Archive for March 10th, 2009

You couldn’t make it up

March 10, 2009

A small round-up of what I have been reading.

The line “You couldn’t make it up” is a rather over-used one in the UK. Nonetheless, it often seem apposite when confronting enthusiasts for Alt.Reality.

Sometimes the line springs to mind when a particularly egregious example of Alt.Med abuse surfaces. One such of recent vintage comes from Gimpy’s brilliant coverage of the extraordinarily deluded Jeremy Sherr, the homeopathic guru who thinks that homeopathy can cure HIV/AIDS. More that that, Sherr is on a kind of Sacred Mission – I am oddly reminded of the Blues Brothers – to bring the joys of pure-water-plus-hocus-pocus to desperately unfortunate people in Tanzania who are both HIV-positive and in the grip of poverty.

Gimpy has done a tremendous job of exposing Sherr’s messianic delusions and ethical blind-spots – but the “You couldn’t make it up” moment does not stem just from Sherr himself. It also comes from the hordes of homeopaths who have lined up to defend – and heap praise on – Sherr, and from the homeopathic “trade bodies” which have been stunningly silent on what Sherr is up to. Behold the chorus of disciples on, for instance, Gimpy’s threads here and here.

AIDS is a deadly disease. It can be staved off with drug treatments. These antiretroviral drugs (ARVs), particularly the protease inhibitor cocktails, constitute one of the greatest recent achievements of the much maligned (often with considerable justification) ” Big Pharma”. Without ARV treatment, it is essentially inevitable that eventually your immune system will fail and an opportunistic infection will finish you off – as has sadly happened to most “It’s not HIV! ARVs are evil!” activists. With the triple cocktails, or similar ARV regimes, you have a good shot at living for many years. People with a grip on reality have campaigned tirelessly for HIV-positive people in the developing world to have access to ARV drugs at cost. These activists, like the Treatment Action Campaign in South Africa, are the real heroes.

But apparently, most lay homeopaths are quite convinced you should forego the anti-retrovirals and embrace their particular brand of “spiritual healing”.

You really, truly, couldn’t make it up.

And let’s not forget – Jeremy Sherr is widely regarded within homeopathy as a leader of the “discipline”, one of their key intellectuals and most revered teachers. Which says it all, really. You could hardly want for a more perfect demonstration of just what an extraordinary parallel reality homeopaths inhabit.

Did you call me a cult?

Also in the “You couldn’t make it up” category, but perhaps rather more predictable, the anti-vaccine cultists have resoundingly ignored the recent body-blows for the anti-vaccine cause. The first thing I am thinking of is the US Autism Omnibus decision, where the judges decisively rejected the idea that MMR vaccine could cause autism, and laid out in excruciating detail (excruciating for the anti-vaccine believers, that is) precisely how discredited, half-arsed, and nigh-on fraudulent is the so-called “research” and laughably useless “experts” on which the anti-vaxxers relie.

The second body-blow was the latest tranche of revelations from investigative journalist Brian Deer about Andrew Wakefield’s original work at the Royal Free that triggered the MMR scare. If even a fraction of what Deer alleges is true, then Wakefield stands revealed as a data-fabricator of the worst kind, and everything he has ever said turns irrevocably to dust.

However – none of this seems to have had the slightest effect on the True Believers. You can see this from a mammoth thread over at Kev Leitch’s Left Brain/Right Brain blog. A collection of the usual suspects from anti-vaccine group JABS – John Stone, Isabella Thomas, etc. – are clearly unshaken in their faith. They view the recent events, and the scientific revelations like Prof Steve Bustin’s devastating testimony on the stunning incompetence of Wakefield and O’Leary’s RT-PCR work, as a side issue. They are, predictably, more interested in trying to spread slurs and conspiracy theories about Brian Deer, and nitpicking over obscure legal decisions on what UK expert testimony was or wasn’t made available to the US courts.

If you can face the mega-thread, look particularly for the posts by “brian” (who identifies himself as a medical doctor and a molecular biologist), and see the responses they draw from John Stone and friends. The JABbies, as has been said before, are beyond reason. They are a cult.

Though they are a cult, sadly, that retains the odd friend in the media. Notably, the increasingly-out-of-touch-with-reality Melanie Phillips. Phillips  is still determined that Wakefield was right – though we don’t really know how she would know, given that she doesn’t understand the science – and that it is all a Dark Conspiracy.

Reading her latest post on this I was struck by the fact that there seemed to be almost no commenters apart from the hard-core Wakefield Groupies – John Stone, Clifford G Miller, Isabella Thomas, Seeonaid etc etc. Unsurprisingly, Melanie’s previous comment, a few days earlier, had echoed precisely the line taken by the JABS Mafia over at Left Brain/Right Brain by re-framing the whole thing as an attack on Brian Deer.

Among the dwindling band of normal people reading Melanie’s rant I was particularly struck by this comment from a poster styling himself “Valetinius” (7th comment on this thread):

“This is actually indicative of the new dogmatism that has deprived Melanie Phillips of the independence of mind that once made her a commentator of note. There is a lesson in discourse analysis on all of these recent pieces… …not that here is a journalist with an interesting, novel assessment of a controversial issue, but here is the definitive, conclusive, indisputable truth, sweeping away all contrary evidence and labelling opponents variously as knaves, liars or antisemites. Of all of the controversies [Phillips] has adopted as personal crusades, [MMR] is the most revealing. With infinitely more proof than global warming could ever hope to command, study after study has comprehensively refuted the Wakefield MMR-autism hypothesis, yet Melanie tastelessly maintains her contrarian position. She doesn’t seem to realise how revealing this is and how much damage it has inflicted on her defence of her other favourite causes. I agree with those who lament this personal and professional lapse of judgement. Instead of refreshingly adversarial, she now just looks silly.”

This summarised perfectly why it is that, for the last couple of years, I have been turning off BBC Radio 4’s The Moral Maze as soon as they announce that Melanie is on the panel. But perhaps it offers a clue as to the reasons for Phillips’ unwavering support of Wakefield, even as the scientific underpinnings of his ideas and his credibility have crumbled.

It is our old Alt.Reality friend the Galileo Gambit – an unshakeable belief that you must be right, precisely because everyone else is telling you that you are wrong.

Alternatively, of course, you could just be wrong.

How DARE you not take me seriously?

Something that comes across strongly in long argumentative threads on Alt.Medicine themes is a sense of just how seriously Alt.Reality folk take themselves. They also have thin skins. This is particularly marked, I have been finding recently, with Chiropractors.

Now, chiropractors are institutionally, as well as individually, thin-skinned – as the BCA vs. Simon Singh libel case, and recent events in New Zealand, show. They also seem to be rather humourless. I started to get this latter idea while reading a recent Economist thread on Alternative Medicine. Here you will find a Dr Robinson – a “Doctor of Chiropractic” (DC), to be precise – defending Alt.Reality and getting a bit huffy when anyone appears not to be taking her as seriously as she takes herself. Rather scarily – from my point of view – it turns out she works for this bit of the World Health Organisation (more about them here).

I casually (or possibly mischievously) posted a link to the Economist thread over at Respectful Insolence, thereby inadvertently triggering another “discussion” about Chiropractic and its relationship (or not) to reality.

The Respectful Insolence thread makes for an interesting demonstration of how many Alt.Reality types see their own professions, including those of their fellow “practitioners” who are at the wackier end of the spectrum:

Chiropractors who advise against vaccination? Just a few bad apples.

Chiropractors who push chiropractic for things that it is demonstrably useless for? Exercising their clinical judgement.

Chiropractors who wrench peoples necks around? There’s no stroke risk, the people who caution that there is, like Edzard Ernst, MUST be liars.

Chiropractors who call themselves “Doctor” and don’t make clear they are not conventional physicians? Well, why not, Chiropractors are fully trained clinicians, with all the expertise to resuscitate you if you keel over. (Seriously, some of them believe this).

Ben Goldacre once wrote somewhere that the most defining characteristic of CAM was its hard-wired inability to critique itself in any meaningful way. Threads like this show you exactly what he meant. And remember, a US “Doctor of Chiropractic” with the DC degree is the absolute top of the training tree in terms of a CAM practitioner, at least with regard to length of training. As Dr (of Chiropractic) Robinson pointed out to me, they do a postgraduate degree taking 4 years to become a DC, just like a conventional US medical degree which takes four postgraduate years.

Having said which, if I rocked up in an American ER with a chest pain, I would not want to see a DC. I would want an MD. And personally I would feel the same about a bad back. If I had back pain, and shooting pains down my leg, I would want a medical doctor to assess me. If I had uncomplicated lower back pain, and wanted spinal manipulation, I would go to a manipulative physiotherapist. A chiropractor might know slightly more background about spinal ailments than the latter, but I would have zero confidence in the clinical judgement of someone who believes that chiropractic spine-bashing is a useful way to treat a small child’s asthma.

[In the interests of balance, it should be said that there ARE some people in chiropractic who would like to make it evidence-based, and who campaign for chiropractic to remove the quasi-religious overtones, fact-free 19th century hocus-pocus, anti-vaccine propaganda, and general nuttiness. However, if recent surveys of what practising UK chiropractors actually believe are to be trusted, these reformers are going to have their work cut out. Needless to say, their ideas have not really caught on in the chiropractic community]

No logic please – we’re intuitively crazy

Last of all, and by far the best from a surrealist point of view, here is an example of Alt.Reality that provokes laughter and “you couldn’t make it up” in equal measure. Andrew Taylor of the “Apathy Sketchpad” blog tells us that he has been banned from the earnestly reality-free Homeopathy4Health blog.

The reason? He has been guilty of dangerous use of logic. Apparently logic is frowned upon when discussing homeopathy. Though I suppose one shouldn’t be surprised.

The blog owner, the homeopath who goes by “Homeopathy for health”, starts it off.  Another old friend of ours then chips in:


Andrew’s comments are no longer allowed on this blog. This is because he has a tendency to write opinions based on logic and not from experience or facts. He is a programmer by profession.

Comment by homeopathy4health — 7 March 2009 @ 10:45 am


h4h, that’s the funniest thing you’ve ever written. Am I to assume that only illogical arguments based on experience and facts are allowed?

I had a bad egg this morning, therefore it rained.

Comment by gimpy — 7 March 2009 @ 1:55 pm


You can’t present opinion on logic alone.

Comment by homeopathy4health — 7 March 2009 @ 2:31 pm


To which there is really no answer, apart from rolling on the floor helpless with despairing laughter.

Or – as they say – “You couldn’t make it up”

Which is, of course, where we came in.

Goodnight. And – as the late, great, Dave Allen might have put it –

“May your Personal Alternate Reality go with you.”