UK Roundup 29/4/2010

30 04 2010

More good news from the UK – it’s great to have such a positive start to the year. Coming hard on the heels of the collapse of the British Chiropractic Association’s libel case against science writer Simon Singh is more proof that the courts are passing down some important judgements. Today judges turned down a marriage guidance counsellors bid to overturn his sacking. He had been dismissed because he refused to give counselling to gay couples because it was against his religion, Christianity. For some reason he thought it was fine to discriminate against gays but not OK for his work to discriminate against him when he refused to do his job.

Justice For All (Christians Only)

The case amazingly prompted former Archbishop of Canterbury to call for a special tribunal to be set up in cases such as this which would comprise judges who had “proven sensitivity and understanding of religious issues”. In other words a panel especially for Christians loaded with judges who would rule in their favour – completely throwing out any vestiges of equal treatment for all. Nice work Archbishop. Fortunately the judge in this case treated the suggestion with the contempt it deserved and, while quoting from Carey’s initial plea threw the case out leaving no-one in any doubt as to what he thought of the Archbishop’s suggestion stating “We do not live in a society where all the people share uniform religious beliefs. The precepts of any one religion – any belief system – cannot, by force of their religious origins, sound any louder in the general law than the precepts of any other. If they did, those out in the cold would be less than citizens and our constitution would be on the way to a theocracy, which is of necessity autocratic.” Sensible thinking indeed.

In other news showman and all round mentalist Derren Brown has a chance to redeem himself after last years dreadful televised ‘Events’. In his new series he goes after people who claim to have paranormal powers and debunks them. Brown has proved himself to be more than capable of taking on various loons in the past so this could be a good series and hopefully will show in NZ sometime in the future.

Sensing Failure

23 03 2010

Sensing...Absolutely Nothing

Despite being the only author of this blog resident in the UK I’ve managed to keep tabs on the NZ version of ‘Sensing Murder’, a particularly abhorrent TV programme which under the guise of helping people, exploits the families of murder victims in order to promote their own group of ‘psychic investigators’. Not only does the show gleefully promote the frankly ludicrous notion that certain ‘specially gifted’ people can communicate with the dead, it also does it on TVNZ which receives 10% of its income from ‘government sources’ ie your taxes

Despite various woolly claims over the years that the psychics have come up with ‘new and exciting evidence’ – the show has in fact come up with exactly what every right thinking person would have predicted (non-psychically) from the word go.


Not one success in four seasons (32 odd cases). Despite alleging being able to talk to the actual murder victims!! Despite allegedly being able to pick the sex of the victim from a hidden picture 100% of the time and being able to identify murder scenes without ever having been there or knowing anything about the case!! What is more amazing – the assertion that they can talk to the dead or that once they manage to do so the victims are so unwilling to help catch their killer? On top of this the programme goes out of its way to shift blame onto the NZ police, accusing them of failing to follow up new leads brought to light by the psychics. Now the police are by no means infallible – but the murder clear-up rate in NZ is pretty good and I do not believe for one second that the teams investigating these crimes initially didn’t do everything they could and now just can’t be bothered to follow up leads. The fact that some twit on a TV show goes ‘oh I sense you should investigate Mr. X’ does not constitute a ‘new lead’, and to their credit the NZ police have publicly stated they do not use psychics.

The psychics have also refused to undergo any 3rd party testing despite claiming they want to, and despite being offered large sums of money to prove their so-called special powers. NZ businessman Tony Andrews has offered them $NZ 20,000 each for just being tested – an offer yet to be accepted, which tells it’s own tale.

However there is some light at the end of the tunnel… the programme makers Ninox Television went into receivership last year and there may be no more Sensing Murder. They did however keep a web forum running…until last Sunday (21 March 2010) when the plug was abruptly pulled after one member posted less than complimentary first hand information about one of the SM psychics Kelvin Cruikshank. Interestingly a number of supporters of the programme who participated in the forum had also recently started to question SM given its complete lack of success. Engaged in discussion by a number of skeptical members it seemed that the previously committed were perhaps starting to have second thoughts. However before any real questioning took place the forum was shut down and it now seems that the members have joined a thread on the JREF forums instead – ironically a forum devoted to skeptics.

Radio interview with Cruikshank cold reading here

More Sensing Murder criticism here, including some stuff on Cruikshank in the comments

Sensing bullshit site – Alan is not known for pulling his punches.

Silly Beliefs – another great site debunking Sensing Murder again including a lot of interesting exchanges in the comments section.

Rationality -2 Asparagus – 0

8 03 2010

Just a quick not to point out that ludicrous English mystic Jemima Packington who claims to predict the future with asparagus (!) – see earlier vegetable garden post below –

Do Not Trust This Asparagus

has completely failed in her predictions for the Oscars, despite taking the safe bet and picking the Golden Globe winners she already knew – she predicted Clooney and Mirren to win when in fact it was Bridges and Bullock. Take that vegetables !!

UK Roundup 23/2/2010

24 02 2010

It’s been rather a good start to the new year with some fresh shoots of sensibility starting to poke their heads above the murky soils of irrationality. In a follow-up to the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee meeting last year (see earlier article) to debate the value of investing taxpayers money into homeopathic treatments, the committee has quite clearly stated that they are a complete waste of time and that there was no scientific evidence that homeopathic remedies work.

Fresh shoots of sensibility at home yesterday

“There has been enough testing of homeopathy and plenty of evidence showing it is not efficacious,” the committee said. Committee members also said the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic medicines to carry medical claims on their labels.

“We regret that advocates of homeopathy, including in their submissions to our inquiry, choose to rely on, and promulgate, selective approaches to the treatment of the evidence base as this risks confusing or misleading the public, the media and policy-makers,” the committee’s report said. “The systematic reviews and meta-analyses conclusively demonstrate that homeopathic products perform no better than placebos,” One commentator (Edzard Ernst* in The Guardian) made a very good point regarding placebos “… placebo effects are unreliable and usually short-lived. Moreover, endorsing homeopathic placebos in this way would mean that people may use it for serious, treatable conditions. Furthermore, if we allow the homeopathic industry to sell placebos we should do the same for big pharmaceutical companies – and where would this take us? ”

Pretty damning stuff – it’s great to see such a strong response. It will be interesting to see what happens next in terms of funding but it’s not looking too good for those who wish to see UK taxpayers money spent on magic water – money that could instead be spent on treatments that are shown to be more effective than placebo. The response from the Homeopathic Establishment has been rather muted, probably because other than arguing based on anecdotal evidence and the placebo effect they haven’t really got a leg to stand on. A good result and hopefully one that will draw something of a line under the current debate. There’s a summary of various views here.

Another big issue has also recently seen some welcome resolution, and one that I hope will have some resonance with Kiwis (see Christiaan’s measles article below). Dr. Andrew Wakefield, author of a 1998 article in the Lancet medical journal which linked autism and bowel cancer with the MMR (measels, mumps rubella) vaccine, has been hauled over the coals by the General Medical Council in London which found that he acted irresponsibly and dishonestly in conducting his research. The paper has been withdrawn by the Lancet and Wakefield had also resigned from an autism centre he founded in Texas. The paper caused immeasurable harm as the numbers of children being immunised slumped and vaccinations in general became regarded with suspicion by many. That suspicion will take a long time to dispel but the dismissal of Wakefield’s paper is a huge boost.

So a very positive start to 2010 – now if we can only do something about the new series of Sensing Murder…

* in a not so good postscript, it seems Professor Ernst faces tough times and may have his complementary medicine unit at Exeter University shut down due to lack of funding. This is particularly bad news as he is, as far as I know, the only person who performs proper scientific tests on a range of alternative remedies and confirms or denies their efficacy as per his results, thus providing a very valuable service. More on this as things develop.

2010: What’s In Store – Could the Answer Lie in Your Vege Garden?

31 12 2009

As the year draws to a close the usual bunch of psychics and deluded souls queue up to make vague predictions about the year ahead. This year one in particular caught my eye however – step forward English ‘mystic’ Jemima Packington. Jemima holds no truck with tea leaves or tarot cards, her psychic weapon of choice is none other than …asparagus. She throws sticks of asparagus into the air and makes predictions based on their position when landing.
Unfortunately her soothsaying is of the fairly generic variety – Gordon Brown will lose the UK election and England will go out of the World Cup in the first or second round. Other forecasts she has made include a royal engagement and a high profile royal health scare or death. In showbiz, she also predicts George Clooney and Helen Mirren will win Oscars in 2010.

When you examine these claims they show a combination of guesswork and research – nothing to do with any ‘mystic ability’ at all. Obviously asparagus divining is an extreme example, but there are plenty of other so-called psychics who employ the same tactics.

Most people expect Gordon Brown to lose the next election – hardly mystic. It is extremely likely that there will be a ‘high profile royal death or scare’. The Queen is 82 and her husband is 87 – again, hardly mystic, and she has cynically hedged her bets by including ‘scare’ which could be anything from a hospital trip for a check-up to a heart condition. The England football prediction is a straight guess made after seeing the group stage draws. I happen to think she will be wrong on this one, England for the quarter-finals at least. As for George Clooney and Helen Mirren winning Oscars – that seems pretty specific doesn’t it? But not quite so much when you realise the Golden Globe Awards nominations are already out, and they are seen as a guide to who will win the Oscars. Guess who are up for best actor and actress…Mirren & Clooney. So once again Packington has drastically narrowed her odds – and if she guessed correctly…well the asparagus did it.

Debunking Divining in 1556

8 12 2009

De Re Metallica (Cover)While doing research for my PhD I stumbled across a little gem from 1556.  De Re Metallica (On the Nature of Metals) by Georgius Agricola is a comprehensive technical book covering metals and mining in the 16th century which would stand for several centuries as the book on the topic.  It is a fascinating read as it has one of the earlier formal discussions of sustainability and competitive land use but also has some fascinating insight into dowsing/divining.

Obviously in those days finding metals was a big deal and one of the common methods of the day was divining for it.  His rejection of the technique is notable given the age of the document and he does so using many of the arguments we recognise today.

I’ll let his words speak for themselves:

There are a great many contentions between miners concerning the forked twig for some say it is of the greatest use in discovering veins, and others deny it.  Some of those who manipulate and use the twig, first cut a fork from a hazel bush with a knife, for this bush they consider more efficacious than any other for revealing the veins, especially if the hazel bush grows above a vein.  Others use a different kind of twig for each metal, when they are seeking to discover the veins, for they employ hazel twigs for veins of silver; ash twigs for copper; pitch pine for lead and especially tin, and rods made of iron and steel for gold.  All alike grasp the forks of the twig with their hands, clenching their fists, it being necessary that the twig should be raised at that end where the two branches meet.  Then they wander hither and thither through mountainous regions.  It is said that the moment they place their feet on a vein the twig immediately turns and twists, and so by its action discloses the vein; when they move their feet again and go away from that spot the twig becomes once more immobile.

The truth is, they assert, the movement of the twig is caused by the power of the veins, and sometimes this is so great that the branches of the trees growing near a vein are deflected towards it.  On the other hand, those who say that the twig is of no use to good and serious men, also deny that the motion is due to the power of the veins, because the twigs will not move for everybody, but only for those who employ incantations and craft.  Moreover, they deny the power of a vein to draw to itself the branches of trees, but they say that the warm and dry exhalations cause these contortions.  Those who advocate the use of the twig make this reply to these objections:  when one of the miners or some other person holds the twig in his hands and it is not turned by the force of a vein, this is due to some peculiarity of the individual, which hinders and impedes the power of the vein, for since the power of the vein in turning and twisting the twig may be not unlike that of a magnet attracting and drawing iron toward itself, this hidden quality of a man weakens and breaks the force, just the same as garlic weakens and overcomes the strength of a magnet.  For a magnet smeared with garlic juice cannot attract iron.  Further, concerning the handling of the twig, they warn us that we should not press the fingers together too lightly, nor clench them too firmly, for if the twig is held lightly they say that it will fall before the force of the vein can turn it; if however, it is grasped too firmly the force of the hands resists the force of the veins and counteracts it.  Therefore, they consider that five things are necessary to insure that the twig shall serve its purpose:  of these the first is the size of the twig, for the force of the veins cannot turn too large a stick;  secondly, there is the shape of the twig, which must be forked or the vein cannot turn it;  thirdly , the power of the vein which has the nature to turn it; fourthly, the manipulation of the twig; fifthly, the absence of impeding peculiarities.  These advocates of the twig sum up their conclusions as follows:  if the rod does not move for everybody, it is due to unskilled manipulation or to the impeding peculiarities of the man which oppose and resist the force of the veins, as we said above, and those who search for veins by means of the twig need not necessarily make incantations, but it is sufficient that they handle it suitably and are devoid of impeding power; therefore, the twig may be of use to good and serious men in discovering veins.  With regard to deflection of branches of trees they say nothing and adhere to their opinion.

Since this matter remains in dispute and causes much dissention amongst miners, I consider it ought to be examined on its own merits.  The wizards, who also make use of rings, mirrors and crystals, seek for veins with a divining rod shaped like a fork; but its shape makes no difference in the matter, – it might be straight or of some other form – for it is not the form of the twig that matters, but the wizard’s incantations which it would not become me to repeat, neither do I wish to do so.  The Ancients, by means of divining rod, not only procured those things necessary for a livelihood or for luxury, but they were also able to alter the forms of things by it; as when the magicians changed the rods of the Egyptians into serpents, as the writings of the Hebrews relate.; and as in Homer, Minerva with a divining rod turned the aged Ulysses suddenly into a youth, and then restored him back again to old age; Circe also changed Ulysses’ companions into beasts, but afterward gave them back again their human form; moreover by his rod, which was called “Caduceus,” Mercury gave sleep to watchmen and awoke slumberers.  Therefore it seems that the divining rod passed to the mines from its impure origin with the magicians.  Then when good men shrank from horror from the incantations and rejected them, the twig was retained by the unsophisticated common miners, and in searching for new veins some traces of these ancient usages remain.

But since truly the twigs of the miners do move, albeit they do not generally use incantations, some say this movement is caused by the power of the veins, others say that it depends on the manipulation, and still others think that the movement is due to both these causes.  But, in truth, all those objects which are endowed with the power of attraction do not twist things in circles, but attract them directly to themselves; for instance, the magnet does not turn the iron, but draws it directly to itself, and amber rubbed until it is warm does not bend straws about, but simply draws them to itself.  If the power of the veins were in a similar nature to that of the magnet and the amber, the twig would not so much twist as move one only, in a semi circle, and be drawn directly to the vein, and unless the strength of man who holds the twig were to resist and oppose the force of the vein, the twig would them be brought to the ground; wherefore, since this is not the case, it must necessarily follow that the manipulation is the cause of the twig’s twisting motion.  It is a conspicuous fact that these cunning manipulators do not use a straight twig, but a forked one cut from a hazel bush, or from some other wood equally flexible, so that if it be held in the hands, as they are accustomed to hold it, it turns in a circle for any man wherever  he stands.  Nor is it strange that the twig does not turn when held by the inexperienced, because they either grasp the forks of the twig too tightly or hold them too loosely.  Nevertheless, these things give rise to the faith among common miners that veins are discovered by the use of twigs, because whilst using these they do accidentally discover some; but it more often happens that they lose their labour, and although they might discover a vein, they become none the less exhausted in digging useless trenches than do the miners who prospect in an unfortunate locality.  Therefore a miner, since we think he ought to be a good and serious man, should not make use of an enchanted twig, because if he is prudent and skilled in the natural signs, he understands that a forked stick is of no use to him, for as I have said before, there are natural indications of the veins which he can see for himself without the help of twigs.  So if Nature or chance should indicate a locality suitable for mining, the miner should dig his trenches there; if no vein appears he must dig numerous trenches until he discovers an outcrop of a vein.

UK Roundup 26/11/09

26 11 2009

Looks like Ian (below) beat me to it…more on current UK Homeopathy inquiry.

It would seem that homeopathy in the UK is finally coming under some long-deserved scrutiny. Shockingly the taxpayer funded National Health Service (NHS) has spent around £12million on homeopathic remedies between 2005 and 2008, including funding more than one homeopathic hospital. However, in a move that is sure to shed light onto the treatments dubious claims of efficacy a Commons cross party select committee has been looking into whether the NHS is getting value for money.

Is it too much to ask??

Initial findings are very encouraging with many pointing out that the evidence for homeopathy working in any way better than a placebo just isn’t there. “If the NHS commitment to evidence-based medicine is more than a lip service, then money has to be spent on treatments that are evidence-based, and homeopathy isn’t,” said Edzard Ernst, a professor of complementary medicine at the Peninsula medical school in Exeter.
It was further pointed out that administering medicines knowing them to be no better than placebo should be regarded as unethical, as you are fundamentally being dishonest with that patient. The best the homeopaths could come back with was the argument from a doctor at the Royal London Homeopathic Hospital who said “I practise it because I think it works. I wouldn’t use it … if I thought I was conning the patient,” which is at best pretty weak. In another blow the standards director for major high street pharmacy chain Boots, a major supplier of homeopathic remedies has stated that the chain had no reason to assume the products actually did anything. ‘We just sell them because people want them” he said.
The one sour note in this otherwise positive tale is that the UK government’s recent track record on actually listening to experts in the scientific field is appalling – the last person who told them something they didn’t want to know (after being hired to do just that) got the sack. Dr. David Nutt, a very well respected scientist, publicised his opinion that drug classifications should be rated according to actual harm – lowering cannabis, ecstasy and LSD on the scale and raising alcohol, and was fired by the Home Secretary Alan Johnson. So it would seem that no matter what the experts think the outcome of the debate on homeopathy will depend on political whim. Watch this space for further developments.

In other news there has been a bizarre trend suddenly appearing in the world of Premiership football. Now while the top echelons of the Premier League are no stranger to 19 yr olds crashing their new Maseratis or stumbling out of clubs with their trousers around their ankles, this is something new. Several players who have succumbed to muscle strains or similar injuries have been jetting off to Serbia in the last week to see housewife who claims to cure people with horse placenta. However it seems Marijana Kovacevic’s treatment is not without controversy as now some claim that she uses human placenta that is massaged onto the affected area. The Serbian authorities are not quite so taken with the claims and would very much like to talk to Ms Kovacevic about various tax and licensing issues. Let’s hope it works because as an Arsenal supporter I’d very much like to see our striker Robin Van Persie, one of the Serbian travellers, back asap. However I am not holding my breath.
**Update** great, well now it looks like he’s out for the rest of the season. bah!

And finally great news! All late night TV viewers will remember the truly frightening series of advertisements featuring Aussie spin bowler and serial texter Shane ‘Warnie’ Warne banging on about how Advanced Hair Studio saved his barnet and filled him with youthful vigour. Well not any more because it has been banned in the UK for being misleading.

UK Homeopathy Evidence Check

26 11 2009

Check out the link below for a fascinating discussion about homeopathy featuring Ben Goldcare and Edzard Ernst plus quite a few others.  This discussion is from the House of Commons Science and Technology Sub-Committee relating to government expenditure on homeopathy.

It takes the form of a grilling by a committee of two panels of experts.  The wriggling by the proponents of homeopathy is fascinating.

It is ~2 hours long and available streaming here:

There is a transcript here:

UK Roundup 21/10/09

21 10 2009

UK newspapers, notably The Telegraph, are reporting the latest figures released from Allergy UK that apparently claim that 45% of the UK’s population are suffering from food intolerance of one sort or another. I checked Allergy UK’s website but couldn’t find the press release that backed up these claims so I called them and was met by a wall of vagueness. Perhaps they are just tardy in updating their website… Assuming that the release is genuine it seems an extraordinarily high figure. Unfortunately The Telegraph only features quotes from people with a vested interest in food intolerances; an author with a book on the subject, one doctor from a company that sells intolerance testing kits and another from a company making food suitable for people with intolerance. They come out with the usual claims such as ‘A big part of the problem is that we are assaulting our children with chemicals because the food that we are feeding them isn’t real anymore, it’s just a bunch of food additives, flavourings and colourings’ and ‘if people are eating foods straight out of a chemical laboratory then diabetes and obesity, heart disease and cancer will be a result of these intolerances’.

Not For Me, Thanks

Not For Me, Thanks

Well apart from the fact that in fact everything is “chemicals” I’m pretty sure it’s quite possible to provide for your family without ‘assaulting’ your children. I’m firmly of the opinion that while there are obviously people with serious allergies, a great number (not all) of those who claim ‘intolerances’ are jumping on the bandwagon because it’s very easy to attribute various vague symptoms to food intolerance. I’ll keep an eye out to see if the Allergy UK figures are released on their site.

In other news the Pope has upset the Church of England by announcing that he will issue an apostolic constitution, a form of papal decree, that will lead to the creation of “personal ordinariates” (whatever they are) for Anglicans who convert to Rome. This effectively means that all those in the C of E who are against female priests and homosexuals can escape to Catholicism. Sound like a complete fudge to me but it’s amusing to watch the churches going at it while trying to appear pious at the same time. Meanwhile at the same time as some of the bones of St Therese are being toured around the country, no doubt performing miracles left right and centre, Jesus has appeared on a toilet wall in Glasgow.I’ll say this much for religion – it’s certainly entertaining.

UPDATE: I called Allergy UK and found one extremely woolly article on their site based entirely on anecdotal evidence. You can find it here look under ‘Stolen Lives Five’ report. There’s also a thread I started over on Bad Science here which has some interesting input. I emailed Allergy UK to see where they get their figures from but no response. I am not holding my breath.

UK Roundup 22/09/09

23 09 2009

Two of the usual suspects Derren Brown and Richard Dawkins have been in the UK news recently, Brown for his new TV show, and Dawkins due to his support for libel law reform.

‘Mentalist’, anti-psychic and all-round showman Brown has a new series that apparently has been under development ‘for over a year’ and was promising all sorts of exciting new tricks. Two shows in and the results have been less than impressive.

Brown - You Will Buy My Used Car.

Must Remember To Buy Aspirin

For his first heavily hyped episode Brown promised to predict the national lottery numbers on live TV. Unfortunately his definition of ‘predicting’ and mine seem to differ somewhat. Mine involves revealing the numbers before seeing the draw, whereas his involved picking some unseen numbers, muttering something about the BBC not allowing him to reveal them, and then revealing them after the draw, at which point they were shown to be correct to the surprise of absolutely no-one. Not only was this all a bit of a swizz, but Brown’s follow-up programme in which he promised to reveal how he had done it was a damp squib. Disappointingly, given his previously laudable anti-mumbo jumbo leanings, he chose to present a couple of scenarios to explain himself and let the viewers choose. Option one was the completely ludicrous suggestion that a group of volunteers had somehow used ‘automatic writing’ to average out the numbers using a theory called ‘the wisdom of crowds’. Total hogwash and pretty close to invoking psychic ability in my book. Option two was that he had somehow rigged the lottery draw – more believable but also pretty much out of the question. General consensus seems to point to some sort of split-screen trick in which the initial balls were switched out with the correct numbers after the draw.

The second show was even worse. Brown claimed that he would, gasp, ‘control the nation’ by means of a mysterious subliminal film. Basically it was nothing more than your bog standard stage hypnotist where some people humour the entertainer by eating an onion or whatever, except in this case all they had to do was to pretend not to be able to get out of their chairs. Some viewers played the game by phoning in to report they were stuck, until released by a special ‘relaxing’ blue film segment shown by Brown.

For all his showman bluster I’m afraid this series just hasn’t done it for Brown so far – his stunts are just too easy to rig for a TV audience (the possibility of multiple takes etc) and waffle about mysterious theories and automatic writing are a definite step in the wrong direction. However he still portrays himself as an illusionist rather than a psychic, so perhaps he’ll pull something a bit more interesting out of the bag later.

Dawkins, meanwhile, has been campaigning to change the English libel laws which he says are biased towards the plaintiff. He has the support of England’s third party the Liberal Democrats (unfortunately numerically pretty much the equivalent of having the staunch support of ACT). Dawkins was quoted as saying that due to the current state of the law, it was very hard to publicly criticise homoeopaths and the like for fear of being sued (although Ben Goldacre seems to have done a pretty good job in his great book ‘Bad Science’). Another doctor, Simon Singh is currently fighting a case where he is being sued for suggesting chiropractors might be not quite as sincere as they make out. This is seen as a very important case in determining how far scientists and others can go in their criticism. Although any changes in the law are a long way off, any groundswell of support or general coverage of the issue is most welcome.