Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Happy Blasphemy Day Ya Goddamn Atheist

Perhaps you don't know, it's International Blasphemy Day.
I thought I'd take a moment to reflect upon why it is I blaspheme.
In one sense, the words are meaningless to me. I don't believe in Jesus, I don't believe his book and I don't believe in his alleged patrilineage.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Unleash the Hounds

An Open Letter to Georgia Straight Advertisers:

I am writing as one of a group of concerned citizens who have noted significant advertising by you in the Vancouver’s Georgia Straight Weekly newspaper. We have some important concerns about the Georgia Straight’s editorial policies and specific factually incorrect information that has been published which directly endangers individual and more importantly public health. We thought you might be interested that your money is being spent in tacit support of these issues.
A recent article by homeopath Sonya McLeod in the Georgia Straight strongly advocates the forsaking of vaccinations against the H1N1 flu. She unequivocally recommends homeopathy – a therapy which has never shown any true efficacy in properly structured independent scientific studies. (Many studies by homeopaths have ‘proven’ an effect, but none of these have ever been placebo-controlled, double-blinded or reproduced in an experiment that was properly structured in such a fashion.) Vaccine denial is a reprehensible position which demonstrably puts the individual at risk and weakens herd-immunity amongst the public (where the overall immunity is boosted by the sheer numbers of individuals who are vaccinated).

As if this was not enough, there are questions about the editorial policies surrounding the article itself. Sonya McLeod is not only an advertiser in the Georgia Straight, she is also apparently related to the publisher, Dan McLeod. The article is in part taken, without appropriate credit, from another easily found and identified source. When discussion of the facts and editorial policies of the magazine began mounting up in the comment thread on the article, many of the critical comments that were posted failed to appear in the thread – which could simply be coincidence, but the optics are bad none the less.
Homeopathy as therapy has failed to show any level of efficacy practically from the very beginning of its history. No properly structured scientific study has even been able to find any effect, nor is there any plausible mechanic for the alleged effect. Indeed, if suddenly scientifically sound homeopathy studies began showing an effect, the most basic rules of biology, chemistry and physics would need to be rewritten.

In short, homeopathy proposes to work by treating the symptoms of a disease (as opposed to the cause) by matching the symptoms with substances that are somehow determined to create the same effect. A simple example would be to treat insomnia with caffeine. If this were not implausible enough, the caffeine is then diluted to such a huge degree that it is mathematically unlikely in the extreme that even a single molecule of the original substance even exists. For a more detailed description of homeopathy, the Wikipedia entry on homeopathy does a reasonably good job of outlining the fundamentals of the process and revealing the absurdity of the proposed ‘science’ behind it. Another good source is
It is common to defend homeopathy with the oft heard phrase ‘what is the harm?’ Conveniently there is a website - - which demonstrates that using homeopathy to the exclusion of evidence based medicine can result in injury or death.

Every one of the studies and stats mentioned by the author are studies that have been shown to have significant scientific flaws. They were either based upon self-reporting by homeopaths; were not peer-reviewed by anyone outside of the discipline; have clearly demonstrable procedural faults; or are the product of laughable misrepresentation.

Sonya McLeod goes well beyond the realm of merely advocating homeopathy. She also eschews the values of vaccination, a practice which is far more dangerous to public health - particularly with the spectre of H1N1 a.k.a. the Swine Flu looming. There is a lot to be said about vaccine denial, more than can be said concisely here. helps illuminate the dangers. On the face of it, the bulk of the information disseminated by the anti-vaccination lobby is beyond being un-true. It is wilfully negligent, and solidly disproven. Yet the anti-vaxers continue to loft the same debunked arguments as ‘proof’ time and again. Worst amongst this is the bogus claim that vaccines cause autism – a claim has long since gone well past the point of cautious rationality into hysterical unfounded paranoia.
It is true that a small number of people have varying levels of adverse responses to vaccines. The vast majority of these are temporary effects, but even if you take all the bad reactions and put them together in one pool, the number of people who are hurt by vaccines is vastly dwarfed by the number of people who have been helped. Small pox has been eliminated from the world due to vaccinations. It was once a brutal disease. Polio was nearly eliminated too until progress was undermined by the anti-vax lobby. Other infectious diseases including measles, mumps and whooping cough similarly have been on the rise because less people vaccinate because of specious anti-vax propaganda.
Foremost amongst the public damage caused by the failure to vaccinate is the undermining of herd immunity. In short, viruses have a threshold wherein if a percentage (a large percentage) of the population is vaccinated it becomes practically impossible for a virus to spread even among the unvaccinated. For a variety of reasons there are people who cannot be vaccinated or like newborns have not been vaccinated yet – herd immunity protects them. Herd immunity has been compromised by the anti-vaccination movement.
It almost goes without saying that not being vaccinated leaves the individual susceptible to disease. Adding to that the undermining of herd immunity, and the adverse effects that has upon the public as a whole. When people do as Sonya McLeod proudly boasts that she is not vaccinating her girls she is not only putting her own children at risk, but worse; she is putting other people’s children at risk. It is extremely irresponsible for the Georgia Straight to assist in the dissemination of this false and demonstrably dangerous information; in fact if a single person were to die from H1N1 as a result of taking this bad information to heart, the paper would be (un-actionably) party to negligent loss of life. This goes far beyond a 'matter of opinion' or journalistic balance. Indeed there is no balance in their reporting on this matter - it is all one-side of an issue which should have no sides, the facts are plain at is s day. The claims made in the article point to fear-mongering about the expected pandemic, when in fact the position of what Sonya McLeod has had published is a case of fear mongering of the worst sort - scaring the public from real preventative treatment.
On top of the publically irresponsible aspects of the article there are a number of editorially questionable elements. For one, several portions of Sonya McLeod’s article are verbatim quotes from a book excerpt by book excerpt by Randall Neustaedter.
This is to say nothing of the poor referencing of alleged ‘facts’ throughout. It is perfectly reasonable to extrapolate from this that the reported ‘facts’ are not facts as primary sources are scarce and/or discredited.
Sonya McLeod is an advertiser on the Georgia Straight website – her company’s website is advertised clearly the right hand side of the page. Indeed her company has an “October Special” on Homeopathic Flu Immunizations. A clear conflict of interest. The article was not so much a news item as a thinly veiled advertisement in its own right.
Sonya McLeod appears to be the daughter of Georgia Straight publisher, Dan McLeod. On top of all issues this personal connection is a conflict of interest which makes the rest all the more egregious.
Should there be any real question remaining as to the reliability of the information Sonya McLeod presents in her articles, one should also consider the source itself. Her fourth and final graduate project in her education as a homeopath involved the use of raccoon fur as the initial ingredient in a homeopathic solution. Despite using some scientific words, the paper is extremely unscientific, delving into dream interpretation and implying that any observation within its absurdly small sample size was an effect caused by the homeopathic solution, even when the opposite effect was noted in other subjects of the study – which, of course was similarly noted as an effect of the solution.
Once the discussion of the article heated up and the advocates of science and reason began to dominate the conversation, there was a period where many commenters from the Google group on Canadian Skepticism noted that their messages were not being posted even when extra care was being made to keep comments civil. Eventually scattered comments began appearing again – presumably once the deluge of angered voices abated. Should the limiting of comments critical of the article prove to be true this represents a particularly egregious effort to limit the public voice on the issue on the part of the Georgia Straight.
We hope this information was useful to you and that you will consider it with gravity when choosing how to spend your advertising dollars. The Georgia Straight deserves a chance to clean up its act and make efforts to ameliorate the damage done by their poor representation of facts that severely effect public health and to adjust their poor editorial policies, but until they do you may want to reconsider who you are aligning yourself with and take your business elsewhere. This affects you; it affects your family; it affects your children.
If someone was so inclined, they could pass this letter or one like it to as many Georgia Straight advertisers as they so desired.
Their contact information is quite easily found.... it's public information found quite easily in the paper itself or on their website.

(NOTE: Or one could use the list of advertisers I compiled when this was still a current issue. Note that what is done with this information is ultimately up to the person who uses it, I am merely compiling information that is already publically available.)

Original list follows:

Live Nation - -
Freedman Shoes - -
The Public Market - -
Donnelly Night Clubs - -
Carman Fox & Friends - -
The Chan Centre - -
Luna - -
Greens Plus -

Koodo Mobile - -
V6A - -
Vancouver Symphony Arts - -
Inspiration Furniture - -
Biltmore Cabaret - - -
Locarno - -
HMV - -
Alexander Keith's - -
River Rock/Red Robinson Theatre - / -
Rio Theatre - - info@
O2 - -
Boy's Co - -
City Centre Realty - -
Dance House - -
Homelessness Action Week - -
Kitsilano Business Assn. - -
L2 Leone - -
Memento - -
Pulse - -
W Six - -
Euro Furniture -
Music on Main - -
Organic Meadow - -
Ginger - -
Powervibe Fitness - -
Ultra X-Press - -
Millennium Water - -
The Roxy - -
See Seven Arts - -
Sofa So Good - -
Commercial Drive - -
Cultural Olympiad - -
Dr. Sherri Wise - -
Griffith University - -
Sealed with a Kiss - presents - -
District - -
Lux Salon - -
Maple Pictures - -
Fitness World - -
Flight Centre - -
Atlas Pots - -
Club Card Printing - -
Friends of the Environment - -
100.5 The Peak - -
Morrey Mazda - -
Vancouver International Film Festival - -
Telus High Speed -
The Boathouse -
Earls -
Exchange -
Extreme Style -
Fabutan -
Integrative Healing Arts -
Moe's Home Collection -
Steamworks -
Watermark -
Alliance Films -
Besy Buy -
Durex -
Larry & Willy -
Pacific Boarder -
Pacific Fertility -
HTC Phones -
Capers -
Vancity -
Ford -

Monday, September 28, 2009

Bum-ble Beginnings

I really had planned to get around to this on my TAM Diary, but I haven't... yet. I swear I will, I just haven't yet.

In the time leading up to TAM I found myself thinking about the ideas that would eventually coalesce into what I would, by the time I landed in Vegas be calling Asshole Skepticism.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Pony Up for Science

The pockets of skepticism, despite the optics of things like the Million Dollar Challenge and the Australian Skeptics' benefactor, are quite shallow. Unlike organizations like the Discovery Institute which are funded by a variety of creationist organizations (I.E. Churches.).
One of our best avenues for public outreach has proven to be podcasts. There is a metric fuckton of skeptical podcasts out there. Some are fantastic like the mighty Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, some are extremely niche like Monster Talk, some are dubiously skeptical (at best) like Skeptiko. But even the best and mightiest of them are done on shoe-string budgets, because the money just isn't there. Do any skeptical podcast hosts or producers get paid for their efforts? No. (At least I don't think so, and in any case the vast majority don't.) The shows themselves barely get along with the meagre support of the proverbial 'people like you.'

Friday, September 25, 2009

This is Homeopathy

Kudos to Jesse Brydle for uncovering this.

I mean I knew homeopathy was nutty, but I didn't realize just how nutty the homeopaths themselves could be.

My favourite homeopath, Sonya McLeod has on her company (Little Mountain Homeopathy) website her graduate project on the homeopathic effects of...


As far as scientific testing goes, it would be generous to call it 'preliminary.' McLeod and her accomplice... er, partner, Kathleen Taylor had a sample size of eight, self-reporting subjects, each receiving from one to six doses of either 12c or 30c potencies. One of the eight was labelled a 'placebo' – and the number of placebo doses were undisclosed... leading me to suspect that they have absolutely no fucking clue what a placebo control is. Okay to be fair, the dogged adherence to a discipline that has neither mechanistic plausibility nor a molecule worth of evidence in an ocean of negative results is what leads me to believe they have no idea how science and by extension a placebo control is. Which is to say nothing about the fact that there is no difference between a 12c solution, a 30c solution or a placebo solution except for the amount of effort put into preparing it.

Amongst the effects that they observed – most of which were single occurrences and many of them subjective symptoms – are:

  • A whole variety of animalistic feelings.
  • A spectrum of menstrual symptoms, anything you can imagine for example; one subject had more flow, another has less. I am going to suggest that if you test a group of women over the course of a month one of the things that is going to happen is that they are all going to have menstrual symptoms... just going out on a limb here.
  • Fear of snakes. Honestly. Top of page nine.
  • Some victims subjects were more restless than usual. Others were more tired. Raccoon fur, consistent? NOT!
  • One subject wore black. (Ya know, I go all 'Johnny Cash' almost half the time, and I have never drank raccoon fur.)
  • The subjects and supervisors "often had difficulty getting hold of each other." That's a symptom? Geez that's some powerful magic!
  • "At the extraction meeting, the master prover's internet stopped working, making it impossible for the group in Edmonton to communicate with the group in Vancouver via Skype." Burn the witch!!!
  • One subject lost her voice and another – I am not making this up – found that her "voice became much louder than usual."
  • "There were lots of dreams about committing crimes, stealing, criminals, and police. One of the provers had her proving journal stolen during the proving. The raccoon's reputation as a sneaky bandit and thief comes through very strongly in this proving." What are we to do with this amazing information? Raccoons fur looks like a bandit mask around the eyes, so in the homeopathic tradition of treating like with like we can fight crime by dosing the water supply with it? Or is it the other way around and we can fight crime by NOT drinking it? I'm already doing that! I don't understand!!!
  • Various digestive issues included "emotions felt in the stomach" and "constipation with urging."
  • One participant's parking lot flooded. What can I possibly add to that?
  • On top of all that there was a wide variety of dreams reported, which naturally were mined for any kind of tenuously relevant meaning that could be imagined.

There you go. Raccoon fur. It's amazing stuff.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

How to Look Like a Fool...

Does the following fictional discussion seem like a satisfying argument to you?

A: Did you know that the Garden of Eden is on the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver?

Z: Uh... I'm pretty sure that's not true.

A: Sure it is. There's a really nice garden there.

Z: Are you sure you don't mean Sun Yat Sen Garden?

A: Well, that's what they call it now.

Z: That's not the Garden of Eden.

A: Sure it is. It's beautiful.

Z: Riiight... That is a statement of opinion, not one of fact.

A: It says in the bible that the Garden of Eden was the most beautiful place on earth. Sun Yat Sen Garden is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

Z: Wow, your standards are low... but just because you haven't seen something more beautiful doesn't mean that it's the MOST beautiful...

A: Yah okay - nice talking - gotta go now – bye.

Two weeks later, Z runs into A at a coffee shop, talking to their mutual friend Y:

A: Oh hi! I was just telling Y about what we were saying about the Garden of Eden being just down in Chinatown, over there...

Z: Actually, I thought I shot that argument down pretty conclusively.

A: So, as I was saying Y, the Garden of Eden the bible says Eden is the most beautiful place on earth and everyone who has ever been to Sun Yat Sen Garden agrees that it's totally serenely gorgeous...

Z: ...I beg to differ...

A: So there you go. The bible says the Garden of Eden is in downtown Vancouver.

Z: Seriously? That is the most ridiculous non-sequitur cum argument ad populi I may have ever heard. That's a patently absurd argument and you know it.

A: Yah okay - nice talking - gotta go now – bye.

Another two weeks pass and Z gets a phone call from X, another mutual friend of Z's 'friend' A:

X: Hey... I'm just sitting here with A...

Z: Sigh... uh-huh...

X: And he told me about how Sun Yat Sen Garden is actually the Garden of Eden...

Z: He told you that did he?

X: Amazing, huh? He said it says' so, right in the bible.

Z: Can you put him on the phone please?

X: Sure thing. ...Hey A!...

A: ...Hey, buddy...

Z: Alright... let me be clear. I am just about positive that the bible – let alone Genesis – does not say that the Garden of Eden is the most beautiful place on earth. If you know I am wrong, then by all means, show me chapter and verse, and I'll move on to different refutations of your bullshit theory – and trust me, I'm full of them – but you are still using the same argument that I have debunked using nothing more than the power of my awesome mind. Now if you can find me a legitimate translation of the bible that says that the Garden of Eden was the most beautiful place on earth, then I will deal with that evidence on its own terms, but as of now you have done nothing to refute my argument except to restate your fucking stupid premise about what the bible says.

A: Well it strongly implies it.

Z: That is moving the goal posts.

A: Yah okay - nice talking - gotta go now – bye.

Two weeks further down the road, Z runs into B – a friend of Z's acquaintance, A:

B: Hey Z! I just had lunch with A...

Z: Ahhh - shit.

B: He told me how you said –

Z: He said.

B: - that according to the bible, down near Main and Hastings is –

Z: The god damn Garden of Eden.

B: Yeah! Amazing theory...

Z: Yah okay - nice talking - gotta go now – bye.

One of the most pernicious and intellectually bankrupt tactics used by all walks of the credulous is to simply ignore the arguments put forth by critical thinkers.

Creationists do it. Anti-vaxers do it. Even educated theorists of conspiracies do it.

In many cases I think they honestly don't know how totally fucking asinine it is. Perhaps I'm selling their intellect short, but the alternative is that they are doing it wilfully – and that is reprehensible.

I am perfectly willing to have an argument with you if you are willing to actually address what I say directly. I'm willing to be proven wrong. Being proven wrong doesn't make me look like a fool, it makes me stronger, 'cause now I have better knowledge. Perhaps I'll go away and staircase wisdom will illuminate a flaw in your argument that I hadn't previously noticed – but I shall address that directly next time we discuss the matter. What I won't do is go back to my previous line of argument unless the flaw has undermined your refutation – but even then I won't do it without stating the reasoning that your argument was invalid. This could potentially get extremely recursive, but sooner or later we will come to a point where one side or the other will have distilled their position to a point where it cannot be effectively argued against further with any intellectual integrity.

The collective efforts of scientists and critical thinkers have argued many issues to a point where the opposition has two choices:

  1. Back down and admit they are wrong.
  2. Plug their ears, metaphorically shot "nyah nyah nyah I'm not listening to you!" and keep on using some old thoroughly debunked argument

Now, I may jokingly call myself an 'asshole' – but really, who in the second example is the asshole?

The opponents of skeptics regularly turn to this. They have to, 'cause logic, facts and apparently decorum are not on their side.

It's intellectually dishonest; it's lazy; and it makes them look like fools.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Asshole Skeptic Honour Roll

I really should be working, so this will be brief - I've procrastinated enough just finding this.

I think that this You Tube post about Kirk Cameron distributing Darwin's "Origin of Species" (WHAAAAAT!!???!) is an excellent example of Asshole Skepticism. Top marks.

It pretty much speaks for itself, and I don't really think there's much to be gained by going to look at the source, but to be intellectually honest, '>here it is.

FLU Nonsense in the Georgia Straight

Generally speaking I find homeopathy to be utterly laughable. It is such a ridiculous therapy that it absolutely baffles me that anyone buys into it. It makes me mad that people scam money and endanger people's health with it, but I usually find it so absurd that I just can't wade into the fray. But when they join ranks with the anti-vaccination crowd (which they often do) –they've crossed onto my team's side of the warm-up ice, fisticuffs will ensue. (Vancouver is un-beaten in the NHL pre-season, I can't help myself.)
If by some chance you are reading your first skeptical blog about homeopathy, here's the short version:
You are sick with ailment 'X'. Let's say that it causes insomnia and gives you a bad rash. You decide to go to a homeopath for treatment. She takes stock of your symptoms and determines treatments for them. The substances she chooses to treat with are selected according to the homeopathic 'law of similars' wherein 'like cures like.' In other words the effect of the substance used would be similar to the symptom and could be used to expel the disease. How would it do that? Why with it's vital force of course! But wait! There's more...
Based on your insomnia, the homeopath selects caffeine of course, and for your rash - poison ivy, and creates for you a pair of preparations to cure your malady.
"But wait!" You ask, being a sensible person, "Can't I just have a cup of coffee – as ludicrous as it sounds for curing insomnia? And poison Ivy? Uh... I'm supposed to drink that?"
"Don't worry." Your homeopath mollifies you. And she goes on to explain how she'll be preparing your cure.
First she'll take the caffeine and dilute it by a factor of 100. Then she'll succuss it. "You'll what?"
"I'll smack it 10 times with a leather saddle." By now your spidey-senses ought to be tingling.
Okay, to be fair, modern homeopaths have generally quit with the smacking it an arbitrary number of times with a saddle. Can you blame them? That's just ridiculous. No, today they shake it an arbitrary number of times along each axis – left to right, back to forth and up to down. That makes far more sense now.... doesn't it?
And then she takes a portion of that solution and dilutes it by a factor of 100 again, and succusses it again. And then she does it all again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. Thirty times. Each dilution by 100 is symbolized by the letter 'C' the Roman numeral for 100 – hence this dilution (the standard homeopathic dilution) is identified as 30C. Mathematically this will work out to 1060 – or 1 part of the original substance and 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 parts water. If you took one molecule of the original substance and dropped it in all the water on earth (assuming that water was perfectly purified) it would still be trillions of times stronger than the solution your homeopath just made for you.
Now those numbers are obviously really fucking big. So big that it's hilarious to even really try to conceive it in your head. And that alone may make you want to question the validity of my refutation. I understand the instinct. But the reality is that you don't even have to go that far. There is a well established law of chemistry known as Avogadro's Number which simply put determines the number of molecules in a given volume. Using the hard facts of how the universe works you can – if you have the mad math skillz – work out that at approximately 12C the dilution would statistically speaking have a single molecule of the original substance in it.
So, now you must be asking yourself, how the fuck is something that, by all reason, doesn't have any of the dubious curative compound in it at all, supposed to help me? Well, the short answer is that it won't. But you won't get that answer from a homeopath. Their response will be that the (it burns my fingers just to type it) 'according to Jacques Benveniste, water maintains a memory of the substance.' To which you'd be perfectly justified in responding "what the fuck!?! Give me my money back you quack!"
And that's before you start considering the repercussions of the thought that if water has memory doesn't that mean it remembers the shit dumped into it by everything that has ever lived? What exactly does T-Rex shit cure? Massive bites wounds possibly? Or, the equally implausible notion that (Oh gawd! The burning!) that a remedy that is more diluted is more effective. Seriously, classic homeopaths actually believe that. ....Seriously.
This past week Georgia Straight magazine published an article on homeopathy by Sonya McLeod. It was her second this summer. But in her latest post she skated on my ice – she played the anti-vax card and the H1N1 card.
She dives right into criticism of the scare tactics that the mainstream media has used on the public with regards to the epidemic. For starters, she appears to be – like many people – misunderstanding the term 'epidemic'. There seems to be an assumption that epidemic (and more so 'pandemic') means vast swaths of the populace is dead or dying. That after the fact phrases like 'no-one was unaffected' and 'everyone knew someone who died' or 'entire families wiped-out'. WRONG! Epidemic is not a measure of the severity of the disease, merely of its ability to infect a large number of people in a short period of time. By implying the extreme (and incorrect) definition, she allows herself the opportunity to scoff at the notion of an epidemic – a strategy which is no less reprehensible than the accusation she is making. The media has almost without a doubt made more of H1N1 than it deserves – any sane person would hope so – but it would be equally insane to not prepare for the worst and hope for the best, so apart from possibly front-ending our concerns, what is the problem with the media's characterization? Especially seeing as their characterization has tempered since the spring.
McLeod proudly announces (in what shortly turns into a thinly veiled commercial) that she has no fear of H1N1 or the seasonal flu affecting her daughters as she is a formally trained homeopath "a natural healing art that has been used successfully for the treatment of all types of flus for more than 200 years." So, here's the thing... medicine – real medicine – has been around just as long – longer in fact. Medicine has had the good sense to discard what doesn't work. Homeopathy... well it's just as ridiculous as ever. As to being natural? Go fuck yourself Sonya. There is a common misconception that modern medicine has something 'un-natural' about it. It's a ridiculous idea. What on earth do you mean by 'natural?' I can only guess you mean something that is 'of this earth'... like practically everything in our world that isn't imaginary or magical... like homeopathy! But seriously – let's start defining what 'natural' means before we start to make specious claims and implications about what is and isn't natural.
Ooh! Hey wait a second! Brain-storm! Why don't we start occasionally referring to modern medicine (accurately, I might add) as 'natural medicine.' I bet a doctor could make a killing by promoting her 'modern western medicine' as natural medicine, and when it came down to it no one could argue that she was wrong! Okay, go – do it. Send me my 'natural-pharma-shill' cheque to my PayPal account.
"My kids will not be getting either the swine-flu or the regular flu shot this year." Which is anti-vaxish for: "I will negligently contribute to the undermining of herd-immunity this year and will directly endanger my own progeny."
She declares that if she were to worry about her kids getting the flu that she would give them homeopathic influenzinum. And at this point I must do something I am rarely able to do... I will commend Ms. McLeod for her ability to use Google. So very few of the people whose bullshit I've researched appear to have any facility for Google as they get easily found facts heinously incorrect. But not Ms. McLeod she clearly knows her Google as her structure, and wording of her entire paragraph on influenzinum is lifted (with edits presumably for brevity) almost verbatim from
FLU: Alternative Treatments and Prevention
by Randall Neustaedter.
Here's a Google challenge for you: do a search for "influenzinum" and see how many hits you can find that aren't written by a homeopath (I.E. Someone profiting from it.) or a homeopathic organization (same thing, really). I went 10 pages deep and found one single page (results will change from week to week). That is how seriously science takes influenzinum. When prefaced as "homeopathic" science doesn't even bother, because the jury is in on homeopathy and the science book was thrown at it.
The claim is that influenzinum is a deactivated virus which triggers an immune response. (Which is kinda like what a vaccine does, but don't get suckered by the pretend science.) Let's take that as true. As a homeopathic cure diluted to 30C there wouldn't be a molecule of "deactivated virus" in a quazillion doses, so there goes your active ingredient. But let's say there is an active ingredient – let's just say... as unlikely as it is. So... the homeopath is distributing an unlicensed biological agent to people. Yes. There's a word that gets applied to that. It's a word that is actually a bit extreme to use – especially seeing as we know there is no virus left in the homeopathic remedy – but the word is 'terrorism.' Let me be clear. THIS IS NOT TERRORISM. No one with any sense takes homeopaths seriously. I doubt if influenzinum could even be shown to be a deactivated virus – it's simply part of the homeopathic mythology. Perhaps I could find out for sure if I: a) took homeopaths seriously; or b) had the patience to wade past the pages and pages of evidence-free bullshit you get when you Google it. Point being: homeopathy = NOT terrorism, it's too silly to be terrorism; but if real viruses – even if deactivated – were being distributed, it would be a criminal act of extreme severity.
She goes on to bemoan that "the most frustrating thing about homeopathy is that it is often difficult to decide between one homeopathic remedy and another." Oh, don't worry Sonya, they're all the same.
So I set this post aside just as work interfered in a serious way. It's now three days later and I'm still really too busy to carry on in as much detail as I wished.
Meanwhile, the story has kind of exploded a bit.
I'll quickly summarize, then get on with meeting my deadline:
There were a schwack of comments to the article, predominantly negative.
A number of Canadian skeptics blogged about it:
PharmacistScott noted a few important illuminating facts on the Canadian Skepticism Forum:
And then came the response from the Georgia Straight.
PharmacistScott – who I must say is a endless fount of info on medical subjects – came up with these responses to accusations of "Big Pharma."
Some Canadian Skeptic responded to the response. Which includes this enlightening gem: "I didn't want to point it out at the time of writing [His First post] because I was a little unsure of the veracity of the claim, but it turns out that the author of the article, homeopath Sonya McLeod is indeed the daughter of the the paper's owner, Dan McLeod. (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! = My 30C surprize.)
Which leads us to....
"What can I do?"
You can complain to the BC Press Council.
[EDIT - Added Sept 22 2009, at 12:25ish]
Do NOT complain to the BC Press Council. I just recieved the following response from the Executive Direcotr of the BC Press Council to my complaint: "The Georgia Straight is not a member of the B.C. Press Council and is therefore not subject to its Code of Practice. Sorry, it's something you will have to take up with the editor."
[End EDIT]
Complain about – in increasing order of severity:
  • The borderline, un-credited plagiarism in the article
  • The bankrupt 'in-the-pocket' editorial nepotistic connection between the Straight and Sonya McLeod's company
  • The fact-free reporting
  • The dissemination of dangerous information at a critical time – specifically the promotion of demonstrably useless therapies over efficacious during the H1N1 scare – directly endangering individuals and the public in general by undermining herd-immunity
Okay, I must go work so I can post with leisure as the saga carries on.
Meanwhile, remember – real science is a process, not a process of using real science words.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mindless Somer

Just in time to spit acid at Susanne Somers, I'm back having finished rough-edits of the two commercials I'm currently working on.

The commercials really aren't relevant – but I mentioned them in my last post as my excuse for being absent this past week.

Susanne Somers... As with so much that falls into the glare of rational thinking there isn't much about Susanne Somers' beliefs in Alternative Medicine that hasn't been picked apart in detail – in many cases long before she took up the fight. In short, she puts the 'Y' in 'idyot.'

So, what's new about Suzanne Somers? On top of her ignorance, she is a crass, inappropriate detritivore. Attending the Toronto Film Festival, and clearly pushing her new book about (I suspect that it's a loose definition of 'about') cancer, she shoe-horned a demonstrably self-aware effort to be controversial – and thus garner attention for her book – into a conversation, while preying upon the death of Patrick Swayze by cancer.

As if it's not enough to be blatantly wrong, she uses someone else's fresh tragedy to uncouthly open the doors for her own self-serving agenda.

What does she know? She's "a singer-dancer-comedienne" she apparently doesn't even know how to use Google. She declares that chemotherapy killed Swayze, not cancer. "They basically put poison in him." No, they put chemicals into him. But as we know, the alt-med crowd hears 'poison' when the word 'chemical' comes up.

She doesn't understand (or worse, doesn't care) that her anecdotal assertion that she cured her breast cancer herself by making bold nutritional choices is not the equivalent of evidence at all as it's indistinguishable from spontaneous remission... OR maybe – just maybe it had something to do with the lumpectomy and regimen of radiation therapy she had!

Yes, chemotherapy is widely known to be pretty damned unpleasant for the recipient, but that in and of itself doesn't make it an ineffective treatment. It doesn't always work – if it did we wouldn't be having this conversation at all. But it has a better statistical success rate than sticking needles in your "va-jay-jay." Even though it's not precisely germane, I also want to point out that it's really not as simple as calling out all chemo-therapy – there are many different types. That complication seems to be regularly ignored by those intent to vilify the whole range of treatments – each really needs to be addressed with its specific issues, but no it's so much easier to just attack the whole group. I suspect that Somers doesn't have the jam to even begin to head down that path. If she did she'd soon have to face far too many incontrovertible facts if she did any real research. One of the things she'd quickly find is that no matter how badly chemo treats your body, it's treating the cancer cells worse. Also no matter how bad the side-effects are they are better than what the cancer will do to you if it's given the chance. To be clear, spontaneous remission notwithstanding, cancer will kill you.

Pancreatic cancer really really really will kill you. It's amongst the worst cancers you can get. The overall five year relative survival rate for pancreatic cancer is 5.5%. By comparison the same measurement for breast cancer is 89.1%. I'm going to repeat a few key words in those stats: "Relative survival rate" – which is the rate you get when you compare the people diagnosed with pancreatic cancer to a similar set of people who DO NOT HAVE CANCER – in other words, the prognosis is even worse than it looks. Patrick Swayze was almost certainly going to die from pancreatic cancer, with or without chemotherapy. Chemotherapy may have even extended his life to the roughly two years he had from the time he was diagnosed. Comparing his chances of survival to Somers' is ridiculous – she had a fighting chance.

But she's hardly innocent of making outrageous comparisons in service of her own ego. When her auto-biographical one-woman Broadway show The Blonde in the Thunderbird was cancelled after a measly one week, she blamed the critics: "These men are curmudgeons, and maybe I went too close to the bone for them. I was lying there naked, and they decided to kick me and step on me, just like these visions you see in Iraq." Whaaa! Whaaa! Whaaa!

EDIT: Just adding a link to a similar post by ORAC who adds more detail to the medical condition of Swayze. You can see from this quote alone that his tone is not unlike mine: "No, Suzanne, what you said is not 'controversial'; it's idiotic, ignorant, and disrespectful."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Hangin’ With My People

It's been just over a week since my last entry – which is both uncharacteristic and miss timed. Following my appearance on Skeptically Speaking a week ago with a week-plus of blog silence is probably not the best way to build audience. (Thanks to those who had complimentary things to say about the interview – they ranged from complimentary to glowing... which was surprising and cool. Still waiting for a dissenting opinion. No doubt it'll come so long as I keep baldly calling myself an 'asshole skeptic.')

I've been preparing for a commercial shoot tomorrow. I don't really feel ready, but I also know that at this point the only thing I can do (and must do) to feel more ready is pack my kit wisely. Whatever creative prep work isn't done isn't going to get done and I'm better off clearing my mind of distractions like I haven't written in any of my blogs in over a week! My personal blog is probably feeling neglected but I haven't got a lot to say in it. The film's blog won't have news until tomorrow or the next day anyhow, and my TAM diary... well I really need to finish it, I'm just stuck.

So, a quick note here is going to be the trick to relieve my fidgety mind...

I'm sitting in the restaurant where my post-touring theatre career began. Cafe Deux Soliels in Vancouver. I did a weekly show here for about six months which in a roundabout way led to Beast of Bottomless Lake. And now – 13 years on – I live less than a block away. It's a pretty hippy neighbourhood – The Drive. I love it though. It has always felt like home – even when I didn't live here.

I'm was once far more earthy than I am now, but I always dodged the flakiest of the clichés. Today I like the friendly lovin' atmosphere – but I'm just not the granola-eater my neighbours are. That said, the 'hood isn't as granola anymore either. But this place has hardly changed. I don't come here often anymore, but I still have a fondness for it. It used to be a place where I felt at home. But as I sat here half an hour ago reading Skeptical Inquirer I got the distinct feeling that if I were to utter the words "Homeopathy can only cure thirst!" that they'd chase me down the street to my windmill with torches and pitchforks.

And here's the part where I bring it all together...

Back in July, those four days of TAM was really something special. I really couldn't fully appreciate until I was there that for four days the only mention of 9/11 Truth would be to laugh at its ridiculousness. Or that any conversation I had about skeptical subjects I engaged in would skip all of the varsity-level thought. Damn, that was precious.

Last weekend was Skeptrack at DragonCon. This weekend is the NECSS. It those are going to be our three big skeptical gatherings on this continent, I wish they'd be better spread out. (NECSS – you are the late one to the party, it's your responsibility to get some balance into the equation.) I missed them both. I tried to watch Skeptrack on-line but the stream was (sigh – I hate to say it) a disaster. TAM London has been sold out since the first five hours, so I can't get to it in the winter.

To make matters worse, Vancouver Skeptics in the Pub is delayed this month. Ugh.

I can't imagine affording to go to each of Skeptrack and NECSS in addition to TAM (let alone TAM London) but I guess it's time to start saving so I can get to at least TAM and DragonCon.

Damn... can't believe I'm making plans to go to DragonCon. It's been on my radar since highschool, when I played D&D. But back then I always thought there's no way I'd be caught dead there. That conference is clearly for major geeks! But it appears now that that is where I find 'my people.'

Monday, September 7, 2009

Impolite Company

What is it that polite company does not talk about? Sex, politics and religion?
If you've been reading along you can probably guess that my basic opinion on all three can be summed up by the all-purpose negation; "Bullshit!"
But that doesn't mean that there aren't ways in which those subjects should be handled. The same goes for skepticism.
Asshole skepticism doubly so. I do think that any and all skeptical issues should be argued vociferously in proportion to their effect upon the world.
Anti-vaccination should be argued with vehemence, and possibly with knives if necessary. Flat-earth theory should be argued with laughter, and possibly mocking finger pointing... that is if you are taking the asshole skeptical position.

I've already alluded to this, but I absolutely do not think or promote the notion that asshole skepticism is a blanket tactic. This will be one of several posts on how and when it is appropriate.

I'm going to pull a number out of the air and say that a more gentle approach to skepticism is the best-bet 80% of the time and that asshole skepticism is the way to go 20% of the time. I am probably being generous to us asshole skeptics with those figures, but let's face it, the numbers are arbitrary and merely serve the point that the greatest majority of the time soft-skepticism is the best approach.

In day to day life I would not personally use genuinely assholish tactics on anyone I expected to spend a lot of time with. Family, friends, co-workers - and anyone else I could expect to have to deal with regularly.

(A side note: I can see that I've skipped a stage in the out laying of my growing manifesto... What are genuinely assholish tactics? What non-asshole skeptical tactics are not genuinely assholish? I'm still working on that. For now let's merely say that being confrontational, heatedly emotional, and directly belittling are all part of the genuinely assholish bag of tricks; while using levity is a part of the less offensive part
of the canon.)
This is not to say that family and friends might not be subjected to such tactics indirectly - I have to assume that family and friends will read this blog, for example, but I'm not pulling punches 'just in case they do.' I'm not afraid of anyone finding out what my ideology is. They either agree, or they don't and if they don't they will have to make a decision as to whether that is something that will prevent them from being a part of my life. I have many times chosen to keep friends who maintain credulous beliefs in my life, without individual judgement, just as I've chosen to have friends with any accounting of minor foibles that don't quite jibe with me - in all cases because I think they have a lot of other great qualities that I build our friendship around.

I'm more than willing to respectfully discuss skeptical subjects with my friends and family - and sometimes I wade in when they aren't expecting it. When my step-mother sends out a forwarded email announcing that on August 27th Mars will look bigger than the Moon, I yell at my computer "No it's fucking not!" and then write a detailed email with the astronomical data explaining how the event in question was years ago and that the degree by which Mars would be closer than normal was so nominal that comparing it's size to the Moon was laughable.... and I also encourage her to forward my response to whomever sent her the email and so on. (A reverse chain letter!) And I chose to write a nice email instead of calling home and yelling "No it's fucking not!" into the phone because I love my father and I have no reason to alienate the woman he loves - not to even get to how I actually respect my step-mother a lot and think that she is great for my dad.

Perhaps this seems obvious. No sane person would treat their loved ones with utter contempt, but it seems to me that I should say so, otherwise somewhere down the line someone is bound to try to identify it as a glaring hole in my philosophy and toss out the straw man that it's all garbage as a result of the oversight.

Further though...

I think it's fair to say that people who adhere to empirically ridiculous and/or offensive beliefs are not very likely to get themselves too emotionally deep into my life. It's simply too likely that at one point or another one or the other of us is going to say something that makes the red-flags go up for the other and we will collectively take a step back.
But sometimes in life we are thrown in with people who do hold views that are diametrically opposed to our own truths and there is simply no way of avoiding interaction on a regular basis and it's also likely that areas of contention are going to come up.

You may have a co-worker, for example, that goes to a psychic regularly, is studying their own ability to read tarot and gives lectures to other co-workers about how the world is going to change in fundamental ways in 2012. I find it very hard to not say anything in these circumstances. I find it hard to suffer fools gladly. I find it nearly impossible to obey the "Bambi rule" if I actually get involved in the conversation. It's a very tough position to be in. No wins. I am trying to get better at it. But the one thing I have to remind myself of is that "I need to work peacefully with these people." So I will pick the point I most want to make and I'll make it. I will even argue it in a friendly manner. But as soon as I feel the instinct to get mean or emotional (usually simultaneously) I have to back off - even if I know exactly what I should say next (often precisely because I have the perfect zinger.) I smile and say "Hmmm. That's interesting." and back off. Often giving the false impression that they have won. I have to hope that staircase wisdom will give me a better solution further down the road and that I'll get another chance to pull it out. These are often situations where humour is an acceptable way to apply asshole skepticism. Preferably the 'target' has a sense of humour and a thick enough skin so as to be able to laugh at the light in the situation. Alternately the others in the room who are seeing through their bullshit laugh with you (or me) the asshole, and the 'target' feels enough of a twinge from being shamed that they do some useful reflection, but not so much shame that they feel persecuted. This is one heck of a tough balance to achieve. I'm not pretending it isn't, and at this moment I have no useful tips on how to hit that tipping point.

I'm betting that anyone reading this is thinking that that is un-satisfying. You are damned right it is! Imagine being me in those circumstances.
Sorry folks, that is as far as I have got on the personal front at the moment. But I promise that as I have more insights I'll explore them here. For now, I merely make the essential point that asshole skepticism is not an approach to be exercised with those you love and/or those you need to play nice with regularly.

In a future post I'll muse upon the broader circumstances where asshole skepticism is a useful tactic.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Skeptically Speaking Interview

Just a quick post to point out that my interview on Skeptically Speaking has been posted for download.

New posts after the weekend, for now I'm swaiting with baited breath for the on-again off-again feed fromn Skeptrack at DragonCon to give me cool insights.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Further thoughts on Future Musings

(Cross posted on The Truth & The Signal.)

Back on Monday I pre-recorded an interview for Skeptically Speaking that will air this Friday... hence the post title... I haven't publicly said the things that this post is a development of....

It was a fun interview, though plagued with technical difficulties - if you are a regular listener of the show I should clarify that I don't mean that in the sense of how the show is infamously plagued by technical difficulties. We (by which I mean Des, the host, and I) evaded the typical difficulties by pre-taping the interview. Des is going to be at Dragon Con, so both of us would have been remote... it would have been too easy to lose both of us.
The technical details we had were more due to the fact that by not being live the pressure was off so neither of us was as 'on' as we might otherwise have been. As a result we ended up re-recording an awful lot. I even deliberately said 'fuck' once so that she would have to start again when her tongue was getting tied. We also got into a lot of laughing. I'm hoping that the final edit will be as fun as we had.

Fun or not I did have some staircase wisdom on the matter.

One of the things that we talked about was how saturated the acting community is with new-age thinking. Ugh. The answer is "Far too saturated." Which is not to say I am alone as a critical-thinker in the acting community. Whew! But lame-assed hippy-dippy earth-mother beliefs are far too common.

I've been in far too many productions with people who wanted to "share our energy" on stage. Whatever. Yeah, I know there is a rush that we get when a show is really clicking. It's a lot of fun. But that's not 'energy' - its endorphins... or some other chemical in our body. Okay, I don't personally know the exact hormone that is triggering us. Adrenaline maybe? In any case, not knowing the specifics doesn't actually make me wrong and the woo-eaters who thrive on building our collective conscious on stage correct.

I've heard it all.

The 100 monkeys theory has been brought up as an explanation for shows really working. Huh? Not only is the 100 monkeys effect bullshit in the first place, but even if it were... the cast was considerably short of 100 people. There were three of us, and sadly even if you counted the audience there were too few. But even so... how the hell do monkeys downstream learning a task through spontaneous telepathy explain actors clicking on stage? AUGH! I nearly married that woman... sometimes I am an idiot too.

I do have my own set of flakiness I admit. When I'm doing a really intense role I prefer to be left the fuck alone. I'm one of those annoying pricks who don't want to be disturbed. Don't talk to me, don't bother me with stuff that has nothing to do with what is about to happen on stage, or after the show. I also tend to live bits and pieces of the character in real life. I once played a serial killer (in a comedy, no less) for a summer, and by the end I was not a pleasant person to be around... though no bodies showed up.... yet. I played a Jew who was ostracized in Nazi Germany and I ended up ostracizing myself from the rest of the cast. I played a simple minded and insane chicken farmer... my already teetering relationship at the time didn't survive that one - though I ended up being nominated for a local award for the performance.

Once, in a particularly complex and intense show - George F. Walker's Theatre of the Film Noir - I was playing Bernard, a homosexual who had pushed his mind past the brink while narrowly surviving the Nazi occupation of Paris; one of my cast-mates decided that everyone of us should hold hands and stand quietly together through intermission in order to (you guessed it) preserve our energy. I lasted about as long as it took for him to suggest the idea. The best way for me to 'preserve my energy' was to stand in a dark corner alone and spit venom over his stupid idea. I got the impression that me walking away was all it took to trigger at least one other cast member to follow suit. (I am not entirely alone.) I took great pleasure that night in "killing" his character. Ah, method.

Amongst the worst... or best, depending on your interpretation... examples would be my first acting teacher in university, Linda Hardy, Assistant Professor and flake of top-degree. I recall a class where she told us with great reverence how important it was to the world that there were Universities that were granting doctorates of parapsychology. That it was such a coup that the paranormal had finally gained academic respectability. Is it any wonder that so many artists are woo-munchers when this is the kind of mentors they have?

I was always a little incensed that I was expected to pay money to sit in this woman's classes. We spent weeks of our first term exploring how acting through our various chakras affected our performances, and character presentation. It was this that I glancingly referenced in the Skeptically Speaking interview.

There was some severe priming going on in these exercises.
Linda would talk about our fight or flight response and then we'd "breathe through our solar-plexus chakra". The class would then walk around and respond organically to whatever was on their mind... and no one would turn their back on another unless it was to bolt to the opposite side of the room at top speed. We hardly needed any priming beyond our natural 17 year-old associations when she told us to "breathe through our coccyx" and before you knew it class members were rubbing up against each other in the biggest theatre-school cliche since Fame. Who was I to scoff at that particular part of the exercise? It was ridiculous.

I just did a quick back of the napkin calculation. If I took the same course today I would be paying nearly $300 worth of my tuition to play imaginary games for the first third of my semester. What a rip-off!

And what practical purpose were we to put this to?

"Well, dearies..." (I am channelling Linda through my asshole chakra right now - that's where the energy for total crap comes from.) "...say for example you were playing the part of Prospero, a richly spiritual and wise man. You could channel your performance through your brow and crown chakras to bring into your spirit the energy of magic and intellect that form the core of his being."
Yeah... or you could act.

"Using your chakras you can bring the embodiment of any character you desire into yourself and find their voice within you."
So why then, Linda, is it that every time you act you perform in the vapid and shallow voice of the lead character in a Shirley MacLaine auto-biography?

I think next time I get cast in something, I'm going get my inspiration from science to create a performance of infinite depth and mind-boggling complexity by basing my character on the Mandelbrot Set.

Postscript: I actually did a lot of reading into math when at university. I have an incident seared into my memory where when playing some kind of "Who am I now?" type party game at one of our theatre department parties that someone in the department got angry when I 'was' Rene Levesque. "You can't always be obscure mathematicians Kennedy!" For those non-Canadians and for those too young to recall who didn't click the link, Rene Levesque was a (pretty much, THE) prominent Quebec Sovereigntist leader of the 70s.... sigh no joke that you have to explain is funny.
In the previous round I actually had been Benoit Mandelbrot, so apart from not knowing her Canadian history she wasn't exactly wrong.