Sunday, 2 May 2010

Back again, the pope made me do it

It's been a while now, I've some unsettling times workwise, but back to normal now, and I've been inspired to post by the pope's plan to visit.

First, the leaked brainstorm document (Some humorous suggestions amongst a list of things that the pope could do on his visit, including launching a brand of condoms and singing a duet with the queen). He's peeved because he thinks they should have sacked some people for this 'outrage'.

Catholic commentators are crying out, like the peasant Dennis in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, that they're being repressed, and everyone hates them.

Well overlooking for a moment, the hypocrisy of the pope, considering his own record on punishing naughtiness (presumably if it all been covered up everything would have been fine), and also the hypocrisy of the catholic church getting concerned about repressing people - they're deliberately overlooking the fact that it was a leaked brainstorming session, where, as most of us who've ever been forced to take part in one, includes just about everything at the start. It's not like it's government policy, or even from a senior member of the FO or government, they might as well have got hold of a Post-It note with "Bloody France" written on it out of a Whitehall bin and started condemning the government for this new outrage.

In fact, sometimes good ideas do emerge from the most ludicrous suggestions. Much as I hate them, I have to admit they can help, at the very least, get people thinking about a problem.

In this case, I think at the very least they can glean that some members of the population do find the ex-nazi chief sky-wizard to be a figure of fun. I also hope it raises the controversial nature of the visit. This is a man who is, to all extents and purposes, flying in the face of the evidence and condemming millions to poverty and death due to this stance on condoms and AIDS.

It's great that some moves are afoot to have him arrested for crimes against humanity as soon as he sets foot on UK soil. I don't see this actually happening, attractive as the proposition is, but it might make the Vatican cancel the visit, which would be a great victory for rational thinking. If not, then it's sure to create some lively debate. The NSS is planning protests and a film festival about atrocities within the church.

But back to the hypocrisy, something the gold-encrusted and powerful church has a blind spot for. They've taken the strange decision to go on the offensive about being criticised for only seeming to take action to keep the child-abuse situation under wraps. They've even been claiming that it was an atheist conspiracy at one point. Now I know lots of atheists, and the quantum leap required to get them to actually agree on what to conspire about is beyond them.

Whereas, of course, the catholic church is clearly more than capable of an international conspiracy, involving police, social services, governments and with a colossal disregard for human suffering.

Not content with crying 'repression', as if it's just the poor little defenceless catholic church who everyone's picking on, they've also gone on to come up with a sequence of, frankly, childish excuses:

1) They're claiming, as if it's some sort of excuse, that it's not technically 'paedophilia', but 'ephebophilia' (a homosexual attraction to teenage boys). I'm not sure what point they're trying to make, but it seems to me that they're trying to say it's not a church problem but a gay problem.

2) They also, in the same statement, declared that 'well, the other religions are doing it too!', according to some scrappy bit of research they've done. This excuse has never worked, not at school, not at work, not with my wife.

3) They then published some figures showing that anyway, it's only 1.5% to 5% of priests that are doing it. 1 priest in every 20 is abusing children??? That's something they're saying in their own defence? Believing in a beardy sky fairy is an awesome feat, but it's as nothing compared to believing that that is a point in your favour.

4) That's it the fault of the permissive society. You see, the church sets the moral climate of society, not the other way round. Except when it's bad morals, then it works the other way. No wait...

5) It's all Harry Potter's fault. Wonderfully whacko Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican's chief exorcist blames it all on the devil who's at large in the Vatican, and this child abuse scancal is just one of his many pieces of handiwork. And Harry Potter blurs the distinction between good and evil and lets the devil in. These people are being allowed to teach children. If it wasn't tragic, it'd be funny.

Anyway, at least some good's coming out of it. People are leaving the catholic church in droves, and starting to view priests suspiciously. They should: if they're not trying to invade a child's body, they're after its mind.


Monday, 2 November 2009

Professor Nutt and why politics has such a bad name

You may have heard that the government has just sacked a Professor David Nutt over his views on drugs. He was their leading scientific advisor on drugs and gave a lecture and wrote some articles where he put forward the view that the laws needing amending.

He pointed out some facts and gave his educated opinion, saying things that many people agree with, like cannabis is not as dangerous as alcohol or tobacco. However you look at it, the hard numbers or the percentages, this is clearly true - more people die of alcohol related illnesses and accidents than they do of cannabis, and we all now that tobacco is a killer. Yet these are both not only legal, but huge sources of income for the government. Surely that warrants some kind of public debate?

Of course giving lectures and writing papers, and having an opinion is what eminent professors do all the time, so it shouldn't have come as a surprise to the government, but they've decided to have a hissy fit that he spoke against them.

I don't think they expected such a huge backlash as this, with scientists from many other branches of science speaking out. It's not just Professor Nutt that they're angry about, it's the governments position on all sorts of science, which over the years they've had a very dubious view of. They seem to see the truth and hard fact of science as something that they can be used to support their position if they agree and which they can ignore if it doesn't support them.

They have, on several occasions chosen public opinion over the hard facts of science. They've allowed alternative medicines to be given a veneer of respectibility by setting up 'regulatory bodies' for magic water and sugar pills as well as the National Homeopathic Hospital, they've been spending our National Insurance contributions on quacks and charlatans of every hue not because it could be proved to make people better, but because public opinion supported it.

In the drugs debate, having set up a panel of experts to advise them, they ignored their advice and decided to reclassify cannabis as a class 'B' drug - because public opinion was against it.

You'd hope that the government would once in a while NOT give way to public opinion, because let's face it 'public opinion' is actually newspaper opinion, and the public's opinion is only worth having if they're sufficiently well-informed about an issue. I'd much rather have the opinion of intelligent, educated and experienced academic experts about issues of a scientific nature than whatever the Daily Mail says, thanks all the same.

But then governments aren't about policies any more, they don't even have a theme as such. Basically they'll do whatever you want them to do, and be whatever you want them to be. Labour used to have a really good manifesto, but the guts of it were taken out with 'clause 4' which promised to secure for the workers the means of production, but they dropped that, because the press didn't like it.

I'd like to see, for a change, a politician in power stand and up and say that he doesn't care what people think, the evidence-based policy is the only sensible choice and so that's what he's going to do. Have some principles in other words.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

the truth about vaccines - no, the real truth

The MMR vaccine hoax, which is still having repercussions in the UK and other countries, is now just the tip of the iceberg. The most disreputable papers, of whom the Daily Mail is clearly the vanguard, recently went to DefCon one when a teenage girl died on the same day she had the cervical cancer vaccine. Leaping to a conclusion faster than an Olympic athlete villager with a pitchfork, they immediately started blaming the vaccine, the government, 'Big Pharma' and demanding the programme be immediately stopped.

Of course, they've been against it all the time, so at least they're consistent.

....Well, except that in their Irish edition they were for it, because the Irish government weren't and their readership seems to be people who don't really care what they're complaining about as long as it's irrational.

Now it's one thing to believe that 'Big Pharma' - i.e. the pharmaceutical companies - are corrupt and sociopathic. In fact, this is probably true of just about every big company. I personally would think you'd be quite mad to believe any big money-making operation had the world's best interest at heart. They don't exist to make the world a better place, they exist to make shareholders rich.

But that doesn't make everything they do evil, or the people who work for them. There is an adage for that: 'Throwing the baby out with the bathwater'. I for one rely daily on a couple of the products of Big Pharma to keep me alive.

The worst of the vehemence towards governments and Big Pharma seems to revolve around vaccinations. Partly, I'm sure, because of the very nature of having a needle stuck into you, or your tiny little vulnerable baby. I'm sure there wouldn't be anything like the opposition to vaccination if they were administered in some less invasive way, like the Polio vaccine on a sugar cube that was the preferred method of delivery when I had it some 40 years ago.

There has now built up a kind of very amorphous conspiracy theory about vaccines, the basic thrust of which is that the government (whichever country you are in) has colluded with the big pharmaceutical companies to throw a lot of poisonous chemicals together into a vaccine which we don't really need as the diseases they prevent aren't that bad or aren't a threat. Almost any kind of symptom can and has been attributed to side-effects of these vaccines if you just take anecdotal stories (such as "My son had the vaccine and 2 weeks later had symptom X")

As a result of this, the diseases which had almost died out are now making a comeback: Measles, Mumps, Polio and Pertussis are all occuring at huge rates compared to a few decades ago and children are dying and being mentally and physically disabled because of it. Meanwhile the problems alleged to be caused by the vaccines are remaining at the same levels they always have been.

The 'big' problem with the MMR vaccine was supposedly autism, yet the rates of this don't differ between countries where the triple vaccine was used and where the single vaccines where used, nor within countries before and after the triple vaccine was introduced. The evidence just isn't there for these theories, yet still they persist, multiply and continue to convince people.

It's hardly shocking that so many people can end up believing in what is actually utter nonsense. Here in the UK we have a programme on TV called 'QI' and every week, the show highlights how much perceived knowledge in the public domain is just plain wrong. Lemmings don't commit suicide en-masse, Tomatoes were 'known' for a long time to be deadly poisonous, Richard Gere had nothing to do with Gerbils nauseum.

Partly, I think the problem is that we prefer simple answers and scientists can't always explain things in a few sentences. Some things just are very complicated. The idea that a girl gets a vaccine and a few hours later, dies is a coincidence seems wrong to us - "surely there must be a connection?", we think.

In fact, all across Britain people died that day after doing something completely unrelated: eating Kitkats, kissing someone, reading the Daily Mail - yet we don't jump to the conclusion that one caused the other. It's because of this conspiracy theory, that uninformed members of the public and irresponsible media continue to spread, that we single out vaccinations as the smoking gun of medical problems.

In fact the press are the real villians of the piece. Though some 'alternative' therapy peddlars stand to gain by spreading this conspiracy theory, and several celebrities are building their career on it, the gutter press always seem to take the lazy approach and, perhaps through a lack of scientific understanding, not check the facts.

So it's fantastic to see an article about vaccination which is rational, sticks to the facts and bucks the trend:

Wired recently published this article about how bad the anti-vax movement is getting in the US and it's a scary (if edifying) read.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Daily Mail - scum, scum, scum

I'm part of an orchestrated campaign (apparently), because that's what Jan Moir of the disgusting rag the Daily Mail says is behind the record number of complaints to the Press Complaints Commission about her sick article about the death of Stephen Gately, the former Boyzone member.

In the article, which is basically a homophobic rant and a chance for her to have a pop at gay marriage, she darkly hints at all manner of things, and basically accuses the Spanish coroner who pronounced the death to be due to pneumonia of covering up something, choosing instead to blame it on him being gay.

Let's hope that more advertisers pull out their campaigns in the Daily Mail. Marks and Spencers have insisted their ad is pulled off that page where it was showing as a rotating banner. I'm just about to write to them congratulating them on that decision and suggesting they take it further.

Then I'm going to take it further, by writing to every advertiser that I see on the Daily Mail's site, suggesting they might want to disassociate themselves from this paper.

Not that this article is unique, the Daily Mail have been willing to publish just about any old trash if they think that's what their readers want. In this they're no different from the obviously trashy papers like The Sun. You won't get far not giving the readers what they want - "Yes CJ" (sorry, Reggie Perrin reference - oh look it up!).

I've always suspected that a lot of Sun readers don't actually expect to get news in that particular organ though. They know it's a 'bit of fun' and don't expect much enlightenment, and actually it's surprising rational about science and health stories. At least compared to the Mail, which has a long inglorious history of reporting cranks and panicking its readers. This was never more so than the recent case of the teenage girl who coincidentally died on the day she had a 'cervical cancer' vaccination.

The Daily Mail was against this vaccine from the start - claiming it would encourage promiscuity. Except for in its Irish edition, strangely enough, where it was just as rabidly FOR the vaccine, presumably because the government there was against it.

This time, they've really outdone themselves though, managing to piss off not only Boyzone fans, but gays, the Irish, Twitterers and well, me.

I'm going to compile a list of DM advertisers tonight and see if I can't persuade some other people to complain to them too. It's not a very well orchestrated campaign, but I imagine 1000s of people all over the country are doing some small thing to get back at the Mail for this filth. It all adds up.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Medicine and religion

There have been a number of stories lately about people putting their faith in prayer as an alternative therapy. As the line goes in the Tim Minhchin beat poem 'Storm' "You know what they call alternative medicine that's proven to work? - 'Medicine'".

The cult-like movement, "The Body of Christ" has been in trouble recently for a series of posters claiming that prayer alone can heal a whole variety of ailments, but there is a specific act, called "The Cancer Act" which specifically prohibits these kind of claims when it comes to cancer. Complaints are in with just about every authority so these posters will change, but there's nothing to stop them claiming anything about other illnesses.

The saddest case of all was a little girl of 11, Madeline Neumann, who died on the floor surrounded by members of her parents prayer group.

The disease she had needn't have been terminal. It's a disease millions of people all over the world cope with and live long and fairly normal lives despite of. Including me in fact. Diabetes has, thanks to science, been very effectively treatable for over 80 years. These parents though were very religious, and believed that getting her medical help would be against what they understood of the bible and believed. When their prayers didn't seem to be working, they decided that they just needed more people praying. Meanwhile she became steadily worse and suffered incredibly until she died.

Of course, those of us who think rationally don't believe for a minute that prayer will work. Even most people of a spiritual bent don't realy believe it will work. Sure, they might pray they or someone else will get better - but they'll almost certainly back that up, like a lightning rod on a church steeple, with proper actual proven-to-work medicine.

The reason they don't rely on faith entirely is that they ignore most of the bible as the outdated and muddled nonsense which it is. They certainly don't believe in an all powerful god who will, if you have enough faith, give you what you want as the bible states. Believing in such a god and relying on him to change what nature does is mostly unthinkable in this day and age. When medicine was in its infancy that was actually a reasonable way to deal with illnesses, because there were periods when being treated by a doctor gave you a far worse chance than doing nothing for many medical problems. If you got better, which of course many people do quite well on their own, then you would thank god for intervening and if you didn't - well you didn't pray hard enough.

Nowadays if we need water for our crops, we use irrigation, if we need help, we call the fire brigade, and if we are ill, we go to the doctors. Over the years, science has eroded away at religion: Darwin explained to a large degree how we got here, Astronomers made it clear we're an insignificant speck in a mind-boggling massive universe that is governed by rules and psychology has even given us several possible reasons why so many people are religious.

If you do come across someone who believes in healing through the power of prayer, or faith-healing or in some supernatural way in which a 'higher power' has healed someone, cured cancer or whatever, you might want to ask them about amputees. People have claimed all sorts of medical problems have been cured by the power of the lord over the years (sometimes the lord performed this miracle while doctors were treating the patient too, but clearly it was the lord's input that did the trick).

The lord is especially good at treating things in an invisible way, especially illnesses which are somewhat nebulous. However, not one single instance is ever offered up as proof of his power of someone regrowing a limb. Or even a digit, ear nose, eyelid or tooth.

He can, apparently make the dead come back to life even, as well as the more mundane stuff like curing cancers, making the lame walk, making spots disappear etc. But he's mysteriously ineffective, no matter how hard you pray when it comes to regenerating limbs. Except for starfish. There must be a special place in his heart for them, because they do it all the time, apparently without anyone even praying for them. Unless there are special echinoderm masses held in secret in the Vatican - (Dan Brown, there's surely a book in this, I want a mention in the foreword).

Of course, those true believers will have an explanation for this, either one of the incredibly complex made-up ones, like the Wandering Jew, or they can always fall back on the good old 'God moves in mysterious ways' blanket explanation.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

Tony Blair Rambling again

Tony Blair, never one of my favourite people, has been preaching again, he spoke recently at Georgetown University in Washington about faith.

In his speech he called on Christians and Muslims which he claims make up half the population of the world to unite against 'secularism'.

Now it could (and has) been argued that by supporting the Iraq and Afghanistan wars - and few leaders did more lying and dodging to support it - he has hardly been putting his money where his mouth is. Those wars have served as an immense recruiting exercise for Al Queda and radical muslim extremists everywhere, which in turn has fuelled anti-muslim feelings everywhere.

But telling you he's a hypocrite is I suspect (if you'll forgive the ecumenical reference) preaching to the choir. He's a politician after all, and a successful one at that, in that he's now worth quite a few million pounds.

No, what made me audibly scoff (so much so that the first aiders here where I work, all looked up hopefully) was the idea that religious-types should band together against a common enemy - secularism.

Just in case there's any confusion about what secularism means I'll go off on a tangent for a moment. Secularism isn't atheism, it's simply the disconnecting of church and state. I believe that in the christian mythology, 'Jesus' is supposed to have supported that - "give unto Caesar that which is Caesars".

Every religious type in the 'democratic west' hates religious states - where it's another religion. So we look on Saudi Arabia with its Sharia Law, stonings, beheadings, whipping of adulterers and are quite clear that it's a bad thing. While at the same time calling for our own state to bring in laws or otherwise act in accordance with the wishes of our own pet cult. The Catholic Church recently, by way of an example, wanted the law changed so that they could continue discriminating against homosexuals. Bishops in the Church of England even form part of the government, having an automatic seat in the house of lords.

Plus in a multi-cultural country, if you don't have secularism, which religion do you allow to dictate the laws? The majority religion? That's a recipe for persecution. Also, it's building-in intolerance in the society - religious believers haven't, generally, come by their opinion on many matters from a rational viewpoint, based on research, studies, expert-thinking etc. They just 'inherit' their opinions from their religion. If you believe your opinions are heaven-sent, then it's much harder to take someone else's viewpoint, because basically they're going against the word of god, and I mean, how wrong can someone be?

And of course, when I say the majority religion, you'd imagine that it was an homogenous organisation with clear objectives and beliefs, but of course, that's far from the case. Almost all religions have schisms, some of them, as in Iraq, between Sunni and Shia Muslims are deadly. So how do you get a consensus from them? By asking the hierarchy to decide? That's hardly democratic. Even if you asked the whole congregation of a certain religion to decide, that's simply excluding the other members of society who don't subscribe to that religion - again very undemocratic.

In fact, if you want to include everybody in society in the decisions about how society is run, then there's a tried and trusted way to do that - it's called the democratic process. Now alright it's not perfect, but it's better than giving a subsection an unfair advantage, which in the end, is what they want when they complain about 'secularism'.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Keeping Christmas Christian

Came across a press-release from 'Theos' - a religious think tank, whose raison d'etre is, in so far as I can make out, denying the inevitable trend towards secularism. They do surveys which are brazenly biased and then issue press-releases, which the Daily Mail and Express just copy and paste, throwing in some bits about 'muslims', 'house prices' and 'immigrants'.

Their latest press release is entitled "The public vote to keep Christ in Christmas".

Which is stretching the truth more than a little. When you're creating a survey, there's always the chance that you introduce bias, so you have to be very careful about how you ask the questions. That is, if you want to be objective and don't have some kind of axe to grind. If, like Theos, you do have a very dull axe, then famously shown in an episode of 'Yes Minister', you can lead the person being surveyed right into the answer you want.

What about this survey? Well, they state "84 per cent of those interviewed disagreed with the statement that 'Christmas should be re-named to reflect our multi-cultural society'. 85% agreed that 'Christmas should be called Christmas because we are still a Christian country'."

What we keen arguers will recognise there is, of course, a 'straw man' argument - you make up a target which everyone can and will shoot down, instead of the real argument. No-one is actually calling for 'Christmas to be renamed". Some Americans do now say "happy holidays" - but it's purely a politeness thing, because at around the same time, Jews celebrate Chanukah and someone's invented a 'Black Christmas' festival - presumably out of pure spitefulness.

Muslims generally aren't offended by Christmas in the same way that Christians aren't offended by Ramadan, EID, Chanuka, the midsummer solstice or the Feast of St Obi Wan Kenobi. In fact, religous types are extremely wary of criticising each other's festivals and more extreme religous practices. As Christopher Hitchens pointed out in 'God is not Great' When the Ayatollah Khomeini issued the fatwah against Salman Rushdie, the archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi rushed to attack Rushdie for upsetting muslims, rather than doing the decent thing and roundly condemning the Ayatollah.

So if it's not other religions calling for Christmas to be renamed, then you have to assume that it's the 'Atheist and Secularist lobby'.

Athiests and secularists generally (and I can't speak for one single other atheist - we've not got a doctrine, that's kind of the point) enjoy Christmas - even, it has to be said, something of the "spiritual" side of it - in the sense of being with your family, showing love for other people and perhaps being a bit more charitable, rather than getting up early, going to draughty church and singing 'Away in a manger' (Actually I must say I quite like some hymns - but not that one, too much like a Pear's Soap commercial).

Not one single person I know, and certainly not the 'leading' secularist thinkers' - people like Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins - are calling for Christmas to be renamed. The very idea is just plain stupid. Neither is anyone calling for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday to be renamed, Churches to be pulled down and the word 'Goodbye' to be outlawed, in an attempt to remove all traces of religion from our daily lives.

Notice how loaded the statement 'Christmas should be called Christmas because we are still a Christian country' is - it sort of implies that someone is trying to make us into a Muslim country or a Buddhist country and so of course, people get defensive about it.

So they've made up a target and got people - understandably - to shoot at it. However, that's still no justification for their headline. "Keeping" Christ in christmas is something that Theos and their religious backers are concerned about, but they're really in a tiny minority.

If you asked those same people which christmas symbols were the most important, they'd probably mention in something like this order: Christmas Trees, Father Christmas, Snowmen, Holly/Ivy/Mistletoe, none of which are in any way Christian. OK, you could just about argue that our very pagan Father Christmas is now synonymous with Saint Nicholas - Sinterklaas - Santa Claus, who was originally a bishop, but who actually knows that?

Christmas is a good thing, it's about love, family life, appreciation, good food, a sense that the winter is half over - all very nice things to celebrate. There's a nice fairy story to go along with it, and that's fine too. As long as you don't expect people to believe it. Practically nothing about the nativity is true, and can easily be shown to have been fabricated.

He wasn't likely to have been born in a stable, nor in Bethlehem (what sort of crappy census has to have everyone go back to the town in which they were born - what would be the point? Well anyway, it never happened, the Romans kept quite good records).

Mrs Christ only became a virgin 100s of years after he was born. Most of these 'facts' are all to either fit in with the legend of Mithras, who was the god of a rival religion very popular with Roman soldiers (a great demographic to have on your side) or so that an earlier prophesy about the jewish messiah could be said to fit the story of Jesus.