I don’t wish to gloat but…Norwich 4 Scum 1

Today was a fantastic day to be a Norwich City fan. It saw Norwich host local rivals Ipswich Town (affectionately referred to as “the scum” by Norwich fans) in the East Anglian derby (daftly referred to as the “Old Farm” by outsiders). The BBC were generous enough to show it, which was great news for me, seeing as I’m stuck in Liverpool.

The match revolved around Grant Holt, who managed to start a little scrimmage soon after kick off, and gave Norwich the lead soon after. However, Ipswich managed a header equalizer from Damien Delaney shortly after that. Norwich played some lovely passing football, with débutante Henri Lansbury controlling the game from midfield, and putting Holt through for a second goal. The turning point of the match saw Ipswich goalscorer Delaney being sent off for a professional foul on Holt, after he was caught dithering on the ball. After that Norwich were in control, another flowing move seeing Holt get a hat trick in the second half. Sub Wes Hoolahan finished things off a couple of minutes later with a close finish following excellent work from Chris Martin and Holt. There was time for a little more drama when substitute striker Simeon Jackson went down in the box, but the ref booked Jackson for diving instead of awarding a penalty.

The final whistle saw much jubilation in the Skeptic Canary living room, and ensures bragging rights for NCFC, at least until the return match at Ipswich in April. On the ball, City!

Norwich City badge

Nadia Sawalha: case study of a celebrity dimwit supporting homeopathy

At the moment, all eyes are on “celebrity nutritionist” Gillian McKeith as she struggles in the Australian jungle, but I’d like to talk about a celebrity who is a keen advocate of homeopathy: Nadia Sawalha.

I might as well say from the off that I find Nadia Sawalha on TV to be very annoying. Her only talents seems to be for shouting and staring maniacally at the camera. Now that I’ve got my prejudices out of the way, lets look at a few of her interviews: two from the Daily Mail, and one from Candis, a Northern-based lifestyle magazine that just happens to sound like a venereal disease.

They all center around her life experience of homeopathy, and all read like a lesson in “Bullshit detection 101”. Here’s a little anecdote that she heard from a friend:

Then my sister bumped into a friend who had suffered from bad acne since she was a teenager, but whose skin was now clear. She’d repeatedly been to the doctors, spent a fortune on creams, yet nothing worked. Eventually, she went to see a homeopath and the remedy he’d prescribed made her skin clear up.
It doesn’t take a genius to see that you have someone who suffered from acne as a teenager, and the acne went away as they got older. Regression to the mean methinks, no evidence whatsoever that the homeopathy played a role.
She goes on to talk about her experience with headaches:
I booked to see a homeopath, Rachel. For an hour, she asked me every question under the sun about my physical and emotional well-being, stress, my likes and dislikes, the food I craved, then she gave me some pills to take every day, for two weeks. After a week, not only had my headaches subsided – I felt fantastic.
What we are seeing here is the benefit of the homeopathic consultation and the placebo effect, both of which are well studied phenomena, especially with regards to headaches.
So far, so easy to dismiss Nadia’s claims of efficacy. However, what really convinces Nadia of the effectiveness of homeopathy is her experience of eczema, despite admitting that she first suffered it age 17:
Not everyone has a pet name for their eczema, but actress and TV presenter Nadia Sawalha called hers ‘my John rash’ after a mild attack was triggered as a 17-year-old after she broke up with her boyfriend.
So straight away, she admits that she has had eczema following stress, and stress is known to exacerbate some skin conditions. She tells us of a major attack of eczema later in her life:
Just over six years ago, it got so bad I couldn’t even pick up my baby, Maddie, who’s now seven. Her birth had been very traumatic, but I hadn’t talked to anybody about it. When she was about six months old, my hands started to blister very badly. I tried hydrocortisone cream, which had no effect. Back in the UK, the hospital said there was nothing they could do, apart from regularly dress my hands. Feeling helpless, I went back to my homeopath, Rachel. Through talking, we finally established the real issue behind the eczema – it was 
a physical symptom of the emotional trauma of Maddie’s birth.
In fact, she also reveals in the Mail articles that she was working 13 hour days at the time and gave up on breast feeding her baby. Now, I’m not likely to experience any of this, but I imagine that giving birth for the first time, unwillingly giving up breast feeding and working 13 hours a day on a TV program is pretty stressful. There is evidence to show that the homeopathic consultation has clinical effects, which in this case would most probably have relaxed and reassured Nadia, helping her to get over her eczema.
In conclusion, what we see with Nadia are several straightforward examples of regression to the mean, the placebo effect and the effects of long consultations. I’m all for people having their own opinions, but it does anger me that some people take her stupidity seriously. Oh, one final thing: she is anti-vaccine.
Nadia says her daughters Maddie, now seven, and Kiki, two, have never seen a GP and not had any childhood vaccinations. Rather, they consult the homeopath every few weeks.
Oh dear.

Yet more Gillian McKeith fail

Sorry if I seem a tad obsessed by not-a-Dr Gillian McKeith on IACGMOOH, but rarely is TV this karmic (and no, I don’t believe in Karma, thanks).

So far, the diminutive quack has been voted to take part in every bush tucker trial she has been eligible for. The first was a piece of TV gold which saw her freaking out, fainting (despite adjusting her clothing), and being given oxygen. Her performances improved slightly as the week wore on, but last night saw her reach a new zenith of crappiness. She was first required to command a digger and retrieve some buried stars. Mistakes would be punished with a swift dispatch of insects to the head, so she didn’t even attempt the trial. Didn’t even try. Pathetic.

However, the best was yet to come, when the first live bush tucker trial of the series commenced. Unsurprisingly, McKeith came top in the public vote, but as she got up to talk to Ant and Dec, she “fainted”, once again requiring medical attention. Following a hasty commercial break, the hosts announced that Gillian would not be doing the trial, and that anyone who called in to vote for her could get a refund. I bet the ITV paymasters were happy about that! Here it is again in case you missed it:

Am I wrong to enjoy the apparent suffering of one Gillian McKeith?

Well, I’ve got to say that last night’s episode of IACGMOOH was everything I hoped it would be. Gillian McKeith being buried alive with rats, freaking out and needing oxygen treatment. With every scream and every rodent sighting I was thinking “Yes! THAT’S for misrepresenting science! THAT’S for threatening people with legal action! THAT’S for PhDiva!”.

Is that wrong of me? I know that some people think that Gillian is in some way faking it, knowing that this is the best way to get publicity. Personally, I couldn’t care less. If she becomes famous as a subject of ridicule, I can live with that.

On a lighter note, these two comments from an article on the Guardian website are full of win:

guardian comment lol

Not-a-Dr Gillian McKeith to be on “I’m a Celebrity…”!

Fake PhDWhen it comes to reality TV, I usually follow the Joe Cornish-inspired mantra “IACGMOOH, IACGMOOH, I do not watch it I’ve got better things to do”. However, I could well be watching “I’m a Celebrity” gleefully this year for just one reason: celebrity dump examiner Not-a-Dr Gillian McKeith will be amongst the contestants inhabiting the Australian jungle this year!

As far as I’m aware, the show involves the celebrities being voted by the public to undertake ‘bush tucker trials’, where the unfortunate victim has to complete a scary/dangerous/vomit-inducing task, otherwise the team goes hungry. Possibly the most famous example is ex-traitor Paul Burrell ripping his shirt off while the juices of a kangaroo’s testicle poured from his mouth. After what she’s done to various bloggers and scientists, who wouldn’t want to see Gillian McKeith suffer?

The Mass Libel Reform Blog – Fight for Free Speech!

Free Speech is not for saleEver since Simon Singh made an appearance at Liverpool SitP, I’ve been a keen follower of the Libel Reform Campaign. The libel laws in the UK are hugely biased towards the accuser, as the defendant has to show that they have not been libelous. In effect, the defendant is guilty until proven innocent. Libel laws could be seen by some as a way for quacks to silence criticism, for example Singh vs. BCA, Goldacre vs Rath, and Wilmshurt vs NMT.

To highlight this problem, the kind folks at libelreform.org have put together a “Mass Blog” event, which I am happy to take part in. I’m Tom Williamson, the Skeptic Canary, and I approve this message. I am not a witch.

This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.

The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.

You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.

The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.

If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.

We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at http://www.libelreform.org/sign

My Take on Intelligent Design

Bacterial flagellaMany people may consider the notion of Intelligent Design as a mere annoying polyp on the arse of science, something that was crushed long ago. Well, recently the Center for Intelligent Design was founded to promote ID in the UK. I predict that this new institution will fizzle out and die within a short while, but at least it gives me an excuse to write about ID. Here, I’ll give a brief overview of ID, why it isn’t science, and a little history.

Intelligent Design “theory” states that certain biological features cannot be explained with naturalistic processes, and therefore must have been designed by an “intelligent agent”. Of course, as ID is nothing but a watering down of Christian creationism, pretty much all ID proponents identify the “intelligent agent” as God. ID is supposed to be a scientific alternative to the theory of evolution.

Taken on it’s own merits, it is clear that ID does not qualify as science for one simple reason: it invokes the supernatural. Saying “GODDIDIT” to explain anything, as ID does, is the intellectual equivalent of hitting yourself very hard in the face with a frying pan. It can only be embarrassing and detrimental. Secondly, there is no process of discovery in ID, it is one big dead end. Scientific investigations always lead to more questions. If evolution occurs, how does it occur? Does it occur in bursts or is it constant? What are the mechanisms involved? Etc etc. However, ID proponents tend to think along the lines of “this was designed by an intelligent agent. We cannot identify the intelligent agent, so lets go home and have some tea”. Again, science doesn’t stop.

ID does not follow the standard scientific protocols of hypothesis, experimentation, theory etc, instead relying on two logical fallacies. The first is an argument from incredulity, along the lines of “this is really complicated, I can’t understand how it could have evolved, therefore something must have designed it”. The second is a simple false dichotomy: “Life must have arrived either by evolution or by design. It is too complex to have evolved, therefore it must have been designed”.

Proponents of ID will claim that it is scientific in basis and not religious. However, a brief glance at the history of ID shows otherwise. To counteract evolution, Christians in the USA wanted to teach creationism in science classes. The 1987 Edwards v. Aguillard legal case found that teaching creationism in the science classroom clearly goes against the Establishment Clause of the US constitution, which states that the state will do nothing to promote or hinder religion (otherwise known as ‘separation of church and state’), as it promotes Christianity. In order to get around this, Christians came up with the “theory” of Intelligent Design, removing any references to creationism and God in their literature. In fact, in the textbook “Of Pandas and People” they simply replaced the term “creationist” with “design proponent”. It’s even possible to see the term “cdesign proponentsists” in some editions!

Although teaching of creationism in the science classroom was declared illegal in the USA back in the 80’s, Intelligent Design itself wasn’t tested in the courts until 2005. The school board of Dover, Pennsylvania, required biology teachers to read out a pro-ID statement whenever evolution was taught. The parents of several children objected to this statement, and sued the Dover Area School District. The trial was presided over the Judge John E. Jones III, a conservative judge appointed by George W. Bush himself. If anyone was going to be sympathetic towards the Christian cause, it was going to be him.

The trial saw a cavalcade of superstar witnesses from both sides of the debate. The judge was essentially given a series of scientific lectures on evolution by the witnesses for the plaintiffs, and a succession of tedious apologetics by the defense. In the end, the judge ruled heavily against ID, concluding that “the religious nature of ID [intelligent design] would be readily apparent to an objective observer, adult or child”. He was scathing towards ID, even referring to the “outright lies” of the defendants in his final decision. Following the trial, the school board was voted out at their next election. A PBS documentary on the Dover trial is available to view online.

One of the star witnesses for the defense in the Dover trial, Professor Michael Behe, is set to embark on a lecture tour of the UK. Sadly for myself, he won’t be coming anywhere near Liverpool, but I would love to challenge him on one of his pillars of ID, the bacterial flagellum. Behe claims in book “Darwin’s Black Box” that this tail-like structure, involved in locomotion, is far too complex to have evolved via natural selection. He uses it as an example of what he calls “Irreducible Complexity” and argues that it qualifies because if one protein element is removed from the flagella, then the flagella fails to function. Therefore, it could not have evolved.

I find Behe’s arguments to be incredulous for the following reasons: firstly, in science you can never just say “I’m right until you prove me wrong”, as Behe does with “Irreducible Complexity”, you have to provide positive evidence to support your position. Second, Behe shows a lack of understanding of the process of evolution when it comes to the bacterial flagella. It has been noted that the bacterial flagella is similar to the Type III Secretary System. The existence of this structure, part of theories on the origin of the bacteria flagella, put pay to Behe’s idea that it could not have evolved.

So, that’s my intro to ID! Guess I’ll keep an eye on www.c4id.org.uk, for however long it hangs around…

My Take on Homeopathy

Boots homeopathy

Sugar pills, available at your local Boots!

One of the disadvantages of starting a new blog is that all the articles that make your position clear on certain subjects disappear into the ether. Therefore I thought I’d write a few words about one of my favourite topics, homeopathy.

What is Homeopathy?

Homeopathy is a form of quackery. It was cooked up by Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, who came up with three “laws” for homeopathy:

  1. The law of similars. This is the idea that “like cures like”, that something that will cause symptoms in a healthy person will cure those symptoms in an unwell person.
  2. The law of infinitesimals. This states that the more you dilute something the stronger it gets. No joke.
  3. The law of succussion. This is a believe that dilutions should be firmly struck against a hard yet elastic surface following preparation.

Homeopathic preparations are usually made by taking a substance, diluting it multiple times, and succussing each dilution (a process homeopaths like to call potentization). The final dilution is then placed on a sugar pill and left to dry. So usually there is no active ingredient, and there isn’t even any solvent.

And that is pretty much it! The basics of homeopathy.

What do you have against homeopathy?

I have many issues with homeopathy. Firstly, the premise of it is ridiculous. Homeopaths teach that if you dilute something, you make it stronger. Anyone who has ever made a glass of orange squash knows that diluting a solution makes it weaker! Added to that, homeopaths dilute their preparations to an absurd degree:

Homeopathic preparation are diluted using the C (centesimal) scale. In this scale, each ‘C’ preparation is a 1 in 100 dilution of the one before. So, 1C is 1 part of the the original solution to 99 parts solvent. 2C is 1 part 1C to 99 parts solvent, etc. So, every time you go up one C, you are decreasing the concentration of the solution by a factor of 100. Most homeopathic preparations are 30C, which means the original solution is diluted by a factor of 1060.

To appreciate just how dilute this is, we need to consider Avogadro’s constant. This tells us the amount of molecules in one mole of a substance, and is about 6 x 1023. A typical solution will contain 1 mole per liter of solvent (1M), or 6 x 1023 molecules per liter. Every time you dilute it by 1C, you decrease the concentration by a factor of 100, so a 1C dilution of our original solution will contain 6 x 1021 molecules per liter. If you keep going along the C scale, you have less than 1 molecule per liter at 12C. With this perspective, you can see how dilute 30C would be! So, homeopathic preparations above 12C have practically no active ingredients.

However, my major problem with homeopathy is that it can lead to death if used in place of conventional medicine. A list of these occurrences can be found at whatstheharm.net.

Is there any evidence that homeopathy works?

In short, no. There is certainly no reliable scientific evidence that it works. However, in order to define “works” we need to consider two terms, “efficacy” and “effectiveness”. In medicine, a treatment is considered effective if it “does what it says on the tin”, but to qualify as efficacious it must do this in a controlled clinical setting, where the placebo effect can be measured. The placebo effect is considered when judging effectiveness, it is not when judging efficacy.

So, the important question is “how efficacious is homeopathy?”. According to the UK House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check on homeopathy, it is not efficacious. It merely acts as a placebo. The best evidence for this comes from Randomized Controlled Trials (RCTs). These trials are designed to eliminate the placebo effect and other biases from the trial, so that efficacy can be gaged. While some of these trials do show that homeopathy can work better than placebo, these results are not statistically significant. When these trials are examined with meta studies, homeopathy comes out as being no better than placebo (Shang et al 2005).

Why do people believe homeopathy works?

When someone claims that homeopathy has worked for them, they usually attribute the success of the placebo treatment to one of three things:

  1. Regression to the mean (a posh way of saying “You would have gotten better anyway”).
  2. The placebo effect, where you feel better because you expect to feel better.
  3. If they are taking homeopathy as a “complementary” medicine, the real medicine the patient is taking has done it’s job.

Again, the important thing to consider here is quality of evidence. As someone with a scientific background, I like to think that I would place evidence from RCTs in the forefront of my judgment. However, someone who has experienced regression to the mean after taking homeopathy may not understand this, and they will take their own anecdote as evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy. To believe that homeopathy works, you have to put anecdotal evidence ahead of scientific evidence, something that I simply can’t do.

What is being done about homeopathy?

10:23 campaignHomeopathy costs the NHS an estimated £4 million per year, and understandably many people are not happy about this. For this reason, and the others mentioned above, the 10:23 campaign was formed. The group promotes homeopathy awareness and campaigns for it’s  removal from the shelfs of Boots, a major UK pharmacy chain. In January 2010, they organized a worldwide demonstration against homeopathy, which saw several hundred people “overdose” on Boots brand homeopathy, to show that there is nothing in it. I wholeheartedly support this campaign, as you can see in the video below. The next demo is planned for the QED conference in February 2011, so see you there!

Of course, I could say so many more things about homeopathy, but this will have to do for now!

Beef Fajita and Margarita Recipes

MargaritaOK, OK, I know I get annoyed by divergences in skepticism, but I met a guy called Mark at the latest Liverpool Skeptics Society social and promised I’d share my beef fajita recipe. Besides, it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want!

First off a little history about the beef fajita. The word “fajita” means “little strap”, as the recipe initially used beef strap. I’m not even sure if that cut is called “strap” in the UK, so I use skirt, a very meaty but quite tough cut. Now, if you ask for beef skirt in a supermarket you’ll get pointed towards clothing, so to get some you really need to go to your local butcher.

This recipe will easily make enough for 6 people, and no-one should go home hungry!

Ingredients

Fajitas

  • 3 pounds (1.5 kg) beef skirt
  • 8 limes
  • Bunch of coriander
  • Garlic
  • 2 shots (50 ml) of tequila

Margaritas

  • 2 parts tequila
  • 1 part triple sec
  • 1 part freshly squeezed lime juice
  • Salt

Bear in mind that the beef should be marinated at least overnight, ideally 48 hours. Cut the beef into chunks and place into an airtight container. Season well with salt and pepper, then rub the seasoning into the beef. Juice the limes, then pour the lime juice over the beef. Roughly chop the coriander, then place in the container. Peel and crush (or finely chop) the garlic before placing in the container, then pour over the tequila. Rub everything together, then leave in the fridge to marinate. If you can, give everything a mix every 6 hours or so. When ready to cook, simply fry the beef over a high heat for five minutes, turning once. Serve with your choice of accompaniments, perhaps flour tortillas, sour cream, guacamole and pico de gallo.

For the margaritas, fill a jug with ice, then add the tequila, triple sec and fresh lime juice. Place the salt on a plate, and rub half the rims of the glasses in the salt (this makes the salt rim optional). Give the contents of the jug a stir, then pour into the glasses. Enjoy!