You couldn’t make it up

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.”


21 Responses to “You couldn’t make it up”

  1. dvnutrix Says:

    Along those lines, about Daily Mail and journalistic integrity (Ed: shurely that’s an oxymoron and you must be making that up), I offer a “you couldn’t make that up” from 2007.

    The Beatroot writes on his blog how The Daily Mail, in its zeal to prove how ruinous has been recent immigration by new EU members like Poles, will go to any lengths – including giving people money to break the law – and staging evidence of lawbreaking for its “investigation”.

    This came to light when Daily Mail journalist Sue Reid contacted Beatroot, who lives in Warsaw, and offered him a cash payment of £800 plus his expenses, to bring his girlfriend’s foreign-registered car over to England to be photographed breaking British traffic regulations…

    [O]nce again this demonstrates how essentially dishonest are certain sections of the MSM, which have no regard for honesty and decency in the pursuit of a story. And on these, we rely for our information?

  2. Sceric Says:

    >>applause>> very concise informative and well written summary…thanks


    P.S.: By the way – not only in the current economic situation- logic seems to be expelled from business decisions more often than not.

  3. gimpy Says:

    Nice write up, thanks. Speaking of Sherr and homeopaths it’s striking how no homeopath commenting on my blog sees an ethical problem with Sherr’s actions, the profession is utterly bereft of perspective. All they see is persecution and conspiracy.

  4. apgaylard Says:

    Excellent piece of perspective, thanks. Usually I try to keep clear of the JABS crowd, but I did try and answer a couple of points that John Stone and some other JABber (I think) raised on an even longer thread on LB/RB. (Brian Deer even appeared)

    His / their point was, essentially, that campaigning journalism was unethical – at least if it was done by Brian Deer. The interesting thing was that my direct answers were totally ignored. (here and here)

    Just confirms that they are determined only ever to engage with straw men and don’t seem to be able to ‘see’ anything outside their own reality. It’s almost as if they can engage a Douglas Adams style SEP field.

  5. Nash Says:

    Personally I find homeopathy4health to be very nasty. homeopathy4health boasts s/he has an IQ of 120, which is 27 below mine, and 10 below the MENSA minimum.

    A lot of the hoes also end up wishing for you to become seriously ill, an odd attitude for what claims to be a ‘caring’ profession.

  6. zeno27 Says:

    These ‘summary’ posts you all do are a great roundup of recent events, tying all the different bloggers’ posts together in one neat, easy referenced bundle. Keep up the good work.

  7. John H Says:

    Good to see a posting Dr Aust (even if it is old wine in new bottles !!).

    The big problem with YCMIU is that they do. All of it. Pixy dust pills from antimatter, subluxations, jabbophobia, beetroot for AIDS, ID, new earthism, weedism, needling and so it goes. All of it concocted by some moron years ago and followed with blind adherence by the stupid.

    I was reading 101 excellent atheist quotes yesterday and found a quote by Christopher Hitchens which was intended for dog but also applies to most quackery. “””What can be asserted without proof can be dismissed without proof”””.

    The charlatans do like their banning. They would make Stalin and Beria blush the way they airbrush out all dissent on their sites. I have been slung off the jabbophobes site three times so far. Mostly for posting sensible and evidence based comments like “Wakefield is a mendacious fraud who abused children for 430,000 pieces of silver (plus exes)”. Now what could be wrong with that ? Seems like fair comment to me.

  8. Warhelmet Says:

    Oh, I think that my diseased imaginings could come up with something more apocalyptic… I can believe almost anything about homeopathy and anti-vaccination apologists.

    I’ve not mastered the trackback or the html in comments to do, but on on my blog, there are a couple of “work in progress” things about homeopathy.

    I tend to steer clear of JABS because I sense that there is a deeply unpleasant political undertone there. Nor can I stomach the overly sentimental garbage about “mums know best” and “precious little ones”.

    I’ve lost all faith in the human race.

  9. Lindsey O'Connor Says:

    Since coming on the Web, I have seen a truly dismaying number of odd and unproven “medical” views blindly accepted by so many. The lack of critical thinking and complete ignorance of the scientific method is frightening. Several days ago I spoke on another forum with an individual who was quite certain that influenza was caused by a lack of exposure to sunlight – and that megadoses of Vitamin D would cure it without exception. Completely ignoring, of course, the overwhelming body of scientific knowledge concerning that particular illness in favor of a simplistic explanation which coincided with the writer’s belief that conventional medicine is to be avoided at all costs and nature can and will heal all things.

    A future Darwin awardee, without doubt.

  10. John H Says:

    One can only hope for a swift and timely Darwin in the case of such overwhelming stupidity.

    Apart from stating the bleeding obvious even the anecdata does not stack up in this case.

    I knew a bunch of guys who went to work on the British Antarctic Survey and despite being in the dark (literally, and also metaphorically in the case of one of them) for months on end they never got flu. Nor colds.

    And the obvious flip side would be that people in hot sunny countries never got flu. I got flu working in the desert in Saudi Arabia where it was as hot as hell.

    Work that one out dingbat !

    I think she is right in that nature can “cure” all ills but I am not convinced it “heals” them all as most illness seems pretty binary – survive/die.

  11. jdc325 Says:

    I vote for homeopathy4health as the funniest. Nice summary DrAust.

    Nash – I made a remark once regarding the IQ reference on that blog. H4H was not impressed with my manners. For myself, I was unimpressed with her bragging.

  12. Exdoc Says:

    I vote too for homeopathy4health as the funniest. How do people take them seriously with comments like that?
    You really couldn’t make it up.

  13. draust Says:

    Yes, homeopathy4health is quite beyond parody. It is even funnier because, like so many in Alt.Health.Reality, s/he takes him/herself so incredibly seriously.

    And anyone who boasts about their IQ in a public forum unquestionably has a very small…

    …concept of what constitutes “intelligence”.

    Indeed, it is probably another Internet Law:

    “In a discussion about any intellectual topic, especially in Alt.reality, flaunting your IQ as a “claim to intellectual authority” immediately loses you the argument and gets you laughed out of the room”

    ..and reveals you to be a complete prat, of course.

    Finally, I wonder if h4h is the same h4h that can be seen in the comments following this ad hominem snipe at Edzard Ernst from the Times Higher last Summer?

  14. John H Says:

    You really know how to pick them Dr Aust.

    Biggest laugh of the day with the snipe at Ernst.

    I love the way the quack says “”””As a qualified and registered alternative medicine practitioner of 15 years”””. Qualified in what and registered with whom ? About as meaningless as my (lapsed) membership of the Dennis the Menace fan club (Secret code words “DING DONG”) or my veterinary qualifications in unicorn surgery.

    She was apparently “””dismayed to discover that Ernst is not only falling short of his job remit””” by which I think she means he is not having any of the quackery nonsense.

    And apparently all that science stuff he wants is rubbish for detecting woo (this has to be the quacks version of patriotism, the last refuge of the seriously deluded). Big surprise. Elsewhere he would be stoned to death by quacks for apostasy.

    “””his wife (Laings) sufferedfrom tuberculosis and was cured of this serious disease through the use of a CAM discipline, very possibly homoeopathy”””. Not really very likely is it. Pixy dust curing TB. I think not.

    And the usual self serving cant in “””There is a significant body of high-quality scientific research supporting homoeopathy, which can now be added to more than 200 years of case histories – all of which verifies homoeopathy as a valid system of medicine”””. So where is it then ?

    More like 200 years of fairy stories based on some lunatic notions.

  15. Sceric Says:

    h4y really is a “fun” read with all the classical symptoms of delusion, as quoting Kuhn out of context, so that one could think the snippet is meant in regard to the quack notions…and having the gall to talk about a change in the common paradigma, even after they had 200 years of time and I still can’t see any change…that’s what one could call a “Quack delusion”

  16. draust Says:

    The THE jibe at Ernst was dismal stuff, and frankly they should never have printed it. Some readers might remember that I had my own say at the time:

    Black is whlte… day is night… less is more… nothing is everything (yes, homeopathy again).

    Re. Sceric’s comment about the Homeos invoking Thomas Kuhn at every turn, I think this is another Internet Law in the making:

    “In any discussion about Alternative Reality, invoking Thomas Kuhn to claim that:

    “Science just hasn’t caught up with Alt.Reality because you scientists are all resisting a “Paradigm Shift” in favour of magic”.

    …immediately loses you the argument and gets you laughed out of the room.

    I suggest we christen this “Gaylard’s Law” after Adrian (A.P.) Gaylard, who has written two excellent posts explaining what Kuhn actually said, rather than what the Alt.reality fraternity like to insist that he said – you can find these posts here and here.

    Another one of Adrian’s on a similar sort of theme is this one on the misuse of various philosophy of science concepts by perennial homeopathic smoke-and-mirrors guru Lionel Milgrom.

  17. John H Says:

    I shall read apgaylards article later when I need a laugh. I scanned it and I always enjoy a bit of woo/quackery with a PowerPoint in it (especially enjoyable if it involves an anti-science rant. The irony is delicious).

    Can I suggest another law (tentatively called the the “Bastard Offspring of Schrodingers Cat Law”) which suggest that any proponent of quackery using a combination of the words “quantum”, “theory”, “entanglement”, “duality” etc should immediately be punched in the face as a buffoon.

  18. draust Says:

    Hmm, I think I sense a post on “New Bad Science Laws of the Interwebs” in the Dr Aust blog’s near future.

    Re John H’s suggestion, I think that particular Law cries out to be named for “Ludicrous Lionel” Milgrom. Although I favour hysterical laughter and general spluttering derision rather than physical action.

    To quote a favourite line from the great A.V. Hill:

    “Laughter is the best detergent of nonsense”

  19. John H Says:

    Jeezuz (and I am an atheist). What a crock.

    I wish I hadn’t bothered now. I could have wasted my time watching stupid videos on youtube.

    I really doubt the validity of an argument that includes:

    – invoking po-moists in its defence
    – invoking Godwins Law and crying “fascism”
    – the invoking of quantum theory by anyone other than a physicist
    – using the hackneyed old “more things in heaven and earth . . . . ” quote (sorry but Will was good with words – he wasn’t a rocket scientist)

    At least Milgrom lives up to the Vonnegut quote about farting about. As a big fan of KV I doubt if he had much truck with quackery.

    And the spelling is crap. Presumably he couldn’t find an alternative or non-science based spellchecker or maybe the one in PowerPoint got mysteriously entangled.

    Looking forward to the post on bad science interdweeb laws.

  20. Dr Aust Says:

    Agreed, John.

    I finally lost my last vestige of respect for Ludicrous Lionel when he started citing approvingly, apparently in all seriousness, the infamously idiotic Dave Holmes et al “microfascism” paper. Although Lionel citing this work did give us an interesting example of the tendency of the ludicrous to coalesce.

  21. John H Says:

    I just realised he fits one of my laws – The “Beyond The Comfort Zone” one.

    Started out (I think and I am certainly not wasting my “stupid youtube video” time finding out) as an academic chemist, moved into pixy dust and has now heartily embraced what can only be described as “Non-Conformant Quantum Woo”.

    He must have the shade of Fred Hoyle hovering over his shoulder.

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