Tag Archives: ben-goldacre

Godless carols

On Sunday, the gf and I went to the Hammersmith Apollo to see the final performance of Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People. By coincidence, albeit perhaps not that much of a coincidence given that both being plugged into a lot of the same networks, we hear about a lot of things at around the same time, Will Howells sat almost exactly in front of us.

A good time was had by all. I’m not much of a comedy night person (I did have a phase of going to pub standup before I moved up to Leeds in 2000 but I never got back into the habit), but this was a good example of what I was missing. Add to that a combination of quality musical acts and science writers and it was a splendid evening. The impression given by Robin Ince was that he’d quite like to turn this into an annual event; I sincerely hope he does.

Stand out moments:

  • Robin Ince himself was one of the strongest comedians, but Stewart Lee, Chris Addison and Dara O’Briain more than kept their respective ends up.
  • The musical acts, if I’m brutally honest, were often a bit meh, but St Jarvis of Cocker was fabulous (he did Something’s Changed and I Believe In Father Christmas by Greg Lake – my bid for the Christmas 2009 Number One). And Tim Minchin‘s beat poem about having a drunken row with a New Ager in a dinner party was a sensational way to round off the evening.
  • Sadly, Jennifer Aniston wasn’t available to do the “science bit” but Simon Singh, Richard Dawkins and Ben Goldacre somehow managed to get by without her. Singh’s piece about the Big Bang Theory and Kate Melua was entertaining and Dawkins reminded us why, even if he does on occasion go off the anti-religion deep end, his writing has captured so many people’s imaginations over the years. But it was the passion and sheer moral force of Ben Goldacre which was the standout performance of the three, almost singlehandedly giving the occasion a sense of legitimacy by talking about the peddling of vitamins in South Africa. A normally witty writer, Goldacre didn’t make a single joke but his contribution was stronger for it.

Ricky Gervais, for whom a lot of people apparently turned up (the gf overheard a woman on the way out who was outraged that the event wasn’t merely Ricky Gervais and friends), was a problematic performer. The thing about Gervais is that he isn’t and never has been a standup comedian. He does this character, one not entirely dissimilar to the one in The Office and Extras (and, lamentably, Stardust). If you remember that, then his not particularly funny observations about getting a goat for an African family for Christmas makes a certain amount of sense, and his jokes about rape and paedophilia can, to an extent, be justified. More extreme things can be found in the League of Gentlemen, certainly, where it is clear that the actors are playing characters. The problem is, how many people still see Gervais as a character and how much does Gervais himself still see it as a character? Leaving aside whether you can ever justify rape gags, the simple fact is his skits on Sunday weren’t funny – or original – enough and too reliant on shock value to get a nervous laugh. This is a shame since he is capable of truly excellent standup such as his daddy longlegs skit.

As I said above, I really hope they do make it an annual event. But if they do, here is some advice:

1. If you’re going to use Powerpoint, remember the cheap seats. We weren’t in the cheap seats, merely the inner circle, but even we couldn’t see Simon Singh’s slides. It did occur to me that this may have been some kind of anti-God ploy – on the offchance the Heavenly Host does exist, let’s make watching it slightly annoying for them and see how they like it! hah! – but if it was it was a little counter-productive. It isn’t as bad as when I went to see Phantom of the Opera in the Manchester Opera House many moons ago when the shock entrance of the Phantom was somewhat marred by the fact that from our elevated angle, we cheapies could see him blithely walking on stage 30 seconds before, but that was Andrew Lloyd Webber – what did I expect?

2. If people are going to just recycle vaguely relevant old material for the occasion, tell them to not bother. There was an act that did a song about Peter Gabriel on the basis that he was sort of named after the angel, but I sort of stopped paying attention after about 30 seconds. The evening was long enough and didn’t need this sort of filler.

3. A bit less music, a bit more sciencey stuff. I liked the fact that it wasn’t just an evening of jokes about eeeeevil Christians but was a celebration of science. It could have done with a little more.

But these are minor quibbles at the end of the day. I had a great evening and look forward to what they cook up for next year.

Homeophobia? I am not a scientist but…

Article slightly amended from first version – woke up this morning to realised I’d forgotten to make a point.

Rustum Roy writes a belated rebuttal of Ben Goldacre’s diatribe about homeopathy in the Guardian last month. We are to understand that anyone who is sceptical about homoeopathy is to be regarded as a “homeophobe”. This is starting to sound even less like science and even more like identity politics.

A few lines in this article wrestled for my attention. First:

As it happens, there is agreement among all those who have studied liquid water that it is, in fact, the critics, who are totally wrong. Proof? Diamond is the planet’s hardest material; graphite one of the softest. They are absolutely identical in composition, and they can be interconverted in a millisecond with zero change of composition.

I hasten to preface this with the disclaimer that I am not a scientist, but hang on a minute. The Queen is not constantly in fear that, at any given millisecond, her priceless Koh-i-noor diamond might turn into a pencil. I’m sure there are processes that can convert carbon to diamonds and vice versa, but they aren’t exactly easy to come by.

The reason why carbon can exist in multiple forms is fairly well understood – if I remember my GCSE chemistry it is all to do with “spare” electrons – and it is hard to see what relevance it has here. We know, for instance, that water can interchange from liquid to solid to gas, but that doesn’t prove it has a “memory”.

In any case, I’m also not convinced that Goldacre was basing his argument on scepticism about the idea that might have a memory. He only mentioned the word once in his article. The science behind memory metals is now well understood, and there are other applications of the same principle.

But it is one thing to say that water might have a “memory” and quite another to claim that snake venom diluted in water to an extraordinary degree can be used as a cure for feverish symptoms. The argument is not with the science; it is taking that science and contorting it to an absurd degree. I might just as well claim that the alpha waves emitted by my brain can be used to program water.

Roy also writes:

But the main thrust of Goldacre’s argument is the role of the “placebo effect”. Yes, this works. And, yes, it is without doubt present in every homeopathic intervention; but it is far more powerfully present in orthodox medical pills because they are advertised so widely in billion-dollar campaigns.

Goldacre is accurate in pointing out the high rates of positive v negative outcomes in many of the homeopathy studies. But there are enormous discrepancies in any set of randomised controlled trials on the same orthodox pills.

Does Goldacre seriously suggest that a homeopathy paper with a positive outcome would be treated fairly in any mainstream journal?

This is a very circular argument. “My paper won’t get treated fairly, therefore I won’t submit it” is a pretty piss-poor excuse. And once again, Goldacre is not – as far as I’m aware – claiming that “orthodox” pills are the answer to everything. He’s has written plenty of critical articles about “Big Pharma”. When he writes about the placebo effect, he’s talking about its effect in traditional medicine as much as the alternative:

You both think you know about the placebo effect already, but you are both wrong. The mysteries of the interaction between body and mind are far more complex than can ever be permitted in the crude, mechanistic and reductionist world of the alternative therapist, where pills do all the work.

The placebo response is about far more than the pills – it is about the cultural meaning of a treatment, our expectation, and more. So we know that four sugar pills a day will clear up ulcers quicker than two sugar pills, we know that a saltwater injection is a more effective treatment for pain than a sugar pill, we know that green sugar pills are more effective for anxiety than red, and we know that brand packaging on painkillers increases pain relief.

A baby will respond to its parents’ expectations and behaviour, and the placebo effect is still perfectly valid for children and pets. Placebo pills with no active ingredient can even elicit measurable biochemical responses in humans, and in animals (when they have come to associate the pill with an active ingredient). This is undoubtedly one of the most interesting areas of medical science ever.

If the limit of Professor Roy’s ambition is to claim that homeopaths are no worse than big pharmaceutical companies interested more in making lots of money than they are in actually making people well, then whoop-de-doo. I thought you were claiming to be the good guys?

It reminds me of Great Cthulhu’s eternal presidential election slogan “why vote for the lesser evil?“.

Homeopaths resort to legal action to cure all headaches

A few weeks ago, the political blogosphere united to condemn the actions of Alisher Usmanov and his lawyers for attempting to shut down Craig Murray’s blog. We were right to do so; what made Usmanov’s actions particularly reprehensible was the way he used the law to intimidate Murray’s hosting company while cowardly avoiding a fight with Murray’s publisher who had already printed the allegations two years previously.

Now, Ben Goldacre draws our attention to another attempt to shut down a blogger. This time the fight is between a scientist and the Society of Homeopathy.

Andy Lewisallegations seem quite straightforward. The Society has clear guidelines and Andy has what appears to be relatively clear evidence that one of its members is in breach of these guidelines. This isn’t about homeopaths making exaggerated claims about curing head colds to middle class Brits either, but involves potentially dangerous attempts to market homeopathy as a cure for malaria in Kenya.

Andy Lewis demanded answers: the response was a writ issued to his hosting company who subsequently took down the offending article. Sound familiar?

Sound familiar? It should do. There’s a growing list of bloggers who are protesting about this. So come on then Tom, Iain, Guido, Tim and others, how about it?