Tuesday, 16 September 2008
Skeptics in the Pub (15/9/08)
Last night I went to my third Skeptics in the Pub event (as recommended by TimeOut Magazine!). Here are my reports from my other two visits: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/07/skeptic-in-pub-21808.html and http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/08/skeptics-in-pub-18808.html . For the first time I did not attend alone. I went there with my blog-buddy Marmite-Lover (See links column). As I’ve said in my previous reports, SitP always draws huge crowds, but this one was the most packed-out yet. It wasn’t a question of whether you’d find a seat, or whether you’d even find standing-room; the question was could you find room to stand that wasn’t on someone’s lap or under a table! They even opened the fire escape and let people sit on the stairs! Someone actually joked that it should be called “Sardines in the Pub”! The reason for the huge crowds was that the speaker is a very famous “Skeptic Knight”: Ben Goldacre; here’s his site: http://www.badscience.net/ .
See here for my review of Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science:
Ben Goldacre made my blood freeze when I saw him. This is because he very closely resembles a man who used to abuse me when I was a child… but that’s hardly his fault! He is a doctor and medical journalist with a regular column in the Guardian newspaper. He has written a book called Bad Science that can be obtained from his site. He studied medicine at Magdalen College, Oxford and went on to specialize in cognitive neuroscience and psychiatry. He has since become famous for debunking what he sees as unscientific medicine, healthy-living scams and fake cures. I’m familiar with such “anti-quackery” from the views of James Randi and others, but I was surprised to find that Goldacre takes a different position, one that I find less intimidating and aggressive. Firstly he has no beef with treatments that are unequivocally mystical and claim no scientific values, like the hands-on healing I experience at my Spiritualist church (see: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/08/psychic-mafia-by-m-lamar-keene.html). He only attacks medical treatments that he believes are not scientific but their practitioners claim that they are. An example would be the magnet therapy which is supposed to rearrange the iron molecules in your blood haemoglobin or eating chlorophyll supposedly to oxygenate your blood, when in fact chlorophyll only works during the anaerobic respiration of a plant and is useless to animals! Goldacre is to be respected as a libertarian. He concedes, unlike Randi, that in the end nobody has the right to forbid an informed public to buy into the alternative remedies he opposes; he just does everything he can to publicize his side of the story. He has been sued unsuccessfully for libel several times, most recently by the South African nutritionist Matthias Rath.
Along with his journalistic work, Goldacre is also a musician and has composed some humourous and very bawdy songs with remarkable titles like The Last Party on Earth and Fairy Gangsters! These songs are played during the intervals in a radio interview with Goldacre that is one of these (Can’t remember which one; sorry!): http://www.badscience.net/index.php?s=radio . He lectures in a very comic style which captivated his audience and the cellar bar rang with repeated bursts of laughter. Not everyone was so captivated though. Marmite-Lover took an especially dim view of Goldacre’s attitude. She muttered angrily through clenched teeth as he spoke and, during the interval, approached him and criticized him loudly; this resulted in a heated debate with him and some of the other SitP patrons. I must say I didn’t find Goldacre very funny. His humour is rather adolescent and at times in bad taste; a kind of intellectual Roy Chubby Brown! But each to their own, and Marmite and I were definitely in the minority last night!
Doctor-patient communication has changed in recent years. In the old days, doctors decided alone what the right treatment was and the patient was supposed to obey without question, but modern doctors are trained to explain and inform their patient as much as possible and leave it up to them to decide. This, Goldacre believes, is the loophole that “quackery” has exploited. The patient’s new right to knowledge has also left them, according to Goldacre, vulnerable to being violated by unscrupulous people. Because despite a patient being informed and empowered, medicine is still an impenetrable business that needs years of education and training to fully understand; it’s easy to mislead and bamboozle the layman with it. He names this alleged unscrupulous business “Big Quacka” in parody of the derogatory term for the conventional medical and pharmaceutical industry: “Big Pharma”. A lot of what he says is technically correct. In particular much of the nutritional advice promoted by Gillian McKeith, Goldacre’s arch-enemy, and others has been found wanting as time goes on. Goldacre sites a detailed study that questions the benefits of eating fruit and vegetables. He also claims that the Omega-3 fish-oil capsules that are supposed to make children brighter at school is a hoax. So what does cause illness in certain types of people? He said: “a complex nexus of interlocking political and social issues”, but he doesn’t elaborate on what this means! He also relishes the health-debunker’s favorite hobby-horse: homeopathy. Like Randi, he explains how homeopathic remedies are so super-diluted that to obtain a single molecule of the active ingredient it would be necessary to drink a glass of the solution 0.15 of a light-year across!
But there’s so much more to the story than that! As I said, Goldacre was technically correct in much of what he said, but the field of his analysis lacks scope. For instance: he criticized Gillian McKeith, maybe justly, but he never mentions another alternative-health and lifestyle practitioner who is far less renowned, but I think far more impressive: Lynne McTaggart. She publishes a magazine and free e-zine called What the Doctors Don’t Tell You: http://www.wddty.com/ .There are also theorists, past and present, who give us an insight into how homeopathy works. The “light-year wide glass of dilute solution” theory is based on the assumption that the water in the homeopathic solution is simply an inert mixer. But is it? Water is a far more fascinating and enigmatic substance than we think. Two of these theorists who most impressively illustrate this are Masaru Emoto (http://www.masaru-emoto.net/) and Viktor Schauberger (http://www.xpress.se/~jela0218/EnSchauberger/index.html). It’s worth asking when observing the tests that question the value of eating fruit and vegetables, what kind of fruit and veg was it? If it was just any old plastic-wrapper stuff bought off a supermarket shelf then they’re not going to have half as much vitamins as organically-grown products. The chemicals and GM crops used in modern factory farming may actually deplete the food grown of much of its goodness turning it into what my friend Ian Crane (see links) calls “cardboard food”. The Omega 3 in artificial capsules is also not the same as the nutrients you’d find in a living fish caught in an unpolluted sea, very lightly-grilled and eaten quickly without processing. Goldacre’s lack of scope is illustrated well when he explains how in many cases “Big Pharma” and “Big Quacka” are the same thing. Many herbal or homeopathic remedies, diet pills and vitamin supplements etc are produced by the same pharmaceutical companies that make antibiotics, antipsychotics and other conventional drugs. (I have personally noticed that herbal anti-stress drugs like Kalms and Quiet Life are made by Roche!) He is more correct than he knows! In one of Ian Crane’s lectures we hear of a poignant true story, written as a book called The Shaman’s Apprentice, which was adapted into a documentary film. The author is a man who worked as a scout for a pharmaceutical firm and was sent by his employers into the Amazon jungle a few years ago to investigate herbal ingredients that could be made into modern medical drugs. He comes across an unknown tribe of people, very like the ones I report on here: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2007/10/real-erkdwala.html . They are an indigenous culture that has had no contact with the outside world. The people don’t wear clothes and live off the natural world of the forest, eating only what they hunt and gather. They very rarely get sick, but when they do they visit the local medicine man who fixes them up with a natural herbal tonic. When they’d got used to the author’s unusual appearance: white skin, clothing, technology etc, they were perfectly happy to provide him with specimens of their medicinal herbs, an act both parties would bitterly regret! The author returned to the tribe a few years later to find that in the meantime they’d had more contact with the outside world, from missionaries. Not only Christian priests, but the missionaries of that other Great God of the Western world: Consumerism. The people who used to walk happily around naked now wore jeans, T-shirts and Nike trainers. For spiritual guidance they never went to the Shamans anymore, but to their missionary’s chapel. If they got ill they only visited the village’s modern medical centre. The author was shown a shelf of conventional drugs based on the same ingredients he’d discovered, but they’d been processed by his employer! The pure, natural medicine had been cut with chemicals, watered down and redosed. The tribe members were even denied the choice of using the original natural form of the drug because the pharmaceutical company had patented it! Any Indians who tried could be sued for Copyright infringement! Even though it was the Indians who had originally discovered the herb and had been using it for thousands of years! This is the other side of the matter, the additional sphere of information that throws light onto Ben Goldacre’s phrase “Big Quacka and Big Pharma are the same thing”. Modern mass-produced alternative remedies are not alternative at all! They are a corrupted, modernized shadow of genuine natural indigenous medicine.
Goldacre becomes most passionate when he talks about AIDS in South Africa, where it is a terrible and tragic problem. Over 5 million people, 10% of the country’s population, are supposedly infected with HIV, the virus that it is generally accepted causes AIDS. Some regions like Natal have areas where the HIV- people are in the minority! He describes his conflict with Matthias Rath (Rath’s site: http://www.drrathresearch.org/) and his ally, Rath’s opponent in South Africa, Zackie Achmat (Achmat’s site: http://www.tac.org.za/community/ ) whom Goldacre deeply admires for his promotion of conventional AIDS treatment in a country where people, government and institutions are doubting and questioning the current ideas about AIDS. The truth about AIDS and what causes it is a very contentious and disturbing issue, not least because if we get it wrong it will cause catastrophic loss of human life and culture. My own views on the subject lie beyond the domain of this report and will require a whole new article.
It was a good night and I’m glad Marmite-Lover came along. She seemed quite enlivened by her passionate wrangle with Goldacre and his entourage! I hope she’ll attend future SitP’s. It’s nice to have a fellow “Woo” by my side in there! I think she sees the event differently to me though; unlike her I never question or contribute to the proceedings. I see my job as simply to gather information and report on SitP from an alternative non-Skeptical perspective. Here’s Marmite’s own report on yesterday’s Skepperama: http://travelswithmyteenager.blogspot.com/2008/09/skeptics.html . I want to go to future SitP’s; I’m particularly looking forward to the one with Nick Pope in December. I’ve met Nick and written about him before: http://hpanwo.blogspot.com/2008/06/now-thats-weird-conference-2008.html