Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: woo (page 1 of 2)

To my new age friend who unfriended me

Dear New Age Friend,

I’ve just noticed that, next to all your comments, Facebook helpfully said we had ’18 mutual friends’, which means we’re no longer ‘friends’, which I guess means you’ve unfriended me. Boo.

Was it something I said? Was it that post where I showed how psychics use cold reading to guess things about people? Was it the one where I explained how ouija boards work? Oh, I know. It was the one where you said that we “create our own reality”, and I asked you if people who get terminal illnesses have somehow created their own reality.

Why did I comment? Well, let’s face it — I’m kind of annoying. If someone says something wrong on the Internet, I like to get in there and set things straight, like that ever works.

But there’s more. Deception pisses me off. I saw that you were getting tricked by phony psychics, buying “inspirational” books by screwy swamis, relying on astrology and numerology to guide your life. You’re getting cheated, and I hated to see that happen to you. I think I was hoping that if I gave good information, something would happen and you’d start thinking a little more critically. Guess not.

Our exchanges fell into a predictable pattern. You’d never address my comments directly, but instead you’d post some quote by Osho in new-age passive-aggressive style, like:

“The day you think you know, your death has happened – because now there will be no wonder and no joy and no surprise. Now you will live a dead life.”

Or you’d bristle at my ‘tone’, which is another way of ignoring someone’s argument.

Or else you’d say that it was wrong to talk sense and reason because I wasn’t “respecting” everyone’s points of view. It’s a funny thing about respect: People whose views are the most tenuous seem to demand most vociferously that those views be respected. What you didn’t seem to realise was that not all points of view deserve respect. Ideas deserve respect in proportion to the amount of evidence that supports them. As for me, I don’t want my views to be respected. Slash away! If they’re wrong, I’ll change them, and I’ll thank you for helping me.

You insisted that it was important to keep an open mind, and it is — when the facts aren’t available. When they are, it makes no sense to “keep an open mind” — that’s like choosing between information and ignorance. It’s true that we need to stay open to new facts, but you weren’t even open to the facts we have.

Admittedly, you played nicer than your friends. They’re the ones who put “science” in quotes. I’ve noticed that they got nastier the more money they appeared to be making off of new age woo. When science didn’t support their views, they acted as though all of science itself was wrong instead of them. They are really dishonest people, and you should have nothing to do with them.

Maybe I pushed you too hard. I wasn’t relentless, and I didn’t comment on everything you posted, but I did try to give good information. I’m an educator — that’s what I do. When I thought you were credulous, I tried to be grounded. When you spread woo-woo, I suggested that there might be another explanation. I guess I intruded too much on your idea of a world where anything was possible, and where mysteries are supposed to stay mysterious.

Red Flags of Quackery

Let me be the last to share this wonderful guide to detecting BS. It’s the Red Flags of Quackery.

Just a taste:

This may not be the last word on woo, but there will always be things missing. The artist would have needed to create a patchwork about the size of a football field to include every bad rationale that the woosters are capable of pulling out. But the one I would have included is this:

AltMed Flowchart

Just had to link to the wonderful AltMed Flowchart.

This will help you to select your preferred healing modality, restoring balance and draining away unwanted funds.

The Medium Challenge

Many thanks to everyone who has responded to the news of my mother’s death. I’ve appreciated everyone’s comments, and I was especially intrigued by this one from a long-time commenter.

I would love you to meet my good friend, I’ve spoken of her before, the clairvoyant one.

I would like you to test her objectively, with your atheistic views intact. Ask her to get in touch with your mother.

I should add (for the religious minded amongst your readers) she is a pure Catholic – purest of pure hearts. And I should also add I am almost an expert on the biblical views on visionaries, prophets, and the like. So no-one can argue badly against her without my intervention!

She is likely to get some wisdom and advice from your mother – you can test it for yourself.

I’m challenging you to a duel of sorts, on belief.

Now, I don’t think spirits exist, since no one’s yet presented evidence for them. And the idea of having a medium contact dead relatives is silly. If my Mom’s going to go to the trouble of crossing boundaries of time, space, and matter to give me a message, then I think she’d come to me, and not someone who has to fish around for information, saying “I’m getting the colour red; what does that mean to you?”

I don’t like what psychics and mediums do. I think they’re either fooling themselves into thinking they can communicate with spirits, or they’re vultures, preying on the grief and desperation of the bereaved. Their techniques are well-known — cold reading is something that you can learn to do. You throw out a lot of suggestions, wait for the subject to feed you information, take credit for the hits, and hope they forget all the misses.

In short, I’m with this guy.

It’s the whole problem of rigour. Going to a medium wouldn’t be a good test for me, since I’m as capable of fooling myself as anyone else. (And maudlin emotionalism, too. After Dad died, I cried watching Blades of Glory, for Pete’s sake. On a plane! It doesn’t take much when you’re in a state.)

With all that in mind, I think the Medium Challenge is a great idea. Even though I don’t believe in spirits and psychic phenomena, I could be wrong, and if we don’t do the experiment, we won’t learn anything new. So I’d like to run the experiment. But it’s going to be a controlled experiment. I want to get not one, but three clairvoyants, psychics, mediums, what have you. As a control, I’ll also need three non-mediums — people who don’t believe in psychic power or readings — doing their best at their own readings.

To make sure I’m not feeding the mediums information, some tight controls will have to be in place. I will be obscured from view by a screen, so the readers won’t be able to read my actions. (It should be all the same to the spirits.) I will only respond to direct questions, and I will only say “yes” and “no”. Other than that, I’ll be very helpful, truthful, and accommodating. The test will be whether the mediums are able to get hits with any greater frequency than the non-mediums, or random chance.

I’d like to video this and turn it into a programme — YouTube at the least, possibly more. Full recordings of all the sessions will be made available via the Internet. And — this is important to me — I’ll be publishing the results no matter what they are, even if they run counter to my current belief. (Or those of the psychics.)

The test needs to be blind, so I won’t know who the mediums or non-mediums are. For this reason, Maureen has kindly agreed to assist in lining up the readings for various nights in November or thereabouts. So if you would like to volunteer as a medium or a non-medium (you-know-who, your friend has priority), please contact her at

I still need to work out the particulars of the experiment, so watch this space for the full list of rules and conditions here in comments.

Amcal experts?

Here’s the new ad for Amcal, a pharmacy chain. I caught this ad last night in a rare spate of TV watching.

So I popped down to my local Amcal chemist. Along with perfumes, diapers, and magazines, here’s what I found.

Lots and lots of homeopathy. The message is starting to get out that homeopathy doesn’t work, but it seems the chemists are either clueless, or they can’t resist all the tasty tasty money that it brings.

Bach flower essences are also popular, but just as dodgy. “Traditionally used to relieve feelings of stress”, it says.

This is a bottle of some patent medicine. If you look closely, it says, “With creosote.” That’s not a warning; I think it’s meant to be a selling point.

This is supposed to be for migraines. It’s mostly just lavender oil.

And lots of ear candles. Everybody knows these are bogus, right? A brochure says that in addition to sucking the wax out of your ears, they can restore your harmonic energy balance. I asked, if they don’t restore my harmonic energy balance, do I get my money back? They said no.

And check it out — colloidal silver, ffs.

I don’t think my local chemist is atypical. Chemists around here have real medicine that works, but they don’t mind selling a bit of the fake stuff on the side. So if you walk into a chemist expecting expert advice, you might get it, or you might shell out good money for a lot of crap.

People look to pharmacies as places where they can get accurate information about health and drugs. Maybe pharmacists don’t ask for this reputation, and it’s an expectation that the public has created. Which would let the pharmacists off the hook.

But now that Amcal is embracing its image that their people are ‘experts’ (and trading off of this image), then they have a responsibility to provide expert advice and educate the public, and not supply fake cures just because the unwary will pay for it.

Homeopathy kills again

Lately it’s been out-of-stater Meryl Dorey grabbing the attention with AltMed woo-woo in Perth, but let’s not forget that we’ve got a lot of woo-sters of our own.

Peter Dingle is not a medical doctor, but he gives medical advice on his blog. He’s come out against cholesterol-treating drugs. He finds the time to spread uncertainty about vaccines. The stuff he writes isn’t always wrong, but it’s a worry that he tends to cherry-pick scientific reports that confirm his views about natural health, all presented in an authoritative-sounding package. People think he knows something.

Sadly, his wife Penelope Dingle died of rectal cancer, which is treatable if caught early enough. What did the Dingles use to treat it? Homeopathy.

The State Coroner is investigating the death of a Perth woman who died of cancer after refusing traditional medical treatment in favour of alternative therapies.

Penelope Dingle died of bowel cancer in 2005.

In 2007, her family approached the coroner’s court to investigate her death.

The inquest has been told Mrs Dingle was being treated by a homeopath when she developed symptoms from bowel cancer.

Counsel assisting the coroner told the court her condition was not diagnosed until two years later at which point her homeopath told Mrs Dingle her cancer could be cured with alternative therapies.

Mrs Dingle then refused treatment from doctors who told her she had a reasonable chance of recovery if she underwent chemotherapy and an operation.

And Peter Dingle’s role in this? He wanted to write a book.

Ms Brown told the inquest that Jennifer Kornberger, a friend of Penelope’s, told her that Ms Scrayen, Penelope and Peter had made “a pact” that if treatment with homeopathy together with his regimen of anti-oxidants, vitamins and protein drinks was successful, he would write a book.

If I’d been through what Peter Dingle has been through, there’s no way in hell I’d be blithely offering up medical advice, especially with no medical qualifications. Why does he think he has any credibility?

There’s a bright side to this sad story. This time, they didn’t kill a child like usual. Penelope Dingle’s death was terrible, but at least she was an adult who made her own choices. She could have had access to good information if she had wanted it, especially with a supposedly scientifically-minded husband.

The other good thing: One less book about alternative medicine.

Homeopathy on the rocks at last in Britain

Good news from the UK: a British governmental committee agrees that homeopathy is rubbish, and shouldn’t be funded.

The NHS should stop funding homeopathy, MPs say.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee said using public money on the highly-diluted remedies could not be justified.

The cross-party group said there was no evidence beyond a placebo effect, when a patient gets better because of their belief that the treatment works.

I’m glad they decided that placebos aren’t good enough. Homeopathy has had a privileged place in Britain for far too long.

And my schadenfruede is off the charts. Let’s hear from the quacks.

Robert Wilson, of the British Association of Homeopathic Manufacturers, said he was “disappointed” by the findings.

He said the MPs had ignored evidence that homeopathy was effective.

“There is good evidence that homeopathy works, for example in animals and babies, neither of which experience placebo effects.”

Wrong. Animals and babies don’t experience placebo effects, but judgments about how the animal or baby feels are made by caregivers, who are susceptible to the placebo effect.

And Dr Michael Dixon, medical director for the Prince’s Foundation for Integrated Health, set up by Prince Charles to promote complementary medicine, disputed the findings, saying homeopathy still had a role in the NHS.

“We should not abandon patients we cannot help with conventional scientific medicine.

“If homeopathy is getting results for those patients, then of course we should continue to use it.”

Homeopathy is not getting results. That’s the point, dipstick.

There’s no down-side to this. Public money will be saved, or perhaps used for treatments that actually work. Patients will be better served, since they’ll get real medicines instead of fake ones. And the fakes will have a harder time plying their phony trade.

10^23: Homeopathy Overdose in Perth

I’m happy to report that I survived the Homeopathy Overdose. Imagine, if you will, about twenty Perth Skeptics standing outside a chemist’s on Beaufort Street, snarfing down tiny white pillules. It was all to highlight the point that homeopathy is bunk, and unsupported by any scientific evidence. Other skeptic groups around the world held similar events.

Many of the Perth skeptics chose sleeping pills (and subsequently failed to fall asleep). But I went for the hard stuff. Arsenicum album is a homeopathic nostrum that is supposedly derived from arsenic. You’d think that if you ate a lot of them, you’d experience some form of arsenic poisoning, but I ate half a bottle of those horribly sweet crunchy things (Oldest Boy ate the other half), and we experienced no ill effects at all. Actually, I’m lucky I didn’t die — who knows what crap they use as filler.

But wait: there’s a reason that I didn’t die of arsenic poisoning. Homeopathics are deluded — sorry, diluted — so that no trace of the original stuff remains. The pills I took had a dilution of 30C. A dilution of 1C is a 1:100 ratio, so 30C would be 10^60 molecules of water — a one with sixty zeros. 10^60 molecules of water is a lot. It’s about 27 billion earth volumes. (Back of the envelope calculations here.) That’s how much you’d have to drink before being certain of getting one molecule of arsenicum album with a 30C dilution. And some dilutions go a lot higher than that. There is no chance any of the original stuff is still there.

Homeopaths admit this, but still claim that the water retains some ‘memory’ of the remedy. Baloney and hogwash. If the water ‘remembers’ the arsenic, then it should also remember the urinary tract of every person it’s passed through, as well as all the effluent carried through it over the years.

Why do people believe this stuff? Probably because homeopaths, with no need to do real research, can spend all their time making up far-fetched explanations for their silly bullshit.

The 2010 Overdose was great fun, and a good way to make the point that homeopathy is a scam. And I shall never forget the look on that motorist’s face as she passed us, gleefully chomping away.

Obligatory YouTube clip.

Dowsing for bombs in Iraq

Dowsing doesn’t work. Lots of people think they can find water by the use of sticks or wires, but it always falls apart under experimental conditions. It’s the thing people try most often when going for the JREF Million-Dollar Challenge, and the money is still safe.

But why would you go for a million dollars, when you could net a cool couple of million by selling phony bomb dowsers in Iraq?

The small hand-held wand, with a telescopic antenna on a swivel, is being used at hundreds of checkpoints in Iraq. But the device works “on the same principle as a Ouija board” — the power of suggestion — said a retired United States Air Force officer, Lt. Col. Hal Bidlack, who described the wand as nothing more than an explosives divining rod.

Still, the Iraqi government has purchased more than 1,500 of the devices, known as the ADE 651, at costs from $16,500 to $60,000 each. Nearly every police checkpoint, and many Iraqi military checkpoints, have one of the devices, which are now normally used in place of physical inspections of vehicles.

Would you feel happy knowing that someone had given the area a placebo check for explosives?

The US military doesn’t go for the devices, but the Iraqi authorities are sold.

Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives.

Oh, does it? How well does it detect bombs?

The suicide bombers who managed to get two tons of explosives into downtown Baghdad on Oct. 25, killing 155 people and destroying three ministries, had to pass at least one checkpoint where the ADE 651 is typically deployed, judging from surveillance videos released by Baghdad’s provincial governor.

But the True Believers will tell you that the blame lies with the operators, not the device. You have to be

rested, with a steady pulse and body temperature, before using the device.

Water dowsing is a waste of money, but at least it doesn’t kill anyone. This is a dangerous form of insanity.

It’s all the same racket.

There’s a gypsy guy who wants to work as a fortune-teller, but can’t because it’s against the law.

He has enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union in his year-long fight to overturn the law that calls his livelihood fraudulent. He argues that fortunetelling is part of his heritage and that prohibiting him from working as a fortuneteller amounts to discrimination.

Is this some religious blue law? Nope — it’s actually quite sensible.

“I don’t think it’s strange for us to have laws that protect against fraud,” said Clifford Royalty, zoning division chief in the Montgomery County attorney’s office, adding that “religion has nothing to do with it. He’s not made that allegation in the lawsuit.”

“The practice is fraudulent,” Royalty said, “because no one can forecast the future.”

Through non-empirical means, that’s right.

So if it’s illegal to make fraudulent claims about the future in Montgomery County, are there no churches as well? Because their claims about the future are far more overblown.

UPDATE: Miss Perfect snipes: “I bet there’s a chiropractor next door.”

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