Wednesday, 10 November 2010

Libel Reform mass blog

I have to be very careful who I criticise on this blog. I'm not wealthy and the English libels laws are currently so skewed in favour of rich litigants that, were I to be sued by someone I had offended, I would not be able to defend myself.

Even if I were in the right, even if I were highlighting a major danger to public safety, I could be very swifly silenced. I don't think that's right.

I'm not the only one. Simon Singh writes:
This week is the first anniversary of the report Free Speech is Not for Sale, which highlighted the oppressive nature of English libel law. In short, the law is extremely hostile to writers, while being unreasonably friendly towards powerful corporations and individuals who want to silence critics.
The English libel law is particularly dangerous for bloggers, who are generally not backed by publishers, and who can end up being sued in London regardless of where the blog was posted. The internet allows bloggers to reach a global audience, but it also allows the High Court in London to have a global reach.
You can read more about the peculiar and grossly unfair nature of English libel law at the website of the Libel Reform Campaign. You will see that the campaign is not calling for the removal of libel law, but for a libel law that is fair and which would allow writers a reasonable opportunity to express their opinion and then defend it.
The good news is that the British Government has made a commitment to draft a bill that will reform libel, but it is essential that bloggers and their readers send a strong signal to politicians so that they follow through on this promise. You can do this by joining me and over 50,000 others who have signed the libel reform petition at
Remember, you can sign the petition whatever your nationality and wherever you live. Indeed, signatories from overseas remind British politicians that the English libel law is out of step with the rest of the free world.
If you have already signed the petition, then please encourage friends, family and colleagues to sign up. Moreover, if you have your own blog, you can join hundreds of other bloggers by posting this blog on your own site. There is a real chance that bloggers could help change the most censorious libel law in the democratic world.
We must speak out to defend free speech. Please sign the petition for libel reform at
(And if you don't know Simon's story, where have you been?)

Monday, 18 October 2010

Letter to Trading Standards re BioFirm Danish Detox Plan

Dear Trading Standards

I wish to complain about the sale of "BioFirm Danish Detox Plan" by Boots UK Ltd. Specifically, I am concerned by the marketing claim that this product "is a gentle, yet effective formula, containing herbs which naturally supports the body’s own internal processes of elimination and detoxification."

The Consumer Protection Regulations 2008 require the company to be able to back up any claims with evidence. However I can find no evidence that such "detox" formulations provide any benefit.

Indeed, Dr Catherine Collins (Chief Dietician, St George’s Hospital Medical School, London) is reported as saying "The concept of 'detox' is a marketing myth rather than a physiological entity."

Professor Edzard Ernst (Professor of Complementary Medicine, Peninsula Medical School, University of Exeter) has been quoted as saying "The basic concept that our bodies need help eliminating toxins is both wrong and potentially dangerous....Proponents of various detox therapies have never been able to demonstrate that their treatments actually decrease the level of any specific substance in the body."

The marketing of such detox products may also be hazardous to health. Professor Ernst has warned "A person might easily get the idea that they can over-indulge, i.e. poison his or her “system” with toxins, and then put everything right by applying this or that detox method. This could prompt many people to live unhealthy lifestyles in the belief they could avoid harm by periodic detoxification."

If Boots UK Ltd are not able to produce robust evidence that this product does indeed work, they should not be selling it, as a customer may be misled into believing this product to be anything other than worthless.

Yours sincerely,



Thanks to Simon Perry, firstly for inspiring me to some skeptical trouble-making with his recent talk at SitP Oxford, and then for removing any remaining excuses for inaction.

Friday, 15 October 2010

Aussie anti-vaccination group loses charitable status

Oh, this is good.

Of all the peddlers of fraudulent, bogus and dangerous healthcare advice, it's the anti-vaccinationists that stir me most to anger. Of the anti-vaxxers, few deserve censure more than the AVN and its head, Meryl Dorey.

To the unwary, the Australian Vaccination Network might sound like a responsible establishment promoting public health through immunisation, but in fact they are the opposite. Through their persistent campaigning against the use of vaccines they have reduced the immunisation rates in some areas of Australia to desperately low levels.

Dana McCaffery was just 4 weeks old when she died from pertussis (whopping cough) in March last year. She was far too young to be vaccinated herself and in the North Coast region of New South Wales, the home of the AVN, far too few people around Dana had protective immunity. There is no cure for whopping cough.

If you can, read the account by Dana's parents. Their fortitude is remarkable.

Even before the baby's funeral Meryl Dorey was telephoning the Director of Public Health for the NSW North Coast, trying to obtain the private details Dana's death and disputing the diagnosis.

Within days, the Toni and David McCaffery were confronting the AVN on national television, during which debate Meryl Dorey continued to try to dispute the facts of Dana's death. As Meryl has previously said, on the subject of measles and whooping cough:
“You didn’t die from it 30 years ago and you’re not going to die from it today”.
(Needless to say, Meryl is no doctor of medicine).

I wonder what Meryl thinks of the 9 infants that have already died in the ongoing pertussis epidemic in California.

So it's encouraging to read that the Australian authorities are acting to limit the activities of the AVN. Public awareness of the need to vaccinate is growing, through initiatives like this and this. In this pro-vaccination movement, the work of Toni and David McCaffery is a big inspiration.


Many thanks to Phil Plait and Rachael Dunlop for keeping me up to date with the anti-vaxxers' shenanigans.

Friday, 25 June 2010

A letter to my MP

Dear Mr Redwood

write again as your constituent to ask for your support in preventing the waste of NHS funds on ineffective treatments.

At a time when we need drastic cuts in Government spending, it is important to ensure that the NHS only funds treatments of proven efficacy. It is, therefore, extremely disappointing to see four Early Day Motions from David Tredinnick calling for support for disproven quackery: 

EDM284 [Bma Annual Representative Meeting Motions On Homeopathy]
EDM285 [Effect Of Homeopathic Remedies On Breast Cancer Cells]
EDM286 [Homeopathic Medicines In The Treatment Of Moderate To Severe Depression]
EDM287 [Homeopathy And Chronic Primary Insomnia] 

It is not simply the case that homeopathy is unproven; it has been proven not to workThese EDMs fly in the face of the advice of the Science and Technology Select Committee to cut homeopathy – a 200-year-old pseudoscience – from NHS funding. I applaud the committee, and their reliance on evidence to come to a solid conclusion. 

In contrast, the studies cited as proof of the effect of homeopathic treatments in EDM284, EDM285 and EDM286 are in fact riddled with deep and significant flaws. Given that EDM285 applauds the use of homeopathic substances to treat breast cancer – a claim which I am told would be illegal if made by a UK practitioner – it’s clear to see how support for this motion could lead to real and significant harm.

I welcome the actions of Julian Huppert MP, who has tabled clear and reasonable amendments to these misguided motions, amendments which correct their inaccuracies and redirect them back in line with real science and evidence. These amendments are titled as follows: 

EDM284A1 [Bma Annual Representative Meeting Motions On Homeopathy]
EDM285A1 [Effect Of Homeopathic Remedies On Breast Cancer Cells]
EDM286A1 [Homeopathic Medicines In The Treatment Of Moderate To Severe Depression]
EDM287A1 [Homeopathy And Chronic Primary Insomnia]

I therefore urge you to consider the issues and the serious ramifications to both the taxpayer in funding disproven treatments on the NHS, and to the overall health of the nation in recommending pseudo-medicine for such serious issues as severe depression and breast cancer. If you agree that cancer, depression and other illnesses should only be treated with modalities that have been proven to work, I urge you to sign EDM284A1EDM285A1EDM286A1 and EDM287A1.

Thank you for your time.

Yours sincerely,


UPDATE - 26/6/10:

I just received this email:

From REDWOOD, John
Date Sat, Jun 26, 2010 at 2:07 PM
Subject RE: Effective health treatment

Thank you for your email. EDMs are never debated and have little impact.

That's it. Disappointing, to say the least. Thrice I have emailed John Redwood with my rationalist concerns and thrice he has refused to sign the EDMs. I can't fault the man for inconsistency. 

Sunday, 13 June 2010

How common is intersex?

What is intersex? Glad you asked. According to the Intersex Society of North America,
“Intersex” is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.
The ISNA have some amazing figures on the frequency of these conditions:

Not XX and not XYone in 1,666 births
Klinefelter (XXY)one in 1,000 births
Androgen insensitivity syndromeone in 13,000 births
Partial androgen insensitivity syndromeone in 130,000 births
Classical congenital adrenal hyperplasiaone in 13,000 births
Late onset adrenal hyperplasiaone in 66 individuals
Vaginal agenesisone in 6,000 births
Ovotestesone in 83,000 births
Idiopathic (no discernable medical cause)one in 110,000 births
Iatrogenic (caused by medical treatment, for instance progestin administered to pregnant mother)no estimate
5 alpha reductase deficiencyno estimate
Mixed gonadal dysgenesisno estimate
Complete gonadal dysgenesisone in 150,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening in perineum or along penile shaft)one in 2,000 births
Hypospadias (urethral opening between corona and tip of glans penis)one in 770 births
Total number of people whose bodies differ from standard male or femaleone in 100 births
Total number of people receiving surgery to “normalize” genital appearanceone or two in 1,000 births

It seems to me that whatever rule you might come up with for deciding a person's gender, biology will show you an example to confound you. Indeed some people cannot identify themselves as being of either gender.

All this goes to show how ridiculous is the idea that gender should have any bearing whatsoever on our legal rights.

As the legal definition of gender struggles to reflect our growing knowledge of the realities of human biology, and the law ties itself in knots trying to accommodate trans-sexuality, I'm left wondering why we need a notion of legal gender at all.


Thanks to Audacia Ray and Dr Petra Boynton for signposting the ISNA data.

Saturday, 12 June 2010


A micromort is a 1 in 1million chance of death. As a new way of looking at the world, I reckon this is genius.

Consider. A car gives a reassuring 250 miles per micromort, a bike 20, walking 17 and a motorbike just 6 miles.

Alternatively consider the risk to troops in Afghanistan (33 micromorts per day) versus a spell in hospital (75), although the comparison of a fit young soldier to the average NHS patient is perhaps not a very valid one.

Risk of general anaesthetic: 10 micromorts. Not negligible. Giving birth: 80 micromorts in UK. 50 in Sweden. 170 in US.
Many thanks to David Spielgelhalter and Mark Henderson.

UPDATE (25/6/10):
Plus has a great piece on micromorts with some rather nice animations.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Home alone, watching tits

I'm very excited to report I have blue tits.

I am home alone today, with a head full of snot and a throat like a badger's armpit, nursing a mug of Lemsip and watching what I think is a male blue tit busily emptying the remains of last year's great tits' nest from the nesting box. I presume the second bird watching from the sidelines is the female.

With his black bandit mask and flat cap he looks like the archetypal burglar. He pauses at the edge of the nest-hole, his head darting suspiciously around to check the coast is clear. Then he's in, out and away with another haul of old moss.

I'm not an avid birdwatcher but when the opportunity arises to observe nature at close quarters, it's too good to miss. That's why I'm now in the habit of keeping my binoculars somewhere handy. I got them primarily for astronomy, and spotting Messier objects with them has been a lot of fun, but they are getting a fair bit of use in the daytime now.

Seriously, if you haven't got some decent binoculars, get some. Unless you have a special need for something extra light or extra powerful then I'd suggest 10x50. (That is, 10x magnification and 50mm objective lens). That should give you a big, bright image with not too much wobble. For me, that bird box appears at arm's length.

There's a lot of great stuff out there to see. Who wouldn't want to see it ten times better?