Homeopathy Overdose by Richard Craig (CC Licenced)

Homeopathy Overdose by Richard Craig (CC Licenced)

“What’s the Harm”? It’s another question that often comes up from supporters of Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). Is it not the case that most people attending alternative practitioners can expect to happily live long, chaotic and unexpected lives just as much as the next person?

Yes, but. There’s always a “but”. In fact, there are quite a few “buts”.

Let’s tackle the extreme cases first. There are many cases of people foregoing proper medical care in favour of CAM, thus prolonging pain and suffering for longer than is strictly necessary. In the worst situations, this can be life-threatening. There are many examples of people foregoing medical care for ineffective practices, much to their detriment. So, if you are really sick, go to a doctor. That also applies to your kids.

Other cases exist where semi-medical interventions are being performed, using acupuncture needles without gloves, performing chiropractic manipulation near the neck region, using actual medicines in homeopathic treatments, adding heavy metals to Ayurvedic treatments, triggering asthma attacks during salt therapy. While rare, such treatments have lead to medical complications because, by their nature, they border on real medical intervention, with all its attendant risks.

And then there’s just stupid, avoidable stuff that could have huge negative consequences if the practitioner gets it wrong. Ear Candling, I’m looking at you.

These are the easy ones. But, let’s say it’s not acute or life threatening, and the intervention appears totally safe. There’s no harm then, right?

I looked at the phenomenon of “It Worked For Me” in a previous entry, where I examined what might be going on for people who reported marked improvements in their condition after having CAM treatment. What this implies is, while people often report improvement, there is no actual improvement taking place. They may temporarily report improvement, but only until the condition reappears again sometime later.

If it doesn’t work, it might require another visit. Then another visit. Then another. Or multiple visits to different therapists in search of a cure. The problem may eventually get better, but that may have nothing much to do with the treatment. It’s just your body getting better naturally, as it would have done anyway, without any CAM intervention whatsoever. That’s a lot of money spent on nothing.

Many people take regular visits to alternative therapists, any time they feel poorly, or tired, or in pain. Given that most alternative treatments have been shown to work no better than placebo, it’s all a very effective way of spending a big portion of your income on something that could have been better spent on a holiday, or a new car, or saving for college, or whatever.

It’s also a great way of spreading nonsense. Some CAM practitioners feel themselves to be in competition with proper doctors, and so are not unfamiliar with spreading negative propaganda about the so-called “allopathic” medical profession. It’s not to say that the health service is perfect, but neither is it the bogeyman they often make it out to be. At the worst, the propaganda engenders a disproportionate sense of distrust in science-based medicine. Completely preventable diseases have been making a comeback because anti-vaccine nonsense continues to be perpetuated by some CAM practitioners and consequently, their clients. Children are referred to dangerous quacks because of a conviction by some that doctors are part of a conspiracy to hide cures from the general public.  So, while there appears to be no harm to you, you may be putting others at risk, simply by passing on bad advice.

Another way harm is spread is simply by perpetuating false hope. Sadly, there are some conditions and diseases where cures still evade us. People can be driven to their wits’ end, trying to find a cure or a treatment that will work. While doctors are expected to be honest with their patients in such cases, the CAM profession has far less qualms, and so clients are sent on distressing wild goose chases when perhaps they should be moving on towards more palliative measures. These are difficult, heartbreaking situations, but one thing is clear: nobody should be capitalising from such tribulations.

A question you might be asking is this: don’t medical treatments sometimes cause harm? Yes, but medicine usually looks beyond placebo into actual interventions, the bulk of whom have a great deal of evidence to back them up. These interventions can be harmful, but this is balanced against an improved outcome for the patient. Most alternative therapies are placebo at the best of times, so if little improvement can be expected, then neither should there be much harm in the intervention.

So, while active harm is rare, there are more indirect kinds of harm. Harm can be caused through inaction, or through spreading misleading information to others, or through the perpetuation of false hope. We shouldn’t look at alternative medicine as having no downsides. In the end, it’s never the best when people are forced to seek out solutions that don’t exist.

More thoughts on this issue from Science Based Medicine.

WhatsTheHarm.net – a database of alternative therapies going wrong.

Acupuncture Needle, CC Licenced via Acid Pix

Acupuncture Needle, CC Licenced via Acid Pix

“It Worked For Me” : these are the four words I always expect to hear when I get into a discussion on Alternative Medicine. In many ways, it’s very difficult to argue against. If you are not particularly careful in replying, you can come across as highly insensitive. How dare you assume that you know their circumstances better than themselves! Are you accusing them of lying? Furthermore, there is almost always a readymade refutation should you challenge any aspects of the assertion. It happened, you were not there, I was.

“It Worked For Me” is a minefield, and yet it needs to be tackled.

In the case of most alternative therapies, it’s implausible in the extreme for the putative cure to have been the cause of the recovery. Scientific studies have established, far beyond reasonable doubt, that homeopathic pills contain no active ingredient. These pills, by themselves, are utterly useless. Further studies have established that Chiropractic back manipulation is of no use beyond providing temporary relief to lower back pain in some cases. Other studies have demonstrated that Acupuncture, the insertion of needles in the skin, does little from a medical perspective. The list goes on and on. Whatever they say is working, it’s obviously not the particular treatments themselves.

And yet, many people swear by them. They had back pain, they went to an aromatherapist, and the pain disappeared. They felt very unwell, they went to a naturopath, and felt much better. Some people have reported the end of chronic pain and illness from going to alternative practitioners. They have reported the clearing up of allergies, the ending of depression, fatigue, lots of things.

So what is happening? Clearly, it’s difficult, without full information, to comment on any individual case, but here are some of the things that may be happening:

1) The Placebo Effect. The Placebo Effect relates to the tendency of people to report improvement after all manner of interventions, medical or none. Significant study has been done on this, and, while measurable improvement (beyond what would happen without intervention) is almost never seen, the effect refers to a strong tendency to make people feel better in themselves. It’s triggered by lots of things: the dosage, the nature of the dosage, the ambiance of the consulting room, the attitude and friendliness of the therapist, and much else. We all feel better from having spoken to someone who listens and helps us talk more easily. The Placebo Effect is particularly strong when it comes to non-specific symptoms, such as pain, fatigue, low mood and general feelings of un-wellness. It has less of an effect for specific, clear symptoms, such as cuts and infections.

2) Regression to the Mean. This refers to the natural tendency of the body to get better. Given enough time, back pain tends to get better by itself, sleep cycles are re-established, and allergies clear up, at least for a while. Just because a therapy was invoked before the recovery happened, doesn’t mean it caused or accelerated the recovery. It may have happened quite naturally, and there is no way of knowing this without careful analysis.

3) False Memory. Our memory of an event is actively re-created every time we recall it, so by necessity, many details of what actually happened tend to get lost, particularly the aspects that do not resonate with the main story. So it might be forgotten that the person was on antibiotics at the same time as visiting a homeopath, or that the recovery didn’t happen quite as fast as they remember. Even worse, the memory tends to become even more fixed with the telling as the weeks and years go by.

4) Belief contamination. We tend to view the world based on our inherent beliefs. Ghost hunters see and hear ghosts everywhere. Right-wingers tend to see left-wing conspiracies everywhere, and vice-versa. So too with people with an invested belief in their chosen form of alternative therapy. They will reach for signs of it working, even when the evidence is very slim.

5) Cognitive Dissonance. Once we have established a story about ourselves, we hate admitting we might be wrong about it. So when challenged on any aspects, our brains tend to go into overdrive to defend our position. This can have the effect of further changing our memory of it, bolstering the false memories even further.

6) Subjectivity. People don’t normally establish criteria for success beforehand, then judge the outcome based on these pre-existing criteria. Instead, there is a tendency to retro-fit a meaning after the event, which gives them much greater latitude to define what success means. The bar can be set as low as the person wishes.

7) Maslow’s Hammer, or “if the only tool you have is a hammer, it is tempting to treat everything as if it were a nail”. This is where people do not understand the limitations of their thinking. If we know of only one major way that a problem can be solved, we are unlikely to conceive of other alternatives to solving the problem. So, lack of knowledge of alternative modalities limits us to conceiving just one answer to the problems we have.


None of this, by the way, imputes deliberate action or foul play on the person making the claim. It’s just the way our minds work. When it comes to how our brain interprets the information we get from our environment, we are truly a funny lot.

If confronted with a personal anecdote and asked to explain it, it is far better to avoid engaging in a particular diagnosis, as you are unlikely to win that battle. It is possible, however, to engage in a hypothetical situation, on why we should be sceptical of personal testimonies. You could also imagine yourself experiencing a magic cure, then testing yourself on how you might have interpreted it incorrectly.

In the end, we are all too easy to fool. Convincing ourselves that a discredited modality works is the easy bit. Trying to establish that we might actually have got it wrong is much more difficult. “It Worked For Me”, as a reason for believing in a treatment, is simply not good enough.

QEDCon, the annual UK conference for science and skepticism, is over for another year. It was another terrific event. They must be doing something right, as people from all across the world have become regular attendees. The following is a personal recap of the conference.

Palace Hotel

Palace Hotel

Our venue was the Palace Hotel, close to the Manchester university district. Outside, it looks like an over-designed relic of a bygone era. Inside it’s a confusing warren of corridors, staircases and, eventually, rooms. Quite how all of the attendees managed to make their way out alive is anyone’s guess.

Day 1

Paul Zenon started proceedings with a hilarious video that managed to combine, in 5 minutes, as many woo beliefs as possible – including the drinking of a certain bodily fluid – an image I’ll find difficult to forget for a while. He then went onstage and acted the part of a false medium. Very, very funny.

Elizabeth Pisani then gave a talk on AIDS. People with HIV can now expect to have long, high quality lives; however this means that viral load continues over a much longer term, and along with it an increased risk of transmittance. The net effect is that more and more people getting are getting HIV. Higher rates of HIV lead to huge financial pressures within the medical system, as well as creating a risk of resistance in the longer term. Her conclusion is that, unless a cure is found, HIV must be reduced by addressing the riskiest of lifestyle behaviours. This is incredibly difficult to do.

Richard Wiseman

Richard Wiseman

Next up was Richard Wiseman, with an entertaining talk on his research career. He started the talk with a few photographic illusions, then moving on to ghost photos and pareidolia. He spoke about the attentional spotlight difference between lucky and unlucky people. He showed a video of a fire walking experiment proving – painfully for the participants – that physics trumps faith. He talked about an experiment where he and his team left wallets around the UK, and waited to see which ones got returned. He then talked about sleep, and what we can do to improve it. This is the subject of his latest book, Night School.

Beauty by the Geeks, Brigitte West and Rose Brown, then presented a talk on woo within the cosmetics industry. Both speakers had great material and great energy – evoking a bit of shock from the audience when they showed photos of people spreading sheep placentas all over their faces. I had a small problem with the talk in that it spent much too long on introductions. It would have been better to have devoted more time on the controversies and nonsense within the industry, and discussing what the science actually says. It’s clearly a hugely interesting area with a lot more to discover.

I then went to a panel discussion on The Internet – the best and worst. Angela Saini had some very coherent thoughts (“What is the worst? I think it’s people”). Unfortunately, the subject was far too wide and the discussion was all over the place. I didn’t learn much from it. It should have been more focused – internet trolling and harassment would have evoked a better discussion, I think.

I then attended a panel talk on Medical Myths and the Media. Again, this is such a huge area it was difficult to come to any conclusions or to have a particularly coherent discussion. Nevertheless, it was interesting listening to how doctors coped with the huge deluge of research papers in their area. It’s not easy to distinguish the good research from the bad stuff.

Dr. Sheena Cruickshank

Dr. Sheena Cruickshank

After the break we had Dr. Sheena Cruickshank talking about worms. No, not earthworms, instead the ones that live inside of people: hookworms, tapeworms, ringworms and their ilk. There is a negative relationship, geographically, between worm infections and allergies. In areas where worms are prevalent, there are few allergies, and vice versa in the more developed world. Worm treatment may make syndromes such as Crohn’s Disease a bit more manageable, but such treatments are not easy to implement as worms bring their own health issues. And, yes, there are people out there self-medicating on worms in the mistaken belief that it’s making them better. It was an absolutely fascinating talk.

Mark Crislip, the presenter of QuackCast, then gave a furiously detailed presentation about Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). “Integrated Medicine is where you mix cow pie with Apple pie, so that the Apple pie tastes worse”. His view is that the Placebo effect is overblown and is equal to non-treatment if there is an objective end-point. If it’s an open or subjective end point, it’s a small effect. People who say they get better, often don’t get better objectively. It just makes them feel better about themselves. Crislip is also concerned about the lack of quality standards in CAM and the many reports of direct harm.

The Evening activities kicked off with Richard Wiseman going through some of the worst scientific cover songs ever written. Geologists should never be allowed within an ass’s roar of rock anthems.

The Ockham Awards – the skeptical Oscars – were announced.

  • Kylie Sturgess won the best video award – a TEDx presentation where she talks about superstitious beliefs and practices, such as drinking urine. As she was not there (using the poor excuse that she has to make her living on a continent on the other side of the world), her acceptance speech was given by a cute kitten. She knows how we tick.
  • Leaving Fundamentalism” won the best blog. This was given to Jonny Scaramanga from Nate Phelps, of which more later.
  • The best podcast was Skepticality. This was received by Susan Gerbic on behalf of Derek and Swoopy.
  • The Editor’s Choice award was then given to the QED organisers themselves. It was well deserved for all the work these guys put into creating a brilliant experience for all the attendees. For the last 3 years, QED has been one of the big highlights of my year.
QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award

QED Organisers accepting their Ockham Award

The comedy sections were all very different, and all excellent. Gemma Arrowsmith won over the audience with an astounding Miss World acceptance speech where she talked about how she got where she is by starting at the Big Bang and moving on from there. There was a touch of genius to John Luke Roberts’s piece. He spoke in aphorisms “Jazz to me sounds like a German saying yes, then falling asleep”, “There is nothing sadder than a slinky taking a lift”. After a few gratuitous insults, he finished with a hilarious visual sketch involving a long beard and a set of false teeth on a stick. We were crying laughing. You had to be there. Andy Zaltzman combined skepticism with religion and politics, with hilarious results. “Sperm are basically Stalinists” and “John Logie Baird invented the television in order to give the aged a reason to keep on living”. It was great stuff.

Day 2


Paul Zenon started proceedings with a tale of mischevious hoaxing in Southampton – issuing public divorce proceedings using a pair of curtains. Local media picked it up, then world media, and finally came the psychological analyses. All the while, Zenon and his fellow hoaxers were sitting back, laughing, seeking new ways to stoke the story further.

Deborah Hyde

Deborah Hyde

The first talk of the day had Deborah Hyde talking about vampires. She traced the history of vampire stories, from Eastern Europe to the present day. Many legends are linked to disease epidemics and reports of corpses failing to rot properly. She talked about the multiple ways to (allegedly) stop a vampire, and how these legends originated. At the end she discussed a recent story where a guy died after swallowing a garlic clove out of a fear of vampirism. Deborah is an outstanding public speaker, interspersing her presentation with spot quizzes and guests being asked to come to the stage to drink blood and ashes.

Next up was Coralie Colmez, talking about the use of maths and stats in criminal trials. The probability of two events occurring equals the product of probabilities of them happening separately ONLY if both events are truly independent. A number of trials in recent history failed to establish independence sufficiently, ending up in gross miscarriages of justice. Coralie talked about the cot death story of Sally Clark and Roy Meadow, who as an expert witness, assessed the likelihood of two cot deaths to be almost impossible, without foul play taking place. Sally was jailed and was released only after a huge public outcry. Coralie also talked about the Birthday Problem and the Bayes Theorem. She got a lively discussion going in the questions afterwards.

Skeptics in the Pub Forum

Skeptics in the Pub Forum

As an organiser with Cork Skeptics, I went to the Skeptics In the Pub Forum in the breakout room. A few useful takeaways: 1) Never forget to treat your speaker as a VIP; 2) musicians are a very good resource for venue finding; 3) all venues should have disabled access if possible; 4) be wary of people wanting to do talks, as there are a few crackpots out there; 5) Meetup.com is becoming a popular online destination for meetings, at least in the UK; 6) It’s helpful to get the word out by doing a gig for other groups in the area; 7) Publicity is crucial – you still need to trawl through all the media routes. An intriguing thing for me was the use of “Interesting Talks” as a branding item.

Samantha Stein then gave a talk about Camp Quest UK. Camp Quest is a bit like the Scouts, but focused primarily on secular interests and values. There were some great activities mentioned, including talks by well known speakers, and Philosophy for Children (P4C), where kids are encouraged to think through issues and come to their own conclusions. If only there was something like that for me when I was a kid. She talked about the nasty press reception to Camp Quest, portraying atheists “grooming young children”. In the Q&A afterwards, she touched on the difficulty of government recognition as a charity because they were non-religious and they discussed “controversial” topics such as evolution. This is a travesty.

Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps

The last talk of the day was probably the most shocking of all (remember we had already had speeches on internal worms, vampire exhumations and AIDS). Nate Phelps, estranged son of Fred Phelps, talked about life within the Westboro Baptist Church, a group so hateful, the Ku Klux Klan issued a disclaimer about them on their website. He began by listing from memory all the books of the bible, as it was something demanded by his father when he was still a young child. His father was incredibly abusive – using violent beatings and psychological bullying to counteract any sense of independent thinking in his children. “You learned to stop trusting that instinctive nature that we have to distinguish right from wrong”, said Nate. As soon as Nate was 18 years of age, he left home, never to return. This wasn’t the end of the story, as Nate spent decades fighting the hobgoblins that his father had implanted in his mind. He was eventually diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He is now a vigorous campaigner against fundamentalism, calling blind faith one of the most dangerous things in society today, because it is unaccountable and not receptive to challenge. To paraphrase Nate, we live in a world of ideas, but ideas have no value unless they have been tested, vetted and subjected to the harsh light of reality. We must strive to love, and not to hate.

Throughout the talk, you couldn’t have heard a pin drop from the audience. We all got to our feet and loudly applauded when he finished. Nate’s story is at the core of why we do all this.

That concluded QED 2014. In my impression, it was as good as ever, both for the quality of the speakers, the interesting discussions, and the people I bumped into along the way. QED has a grassroots focus that makes you feel like you own a share in its success. Financial considerations aside, I’m hoping I can attend the 2015 event.


Further reading:

On #QEDCon, Manchester April 2014@Gwendes

Taking out the garbage: on approaching Skeptical Activism@HayleyStevens

This is my 400th blog entry. It’s hard to believe. I started posting some time in 2006, so a lot of ramblings, remembrances and randomness have poured forth onto these pages over the intervening years.

Anyway, in keeping with the generally scrambled content of this blog, here’s an Aloe Vera plant flowering. It took me some time to photograph this – one frame every 30 minutes, all day and all night for 2 weeks. I’m told it’s unusual to see an Aloe in flower, so someone in this house must be doing something right. (I’ll hasten to add, it’s not me).

Staying with the floral theme, yesterday was what we Irish call “a soft day”, so I took the opportunity to photograph a few flowers and plants in the act of budding. The macro function on my iPhone is quite passable, I think, but it sometimes takes a bit of work to get the focusing right.


Wooden Sculpture (CC image via EpSos.de)

Why is science important?

Some people think science is all about wild-haired, bespectacled geeks in lab coats, holding beakers and marvelling at their latest fantastic breakthroughs. Then there are the people who believe it to be some sort of church, where immutable truths are held in sacred reverence. Many consider it to be just a type of opinion, prone to change its mind with the same regularity as teenage fashion. In the worst case, it is condemned as an enterprise of pure evil, determined to foist dangerous chemicals, foods and drugs on a compliant public. All of these are lazy, small minded caricatures of what science is.

Put simply, science is about trial and error. Scientists test ideas against reality; dumping the failed ideas and retaining the successful ideas for further scrutiny. Ideas that survive multiple, repeated testing gain greater validity. Over time, the best ideas become part of the consensus of knowledge that helps us understand the world and Universe we live in. While all this knowledge is provisional, and subject to change with further evidence and testing, many of the best ideas are doggedly persistent, retaining their power and validity after many decades, and even centuries, of close examination. Gravitation and Evolution by Natural Selection are two of the more notable examples.

This process of trial and error is familiar to us all. Computer programmers, debugging thousands of lines of code, understand it only too well. Businesses test competitive strategies, rejecting ones that don’t add to the bottom line. Plumbers, bricklayers and carpenters rely on the fruits of hundreds of years of reality testing, every time they build a house. We eat mushrooms, salad leaves and shellfish, safe in the knowledge that someone, some time in the past, tried them, liked them, didn’t die of poisoning, and told others what they had just eaten. Science is all this, and more. Over the years, it has become very sophisticated in how it can tease out the best approaches from a vast array of flawed ideas.

Science is important because it tells us how things work. Often, it can explain why they work. So, when it comes to explaining something like why vaccines are today used against measles, the trained eye can explain it not only from longitudinal studies on the effectiveness and safety of vaccines, but also though an understanding of the mechanisms of the human immune system and the measles virus itself. Even if there is a lot more to discover, as in the cases of autism and cancer, science can provide a sense of what is known so far and what is yet to be discovered.

Science is furthermore important because it also tell us what doesn’t work and the reason why this might be so. So when crystal healers tout their garnets and quartzes as cures for depression, or when homeopaths claim that their sugar pills have medicinal properties, we can reliably challenge their assertions. Pseudo-scientific (“false scientific”) claims like this fly in the face of physics, biology and everything we know about physiology and mental health.

One wonderful thing about science is the many surprising insights that have been made about the nature of the world around us. Discoveries such as DNA, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism and relativity – to name but a few – have revolutionised our understanding of the world while driving massive improvements in technology and the world economy. We need to keep in mind that without science, such discoveries would never have been made.

Science can also provide the most useful hints toward future discoveries, cures and treatments. The knowledge already built up leads to interesting pathways deserving of further research, and from this, real breakthroughs may arise. Without such a starting point, we are unlikely to make much progress in fields such as cancer control, neurological disorders, climate change and the many other problems of our times. To propose and promote solutions in such areas while remaining ignorant of existing knowledge about the problem is foolish in the extreme.

There is an integrity to science. Despite many different political systems around the world, there is no “Islamic science”, or “Eastern science” – it’s just science. The same methods are taught in science classes everywhere there is a commitment to good education. And despite many attempts by politicians and charlatans to interfere with the scientific process for their own ends, it stands firm, even if this means loss of funding and favour. This is particularly the case in the environmental debates of the present time.

For these and other reasons, science is worth promoting and defending. Many groups seem intent to promote anti-scientific agendas, or, more usually, cherry picking the bits of science they like, while rejecting outright the bits that don’t conform to their ideologies. It’s difficult to be blasé when confronted with such opposition. A lessening of the value of science, in our classrooms and public spaces, is ultimately a rejection of what we have learned as a species. It debases a process of inquiry that has served us so well in the past and should continue to do so in the future.

Vladimir Putin Withdraws From Crimea

Apologises for invasion and pledges to work with Ukraine to develop democracy and co-operation.


Uganda Welcomes Gays

Repeals laws and pledges a clampdown on homophobia.


Iona Institute Disbands

“Frankly, we’ve been a bunch of dicks”, acknowledges David Quinn.


Saudi Arabia Permits Women Drivers

We’ll even allow them to be taxi drivers, pilots and anything else they want, announces Interior Ministry.


New York St Patrick’s Day Parade Committee Resigns

Next year’s parade to be wide open to all colours, creeds and inclinations, claims next year’s organisers.


Pope Announces Liberal Reform Measures

“Man, that contraceptive ban was way out of line. What were we thinking?”, says Pope Francis.


Alan Shatter Resigns.



Any more?


Every so often I am obliged to go to a Catholic Mass ceremony. This is something I try strenuously to avoid, but sometimes I have little choice. Such are the complex demands of middle parenthood.

Little has changed in the ceremony in the quarter century since I forsook the weekly ritual. What has changed are the congregations. On this occasion, the pews were full, but populated in the main by parents like me – uncertain about what they should be doing and registering a timid protest by not attending communion with their children. If it were not for the nature of the ceremony, the attendance would have been a great deal smaller and greyer.

The priest, a young curate from a part of the country where “th’s” are banned, didn’t bother to alter his style in the midst of this gathering of heathens. Instead, his sermon was all about the nihilism of secularism and a call for us to return to the religion of our youth lest we fall prey to decadence. He blamed atheism for hardship, a diagnosis equivalent to not flossing or washing between one’s toes – satisfactory to some, but ultimately irrelevant.

As I said, not much has changed. If anything, some priests are getting more hardline as the collection plates dry up. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, they still believe they hold the monopoly on ethical behaviour and are fearful of the loss of pomp and privilege. There is still an unwillingness to engage into a dialogue with the real world. It’s all a bit sad, and while I believe that ethics is as important now as it ever was, it seems the Catholic Church is getting less qualified each year to inform us on ethical behaviour.

In the meantime, here is a delightful video from Stephen Fry on humanism and happiness. Judge for yourself what is a better role to live by.

We Irish don’t look at St Patrick’s Day in quite the same way as other countries. While St. Patricks Day is a welcome break and a chance to prepare for spring, we tend to look at the kitch and global celebration of Irishness with mild embarrassment, as if someone invited us to a party in our honour, but sent it to the wrong people, and we went along with it anyway, rather than spoil it for them.

What is Irishness anyway? Perhaps, when Ireland was a mono-cultural society, defined along rigid sectarian lines, there might have been a case to be made – commemorating a history of oppression and struggle against sometimes massive odds. Nowadays this story holds none of the same resonance.

Ireland today is a relatively modern country and home to a broad range people from all over the world. Our religious identity is disappearing. We are quite well integrated into the wider European community and thus more likely to share most of the values and aspirations of our continental neighbours. Our health and education systems are chaotic and under-funded, but functional. Our political leaders are salesmen. Sport is a national obsession, as is the price of property. A bracing combination of engaging scenery and bad weather keeps us grounded. All thing considered, we don’t particularly stand out, and that’s ok with us.

But, to consider the pomp around St Patrick’s Day, you would think we are wildly special, different by a long shot from all other people on the planet.

Alcohol consumption might be a factor, but we’re certainly not the only nation with a love of drinking. In fact, if our empty pubs and middle-age health obsessions are anything to go by, drinking is rapidly on the wane here.

Arts, music, literature and poetry, yes, perhaps; but it seems this too is overblown. Our artistic heritage is often more complicated, in any case, than it appears at first glance – owing a lot, in many cases, to other nationalities, conveniently forgotten in our self-made myths.

Maybe it’s the love of the craic, the raconteur, the devil may care attitude, the life and soul of the party, or whatever you are having yourself, but it seems that these are more universal values than we care to accept.

It’s all very hazy. We’ve moved from a patriotic love of Ireland and its dominant religion to this nebulous concept of “Irishness”, and we don’t really know any more what it means.

Here’s what I think it should mean. Rather than focusing on one small culturally ambiguous island in the Atlantic, St. Patrick’s Day should be all about displacement. It should be a global celebration of emigration, immigration and movement away from home, both forced and unforced. In a world where mobility is expected and often mandated, it’s good to have a day when we can think about where we came from, and the journeys we have made to get to where we are. This is true, both for us as individuals and our wider historic backgrounds. The Irish, a nation with form in this area, are just as good ambassadors as anyone else.

So there it is: if you live somewhere that is far away from the homeland of your childhood, or even if you feel a connection to somewhere other than your current home, whether that be China, Gabon, Vietnam or Co. Offaly, then happy St. Patrick’s Day. This day is for you.

Yesterday, Cork County Council recommended by a “huge majority” to stop the use of fluoride compounds in public water supplies. Under pressure from the council, the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, has agreed to appoint a group of international experts to review the fluoridation of Ireland’s drinking water.

Water fluoridation was introduced in Ireland in the 1960′s to reduce dental cavities, after other countries had reported significant success in their own fluoridation programmes. Fluoride compound ingestion does have side-effects, so the issue has always been about establishing the correct dosage for safe use. Currently, the recommended dosage in Ireland is 0.8 ppm, which is substantially lower than the US Environmental Protection Agency’s maximum safe dosage of 4 ppm. The only established side effect of fluoridation at low levels is dental fluorosis – a temporary discolouration or mottling or teeth that is mainly observed in children. To date, and despite extensive study across the globe, no major health organisation has been able to establish a link between fluoridation and any other health impacts. The conclusion is that, so long as the levels are below international safe guidelines, it’s safe to drink the water.

That’s not the conclusion our esteemed councillors appear to have reached. From listening to their soundbites, you would be lead to believe that we are in the middle of a major public health disaster.

 “Some of the countries we are exporting food to are now calling into question the use of fluoride in our food products and this would be very detrimental to the food industry.”

Cllr Adrian Healy, FG

 “It contravenes the EU Convention on Human Rights. Nearly all countries in the EU have stopped it.”

Cllr Christopher O’Sullivan, FF

This is “Dr. Strangelove” territory.

The inspiration for all this scaremongering is a highly organised campaign group in West Cork, running under “The Girl Against Fluoride” (TGAF) banner. They are running an energetic and effective campaign, with a large support base. They have successfully grabbed the ear of anyone who will listen, including plenty of local politicians.

However, running a slick campaign and determining public health policy based on the best scientific facts are two totally different things. TGAF cherry picks data from wherever they can find it, linking current levels water fluoridation to thyroid problems, lowered IQ, cardiovascular problems, osteoporosis, cancer and kidney disease. If only the peer reviewed literature supported them! For example, a Harvard study quoted by them on lowered IQ is based on excessive amounts of fluoride in China, and not on the minimal amounts in Irish water supplies.

As if to lend credibility to their campaign, TGAF are supportive of notorious quacks such as Joseph Mercola and Stanislaw Burzynski, of which much else could be written. If the science is against them, then clearly their opponents are on the take, stooges of Big Fluora, or sheeple who have not yet woken up to the truth. The message is that scientists and public health advisors are working against the people and that they know better – classic conspiracy thinking. If they reach their goal of making Irish water fluoride free, one wonders what their next target will be? Childhood vaccines, perhaps? Antibiotics, maybe?

If public health experts conclude that water fluoridation is no longer required in Ireland based on the success of other measures, then I have no problem with this. The problem here is how the fluoride debate is being pushed – primarily via scaremongering and bluster – from an organisation that prefers emotion and fear over rational analysis.

The developments in Cork County Council yesterday indicate that anti-scientific and conspiratorial thinking is making strong inroads into public debate and that all you need to overturn good public health policy is a highly motivated campaign group. This is not a good portent for the future.


For more on this I recommend you read David Robert Grimes’s excellent blog post on the same subject.  Also, please look at Gerry Byrne’s “Inside the mind of an anti-fluoridationist”


Another week travelling, this time in the opposite direction. Over the last three weeks, I’ve been in three equally sized corners of the world. I still miss Shanghai.

I’m in Silicon Valley: an endless suburbia straddling San Francisco Bay, and home to some of the brightest technical minds on the planet. Photographic opportunities are somewhat limited, but there are some wonderful gems, not far from the hustle and bustle.

I saw a few curious things on my flight over from London. While travelling past Iceland, I noticed a dark line of shadow imprinted on the clouds far below. It took me a few seconds to realise that it was caused by our own plane’s vapour trail – a shadow cast from far above. What was even more interesting was that the head of the shadow – where the plane should be – was surrounded by a small rainbow. It’s called a “glory” – an optical phenomenon caused by the reflected rays’ passage through tiny water droplets.

Plane Shadow 1

Plane Shadow 2

Greenland was uncharacteristically bereft of cloud, so I could see clearly the high snowy mountains of the coastline. Deep in the valleys, I could see massive glaciers grind their way to the sea. As the plane headed inland, these glaciers began to engulf the mountain tops, until the mountains themselves disappeared under the enormous ice-cap.

Greenland Ice Cap 1 Greenland Ice Cap 2

We arrived into San Francisco early, and with time to kill, we headed towards the Pacific Coast Highway, one of my favourite spots in Northern California. Thick sea fog was assaulting the coast, lending a certain dullness to the scenery. We wound our way South from Pacifica to Santa Cruz, past driftwood strewn beaches and high cliffs. It’s a relaxing part of the world.


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