Why Take The Flour Back are wrong and I’m leaving the Green Party

A group calling themselves Take The Flour Back are opposed to Genetically Modified wheat. Their plan is to visit Rothamsted Park on the 27th of May 2012 and destroy the GM crops being grown as part of the experiment described here:

“Scientists from Rothamsted Research are conducting a controlled experiment to test wheat, genetically modified to repel greenfly and blackfly, which could help reduce pesticide use and promote sustainable agriculture in the future.”

Scientists from Rothamsted Research recorded this video in an effort to open dialogue with the protesters.

You can read a written message from the scientsts here: Rothamsted Appeal Letter [PDF file]

Misinformation

The protest group make a few assertions in favour of their vandalism:

Rothamsted have planted a new GM wheat trial designed to repel aphids. It contains genes for antibiotic-resistance and an artificial gene ‘most similar to a cow’.

Rothamsted deny that they have used any genetic material from cows.  In fact, the odour is produced by a protein called (E)-β-farnesene which is also produced by hundreds of other plants including plants which we consume, such as Hops. Rothamsted state: “To suggest that we have used a ‘cow gene’ and that our wheat is somehow part-cow betrays a misunderstanding which may serve to confuse people or scare them but has no basis in scientific reality.”

There is no market for GM wheat anywhere in the world.

This isn’t true. Plenty of GM products are sold and consumed, although some of that is through abusive behaviour by large US businesses. That is a different problem to address. Perhaps they mean that people are generally opposed to GM food, but whether true or not that should not stop experiments that could have far-reaching benefits. People should be allowed to make their own choice. I fully support the idea that any product sold which contains GM ingredients should be labelled to allow people to choose.

This experiment is tax-payer funded, but Rothamsted hope to sell any patent it generates to an agro-chemical company.

Rothsted completely refute this:

Our work is publically funded, we have pledged that our results will not be patented and will not be
owned by any private company – if our wheat proves to be beneficial we want it to be available to
farmers around the world at minimum cost.

Take The Flour Back continue:

La Via Campesina, the world’s largest organisation of peasant farmers, believe GM is increasing world hunger. They have called for support resisting GM crops, and the control over agriculture that biotech gives to corporations.

I wonder how this organisation can support this statement. I do not believe that GM crops increase world hunger, but I do know that large companies are abusing patents to force the purchase of GM seeds in many cases. This is a problem with those companies and not with GM products.

‘Take the Flour Back’ will be a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and a decontamination. It’s for anyone who feels able to publically help remove this threat and those who want to show their support for them.

Wrong. That should read:

Take the Flour Back’ will be a nice day out in the country, with picnics, music from Seize the Day and vandalism and destruction of scientific experiments before the evidence can be gathered by people who fear what they do not understand.

A news story on the Green Party website also added:

The trial is happening in the open air, meaning that when it starts to flower it can cross contaminate other wheat crops and wild grasses. This is a real threat.

However this is false. The wheat used for this experiment is self-pollinating and the flower fertilises itself rather than dispersing pollen through the air to another plant. The seeds are too heavy to disperse in the wind and the plant has no adaptations to facilitate insect pollination. Even so, the researchers have taken precautions against contamination:

The GM plots will be separated from the edge of the trial by 10 meters of barley (or space) plus a 3 metre ‘pollen barrier’ of wheat that helps to contain pollen from the GM plants within the trial site. All these plants are treated as though they are GM and harvested /destroyed at the end of the trial. There will be no cereals grown for 20 metres outside the boundary of the site and no wild relatives of wheat that can cross with our cultivated variety exist in the vicinity.
Couch grass species, distant relatives of wheat will be controlled in a 20 metre wide area around the trial site to avoid any slight possibility of cross-pollination.

The right to protest

I am completely in favour of a right to free speech and the right to protest, even with people that I do not agree with. However, I am horrified at the idea of destroying scientific research. To make good policy we need knowledge, we need evidence. We obtain evidence through research. To destroy this research before we have any results is like setting fire to a library. Risk assessments have been carried out, precautions have been taken, consultations were carried out. Even if those who object did not engage at that time surely if there were a danger then they could attempt to stop things now through legal processes which will make a decision based on evidence. I think the protesters have probably not done so because the evidence is not on their side.

Why I am leaving the Green Party

I have explained why I oppose Take The Flour Back, but I am also resigning my membership of The Green Party over this issue. London Assembly Member and former candidate for London Mayor Jenny Jones tweeted on the 10th of May:

https://twitter.com/GreenJennyJones/status/200465542736396289

This was followed up with a news story on the Green Party website which repeated some of the false statements made by Take The Flour Back and announced that Jenny Jones would attend the protest.

I believe this represents support from the Green Party for vandalism and the destruction of scientific experiments. One of the reasons that I took a long time to join the Green Party after betrayal by the Liberal Democrats in 2010 was the anti-science attitude that I saw with their policies supporting homeopathy and reacting against many things out of fear and contrary to evidence. Indeed, the Green Party knew that this was a problem and recently made an effort to make their policies evidence based. I joined about three months ago when I thought that things had changed but this fiasco over GM experiments has left me feeling that I cannot trust the party. Perhaps I have given the Greens less of a chance than I did the LibDems but after one betrayal I am not waiting around for another.

I no longer feel that I can trust political parties. Manifesto pledges mean nothing. Promises seem to lead to the exact opposite behaviour. Politicians happily lie and mislead the public as to their true intentions. I’ve learnt my lesson. I sent in my resignation to the Green Party a few minutes ago and I will no longer support any political party.

There is a campaign by Sense About Science and a you can sign the petition asking people not to destroy research.

Further Reading

Take the flour back

Rothamsted Research

Rothamsted Wheat Trial: Second generation GM technology to emulate natural plant defence mechanisms

I wish to thank my wife and scientific adviser, Karen Sumpter (@missnfranchised)

Acupuncture

I have already written about Homeopathy and Chiropractic. It should be no surprise to my regular readers that I am contemptuous of acupuncture too. There are several problems with acupuncture.

  1. It is based not on knowledge of biology, but on “qi” (energy.)
  2. It does not cure, but it practitioners claim that it can.
  3. Needles can damage nerves and may cause infection if not sterile.

The first point is important. With most medicines we know the mechanism through which they affect the body. We know which part of the body they alter, and we usually know how they work. Acupuncture is based on the idea of qi, pronounced chi, and meaning a kind of energy that supposedly flows around the body through channels called meridians. We have no evidence of qi or of meridians, but we do have evidence of nerves, hormones, chemicals and all the other concepts that make up the human body. Qi was an attempt to explain life before we had the modern knowledge of how the body works. Now we know better.

Acupuncture does not cure anything. We know it doesn’t, because there have been trials of acupuncture. The acupuncture page on Wikipedia lists many of them. Acupuncture may be effective against pain, although the findings of studies vary and there is insufficient evidence to say either way. It is likely that reported pain relief from acupuncture is largely a result of the placebo effect. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since the important thing here is relief from pain and the placebo effect can do that. Acupuncture may also help relieve pain by distraction through simulation of the nerves and the release of endorphins. This is not proven.

While acupuncture can provide pain relief, it cannot cure disease. It cannot flush out virus or bacteria infection, or cancer cells, and it cannot repair the body when it has gone wrong. The British Acupuncture Council claims that acupuncture can help with all sorts of things – colds and flu, infertility, chronic fatigue syndrome. This is of course absurd.

For the most part, acupuncture is safe, but as it is an invasive procedure there are risks. There is a danger of infection if the needles and the environment are not sterile. There is a danger of damaging a nerve. There is a danger from a needle entering a lung, kidney or other organ if the needle is inserted too deeply.

Overall, then, some people might like to use acupuncture to provide relief from pain, if it works for then. Unfortunately it does not work in enough people to produce a significant result in tests, and the results that it does produce are likely to be from the placebo effect. It certainly doesn’t cure anything, and if people use acupuncture in preference to tried and tested medicine then they may prolong their illness or endanger themselves by effectively leaving themselves untreated. Acupuncture is not entirely risk free anyway.

I know that in spite of my arguments here many people will choose to believe in the curative abilities of acupuncture anyway.  That is their right to do so, but they should understand that belief in qi and the manipulation of qi through the use of needles is not a scientific belief. If anything, it is a religious one.

If someone wishes to choose to use acupuncture instead of researched and tested medicine, I cannot stop them. If it provides pain relief for them, then I am happy for them. I think it is fair to say that of all the alternative treatments, acupuncture shows the most promise of a plausible mechanism and of tests showing a useful difference, at least for pain relief. I take issue with practitioners that make absurd claims about what acupuncture can do; if someone chooses acupuncture because they think that it will cure their viral infection or cancer then they have been conned. At the very least, we have laws against obtaining fees through false claims and against making false claims in advertising material. If someone believes that alternative medicine replaces the need to have vaccinations, then they would be putting the rest of us in danger and that idea would need to be stopped. I wrote about this in my previous blog post, Alternative medicine – a dangerous game.

Related blog posts

Alternative medicine: a dangerous game

Homeopathy again

Do you know what Chiropractic really is?

More on the placebo effect

 

Do you know what Chiropractic really is?

Do you know what chiropractic is? Most people that have heard of it will generally hazard a guess that it is something to do with bad backs. They are sort of right. Chiropractors do manipulate the spine, and other parts of the musculoskeletal system. But they do it in the belief that some or all other medical problems are a result of problems with the spine, and can be fixed through manipulating the spine.

Daniel David Palmer invented the theory of chiropractic in 1895. He decided that all living things have vital energy called Innate Intelligence. Innate Intelligence supposedly flows out of the brain and through the spine to the organs. According to Palmer, misaligned vertebrae block the flow of Innate Intelligence, and that is the cause of all other illness. Palmer also rejected the idea of germs and of vaccination because he thought that all illness is caused by this blockage.

These ideas, of course, have no basis in science at all, and there is no evidence that things work this way. In 2008 the British Chiropractic Association launched a libel case against science writer Simon Singh over an article that he wrote in The Guardian. I have reproduced the relevant part here. See the rest, with notes in this article: The libellous Simon Singh article on chiropractors.

First, you might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that, “99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae”. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact they still possess some quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything. And even the more moderate chiropractors have ideas above their station. The British Chiropractic Association claims that their members can help treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying, even though there is not a jot of evidence. This organisation is the respectable face of the chiropractic profession and yet it happily promotes bogus treatments.

This lawsuit caused uproar in the scientific world because the BCA was effectively using libel law to silence scientific opinion. Simon Singh’s defence effectively put the efficacy of chiropractic on trial. The BCA dropped their case in April 2010. The idea that chiropractic can be used to treat colic, habits, ear infections and asthma is not only without scientific basis, but also dangerous. Someone seeking treatment for these things will not get the real effective treatment that they need. Promoting the use of chiropractic to treat babies for these things is just cruel. The lack of proper treatment will lead to suffering for the baby, and the chiropractic treatment can itself cause injury and prolonged pain.

Chiropractic does seem to fill a gap in health services. I have spoken to several people in both the UK and the USA who have Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) and visit chiropractors. The problem seems to be that physiotherapists and other  specialists within the NHS and conventional healthcare don’t seem to have the knowledge or the time necessary to deal with problems caused by hypermobility. Chiropractors appear to know the musculoskelatal system and especially the spine in a lot more detail, and are willing to help reset subluxations. (Partial dislocations) Chiropractors also take the time to listen to their patients. This could be because they are generally seen privately and so have more incentive to earn their fee.

Unfortunately despite them offering useful help with back and joint problems, I think any good in Chiropractic is negated by the rest of what they believe. For a start, there is room for confusion because chiropractors use the term subluxation in a different sense to the medical profession – they believe that there are dysfunctional segments of the spine that block innate energy, and they call this a subluxation too. Chiropractors believe that these vertebral subluxations (which aren’t subluxations in the normal sense) block innate intelligence and prevent if from reaching the rest of the body. They think that this is the cause of infections and illness. I think possibly the worst thing that chiropractors do is to advise people not to get their vaccinations. I have said before when talking about homeopathy that we all rely on “Herd Immunity” for vaccines to work, and telling people not to have them in the hope that chiropracty or homeopathy will prevent viral infections is not only obscenely stupid, it’s a danger to the whole of society.

Some people will argue that it is acceptable to use a Chiropractor if they stick to actual physical problems and avoid other issues, but in my opinion this is that this gives them some respect in the mind of the public and opens the way for people to fall for the rest of what they say. Ultimately, if a person is spending their own money, and receives some benefit from chiropractic treatment for physical problems, it isn’t my place to tell them to stop seeing a chiropractor. I do think that they are making a mistake though, and I really hope that no one else will see it as a reason to trust a chiropractor for anything else.

 

More Information

UK Skeptics – Chiropractic

The libellous Simon Singh article on chiropractors

On Putting Chiropractic On Trial – Simon Singh’s Defence

Simon Singh libel case dropped

All in my head

In one of those odd random blips of popularity, my description of M.E. has been circulating around twitter and Facebook today. I found it quite interesting to read the way people described what I had written. People identified with it, and said that I had described the symptoms well. I found that comforting, in a way, because their identification with it means I haven’t imagined everything. When enough people tell you your illness is all in your head, it’s hard not to question if it is. Even to the point of wondering whether I’m saying I need to rest because I really need to, or because I’m lazy.

M.E. has a long history of controversy. Until very recently, no physical markers have been found for it. Diagnosis has been based on description of the symptoms and by ruling out everything else. Because there is no way to be certain of the diagnosis, public attitude to M.E. has been poor. Names such as “Yuppie Flu” are derisive and contribute to the attitude that people with M.E. are simply faking their illness, and are lazy or work-shy.

Many doctors have held the opinion that M.E. is a mental illness. They conclude that the fatigue and the pain are due to depression, and hold the belief that only therapy such as CBT and a slow increase in activity is necessary to cure the patient. In actual fact, the World Health Organisation classifies M.E. as a neurological disorder under Diseases of the Nervous System, G93.3. The Department of Work and Pensions also categorically states the CFS/ME is physical. Despite this classification, many doctors still believe that M.E. is purely a mental illness.

What is the impact of this belief? One of the defining features of M.E. is that fatigue is not explained by exertion, and in fact is out of all proportion to any activity. In my experience, the best management strategy for M.E. is Pacing. It involves making an effort to stick to a timetable of rests and a set level of activity, and working out how much activity can be undertaken and how much rest is necessary by gradually increasing activity until the maximum level is found, and staying at that level. If pushed into too much activity a person with M.E. will “crash” and may be completely incapacitated for a long time. The standard treatment for M.E. as a mental illness is CBT or GET which will push a person far beyond their safe limits.

Treating M.E. as a mental illness also appears to attach a stigma to it that just shouldn’t be there. Suppose for a moment that M.E. actually is a symptom of severe depression. It may change the treatment, but would it change anything else about the abilities of a person suffering from it? Would it mean that it was OK to tell someone “it’s all in your head” and “snap out of it”? Of course it wouldn’t. Depression itself is a real illness, needing treatment and medicine. Someone with depression cannot simply “snap out of it.” There are M.E. sufferers who are also depressed – I am one of them – but it is important to distinguish one from the other. I have had M.E. for ten years, and depression for a few months. It would be surprising if I didn’t get depressed at some point given the situation I am in.

If I could choose to be better, I would. Of course I would. I’m currently useless, stuck at home, in bed most of the time, my business is failing because I can’t work, I can’t even do any housework. I WANT to be well. I want to be rid of the crippling pain, the migraines, the dizziness, the insomnia. I want to be able to walk, to run, to ride my motorbike. So don’t you ever tell me to snap out of it. I might just have to beat you with my walking stick, just as soon as I find the energy.

In defence of nuclear power

Schematic of a Boiling Water Reactor
A Boiling Water Reactor. Image from Wikipedia.

When I was ten I remember being given some sort of exercise at school that required me to draw my answer. I drew a nuclear reactor. I drew it in some detail, including fuel rods and control rods and cooling system. This wasn’t actually unusual for me; I frequently drew machinery of many kinds, huge cogs and mechanisms and bizarre perpetual motion machines. Imagine my astonishment when the first thing my teacher said on seeing my drawing was “So you’re in favour of nuclear power then?”

I was astounded. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone could be against nuclear power. It was a machine! It was THE ultimate machine! How could anyone not love it?

Twenty two years later I am still in favour of nuclear power, although this time for much more considered reasons.

Perception of danger

Nuclear power is much safer than you might think. Think of the safety of nuclear power as something like an aircraft. Cars have frequent accidents, killing quite a lot, injuring more often. Aircraft few accidents, but when they go wrong, they really go wrong and generally kill everyone on board. A car accident might make the local news if there’s something odd about it. An aircraft accident will probably make the international news. Despite the differing attention given between these two, road accidents kill and maim many more people than air accidents do. The safety record of electricity generation is much the same. Fossil fuelled power stations might have accidents, but generally they are of little consequence. Even so, fossil fuel waste causes a lot of damage to the surrounding area and people living nearby. Nuclear power stations have very few accidents, but when they do, they have really serious ones.

People imagine an accident in a nuclear reactor as something like a bomb. Say “nuclear accident” and they see mushroom clouds and flattened cities but it isn’t like that. A nuclear bomb makes use of a runaway chain reaction which requires the uranium to be dense enough and large enough to reach “critical mass.” Nuclear reactors have their fuel split up into smaller parts encased in fuel rods which are held too far apart for a nuclear explosion to occur. What can actually happen is a meltdown, where the fuel rods melt, run together into a pool at the bottom of the reactor, then burn down through the floor and leak radiation. This can happen when the fuel is not kept cool enough. In most reactor designs there are three levels of containment around the core, and molten fuel will be contained by a very thick concrete basin under the reactor and prevented from leaking.

Apart from meltdown, a reactor that uses water as coolant can also produce hydrogen when things go wrong, and evaporating coolant can cause a build up of pressure inside the reactor. If the coolant stops circulating, the heat of the reactor can crack the water into hydrogen and oxygen and fill the containment up with this explosive mixture. In old (or Russian) reactors it could explode inside the containment and break it open. In more recent designs, the hydrogen is vented from the core before it can explode and expose the fuel to the outside world. The vented gasses are themselves radioactive, but usually not very much and not for very long since the radioactive particles have a half-life measured in minutes. (That is, they break down very quickly.) A big flaw with old reactor designs such as those at Fukushima and all Russian reactors is that the coolant will stop circulating if the pumps lose power. Modern reactors are designed in such a way that if the power stops, the coolant will keep circulating through convection.

In summary, modern nuclear reactors are much safer than those from the 1970s. They have multiple level of containment to catch molten fuel. Coolant can keep circulating even without power. High pressure and explosive gasses are removed from the core before they can explode and destroy it. Instead of setting a reaction going and then restraining it, modern designs require human intervention to keep them going. If the people aren’t there, the reactor shuts down. The rules on dealing with accidents are incredibly strict, almost paranoid. Finally, there are many more advanced designs of reactor to choose from than just pressurised water reactors or boiling water reactors. Pebble Bed Reactors, in particular, are designed so that they produce less power as the temperature rises, and so are self-limiting and cannot overheat.

Dealing with waste

Radiation Warning SymbolI will admit, dealing with nuclear waste is a problem. I would like to make some points about this. First of all, fossil fuels also produce waste. That waste in the form of ash, CO2, sulfur dioxide, nitrous oxide and other gasses has traditionally been pumped into the atmosphere where it causes acid rain, smog and climate change. Pollution from fossil fuels affects the workers at the power station and the residents in towns nearby. Recent attempts to scrub pollutants out of smoke before releasing it have reduced this a little, but not enough. Carbon capture will improve things but is very difficult and hugely expensive. Secondly, fly ash from coal is actually radioactive! Not just radioactive, but during day-to-day operation a coal power station releases 100 times more radiation than a nuclear power station producing the same amount of electricity. People living near coal-fired power stations actually have more radioactivity in their bodies than people living near nuclear power stations.

Nuclear waste is usually buried deep underground. It will remain dangerous for millions of years. I think though, that I would much rather have waste that can be buried than pump smoke and ash into the atmosphere and destroy the planet.

We could actually produce far less nuclear waste than we do at the moment. Used nuclear fuel can be re-processed, and can be re-used to fuel Breeder Reactors. These reactors produce more fuel as they use traditional fuel and so they produce a lot more energy from the same fuel, and the waste is more effectively used up. They can also run on thorium, which is more readily available than uranium. Unfortunately Breeder Reactors are generally not used because they create plutonium and governments are terrified that it would be used to create nuclear weapons.

Thank you for reading this far. In my next post I will explain why I believe that nuclear power is neccessary and why renewable sources are not adequate. Please also note that I am not a nuclear physicist, I am a computer scientist that happens to be fascinated by nuclear power. If I am wrong and you can provide evidence, feel free to say so in the comments.

More information

More on the placebo effect

In my recent post about homeopathy I mentioned the placebo effect, how powerful it is, and that it can even work when the recipient knows that they received a placebo. Well as a follow on from that I suggest that you should watch this thoroughly entertaining video where Ben Goldacre talks more about the placebo effect at Nerdstock.

Alternative medicine: a dangerous game

In this article I discuss why alternative medicines are bad, how the placebo effect works, and how such remedies are dangerous to the user and to others.

I am keenly aware that I need to tread carefully with this post. I know a number of people that will disagree with me, and even a chance that some other people will attempt to sue me.

It is my firm belief that alternative medicines are a danger to health and life for everyone, and not just those that choose to use it. I am talking about treatments such as Homeopathy, Crystal Therapy, Accupuncture, Chiropracty, and many others.

Why they don’t work

I believe many of these methods mentioned here to be a fraud or at most a misplaced faith in something which doesn’t actually have any scientific reason behind it. Homeopathy, for example, is not just without reason for working, it’s actually counter to reason.

I’m picking on homeopathy here mainly because I can’t address all alternative medicines in this article. Homeopathy relies on choosing a substance that is believed to be linked to the health problem in question. That substance is then diluted in water many times over, and the water shaken to imprint “memory” of the substance. Given that most illnesses are caused by viruses, bacteria and genetics, the choice of material for the homeopathic remedy is largely arbitrary.

Leaving aside for a moment the choice of substance that is supposed to help with treatment, I’m afraid that the notion of diluting something to make it stronger just doesn’t wash. True, vaccines rely on a small amount of dead virus to trigger an immune response and train the immune system, but homeopathic medicine is not like that. No, in homeopathy, the substance is diluted so much that there is nothing left at all. Commonly a substance is diluted 100:1, and that is sometimes repeated up to 30 times. After 12 times, though, the likelihood is that not a single molecule of the original substance remains behind. Scientists call this the Avogadro Limit.

Homeopaths counter this by arguing that water “remembers” the substance. This is of course nonsense. The atoms and molecules cannot remember anything. If they did, the atomic or molecular structure would not be that of hydrogen, oxygen or water. Apparently shaking the water in a certain way helps the memory here. I’m not even going to write about what’s wrong with that.

For more information about homeopathy have a look at the excellent resource that is www.1023.org.uk

The placebo effect

Alternative medicines are, dare I say it, actually not without some beneficial effect. Although most do nothing to heal the body or fight infection through any physical changes, they often do help through the Placebo effect. The placebo effect is “measurable, observable, or felt improvement in health not attributable to treatment” and is the subject of much ongoing scientific research. The placebo effect is know to help with pain relief in particular, but also even to improve physical health. It has been observed on conventional and alternative medicine alike, and some scientists even believe that some conventional medicine works more as a placebo than a physical change. The placebo effect is beneficial enough that it is actually worth using as a medical treatment. Recent research found that a placebo can work even if the recipient knows that it is a placebo!

There is also some placebo effect because practitioners of alternative medicine are likely to show more interest in and spend more time with their patients. When NHS doctors are under so much pressure, spending a few hours with them is unlikely, whereas that can easily happen with an alternative medicine practitioner.

Why it harms people

You may think that if an alternative medicine is unlikely to poison someone, and may well even give them a benefit from the placebo effect, that there is no harm in allowing them to use it. Unfortunately, you would be wrong.

Alternative medicines can cause people to avoid conventional medical treatment that works, in a situation where a placebo does not work and leaving a condition untreated could be fatal. Diseases such as diabetes, where the patient needs medicine or insulin, could be left untreated and lead to stroke and blindness. A flu virus could run it’s course unchecked in an elderly person and cause death. I am sure there are many more examples that I could list here.

People that use alternative medicines are also likely to avoid vaccinations out of mistrust of conventional medicine or of fear of side effects. This is the part that could harm us all. In order to eradicate diseases such as smallpox, measles and polio, a critical percentage of the population must be vaccinated. This is called herd immunity. When enough people are vaccinated, the remainder of vulnerable people are unlikely to be infected through other people carrying the virus. There are places where measles and mumps have returned with a vengeance because herd immunity has broken down after many people chose not to be vaccinated.

Opting out of vaccination is as likely to be caused by a failure to understand the scientific method as by the use of homeopathic remedies, but then using homeopathic remedies is also likely to be caused by a failure to understand the scientific method.

Another way that homeopathy harms people is that it receives NHS funding. That’s right, the NHS spends £4 million per year on paying for something that doesn’t work when it could spend that money on a myriad of more sensible things. Homeopathy is stealing from us all.

Conclusion

It is not possible to dismiss all alternative therapies out of hand. Unfortunately, to the average person, medicine is divided into conventional, and alternative. I am guilty taking this line from the science side, but many people view it from the alternative side. Because of this, many people will take the view that because something did work for them, be it through a measurable effect of an active ingredient, or through the placebo effect, that therefore all alternative medicines must work. In practice some work, some don’t. Some are outright harmful, others can be based on sound logic that simply hasn’t been through clinical trials and adopted by the scientific and medical communities.

Those “alternative” medicines that actually use active ingredients such as plant extracts should be tested in full double-blind clinical trials and if they work, adopted in  conventional medicine where useful. The ones that fail should be dismissed and abandoned.

While there may be some benefit from the placebo effect when using alternative medicine, I believe people are much better off in using conventional, tested and scientifically proven medicine. After all, that has a placebo effect too. And as a person with a fairly broken immune system, I beg you, don’t skip your vaccinations. You could kill me.

Why I am no longer a Christian

This blog post is angry, shouty, incoherent and out of order. It is going to upset a lot of people. If you are one of them, I’m sorry. If you can’t handle my personal rant without hating me, please don’t read this.

Continue reading “Why I am no longer a Christian”

On scepticism and god

Warning: contains religion and uncertainty

I have come to realise that the way I think about things has a name. Scepticism. It’s easy to spot sometimes. Internet scams, bogus medicine, bizarre ideas and rumours, I can easily see that I am a sceptic when it comes to those. Generally when something new comes up I use the scientific method to determine fact from fiction.

Over the last few months I have been paying a lot more attention to sceptics and scepticism. I follow a few well known sceptics and scientists on Twitter and read their blogs. In the last few days an argument has been brewing relating to the Skepticon convention. They have been accused of being a purely atheist convention rather than catering to all sceptics. It has led several prominent atheists to stand up and say that scepticism and atheism are the same thing, and others have said that they are not the same thing but religion is the most important thing to be sceptical about because of the amount of harm that religion has done. It has also been said that Skepticon is not an atheist convention, with only three out of fifteen speakers talking about religion, although others have claimed that more talks ended with atheist conclusions.

Since it is not possible to prove a negative, it is impossible to say that god does not exist. Technically this means that a sceptic that has concluded there is no proof of god should become an agnostic, not an atheist. The justification that has been used for becoming an atheist instead has often been the Null Hypothesis If you have a hypothesis about something, you must come up with the opposite hypothesis, and then test statistically whether one or the other is more likely. For a brilliant explanation involving aliens and socks, have a look here. Atheism can be seen as the null hypothesis, with the existence of god as the alternative hypothesis to be tested.  To me, it seems partly a cop out that non-believers would choose to be atheist rather than agnostic, but at the same time I can see how the same concept applies to things like homeopathic remedies or horoscopes.

It does seem to be the case that most self-identified sceptics are also atheists. I have had conversations where I have been told that I cannot be a sceptic without also being an atheist. I have to admit to struggling with this idea. Why do I believe in god when I question everything else? I can’t answer that in any acceptable way. I just don’t know.

This leaves me in a difficult position. I believe, not because of any kind of logic, but purely through experience. I have been to church, prayer times and worship meetings and have worshipped god, and been truly lost in the worship. I have seen great examples of faith around me. At the same time, I constantly struggle with claims of healing, (which seemingly does not apply to me) and recently walked out of a healing service our of sheer frustration. I struggle at people that pray and ask god for things that I think he is never going to give, often because people can sort that stuff out themselves. I frequently have the thought “God doesn’t work that way!”

I am left with the option of compartmentalising my faith away from my scepticism, or going with logic and losing my faith completely. I have gone with the first option for months now, but I am consciously aware of the division in my thinking, and not owning an electric monk, the breakdown in logic is causing a lot of frustration.