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The Broken Hut
Working my way up to a full-size building
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16th-Oct-2007 02:01 pm - Uri Geller: as crazy as they come

Sometimes the semantic gap between UK and American English provides great comedy. And let’s face it, no-one deserves to be mocked more than Uri Geller.

The spoon-bending fraud has crawled out of the woodwork again with a new TV series in the US, modelled on a similar series he did for Israeli TV. The show is called Phenomenon and aims to find a ‘successor’ to him.

Reality TV World describes the show thus:

NBC has announced Phenomenon, a new reality competition series that will follow mentalist Uri Geller and Criss Angel Mindfreak illusionist Criss Angel as they search for “the next great mentalist,” will premiere on Wednesday, October 24 at 8PM ET/PT.

If you’re still not following me, let Alan Partridge explain:

This is really appalling—“Doctor Yourself”:

World’s Largest HEALTH HOMESTEADING website

If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself. This especially includes your health.

What is this, hmm? This is the work of one “Andrew Saul, PhD”1 and what a piece of work it is. Every piece of woo medicine you’ve ever read about is contained in this one website. Homeopathy? Yep. What about vitamin C as a cure for AIDS (and HPV! Double whammy on the sexually transmitted diseases there!)? Oh yeah, we got that too. Maybe throw in magnesium for epilepsy too.

But this is all run of the mill stuff. What about his assertion that “the germ theory was complete bullshit” to really throw the cat among the pigeons?

We do indeed have a proper nutcase here. And he appears to have a love affair with vitamin C. Really, there seems to be nothing it can’t be applied to that won’t be fixed within the week. (I exaggerate, but only slightly.) He’s even got a full guide to strong-arming your doctors into giving intravenous vitamin C.

Unfortunately I don’t really have the medical knowledge to go through this site page by page. This is a lifetime’s project for someone.

I’ll leave you with the knowledge that Dr (or should that be “Dr”) Saul is “Assistan Editor of the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine”, which is probably about as well regarded as Homeopathy. Ho hum.

  1. Why does that title give me the involuntary shivers now? I suppose I’m just glad it wasn’t Dr Andrew Saul, PhD…

Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. The history of lawyers' letters used to remove material from the internet never go in favour of the lawyers' clients. This is called the Streisand effect.

The Society of Homepaths are one group who have utterly failed to learn this lesson. David Colquhuon (himself no stranger to receiving legal letters) reports on the Society of Homeopaths attempt at bullying:
Many people now have written about the disgraceful and dangerous claims by homeopaths to be able to prevent and cure malaria. My contribution was “Homeopathic 'cures' for malaria: a wicked scam”

One of the best contributions was on the Quackometer blog, The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing.

But the post has vanished! Quackometer’s ISP has received threatening letters sent by lawyers on behalf of the Society of Homeopaths, who claim that the truth i.e. [sic] defamatory, while being unwilling to say which statements are wrong. These threats have forced the removal of the post (for the moment), though you can still read it from the Google cache. And a lot of other places too.
You can read the original article here: The Gentle Art of Homeopathic Killing.
Language Log discusses The Barry White effect:
All that said, we need to observe that the effect of voice pitch was a statistical tendency, a much weaker effect than I'll bet most readers of the news stories are imagining. (Those stories exaggerated and sensationalized the results of this study; in other news, the sky is still often said to be blue, and water is still widely reported to be wet.)
Just as interesting as the sensationalism and hyperbole presented in the press, was the link to Mark Liberman's lecture notes for Linguistics 001 on language and gender.
29th-Sep-2007 12:41 am - Homeopathy: Liberal and Extreme

On Professor David Colquhuon’s blog, there was a discussion about the closing of the Tunbridge Wells Homeopathy Hospital (I use that last word advisedly). This comment from Le Canard Noir struck some bells:

The real menace comes not from medical homeopaths, but from lay homeopaths, represented by the Society of Homeopaths, who are often dangerously deluded and a threat to peoples’ well being.

This seems remarkably like the view that moderate religious believers act as enablers for the extremists. They dare not criticise the extremists, no matter how distasteful they find their actions, because any criticism they use will necessarily be just as effective against them.

It’s the fact that these moderates still believe in physics and germ theory—rather than the ability of homeopathy to cure malaria, for example—which dampens their zealotry. The “lay” homeopaths who come into it without much in the way of scientific training are just believers, through and through. They have all the assurance of the creationists who blithely state that evolution breaks the second law of thermodynamics.

And the matter then becomes, as it is with religion—is a comforting belief useful to have around, or is it just too dangerous for a society to harbour any “official untruths”?

So Ben Goldacre links to a homeopathist gloating over the result of David Colquhoun’s legal set-to with a couple of snake-oil peddlers. (Keep an eye on Goldacre’s Delicious links at There’s some good stuff there.)

The outcome was reasonably good for the forces of reason, but as I mentioned on the Bad Science blog, there was still a lot of wishy-washy speak from the official statement. So the woo peddlers have been capitalising on that, and even casting it as some kind of victory:

So, we now have agreement that abuse is not debate! What a victory! Professor Colquhoun has taken legal advice to ensure that his blog ‘adopts the right tone’, because he made ‘defamatory’ remarks about herbalism.

The official statement from David Colquhoun and UCL said, amongst others, “UCL will not allow staff to use its website for the making of personal attacks on individuals”. His enemies have really run with this one.

Amongst other things, they make great play of the downtrodden and underprivileged snake oil salesmen, who obviously don’t have the money of the “big pharma”:

I wonder how much that legal advice from Queens Counsel cost, and I would make the point that he was lucky to have access to enough funds to pay for it. I hope people remember that this is the privilege of the 10% and not for the many?

No mention of the fact that legal advice was only necessary because of the attempts to censor scientific criticism through legal means. But that is by the by.

A lot of the rest of the article is full of silliness about mercury fillings and fluoride in the water. (Gotta keep control of your precious bodily fluids kids! The commie is sneaky that way! Deny them your essence!) That is also not relevant here.

What I really wanted to highlight was the overtones of conspiracy. There’s also a helluva lot of conspiracy. I mean, I’m talking bagloads here. There are repeated and unexplained references to an anonymous “they”, who are out to damage children and extort your very last penny from you.

They can‘t explain how paracetamol works so they manufacture vast amounts and sell it, why? Because they know it works and it will make then vast amounts of money (what price proof here?). They know mercury is a poison in large amounts so they fill our children’s teeth with it. They know fluoride is dangerous in large amounts, so they manufacture it and use trace amounts to ’benefit’ our health (isn’t that a homeopathic principle?) They have known for years that salt is dangerous in large amounts, so they add far too much to our food, such that we have to have a TV campaign to get them to withdraw it. They also know that sugar is dangerous in large amounts so they add far too much to our food such that we have a massive obesity problem. They know that sugar substitute is dangerous, so they sell it all around the world?

And when the author has finished on “them”, she brings in the “orthodoxy” and a bit more of the worldwide conspiracy is put in its place:

So why does orthodoxy apply ‘science’ to their chosen phenomena and chosen substances and to pharmaceuticals and vehemently exclude alternative medicine? Do you think it has something to do with the means of production and the profits they can potentially make? It is not possible for them to make huge profits out of alternative medicine, so of course it must be banned! Is this what they call ‘science’? Is this what they call ‘Public Health’?

At least “the orthodoxy” is slightly more defined than “they”, but not by much. Strange, though, this assertion that “it is not possible for them to make huge profits out of alternative medicine”. This is patently false: there are people out there making fortunes out of sugar pills and plain water sold in expensive vials—and you can buy them in every branch of Boots in the country.

The vehemence of the abuse defaming alternative medicine far too often takes on the hysterical screeching of the ‘I know I am right brigade’ who advocate a one size fits all ideology, and such beliefs are fueled by ‘poor science’ that uses magicians to defame reputable scientists who do try and investigate alternative medicine. The message went out clear as a clarion call all around the World. Do research into alternative medicine and we will hunt you down and destroy you!

This is interesting stuff. “Abuse”, “screeching”, claims that someone wants to “hunt you down and destroy you”—these are exactly the claims used to argue against Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris et al, when talking about religion. This isn’t argument, this is just stoking paranoia. It’s certainly not in the best interests of anyone to suggest that the person holding an opposing viewpoint is also rigging the system too.

When writers make the claim that the “arrogant” Richard Dawkins wants to “round up all the believers” not only are they grossly misrepresenting his wishes, but they’re feeding a feeling in their audience that they are under attack for who they are. That they, as people, are being subjected to abuse. Those same emotive words are used here to distract from the fact that it’s the complete lack of tangible evidence that is the point of contention.

… Is it any wonder that the research follows the money? Is it any wonder that scientific research cannot conduct such studies without attracting ignorant abuse? Personally, I do not call this ‘science’. I call it a witch hunt.

Next stop in the conspiracy theories—follow the money! In one sense, the author is right. It would be foolish for us to ever trust anything a pharmaceutical company says in promotion of its own products. But that’s why we demand trails of evidence and accountability.

What the author implies, however, is that the alternative medicine industry (or homeopathy in particular) is not big business. She wants you to believe that it’s all garage enthusiasts and community-driven amateurs. And maybe there is some of that. But resting atop the cottage industry of crystal healers and aura cleansers is a full-blown (and very lucrative) industry of people making a lot of money from woo. Gillian McKeith (the Fraud Previously Known as Doctor) gets paid for talking shite.

No-one is in love with the pharmaceutical industry. It needs to buy its favours with lobbyists. The alternative medicine crowd have already won the hearts of their followers and don’t need to concentrate on argument at all. It is in their best interest to obfuscate the facts at all costs. Each study which shows that homeopathy is no better than placebo, or that real and sham acupuncture are equivalent, has to be discredited in some way. If all these woo therapies were shown to be nonsense to the general public, poor Patrick Holford, GMTV’s darling nutritionist, would be much less of a success. The author is right, follow the money—but follow it in both directions.

Further conspiracies

More recently, the same Professor Colquhuon was involved in a Channel 4 slot about alternative medicines being dropped from the NHS to save money.

And yet again, the conspiracy theories were called upon to cultivate that sense of attack from outside that helps bind communities. The homeopaths suggested that:

  • There was some cadre of “retired or senior” doctors who were out to get the woo medicine people (for some unspecified reason). So that would be a conspiracy, then?
  • These same people were defenders of genetically modified foods. This was (a) irrelevant, (b) not necessarily true and (c) unsubstantiated anyway. But there’s no better way of making a scientist look evil than to suggest they want to feed your children “Frankenfoods”.
  • There were undisclosed conflicts of interest on the side of the scientists. Which is to say, we’re to believe they were in the pay of Big Pharma and were not to be trusted. These claims were not substantiated either.

At no point in the proceedings did anyone on the homeopathy side cite evidence that what they were promoting actually worked. But they cast a lot of aspersions—which are like spells, only harder to get rid of once you’ve been caught in one.

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