, so I prayed: 'Please Cardinal Newman help me to walk so that I can return to classes and be ordained'," said Mr Sullivan. When he woke the next morning, the pain had gone, allowing him to complete his third year of classes before the pain returned, on the final day of the academic year.’


‘In May 2013, expectant mother Melissa Villalobos was suffering from unstoppable internal bleeding that threatened the life of her child in the womb, according to the Birmingham Oratory. "In prayer she directly and explicitly invoked Newman's intercession to stop the bleeding," it said. "The miraculous healing was immediate, complete, and permanent."

I thought the Vatican was more cautious about declaring medical miracles now that it’s so easy to debunk the claims, especially anything relating to back pain. Who hasn’t had a bad back that clicked in for a while and then starting hurting again? But then, God does move in mysterious ways which apparently include just suspending pain rather than curing it – which seems a bit mean.

Further proof that psychics are bad for your health. A paranormal psychic blogger from Doncaster has been fined for careless driving after he was caught hosting online sessions while driving. Maybe his spirit guide had both hands on the wheel.

Here’s a ghost that turned up in Exeter.

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Thursday, 5 December 2019

Context Is Everything

It was one of those Hang on a minute moments.

Action for Safety sounds like a good idea, using celebrities to promote safer driving. The poster campaign features slogans about not driving while tired, looking out for pedestrians and so on. Celebrities include sports people and minor European royals.

The posters all state prominently that 3,500 people will die on the roads today. That’s 1,277,500 a year.

That seemed like a lot so I looked it up.

According to the latest government figures for the year ending June 2018, around 1770 people died on UK roads, about 4.85 a day. That’s quite a lot fewer.

Who is behind this campaign?

The organisation behind it is FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile), whose mission is ‘to bring coherent governance and safety to motor sport’. They also aim to ‘ensure that safe, affordable and clean systems of transport are available to all. The promotion of safe and sustainable forms of mobility has in turn led the FIA to commit to global sustainability initiatives and also to found its own major response to road safety concerns, FIA Action for Road Safety. This worldwide campaign, in support of the UN’s Decade of Action for Road Safety, aims to reduce fatalities on the roads by five million before 2020.’

All very honourable aims. But where do the stats come from? According to their fact sheet ‘Road crashes kill 1.3 million people every year’.

The source of this statistic is the World Health Organisation. Their site says that 1.25 million are estimated to have died in 2013 globally in road deaths.

So the FIA stats are not that far off. But the posters are very misleading, nowhere on them does it says these are global figures. They may be going for shock tactics to make people drive more carefully but is this a legitimate tactic? Is it ethical to be so misleading? It’s certainly unprofessional and amateurish.

If that was the UK figure it would be truly shocking but on a global scale is that significant? How does it compare with other causes of death?

According to the WHO, road injuries came eighth on the list of global killers in 2016, lagging a long way behind heart disease and stroke.

Three quarters of victims were men and boys, which would explain the prevalence of footballers and racing drivers on the posters as these are traditionally assumed to be male heroes and role models (but doesn’t explain why a princess of Monaco features…).

The distribution of deaths isn’t even globally either; some countries have much higher per capita rates than others. The worse death rates are in several African countries and Thailand. The UK has one of the lowest rates (and falling) while Monaco has the lowest of all (which might explain the princess on the poster).

That still makes them a pretty serious cause of death and a worthy campaign subject. But making the stats relevant for each country would make the campaign more relevant. Nearly five people a day every day is still too many.

The last part of the stated mission is 'This worldwide campaign, in support of the UN’s Decade of Action for Road Safety, aims to reduce fatalities on the roads by five million before 2020'. That's half a million out of 1.3 million a year for the decade of the campaign. Is that realistic in any way?

Although this is just a small example, it’s a useful skeptical reminder that without context statistics are meaningless. If even the good guys are misusing stats then it’s even harder to know who to trust, who to take seriously and who to dismiss. 

So yes, drive carefully and soberly and wide awake but keep the same attitude towards any stats you encounter along the way.

Wednesday, 13 November 2019

Modest Fashion - Don’t judge me in your Sister Wife dress.

First off, women should be able to wear whatever they want without male input or consequences.


So-called ‘modest fashion’ is not just a trend.

It’s a style that’s been around a little while that went viral over the summer with the Zara dress pictured above. My first thought when I saw it was that it looked pretty Amish but that’s just me.

One influencer says ‘"I feel like women are now dressing not to be sexy for men”. She’s being very optimistic/naive and also talking as if there is no history of women’s fashion.

What man would say this?: ‎"I feel confident and most importantly comfortable. I know no matter how much I ‎eat you'll never be able to see my food baby." Why would you want to hide a full belly? Who are you hiding it from? Men? – but women aren’t dressing for men now, I thought. Other women? Yay sisterhood. Not.

Back to the fashion history thing. A woman who runs a fashion agency dedicated to modest fashion says: "If we go back to Britain in about the 1950s ‎modest fashion was the norm. Everyone had longer hem lines and long sleeves”.

Nope. Fashion in the 1950s was about post-war austerity and came from a long tradition of women wearing longer skirts. It didn’t come out of nowhere. Mediaeval women were not prancing around in mini skirts and I don’t recall any Victorian boob tubes. The word ‘modest’ was not part of clothing vocabulary and fashion had strong elements of class and status signalling. There were plenty of sleeveless evening or summer dresses in the 1950s. Don’t just show someone wearing autumn/winter styles and extrapolate from that. Remember the iconic photo of Marilyn Monroe’s white dress blowing up over an air vent? That’s from 1955. Which is in the 50s.

What’s more, 50s underwear was uncomfortable and constricting, designed (by men) to create an hourglass figure (for men). See Marilyn, Jane Russell etc.

A quick debunk sidebar:
The Hemline Index suggests that when times are stable, hemlines get shorter (for example the 1960s) and when times are uncertain, they get longer (for example the 1970s) and there are more ‘comfort’ clothes. These are pretty uncertain times so it would follow that hemlines get longer – wouldn’t it? This may have been true in the past but fashion changes so fast now and is much more varied and accessible than it used to be so it’s much less of a reliable indicator. There is no one Look of the season. But it is true that when times are hard, we like to be comfortable and comforted. Sometimes. And other times we want to go out partying in something shiny and skimpy.

It’s not as if ‘non-modest’ clothes are uncomfortable and hard to move in, we’re not wearing corsets and crinolines. This is not some 1920s clothing revolution where women cast off the shackles of foundation garment hell.

There’s no mention of these larger clothes being better for larger women, that it’s a recognition of their needs. Nope. It’s skinny girls looking like they’re wearing big granny’s frocks.

There is an element of the fashion industry finally recognising that Muslim women have money and mainstreaming styles to cash in (the media is of course calling them Generation M). ASOS, H&M and M&S among others now sell ‘modest’ ranges. John Lewis says sales of midi dresses went up by 152% this year.

Fine, Muslim women who want to cover up now find it easier to shop and other women can get excited on social media about a new fashion trend without boring people like me raising the spectre of Cultural Appropriation.

But the language of ‘modesty’ and ‘hiding’ being parroted by non-Muslim women raises red flags of body shaming, fear of the male gaze and the implication that anyone not dressing like this is immodest and will face consequences. Yes, once again it’s women’s responsibility to cover themselves because men can’t be expected to control their urges and shouldn’t be distracted from doing important man things. While wearing whatever the hell they like.

The woman who said that women are no longer dressing to be sexy for men should remember that fashions come and go really quickly. Muslim women may continue to dress in a more covered way but the fashion world will count the money and move on - and the charity shops will be full of big shapeless clothes that no one wants any more. Women will still feel bad about their bodies and struggle with men’s behaviour. Freedom and comfort come from equal rights and equal treatment in a fair society. What's the dress to wear to get that?

Oh no, she’s gone all feminist-socialist over a bit of fashion. Here’s something from the modest 1950s to take the taste away.

Wednesday, 2 October 2019

Don't Do That, Old Man

This is what happened to me this afternoon:

Old Man in supermarket: You're a big girl. Tall girl.
Me: Don't be rude. Fuck off. Don't do that. Would you say that to a man?
Old Man: No because he'd knock me down.
Me: Then why say it to a woman?
Old Man: You're a bitch woman. A bitch and a slag.

(I walk away as it is - for some reason - unacceptable to punch old men.)

That’s the third time in a week an old man has accosted a woman about her appearance that I’ve experienced. The first time was an old man in a hospital outpatients department. She was a nurse, her job is to care for people so she had to put up with "You’re an attractive women. You’re a very attractive woman" and on and on.

The other time, a young woman came out of the Tube as I was walking by, stopped for just a moment to sort out her phone and an old man appeared as if out of nowhere “Are you a model? You look like a model” and so on (she didn’t, she was way too short). Was he lurking, waiting for a woman, any woman, or did he just see her and jump in?

Is it supposed to be cute that old men do this? Is it supposed to be a sign that there’s life in the old dog yet? Should we be flattered that someone old enough to be our dad or grandad wants to fuck us – because, let’s face it – that’s what men accosting women in the street really mean even if they’re too old to remember the last time and they have not one single viable sperm left.

Often when I get comments I just ignore them. Yes, I am very tall but I still wouldn’t feel safe challenging a man unless there were plenty of people around me, unless I thought I could run faster than him or unless he was really old and feeble.  Just because women don’t say anything doesn’t mean we like it, it just means we know it’s safer to walk away.

Do really old men suddenly get it in their heads to start talking to women about their bodies or have they been doing it all their lives – or at least wanting to and now think they can get away with it? This kind of male privilege and intrusive, abusive behaviour doesn’t come in the post with the pension book and bus pass.

I tweeted about the woman outside the Tube and some man replied that it was ‘just biology’ as if humans in general and men in particular are just a bundle of instincts that we can’t be expected to control, as if we have no choice at all. A bunch of women then piled on and he soon shut up.

Yes, these were three very small incidents but they happened in quick succession, they happen all the time. In some ways it’s no easier seeing it happen to someone else because you know your turn is coming.

So. Don’t. Just don’t. Not even if you're young. Not at any age. Do not talk about my body even if you think height is a neutral, non-sexual thing to talk about. It isn’t. Show some respect and listen to what we tell you. And what we tell you is: don’t.