Saturday, January 23, 2010

Righteous Indignation Episode 32

Just as I thought I was reaching the end of my tenure as Nigel's fill-in guest blogger while he's off in Disney World, Nigel informed me via email, while in line at the Downtown USA gift shop, that my final duty before I'm discharged is to review the Righteous Indignation episode he would have missed. Nigel intimated if I didn't fulfill this final duty I put my remuneration for the week of service at risk. Not wanting to pass on the agreed upon compensation (One It's a Small World head band, one set of imitation teak drink coasters from the Tiki Room, and two washable velour lobster bibs from Epcot's DiveQuest attraction, to be sent to me surface mail third class no later than June 15, 2010), I naturally and hastily agreed. (I was told to keep my stinkin' Canadian hands off the review of this week's Skeptics Guide to the Universe.)

So here I am hunched over an Eee PC Netbook in a coffee shop over a Friday and Saturday night trying to crank out one last review before Nigel returns.

RI opens with hosts Trystan, Hayley, and Marsh talking about the 1023 campaign Marsh is spearheading. The 1023 campaign attempts to make the British public aware that the Boots pharmacy chain (“chemists” as I think the British would say) is selling homeopathic preparations. Boots itself has publicly admitted it has zero evidence for the product's efficacy. The big news revealed on the show is just what the heck 1023 actually means. That 23 is above the 10 kind of implies 10 to the power of 23. An exponent. Avogadro's number expressed as an exponent ends with 1023 (more specifically 6.0221415 x 1023). Homeopaths claim their nostrums are diluted by water beyond Avogadro's number and hence there isn't a single molecule of the active substance left. It's just water folks. But the homeopaths claim it can cure all manner of disease. Uh huh. Things is Boots is selling water and tacitly claiming these products offer real health benefits (beyond, oh, hydration).

The number also refers to a date, Jan. 13 (a date I'm told has passed) where skeptics are to get together in their town square and “overdose” on a homeopathic sleep aid. The gag is to demonstrate the reality of the 1023 movement's tag line “there's nothing in it”.

These kinds of “overdosing” demonstrations have I think two effects. One it crystallizes in the minds of the public homeopathic “medicine” totally lacks an active ingredient. Many people get homeopathy confused with naturopathic “medicine” that uses herbs. Herbs (called “queekies” in the UK) are, of course, unrefined drugs and can have an actual effect. While the lay person is probably not familiar with the dose-response relationship inherent in pharmacology, the average person usually has a grasp that more of something you take, a bigger kick you get (think Guinness). And taking too much of something can make you do a Marilyn Monroe.

The downside of these kinds of demonstrations is homeopaths can try and turn it around. "See, look how safe homeopathy is!"

The show then segued into an update on a controversy regarding a plan by a Muslim group to march in protest of the war in Afghanistan. This normally wouldn't be much of a problem as there was no reason to think this Muslim group would not march peacefully. However, the town they planned to march in was a town that receives the UK's war dead. It's akin to staging an anti-war protest outside a graveyard as family member are laying a fallen soldier to rest. No Christian would do that, right?

The British government quickly took a mallet to this group, appling the UK's anti-terrorism laws that outlaw even peaceable assembly if the government believes the group has terrorist leanings. The UK is a nation without a constitution (called a “shin plaster” in the UK) that limits the power of the state. There's an old joke that in the UK parliament can do anything but make a man into a woman. (It's an old joke and surgical techniques now allow the British parliament to do even that.)

The main problem with the anti-terrorism law is there's little ability to appeal or challenge your group's designation in court. UK courts can't strike down laws as they can in the USA or Canada. Many questioned applying the law to the marchers as there are far more radical (and presumably deserving) groups that should have the Hammer of Thor lowered on their collective heads first.

Last week it appeared Hayley was opposed to the march although this week Hayley qualified her position that she was not opposed to them marching (called “cromping” in the UK) in principle, she just didn't feel like they should be marching in the specific town. The group, I gather, is no longer planning to march as they feel the controversy has won them sufficient attention to their position. Marsh then highlighted the irony that those who opposed the march, presumably because they didn't want a violent band of terrorists in their midst, were themselves threatening all kinds of crazy violence (Andy Capp style or worse).

We then had another update, this one on the Irish blasphemy law. The law has just been passed and free thinkers in Ireland immediately challenged the law by publishing passages from famous books (both old and recent) that clearly run afoul of the blasphemy law. Stay tuned.

Hayley related a hilarious story of a group of ghost hunters out for a day of ghost hunting. In the middle of a series of seemingly innocuous photos of a barn (called a “sacky tuppet” in the UK), the group proclaimed one of the images indisputably captured a photograph of a ghost. The image is supposed to be the ghostly visage of a girl. Marsh noted the image was clearly a photograph of a painting. The ghost hunters, in a fit of pique, gave the photos to a British newspaper for expert examination. I guess they were unaware of the existence of EXIF data (called “data” in the UK but you need to soften the a's) most digital cameras add to photos. The EXIF information revealed the ghost image was clearly taken two hours earlier and not in series with the barn photos. Marsh noted the ghost hunters were undaunted by this data analysis and have now transformed the story from “ghost captured on film” to “ghosts can reprogram your camera's EXIF data”. *face palm*

Marsh returned to the homeopathy topic by giving listeners an interesting overview of some recently turned up courseware for a homeopathy school. The school urges future homeopaths to only employ treatments that have the backing of scientific research. Honest.

The homeopathy focus of this episode was a good lead in to the interview with Simon Singh. Singh has a PhD in Physics (called “Physic” in the UK, they borrow the S from Physics and stick it on the end of "Math") and he's a popular science journalist for the BBC. He is probably best known in the skeptical world for being sued by the British Chiropractic Association. The BCA took offense to a claim by Singh that the group “happily promotes bogus treatments.” The libel suit hinges on the meaning of the word “bogus”. The suit has highlighted problems with the UK's libel laws that shift the burden of proof. The person filing the lawsuit is assumed to be correct and the defender has to prove his/her innocence. The case is taking on a certain “McLibel” theme to it. That is to say it is bringing undo and unflattering scrutiny on the complainant. Skeptics in the UK have started to report local chiropractors who advertise treatments way beyond what the scientific evidence supports. The BCA at one point tried to demonstrate Singh's claims were false and published a list of so-called scientific papers that they said supported chiropractic treatments. The list only helped demonstrate how bankrupt the BCA is and confused about the scientific method. Papers either had only tangential relationships to chiro claims or studies they claimed were in support were older studies superseded by better designed "consensus" trials with large numbers. The most recent studies have shown chiro doesn't rise above placebo. To cite older studies while burying better negative studies that superseded them is antithetical to scientific ethics. It's like a prosecutor offering a jury evidence the accused shares the same blood type as the rapist but buries DNA evidence that exculpates the accused.

The final can of worms (or “tin of chaz squimps” as the British would say) the BCA opened was to raise awareness in the entire scientific community that British libel laws can have a chilling effect on the way scientists debate and a “Sense About Science” movement has sprung up to get the UK to change libel laws.

The legal proceedings haven't gone as well as the PR backlash against the BCA. While an out-of-court settlement seemed to be on the table, with the Guardian newspaper offering to pay the settlement, Singh is sticking to his guns (they have the gun control in the UK so they'd probably say “sticking to his board with a nail pounded through the business end”). On RI, Singh reveals he's cautiously optimistic. He has won a right to appeal the initial judge's ruling on “bogus”. The initial judge ruled bogus meant a conscious lie. This would require Singh to offer compelling evidence the BCA lies, versus lacks proper rigor. Lots of well meaning scientists lack rigor. You might call their evidence bogus. But you're not implying they're lying. Singh can now appeal the notion bogus means a conscious lie.

Singh is always an enjoyable interview. The tragedy of this lawsuit is that's about all he talks about these days. Rightly so, of course. However, it would be nice if the lawsuit was put to rest (in his favor, of course) and we can get back to hearing Singh in the role of a great science communicator.

A bit of trivia: this interview almost didn't happen. The first interview's recording rather mysteriously vanished (maybe those EXIF manipulating ghosts can also work their magic on the NTFS file system?). Luckily Singh was gracious enough to do a second interview. I believe Hayley and Marsh each did a recording of this interview to insure they had a couple backups.

-- Karl (or “Macky Ham” as I would be called in England)

P.S. I might have seemed harsh towards Jayme in my DFA review. I think you're doing a great job Jayme.


  1. I said "stink'n half breed FRENCH Canadian hands off of SGU." Let's be accurate for the record.

  2. Sacky tuppet?! Seriously? We call it that here?

  3. Disney's Mary Poppins doesn't lie, Hayley!

  4. I never thought that the mass "overdose" could lead people to believe homeopathy is just ultra safe compared to medicine. You might a good point. If I were a homeopath, and I'm not, and I were a spin doctor, and I'm not, I think that is what I would tell my suckers er-r-r patients. I still support the idea, but nothing is ever a perfect demonstration.

  5. Mary Poppins DOES lie. She also promotes homeopathy!

    "A spoonfull of sugar helps the 'medicine' go down." Ha! A quack!


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