28 June 2009

I Am Quite Extraordinarily Angry

Because I made the error of using the word 'homeopathy' on Twitter, I've received yet another follow from a random quack.

This particular person lists their website as a place for 'naturopathy'. In case you're unaware of what that is, I can sum it up relatively easily: take some fruits, vegetables, wheat grass and vitamin supplements, apply a complete misunderstanding of how the body assimilates and uses the goodness in these items, then open a website or clinic and charge people top dollar for what is, essentially, a lot of nonsense. With me? Good. Go and read Ben Goldacre's 'Bad Science' book - he has a lot more information on this stuff. And, in fairness, he's rather more charming, likeable and knowledgeable than I ever will be.

Clicking around on the tweets this quack has written, I came across this charming page.

I was in two minds as to whether or not I should reproduce what's written there, but decided to because of something that I thought it was important for people to see.

My mother is a case of stage IV throat (oropharynx) cancer and has completed 9 rounds of chemotherapy and 40 rounds of radiotherpy? She is unable to eat anything due to the side effects of radio therapy and of course the cancer present in the oropharynx part. Is there someone who has undergone similar cancer treatment through alternative medication? Any answers will be highly appreciated?? My e-mail ID is *********************. Please help.
This person is, obviously, going through absolute hell at the moment and I genuinely feel sorry for them. But, I'm afraid to say, alternative medicine is not the way to beat cancer.

What really angered me, however, was one of the comments left underneath.

Apricot seeds and b17 saved my fathers life. Dx in January with stage 4 stomach cancer to the liver,my dad was not given much hope. Five months later after 1 bag of apricot seeds and 2 bottles of b17 my dad is cancer free. The doctors are stunned, they dont know what to say. The stomach and liver are totally clean.
Wow. That's absolutely amazing. By the simple consumption of apricot seeds and vitamins, someone actually cured their cancer. No other medical intervention took place, merely this simple and cost-effective programme. I take it all back - alternative medicine works and...oh...wait, there's another part...

He did have 5 treatments of chemo each 3 weeks apart but I dont credit the chemo at all.
Can anyone else see the problem here?

I have no further comment to make other than to simply say I am absolutely fucking livid.

Atheism - The New Religion?

I'm going to describe someone to you. This particular person is a chimera, an amalgam, described for illustrative purposes only.

1) This person strongly believes in a certain philosophical and spiritual position.
They have amassed evidence, in accordance with their accepted criteria, to support this position.
2) Opinions that agree with their position are quickly assimilated and used as further evidence, whilst opinions that do the opposite are disregarded, usually in a demeaning and derogatory way.
3) Although they have one main book which describes their position and is often quoted to support their view, there are other texts that they will read, assimilate and occasionally quote from.
4) They participate heavily in on-line fora, message-boards and discussion groups to hone the details of their chosen position, sharing their 'success stories' and gaining satisfaction from reading the experiences of others.
5) They will meet regularly with others who have the same position, although they may well have very little in common with them besides that.

Ladies and Gentlemen, (and some of you will be way ahead of me here, if for no other reason than the obvious title) I present to you, an Atheist.

Obviously, this does not describe every atheist, merely a new, increasingly visible variety of atheist who is becoming incredibly prolific. To provide appropriate context, let me explain that I am an atheist and actually fall into 3 of the behavioural categories shown above, so am not exempt from the observations I'm about to make.

Over the last couple of years, we've witnessed what would appear to be an incredible growth in the Atheism industry. Those in the religion business would call it a 'revival' and it seems like a reasonable term to use.

Atheist websites sprout at an exponential rate, many books have been published and, in the churning ocean of the Internet, there is usually a new atheist campaign being launched somewhere in the world.

These are not necessarily bad things. It's obvious that religion causes many problems in the world. Some would argue it's not the religion itself but man's interpretation of it for his own nefarious and questionable ends that causes the problem. I would respectfully disagree with that opinion. Religion is man-made, usually designed as a control system, and bases itself on the classic "We're right, they're wrong, and we shall defend our God with violence if necessary" method. Witness the murder of abortionists, or the proliferation of suicide bombers if you disbelieve me. When you study religious texts, you will usually find that the more violent and despicable passages are very clear in their instructions. Those who water them down to create a more palatable product are deluding themselves in more ways than one.

So, the explosion of atheism is opening peoples eyes to the inconsistencies and potential dangers of religion. This is good.

Lone atheists who found themselves unable to adequately vocalise their position can now find supporting arguments that help them to understand and clarify why they believe what they believe. This is also good.

Laws and statutes which seek to blur the lines between church and state are being challenged. This is undeniably positive.

But the growing on-line communities and weekly meetings that some atheists participate in are providing something else entirely. What was initially a meeting of minds is becoming a movement; a belief system in its own right with leaders, rules, 'sacred texts' and symbols.

(Yes, I cherry-picked a number of links there, some of them admittedly rather shaky, to make my point. Mea culpa.)

G.K. Chesterton stated, "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing — they believe in anything". I think there's some truth in those words (particularly when you examine the number of people who believe in alternative medicine, astrology, psychics and other demonstrable nonsense) in that, without religion, some people feel there is a gap in their life that needs to be filled.

Many years ago, as a teenager, I attended church for a brief period (some teenagers drink, some do drugs, I rebelled by going to church. Yes, yes, I know...) I never truly believed in god, but was happy to wallow in the illusion because of the wonderful sense of camaraderie and, dare I say it, superiority. "Look at us, we've seen through all the lies and deceit! We know the truth! We are cleverer than you!"

There is something deeply attractive about being a light-bearer, of being part of something important and vital. The thrill of knowing 'the truth', no matter what you perceive it to be, is a heady brew indeed.

Some Christians have already accused atheism of being a religion and I would suggest they are in a very good position to offer that observation. They recognise the signs and, in all honesty, I have to say that I'm starting to agree with their theory, although it makes me feel very uncomfortable indeed.

I just hope that, in their semi-religious fervour, militant atheists (I loathe that phrase but it feels strangely appropriate in this context) come to a realisation that they are in real danger of turning what should be an empowering, positive world-view into nothing more than just another system of belief.

27 June 2009

Wensleydale and Salmon

Being at a loose end last night, I decided to write a short story. Not my preferred medium (in fact I can't remember the last time I wrote anything in the short story form) but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I'll go out on a limb and say it has a flavour of Tales Of The Unexpected about it.

Anyway, in lieu of actually doing anything useful with it, I thought I'd make it available to read here, just in case anyone's interested.

Have a look, have a read, and let me know what you think.

Oh, one final thing - I'm hopeless with titles. If you can think of a better one, suggest away.


Wensleydale and Salmon

‘Reaching into his pocket, Aloysius Pendlebury removed his worn briar and tapped it on the inside of the fireplace, dislodging the compacted ash which drifted onto the broiling flames like a fine, grey snowfall. Taking his embroidered Moroccan tobacco pouch from another pocket, he pinched a clump of Black Mallory between his fingers and started to prepare a pipe to aid his cogitation of this particularly gruesome case.

“If we may,” he continued, replacing the smoking ephemera in his pockets, lighting the pipe with a long match and taking a slow, satisfying draw of the smooth, heady smoke, “let us examine the evidence once more; a small but deadly amount of cyanide was present in the remains of the victim; a suicide note was found in his left hand trouser pocket, written on a typewriter with a fifteen degree slant on the ‘F’, identical to that in the bedroom of Mrs. Willowbark; and, last but by no means least, he suffered a hideous death in the jaws of that mighty predator Carcharodon carcharias, The Great White Shark.”

Pendlebury took another draw of his briar, savouring the aroma.

“It would appear, to all intents and purposes, that Lorenzo Cacciatore went to Mrs. Willowbark’s bedroom to confront her about his uncle’s estate. Inside the room, he found his dead father’s diary, which contained a terrible secret – Lorenzo Cacciatore was actually the bastard son of Ms. Emilia Petri, the very woman with whom he had been conducting an illicit affair these past six months. Enraged and humiliated, he decided in his consuming oedipal grief to take his own life, writing the note, swallowing poison and, for good measure, throwing himself into Lord Fitcher’s exotic aquarium.”

Inspector Crabbe stared blankly at Pendlebury for several moments, opening and closing his mouth in a pantomime of shock. “Good Lord,” he said at last, “that’s astounding Pendlebury! So it wasn’t murder at all!”

Pendlebury smiled modestly and looked down, carefully picking a shred of tobacco from the lapel of his worsted suit.

“Well, Inspector, that’s what the murderer would like us to think. Isn’t that right, Mr….”’


George Wensleydale jumped, knocked over his cup of tea and dropped ‘The Jaws of Death: An Aloysius Pendlebury Mystery’ into the spreading puddle of Earl Grey on the concrete floor of his balcony.

Muttering and cursing, he leapt to his feet and grabbed the soggy book by its creased spine. Scurrying inside, he entered the bathroom at speed and quickly wrapped the well-read paperback in a large, fluffy towel, pressing down on the dampness before it permeated the paper too deeply.

Every time he sat outside reading, enjoying the sunshine and trying to get a little peace and quiet, a few moments of solitude from the constant barrage of idiotic babble that assailed his tired ears, that awful, boorish woman from next door would insist on trying to call her cat indoors. Waddling outside in a pink dressing-gown, her yellowing feet rammed into a pair of grubby carpet slippers, she would shuffle up and down the garden path calling the cat’s name:






Wensleydale sucked air through gritted teeth as he continued to pat the book with the towel. Even the mere thought of that cake-snuffling dullard and her red, bloated face filled him with unspeakable anger. Those beady eyes, like a pig’s, buried deep within the folds of her saggy eye-bags; that squashed, swollen nose, exploding with burst capillaries from her regular mid-afternoon gin-swilling sessions; that thick-lipped, slavering mouth, dusted with icing sugar, flakes of pastry nestling at the down-turned corners. It was fair to say, that he hated nobody in the world as much as that unpleasant, crapulent old hag.

Lifting the towel, he looked carefully at the pages of his book. Discoloured and damp, they clung together like wet leaves. He tried carefully peeling one of the pages from its brother and, silently, the paper tore straight across and came away in his hand.

“For God’s sake!” thundered Wensleydale, veins throbbing at his temples, eyes extruding from his skull; apoplectic with rage, incandescent with fury.

He flung the book across the bathroom where it hit a bottle of aftershave which teetered precariously on the edge of the glass shelf, seemingly considering its options for a few brief seconds before giving itself up to gravity and leaping into the sink to explode in a shower of glass and musk.

Wensleydale remained absolutely still for several long seconds then stalked out of the bathroom with the slow, methodical step of a man on the verge of murder, weeping, or murder whilst weeping.

Moving into the kitchen, he opened the refrigerator and placed his head inside, resting it against a plastic bottle of milk, feeling his racing blood slowly cool.

He had endured this torture for three years. Every summer, when the weather became pleasant enough for reading al fresco, he would repair to the balcony and immerse himself in a world of literary delicacies.

Sometimes, he would crave the gustatory pleasure of the Russian classics – a rich serving of Dostoevsky or the satisfying delicacy of Tolstoy. At other times, he hungered for the earthy comfort of Joyce, or the pleasing mastication of a slab of Chandler, dripping with idiosyncratic juices.

But, of course, his favourite repast was the Aloysius Pendlebury novels.

To him, they were a banquet for all the senses, like a sliver of finest stilton melting on the tongue, creamy and cloying, washed down with a sluice of sweet ruby port. An afternoon with the razor-sharp mind of that great detective was something to be savoured, even wallowed in. It was most definitely not something to be interrupted by the piercing whining of a greasy-fingered, snaggle-toothed old harridan like that beast next door.

But, interrupt she did. Every single day. Padding into the garden, she would blunder about, stooping at rosebushes, peering over the fence, leering at tree-branches, all the time repeating her mantra in that incomprehensibly irritating voice of hers, impossibly both shrill yet nasal at the same time:






And Wensleydale didn’t even have the respite of brevity, oh no. She would call the cat’s name again and again, at exactly the same pitch, in exactly the same tone, sometimes for up to fifteen minutes. Like a sadistic form of auditory water torture, she would pick away, syllable by syllable, at Wensleydale’s sanity.

Oh how I’d love to take that cat by the scruff of the neck and ram it down her fat throat, he thought. To see her, wide-eyed, aghast, as the mangy ginger tom struggled and scratched at her puffy cheeks, the sound of her stifled shrieking drowned by several pounds of writhing fur and a cacophony of frantic mewing…

A cackle slipped out and echoed around the interior of the refrigerator, jolting Wensleydale upright for a second. Consumed with loathing, he had closed his eyes and descended into bitter reverie, quite forgetting that his face was pressed up against a bottle of semi-skimmed.

Removing himself from the fridge, he closed the door and his eyes alighted on a selection of kitchen knives, mounted in a regimented row on a magnetic strip affixed to the wall.

He couldn’t kill her; that would be ridiculous. No matter how maddening she may be nor, conversely, how peaceful a few years in the relative sanctity of a prison might seem in comparison to this hellishness, he was certainly no murderer. No, that wasn’t the answer. He needed to do something else, something which would put paid to this ridiculous situation once and for all.

* * *

The actual technicalities of killing a cat are far more complex than one would initially consider.

Quite apart from the fact that cats are notoriously free-willed animals, unlikely to follow instructions, they are also phenomenally mistrustful of people, not to mention quick at making their getaway should danger present itself.

Wensleydale spent the better part of a week, at least seven hours per day, crouched in the corner of his balcony with a carving knife in one hand, staring intently at an open can of tuna on the table. Apart from a bout of extraordinarily painful muscle spasms on the Tuesday morning, his stakeout had been otherwise uneventful.

Undeterred, he had persevered with morbid determination until, at a little after 3 on a glorious Friday afternoon, Bobby the cat made his appearance on the balcony, leaping straight onto the table and burying his face in the tuna.

Startled after his long period of inactivity, Wensleydale flinched, dropped the knife and, by the time he had recovered, heart beating like a pursued rabbit, Bobby the cat had long since fled to the safety of an overgrown hibiscus.

Clearly, a new plan was required.

Pacing the kitchen, Wensleydale felt his stomach contract and realised that he hadn’t eaten since the previous evening. He wandered over to the refrigerator and looked inside, peering at the meagre contents. His week-long vigil meant that domestic chores had been put on hold, including his weekly shopping trip to the supermarket.

He also noted, as the reek of body odour reached his nose, that he hadn’t showered in three days and should probably do something about it. For now, however, he would concentrate on getting some food inside himself.

With only limited options, he plucked a packet of ham and a slightly wrinkled tomato from the fridge and set about making a sandwich.

As he peeled back the plastic, the sour smell of rancid meat reached his nostrils and he instinctively shied away, grimacing. Although he wasn’t averse to eating the occasional piece of gamey steak, he drew the line at pork or poultry products that had outstayed their welcome, particularly when he remembered the painful and violent bout of diarrhoea that he’d experienced last April after eating a sandwich made with slightly green bacon.

The last thing I want is food poisoning, he thought.

Five minutes later, maniacal with glee, Wensleydale sat cross-legged on the kitchen floor, surrounded by dusters, refuse sacks and washing-up sponges as he searched the cupboard under the sink looking for his stock of rodent poison…

* * *

“This is it!” he giggled. “The deed is done, the die is cast. I come first and you come last!”

Clasping his hands together, he peered intently through the net curtains at his balcony and watched with mounting excitement as Bobby the cat, that witches familiar, that furry little bastard, greedily ploughed through a tin of red salmon laced with crushed rat poison.

The blue dye of the poison had given the salmon a curious purple colour, but Bobby, eager to force more sustenance into his round, ginger belly, voraciously consumed the fish with gusto, less concerned with its appearance than with his delight at getting a free meal.

Licking the can clean, Bobby stood back, satisfied yet disappointed and, with a nonchalant flick of his tail, turned around and disappeared over the side of the balcony.

Wensleydale grinned widely, unkempt hair sprouting from behind his ears in greasy cowlicks. Sniffing, he wiped his nose with the sleeve of his grubby shirt, the material rasping against the stubble on his jaw.

Soon. Oh yes, soon.

* * *

By Sunday lunchtime, the cat was dead.

Wensleydale sat on the balcony, dressed in the same clothes, arms wrapped around his body, observing the garden below.

Four hours earlier, he’d seen the wretched animal slowly crawling along the path then disappearing into a gap between two rhododendrons. It hadn’t moved since.

He rocked backwards and forwards in his chair, anticipating the moment that his odious neighbour would come out, calling pathetically for her little bundle of fluffy joy, only to find it stiff as a board in a quiet corner of the garden.

Perhaps, distraught, insane with grief, she would collapse right there in the garden, her cholesterol-choked heart finally succumbing to the years of abuse she had waged upon it. Imagine that! Her and that bloody cat, side by side, legs in the air, dead as dodo’s.

Wensleydale bit his hand and chortled into the flesh, scratching at his flaking scalp with the unclipped fingernails of his other hand.

* * *

His neighbour didn’t find her cat. She called for him (oh Lord did she call for him) but he didn’t appear. Her plaintive cries grew weaker and weaker as, over the course of ten days, she lost hope of seeing her little Bobby again.

Wensleydale hid in his bedroom, curled up next to the wardrobe, listening to her through the window, occasionally reaching up to tentatively finger one of the spots that had developed on his neck from an accumulation of grime.

He’d go back outside in a day or two. As soon as she gave up calling and he could be assured of peace and quiet. Just a few more days.

* * *

It had been a beautiful summer’s afternoon.

Wensleydale sat on his balcony, washed, shaved and dressed in a crisp white shirt and cream linen trousers, a steaming cup of Earl Grey at his elbow. In his hands he held a brand new paperback copy of ‘The Jaws of Death’.

His peace had remained undisturbed, save for the gentle droning passage of the occasional fat bumblebee, and the urgent chirruping of the birds.

For a brief moment, he thought he’d seen movement in the shadows of his neighbour’s garden, a brief feeling of being watched, but he’d chuckled and resumed reading, and the moment passed.

Aloysius Pendlebury, as in all his novels, had just filled his briar with Black Mallory in preparation for a soothing smoke, a delightful leitmotif which signified he was about to reveal the identity of the murderer.

Wensleydale smiled, almost wriggling with anticipation as he read on.

The smile faded from his lips as he saw his monstrous neighbour walk into her garden, faded dressing-gown wrapped tightly about her corpulent frame, beetroot-face shiny with grease from some fried mid-afternoon snack.

She moved heavily up the path towards the rear of her garden, slippers slapping against her cracked heels as she trundled forwards like some organic form of earth-moving machinery draped in towelling.

It was at that moment, Wensleydale saw it.

In the branches of a tree, hidden from the view of the malodorous harpy standing on the path, lazily basking in the sun, was a young black cat with a small white star on its forehead.

The woman started to call.

“Priiiinceeeesssss Caaaaliiiiicaaaaalpuuuuuurniiiiaaaaaa!”


“Priiiinceeeesssss Caaaaliiiiicaaaaalpuuuuuurniiiiaaaaaa!”


“Priiiinceeeesssss Caaaaliiiiicaaaaalpuuuuuurniiiiaaaaaa!”

Wensleydale regarded the cat.

The cat regarded Wensleydale.

For a brief, impossible moment, he was certain the cat smiled at him as it lay in the crook of the tree branch, unmoving.

Wensleydale slowly placed his book face-down onto the table and walked into his house.

A few minutes later, he returned with a glass of water and a sandwich, sitting down and carefully draping a napkin over his lap.

As his neighbour continued to call, her penetrating voice echoing across the garden, slicing through the summer, repeating the same words again and again and again, George Wensleydale calmly ate his sandwich, pausing only to wipe away a fleck of purple salmon from the collar of his shirt.

23 June 2009

An experiment in homeopathy

I'm going to cut down on these homeopathy posts soon, I promise.

This blog is intended to be an opportunity for me to vomit my mind-goo into the ether and see if anyone nom's the chunks. This torrent of head-sick should, by rights, cover a variety of topics but, of late, seems to have concentrated heavily on alternative therapies.

Indeed, earlier today I considered discontinuing my alternative therapy posts as there are already many excellent bloggers and webmasters out there doing sterling work of a much higher quality than my own cobbled-together, poorly constructed contributions.

However, after serious thought I decided that if a single post I write causes someone to re-evaluate their belief in alternative medicine, then it's been a valuable exercise.

For now, here's a link to the blog of a lovely lady known as Ziztur. Recently, in a bid to show that homeopathic pills contain little more than starch and dreams, she swallowed an entire bottle of homeopathic sleeping tablets and videoed herself doing it. James Randi has carried out the same experiment when giving lectures, tossing back a whole bottle of sleeping pills and then going on to speak for a couple of hours with no ill after-effects.

I'm both impressed and annoyed, for one reason: I've long wanted to do the same thing myself. In fact, it struck me as being rather a superb idea to have a mass suicide attempt at a famous London landmark wherein a few hundred people gather together and eat a bottle of homeopathic sleeping tablets each. I envisaged camera crews, journalists and a lot of publicity. Sadly, this never happened for two reasons: 1) I felt it might be in poor taste to publicise the thing as a mass suicide, and 2) I'm far too lazy to actually achieve anything in my life, ever.

So, in lieu of me actually getting off my arse and doing something for once, check out Ziztur's blog.

You can also follow her on Twitter. Her name, unsurprisingly is @Ziztur

22 June 2009

Homeopathy - A small update

See here for background information.

I received a new tweet yesterday from @jadetaylor38 saying:

@Rablenkov I cannot if I abide by dictation, although the stat use has missed my points.

Unfortunately, I couldn't really make any sense of what she was saying.

Is she suggesting that I've dictated the terms of the evidence she can provide? Surely not? Indeed, she herself happily suggested a meta-analysis that she confidently predicted was supportive of her cause. Here's a summary of the time-line:

1) I ask her if she can point me in the direction of a blinded, randomised trial that showed efficacy of homeopathy.
2) She quoted the 1997 Linde meta-analysis as proof.
3) I pointed her to the 1999 clarification, also published by Linde, which states "The evidence of bias weakens the findings of our original meta-analysis." and "The fact that a number of the new high-quality trials have negative results...seem to confirm the finding that more rigorous trials have less-promising results."
4) She now completely ignores that study and makes a confusing statement about...well, I'm not entirely sure what her statement is about.

I find it disingenuous for her to happily quote the 1997 Linde Meta-analysis as proof that homeopathy works but, when it's pointed out to her that the authors later quantified their initial findings thus removing the implied support, she now decides that the study was somehow flawed. "This great study proves my point completely! Wait, they changed their mind on the basis of further examination? Oh, well it was a crap study anyway. You can't measure these things, you know."

I did send the following response:
@jadetaylor38 I'm not sure what point you're making. Can you elaborate, please?

No response has been received yet.

Interestingly, another of her tweets says, "I am year one student at British school of homeopathy on bath UK. I am honoured to be amongst great minds outside of the brackets."

When she first instigated this conversation with me via Twitter (please remember that - she instigated it, not me. I usually have better things to do than personally attack specific people on Twitter) I assumed she was just someone who'd had a small measure of exposure to homeopathy and was seeking to defend it from a position of relatively little knowledge.

Instead, this latest information casts an entirely different light on the matter. According to the BSH website, their fee for the first academic year is £2350. This entails 22 days of lectures over the year, with 15-20 hours per week of home study. The course takes 4 years to complete. Assuming that the cost of the course is £2350 for every subsequent year (the website is unclear on this), and allowing for additional miscellaneous costs, we'll put forward an extremely conservative estimate of £10,000.

Additionally, with 20 hours of home-study per week over four years, there is a potential time-investment of over 4000 hours, likely to be significantly higher.

Clearly, this lady has bought into homeopathy in a very big way and, due to the sheer size of her financial/resource investment, is unlikely to want to take a step backwards and look at the matter from a rational, science-based viewpoint.

If nothing else, this whole matter is an interesting look at human psychology. When someone puts so much effort into something, bias is inevitably skewed and, irrespective of evidence produced to the contrary, they will often stick to their guns to the bitter end, defending it with terminal intensity.

Part of me feels sorry for her that she's so willing to throw away common-sense, evidence and cold, hard cash in pursuit of something which simply doesn't work as advertised. Part of me also recognises that, once she is successful and presumably becomes a full-time homeopath, there will be plenty of people willing to give her money hand-over-fist for a bottle of sugar pills and magic. Thus, will she recoup her initial investment, from people who are willing to believe anything if it's wrapped up in enough psychobabble.

I shall continue with the conversation (and I remind you again, it was she who initiated it with me, unbidden) but I don't expect her to engage in a logical manner. She has far too much invested in her belief to abandon it so easily.

Indeed, and to be magnanimous for a moment, who's to say that we wouldn't react the same way under similar circumstances?

17 June 2009

Oh Christ, not homeopathy again...

Now, back in early May I made the following post on Twitter:

I am livid about this story. 9-month old girl dies because her parents used homeopathy instead of real medicine. http://sn.im/hcs17
A little later, I received the following unbidden message:

@Rablenkov could direct your anger to some horrific figures re seroxat being unleshed on the public... and more re allopathic negligence. Empiricism in medicine is wrong .
Now, what this lady doesn't know is that I have more direct experience of Seroxat than she could imagine. Back in 2000, I was prescribed it for a prolonged period of depression (the worst time of my life, but of no relevance to this post).

Seroxat, a brand-name for Paroxetine, has been claimed to result in suicidal tendencies in some patients. There are other claimed side-effects which you can read about via the Wikipedia article here.

Personally, I found that the drug did help me, but I suffered from nausea and quite bad mood swings. After one particular incident in which I suddenly snapped and threw a fork at my girlfriend of the time (missed her completely, hit the boiler and she laughed herself silly) I suddenly realised that it didn't seem a healthy thing to be taking. I stopped immediately.

Unlike others, I suffered no withdrawal symptoms whatsoever and have been drug-free ever since.

Now, it's certainly true to say that companies like GlaxoSmithKline are there for one reason only - to make money. In the course of their continued quest for cash, it is possible that they may make hasty decisions which later prove to be questionable (I'm being extraordinarily careful here with my comments about a billion-dollar company with excellent legal representation.)

Let's just say, to avoid any litigation, that the drugs industry doesn't always get it right. However, they have, through their various medications, saved millions of lives. I'll say that again - millions of lives. To me, that is justification for their continued existence.

But, to claim that because there are problems with a particular drug (I'm sure the homeopaths have a list of problematic medications) people should turn instead to a treatment that doesn't actually work, is sheer nonsense. It's like saying "Right, that car I bought had a manufacturing defect therefore all cars are bad and, instead, I'm going to travel to work on a skateboard pulled by elves. Mush! Mush!".

Or something.

I sent the following reply:

@jadetaylor38 Yes, I could, but I'd rather rail against the utter disgrace that is homeopathy. Give me evidence over superstition any day.
I received no response and assumed that the homeopathy lady had moved on to other targets. However, 5 weeks later, she decided to come back to Twitter and send me a reply.

@Rablenkov shame yr missing out on a remarkable & dynamic mode of health care. I cn talk from experience only; not secondary speculation.
Oh dear, oh dear. She fails to understand that when you discuss extraordinary claims about medicine and science, personal experience is worthless. Let me give you an example. Imagine that I have a sore throat. I've tried Lockets, Night Nurse, Lemsip, the whole nine yards. Then, out of sheer desperation, I decide to rub a slice of raw liver over my eyebrows. The following day, I wake up and the sore throat is gone. It's a miracle! Behold the healing power of raw liver applied to the eyebrows! I must go and write a book about it!

What we're seeing there is somebody taking one event (the raw liver rubbing) and linking it to another event (the sore throat getting better). That doesn't mean there is any correlation between the two, just that one happened and then, a little while later, the other happened. And, in some cases, that's all the personal experience that people have had with homeopathy. They were unwell, they took it, they got better, therefore homeopathy cured them. It simply isn't true. Add the placebo effect into that mix and the efficacy of homeopathy is called even further into doubt.

I replied:

@jadetaylor38 Clinical trials, meta-analyses and evidence show that I'm missing out on a treatment that fares no better than placebo.
A day later, I received another response:

@Rablenkov interesting i'm in process of exploring ths & currently finding the trials R not individualized & therefore the law of similars is void.
Oh fuck. She's now brought 'the law of similars' into the equation. Let me explain, extraordinarily briefly. The Law of Similars was invented by the father of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemman. I can't be bothered to explain it, so I'll let Wikipedia do the talking: "Hahnemann observed from his experiments with cinchona bark, used as a treatment for malaria, that the effects he experienced from ingesting the bark were similar to the symptoms of malaria. He therefore reasoned that cure proceeds through similarity, and that treatments must be able to produce symptoms in healthy individuals similar to those of the disease being treated. Through further experiments with other substances, Hahnemann conceived of the "law of similars", otherwise known as "like cures like" (Latin: similia similibus curentur) as a fundamental healing principle. He believed that by inducing a disease through use of drugs, the artificial symptoms empowered the vital force to neutralise and expel the original disease and that this artificial disturbance would naturally subside when the dosing ceased."

To this day, nobody has proven that the law of similars actually works. Let's move on.

I sent two more replies in quick succession:

@jadetaylor38 Look harder. If you research properly you will find that meta-analysis of 'individualized homeopathy' exists.
jadetaylor38 Out of interest, are you aware of any blinded, randomised trials which you accept as evidence of homeopathy's efficacy?
I didn't expect to hear from her again. I was wrong. 3 days later:

@Rablenkov yes 1997 linde st al: meta analysis published in Lancet. UCL published revealing N,sensitivity and many other stats with very positive results. This is dramatically contrasted to (2005) trial where minimal information was published. One trial using homeopathy was on a study to show weight loss over a 48hr period. Of course that trial showed out of favour.
"No, no, no, no, no!", I bleated. "Please don't tell me she's quoting the 1997 study."

The meta-analysis published in 1997 by Linde, Clausius, Ramirez, Melchart, Eitel, Hedges and Jonas (details here) stated in its findings that "The combined odds ratio for the 89 studies entered into the main meta-analysis was 2.45 (95% CI 2.05, 2.93) in favour of homeopathy. The odds ratio for the 26 good-quality studies was 1.66 (1.33, 2.08), and that corrected for publication bias was 1.78 (1.03, 3.10). Four studies on the effects of a single remedy on seasonal allergies had a pooled odds ratio for ocular symptoms at 4 weeks of 2.03 (1.51, 2.74). Five studies on postoperative ileus had a pooled mean effect-size-difference of -0.22 standard deviations (95% CI -0.36, -0.09) for flatus, and -0.18 SDs (-0.33, -0.03) for stool (both p < style="font-style: italic;">
@jadetaylor38 Ah yes, that would be the same 1997 meta-analysis in which the final conclusion was "we found insufficient evidence from these studies that homoeopathy is clearly efficacious for any single clinical condition". In 1999 Linde clarified further in an article for the Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, "The evidence of bias weakens the findings of our original meta-analysis. Since we completed our literature search in 1995, a considerable number of new homeopathy trials have been published. The fact that a number of the new high-quality trials (e.g. [14,15]) have negative results, and a recent update of our review for the most “original” subtype of homeopathy (classical or individualized homeopathy, seem to confirm the finding that more rigorous trials have less-promising results. It seems, therefore, likely that our meta-analysis at least overestimated the effects of homeopathic treatments". Therefore, you cannot use the 1997 Linde meta-analysis as proof of homeopathy's efficacy.

It is a well-known tactic for homeopaths to quote the 1997 meta-analysis without referring to, or recognising, the 1999 clarification. I find this to be a rather unpleasant and dishonest manoeuvre.

So far, I have received no response and, in all honesty, I don't particularly care whether I do or not.

You see, this lady seems to be utterly convinced by homeopathy and will disregard any evidence to the contrary. You can guarantee that the study she quoted above used a very similar method to many others. She will willingly cite that study because it supports her case, then ignore the other, equally valid, meta-analyses because they don't support the fairytale she's invested so heavily in.

She will probably never understand that the greatest difference between science and homeopathy is that science grows, evolves, and adapts to change, while homeopathy will always stay the same, fighting its corner regardless of whatever evidence presents itself.

10 June 2009

An angry thing, a nice thing, and a game.

A comment was made the other day that seemed to indicate I've been remiss in talking about things that disappoint me.

To remedy that, I shall be discussing (and by 'discussing' I mean 'ranting about') something which occurred at work recently and is still aggravating the almighty fuck out of me.

However, in order to restore the balance, I shall also be talking about a nice thing. Oh, and giving you a link to a game.


An angry thing.

Recently, my employer decided that it would be an excellent idea to run an event called 'Learning At Work week'. The idea was to present a variety of talks and events to encourage learning, all based around the theme 'Skilled For Success'.

Thus it was that a programme was set up for the week whereby people could nip out of the office for a bit, get in the lift, head up to the top floor and involve themselves in a session on management, or writing, or a number of other activities designed to improve their 'skill set' and 'knowledge base'. Sadly, I was unable to attend as I had some real work to do.

However, I did notice that one of the sessions on the final day was a demonstration of Reflexology. You can imagine that I was somewhat puzzled and aggravated by this.

Fortunately, we have an internet-based forum (members only) for our local union, the people who set this event up. Thus, I found myself making a simple post that said:

I fully support the planned Learning At Work week agenda and think it's a very good idea.

Reading through the programme, I see that there's a session on Reflexology.

Can I ask why this has been included? More importantly, is there a cost involved to the (union)?

I received this rather astonishing reply from somebody who was clearly very confused:

I would suggest that including a subject like reflexology and allowing people to find out more about it for themselves before coming to a decision is perfectly valid.

Asking for it to be removed from the Programme is actually encouraging ignorance.

My grandmother suffered from severe rheumatoid arthritis which no medicine could alleviate the pain for longer than a few months. She turned to whisky as the only way of coping with the pain which caused its own problems.

Despite our initial scepticism, Reflexology was the final hope she turned to and it transformed her quality of life.

What right has anyone else got to stop people finding out more about it?

Can I politely ask what you contributed to the week?

Where does someone start with a response like that? Well, with this:

According to your post, asking for an unproven, potentially dangerous, non-scientific sham medical procedure to be removed from a programme of learning is 'encouraging ignorance'? I don't know quite where to begin with that.

It is claimed that reflexology works by manipulating pressure points in the feet, thus unblocking the energy lines of the body allowing the free movement of qi. To put it simply, there is absolutely no scientific evidence to support these wild claims.

When an area of complementary medicine makes a claim, that claim is scientifically tested for efficacy. If it is proven to work, then that complementary medicine becomes part of conventional medicine. If it doesn't work, it remains as a complementary medicine or, as some might prefer to call it, pseudo-scientific claptrap.

I find it very disappointing that (company) have, alongside the otherwise excellent events throughout this week, decided to give reflexology a platform. What can we expect next time? Hopi ear candling? Iridology? Homeopathy? How to psychically communicate with your dog?

The potential dangers of 'complementary medicine' are well documented. When one is drawn in by therapies which have no basis in fact and have been proven not to have any valid efficacy based on their claims, we open ourselves to ignoring conventional medicine or therapeutic techniques. This can have a fatal effect.

There will, of course, be certain cases where reflexology 'appears' to work. These will usually be as the result of 1) relaxation and 2) the placebo effect. All well and good, but what is the real cost to society of allowing these therapies to flourish when they simply don't do what they're meant to?

I direct you to the words of Stephen Barrett, MD, "Reflexology is based on an absurd theory and has not been demonstrated to influence the course of any illness. Done gently, reflexology is a form of foot massage that may help people relax temporarily. Claims that reflexology is effective for diagnosing or treating disease should be ignored. Such claims could lead to delay of necessary medical care or to unnecessary medical testing of people who are worried about reflexology findings."

And to address your last question, up until I wrote this post, I had contributed precisely nothing to the Learning At Work week. If you feel that makes me unable to contribute to this discussion, then that is entirely your opinion and you are fully entitled to it, but I will disagree with you.

If I manage to make someone pause and consider whether we as a Department should be helping people to peddle unproven, non-scientific, sham-therapies, then I will consider that to be a very important contribution indeed.

Of course, everybody on the forum agreed with me once they saw the sense in my post, decided that Reflexology was a poor choice of topic for a session on learning, and apologised for its inclusion, confirming that no alternative therapies will be represented in next years set of events.

Oh hang on, no, that's not right. Sorry, I was confused. What they actually said was:

I still make no apologies for including the Reflexology session. Will I book it next year? Quite possibly - it was a very popular session that drew in people who might not otherwise have come to the event, and (seeing as it was held in the same room as a stand and rep for (removed) Adult College, a number of those people went away with advice and college brochures.

There was, obviously, much more to the debate than the excerpts I've posted above. But, interestingly, although nobody was able to provide actual evidence of the efficacy of reflexology, nor to counteract the points I made, they've decided that it was a valid topic to include because, and I quote, "Surely if something makes you feel better, more relaxed etc then it is helpful, even if it is not a validated medical treatment?"

I'm afraid that I've now given up trying to argue the point with them. To steal a phrase, "You can't reason someone out of a position they didn't reason themselves into". Fuck-knuckles.


A nice thing.

I've just finished watching the first season of 'Lie To Me' and it really is rather spiffing.

At present, there are a number of cookie-cutter crime shows doing the rounds in the US. Each week, a robbery, murder, fire, terrorist attack or dog-bite occurs and the hero of the programme sets about solving it using their unique crime-fighting skills, reaching deep into what is usually a pretty shallow arsenal of tricks and techniques.

Examples of this genre include 'Monk' (a man with OCD), 'The Mentalist' (a fake-psychic who uses his Derren Brown-like powers for good), 'Numb3rs' (a mathematician uses various equations to help the FBI), 'Bones' (a forensic anthropologist, blah de blah de blah) and, of course, 'Psych' (er, a bit like The Mentalist actually).

Lie To Me is exactly the same as all these other programmes except that this time the hero is, effectively, a human lie detector. An expert in body language and micro-expressions, he's able to tell exactly when someone is lying, and calls them out on it quite frequently, right in their big, stupid faces.

On first sight, it doesn't seem like anything special and, indeed, it actually isn't. However, the show is elevated by the superb casting of Tim Roth as the hero, Cal Lightman.

Roth doesn't affect an American accent, preferring instead to speak in his normal Estuary-tones. This has created some controversy in America where certain viewers have had to watch the programme with subtitles because they're unable to recognise the English language unless it's being spoken in their own, slack-jawed drawl. For some strange sadistic reason, this pleases me greatly.

Also, there's a certain almost indefinable comfort about Roth when he's on screen. It's almost like he's saying, "Look, I know I shouldn't be here, you know I shouldn't here, but I am so tough luck. I'm being paid a substantial amount of money to play this part which we all know should probably have gone to some generic, cap-toothed Aryan actor from the L.A. School of Standard TV Acting. But, for reasons known only to myself, my agent and the Dark Lord Satan, I got the gig instead. Live with it."

So, as he wanders about quite literally throwing the lines away at some points, a small smirk never seems to be far from his lips. He's gatecrashed the party and now they're too afraid to ask him to leave.

If you get the opportunity to watch it, please do so. Like I said, the plots are pretty standard and you can usually guess 'whodunnit' in advance of the other characters, but it's well worth it just to watch Roth swagger about showing that sometimes, just sometimes, acting is all about 'less is more'. Fantastic.


A game.

Here's a little game that I found on the intarwebz. It starts off as a small amusement, then becomes very irritating. Eventually, you keep on coming back to it purely because you become utterly convinced that you must be able to get past 8 frames. You won't. Ever.


6 June 2009

Illegal Downloads

A very interesting article by Ben Goldacre on the Guardian website about the statistics behind illegal downloads and their cost to the economy.

I won't bother going into the detail because you can read it here.

I took the opportunity to add a comment of my own (under a cunning pseudonym) which I shall reproduce below.

The entertainment industry has their business model all wrong, failing quite spectacularly to both embrace the technology and adjust their prices.

Here's an example.

Yesterday, I wanted to buy the e-book version of Chuck Palahniuk's "Pygmy". I checked three sites (Waterstones, WH Smith and Amazon/Mobipocket) to get the best price. Interestingly, the hardback edition was cheaper on all three sites than the paperback, but I digress. Here are the results.

Paperback version
Waterstones - £9.59
WH Smith - £11.99
Amazon - £10.79

Hardback version
Waterstones - £7.79
WH Smith - £8.57
Amazon - £7.49

eBook version

Waterstones - £15.52
WH Smith - £12.65
Mobipocket - £15.58

So, in at least one case, the ebook version (a mere digital copy, which costs pence to promulgate) is nearly double the cost of a printed, bound, despatched hardback book.

For having the temerity to embrace new technology and want to purchase something in a specific format, I'm being taken to the cleaners.

This is why the business model is currently wrong. Once the entertainment/publishing industry gets its act together and starts making digital content available at a reasonable price, then its fortunes will start to change. Until then, some consumers will continue infringing copyright.

If the ebook version had been available at a reasonable £5-£7 then I would have purchased it (just as I purchased Ben Goldacre's ebook earlier in the week). Instead, I left empty-handed and started taking a look around the warez sites.

I've talked previously about the issue of sensible pricing:

As for movies, if I were to buy, for instance, Saw V from Play, it would cost me £11.99. Wait a few months and it'll be £6.99. A few months more and I might pick it up on sale at £3.99. Why in the name of all things holy can't it be sold for, say, a fiver from day one?

If 100 people see it at £11.99, 95% will pass on by. If 100 people see it at £4.99, 50% will buy it*. You do the maths. The trouble is, the entertainment industry doesn't see it that way. I'm reminded of the character Ichikawa in Martin Scorcese's Casino :

"He bet one thousand a hand instead of his usual thirty thousand a hand. But I knew, the trick with whales like Ichikawa was that they can't bet small for long. He didn't think of it as winning ten thousand, he thought of it as losing ninety thousand."

If and when the industry sees sense, perhaps we'll start to see a fair product for a fair price. Until then, the warez sites will continue to flourish.

Homeopathy - Update

Here's an update to the homeopathy story I mentioned recently.

The parents who refused to provide medical attention to their child, preferring to use homeopathy instead, have been found guilty of manslaughter.

This is a tragic case and I really do sympathise with the parents who, due to their misguided ignorance, thought they were doing the right thing.

It does, of course, beg the question what level of responsibility for cases like this must be borne by the high-street chemists who continue to stock homeopathic 'remedies' thus giving it a sheen of acceptability?

Remember this case. Remember this child. Next time someone claims that 'alternative medicine' isn't harmful, tell them about the little girl who died in her mothers arms because of an easily treatable condition.

This sickens, angers and upsets me, all at the same time.