Archive for the ‘UK’ Category

Banned! Minority tyrrany! (Perspective?)

2012/02/13

There’s been a ruling in an English High Court that, instead of praying at the start of council meetings (when everyone must be there), the Bideford town council should instead pray just before the start of council meetings (when attendance is optional). The case was introduced by a local councillor, and supported by the National Secular Society (NSS). Michael Langrish, the Bishop of Exeter, tells us in that story that this is an attack on the religious freedom of Christians. “I think it’s a great pity that a tiny minority are seeking to ban the majority, many of whom find prayers very, very helpful, from continuing with a process in which no-one actually has to participate.”

It seems to me that there is a whole lot of wrong wrapped up in the Bishop’s words. I’ll take some time to review the two main bits of wrong: the demographics involved, and the injury done.

For the demographics, I’m drawing on a 2011 poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association (BHA), and a 2007 poll conducted by Why Church, a Christian group. I do not know how biased either of these polls might be, so I will also throw in numbers from the recurring British Social Attitudes Survey. The numbers differ, but the overall story is basically the same.

The BHA study found that 53% of people in England and Wales claim to be Christian (7% claim other religions), but only 29% claimed to be religious. For how many of those is the message of their church important? The Why Church study finds that regular attendance is declining steadily – at the time of the report, it was at 15%. That’s how many in the UK attend at least once a month. In particular, compare this section from the executive summary of their report to the bishop’s statement above (my emphasis):

Two thirds of UK adults (66%) or 32.2 million people have no connection with church at present (nor with another religion). These people are evenly divided between those who have been in the past but have since left (16 million) and those who have never been in their lives (16.2 million). This secular majority presents a major challenge to churches. Most of them – 29.3 million – are unreceptive and closed to attending church; churchgoing is simply not on their agenda.

The BHA study supports this, reporting that 63% of respondents had not been to church in more than a year.

It looks like the good bishop’s claim to speak for the majority is, at best, barely true and soon to be outdated. More likely, he’s thinking about a Britain that is several decades in the past.

The BHA poll reports that while 53% claim to be Christian, 65% of people in England and Wales claim to be non-religious. Clearly, some see themselves as “non-religious Christians” – a category which reminds me of “secular Jews”. A Scottish poll gave similar results: 58% claiming some religious affiliation, and 56% saying they were not religious. Even the Why Church survey shows agnostics and atheists at 33% of the population. Langrish’s claim that it is a “tiny minority” imposing these onerous restrictions is therefore ridiculous. It is no stretch to say that, if they don’t already, non-believers are likely to soon outnumber believers in the UK.

The British Social Attitudes Survey shows a drop in Church of England affiliation from 22.50% in 2008 to 19.98% in 2009. Christians overall went from 49.70% to 43.83%, and total religious affiliations from 56.38% to 48.86%. The “no religion” category grew over the same period from 43.19% to 50.67%. Call me crazy, but it looks to me like the bishop’s C of E flock is less than half the size of those whose interests the NSS seeks to protect – Langrish’s “tiny minority”. Probably, he meant all religious people when referring to the “majority” – but even so the numbers are close, and moving in favour of the non-religious.

I’ll let you sift through the statistics yourselves for further insight – there is obviously a lot of scope for picking different numbers, depending what aspect of the issue is important to you. The British Social Attitudes Survey releases their data to registered users; the Why Church people have a number of informative graphics on their website, as well as an in-depth report (PDF). The BHA provides downloadable statistical summaries of their poll on their website.

What wiggle room do we have in interpreting the demographics for this issue?

On the bishop’s side, we could include only regular attenders of the Church of England? That would be somewhere well south of 15%. It’s tempting, but of course other Christians and religious people more generally may also claim an interest in making prayers part of the official council business. That would put the number up as high as 61% – but only, mark you, if the prayers are inclusive of all religious perspectives. And what about people who only attend services rarely or not at all? Is it reasonable to think that they would be upset by a law that allows councillors to opt out of pre-meeting prayers? Counting regular (monthly or more) attenders from all religions, we get something closer to the 15%.

On the secular side, should we only look at members of the NSS, the BHA, and other organizations promoting non-belief? If so, we’ll have a very low number – perhaps appearing to justify Langrish’s “tiny minority”. The BHA has 28000 paying members and supporters; the HSS (Humanist Society of Scotland) has around 6500 members; and the NSS is estimated to have fewer than 10000 paying members. Some individuals will be members of more than one of these groups, and there are many smaller groups that I have left off of this list, but this indicates that something like 40000 people – a fraction of a percent of the UK population, are card-carrying, dues-paying secularists. Should we also include the “de-churched” – the 33% of UK adults who used to attend church, but no longer do? They seem to have made a pretty solid vote for reducing the influence of church in their daily lives. Should we include everyone who claims to be non-religious? Again, it’s tempting, but not all of this group (depending on the survey, somewhere from 33% to 65%) will agree with the secularization of Britain (just as not all religious people agree with the establishment of church power and rituals in government institutions).

Regarding the specific issue at hand – religious prayers before council meetings – a couple of questions about politics on the British Social Attitudes Survey are also relevant. A growing number of people think that churches have too much power in the country (10.58% in 1991, 29.76% in 2008), and people increasingly object to religious leaders influencing government (56.64% in 1991, 67.26% in 2008).

Goodness, what a mess of numbers! Over all, the bishop’s appeal to democratic sensibilities seems to backfire. If the will of the people is important, then the British people seem to be saying that the church should back off. (Of course, an obvious rejoinder from Langrish’s camp would be to bemoan the fact that people are turning their backs on religion – but that becomes more paternalistic and less democratic. Besides, I wouldn’t want to put words in the good reverend’s mouth.)

But let’s back up a little. What did the court rule, exactly? It ruled that prayers are okay in a pre-meeting context, but not as part of the minuted, mandatory-attendance part of council meetings.

So when we hear people complain that their voices are being silenced, their rights trampled on, bear that in mind. They are being pushed perhaps a few minutes earlier, so that people who object to the practice of prayer in council meetings have more freedom to absent themselves while the religious folks carry on thanking and invoking and praising as they always have. That is the great secular imposition which Langrish and others are wailing about.

This is the point where I would typically want to extract some broader lesson. Perhaps about people’s tendency to inflate perceived injuries against them. Or I would congratulate myself on my humility by noticing that we also tend to minimize perceived injuries against others when we identify – by creed or otherwise – with those accused of the attack. (It’s true that I think the Bishop is being alarmist. On the other hand, he is right in his statement in the Guardian that ” the agenda of the National Secular Society is inch by inch to drive religion out of the public sphere.”)

But I think I’ll leave it there, and see what you think. Is there an obvious demographic perspective that makes this all clear? Should we be worried about how many of us there are and how many of them, or is secularization about something more than just one side beating another side with brute numbers? What is the significance of the (apparently overlooked) fact that it was the High Court, attempting to interpret the laws of the land, that handed down this ruling (and not the NSS or one disgruntled atheist councillor)?

The flock is not the flocker

2010/09/21

Humanitie is out again, so here’s my latest column.  Here is the Not-Quite-So-Friendly Humanist’s take on the issue we decided to tackle this time around.  We decided to blog on the Pope’s visit to the UK.

The pope will be is visiting as a head of state and as a moral authority.  Both of these roles are highly dubious in our modern democratic context.  Ignoring a mountain of other things, the fact alone that this man seems to have been involved in an institutional cover-up for dozens of child rapists should prevent any decent head of state from inviting him to visit.

It’s important to remember, however, that the Catholic Church is composed not only of pedophile priests and those who cover up for them, but also of non-pedophile priests and non-corrupt administrators.  Even more, it is composed of hundreds of millions of people trying to live as well as they can in a confusing world.

And before anyone retorts that passive acceptance of repressive and harmful dogmas is hardly respectable, let me introduce a couple of Catholic organisations that specifically combat the church’s problems – both doctrinal and institutional:  “Catholics for Choice” and “Catholics for a Changing Church“.

Here is what Catholics for Choice say about themselves:  “We are part of the great majority who believes that Catholic teachings on conscience mean that every individual must follow his or her own conscience – and respect others’ right to do the same.”  That sounds a lot like the humanist principle of free-thinking.  The group “helps people and organizations confidently challenge the power of the Catholic hierarchy which uses every means at its disposal to punish and publicly shame Catholics who don’t unquestioningly follow its edicts. The hierarchy also seeks to impose its narrow view of morality – and dangerous positions on public health issues – on Catholics and non-Catholics around the world.”  This is a firm condemnation of the same institutional abuse of power that humanists find so repugnant in the Catholic hierarchy.

In a similar vein, Catholics for a Changing Church declare that “Justice in the Church should be manifest and subject to public scrutiny and aim at least to equal the spirit of justice in the civil community. It should be based on the love, understanding and trust that ought to exist between Christians. Canon Law should be radically reformed in accord with these principles.”  Humanists may disagree about the beliefs that undergird these values, but we cannot disagree with the values themselves:  public accountability of those in power, and being motivated by love and understanding.  Note that they are holding up the “civil community” – what many religionists (for example, this guy!) decry as the secularised public arena – as a standard for the church to live *up* to.

We could ask why these obviously open-minded and ethical people don’t just leave the church.  Isn’t that a much easier way to win free of its oppressive dogmas and policies?  But when a community is being oppressed, it can be better to remain and work to improve it than to simply leave.  Remember that these people have family in the church, personal history, and of course, retain many of the beliefs of Catholicism.  Is it really rational to expect them to leave?  And is it really a bad thing to know that there is a movement within the church campaigning for change?

So where does that leave us as humanists?  I’m not about to suggest we shut up and hope that the church reforms from within.  But, when we point out the evils of the dogmas and the hierarchy, I think it is worth sparing a word or two of encouragement and praise for those brave Catholics who remain in the church and challenge its outdated and harmful aspects, just as we praise the thinkers of the Enlightenment who forged modern humanist principles amid a sea of fearful dogma.

Here are some other thoughts on the pope and his visit:


Is Saint Andrew’s Day controversial?

2009/12/20

A few weeks late, I have come across this exchange on the merits of celebrating Saint Andrew’s Day on the 30th of November as a national day for Scotland. Saint Andrew was said to have been crucified on an ‘X’-shaped cross, which gives us the saltire in the modern Scottish flag (pictured above). His apparent connection with Scotland is that some of his relics were brought here after his death, and so he is considered the patron saint of Scotland.

In the article from the Herald, Gordon Ross (treasurer for the Humanist Society of Scotland) argues that (a) Andrew has no demonstrable connection to Scotland (he’s patron saint of many other places as well), (b) it is primarily a religious tradition, which implicitly excludes the many non-Christian people in Scotland, and (c) we have plenty of other days with more genuine merit, to celebrate Scotland as a nation.

Opposing him is Azeem Ibrahim, who argues that religion isn’t a serious part of Scottish Saint Andrews Day celebrations, and that the inclusive celebration of Scottish awesomeness is what the day is about.

This seems to me like a microcosm of the perennial Christmas debates in the atheist community. Is it a problem to celebrate on a day that has been connected to beliefs or values that you reject? As someone who grew up with essentially religion-free Christmases, I just can’t get worried about it. (For us, it was about family, food, gifts, and games.) I’ve never seen evidence that celebrating a secular Christmas somehow lends credence to the non-secular version of it.*

I tend to agree with Ibrahim – the same goes for Saint Andrew’s Day. While I am aware of the legend behind it, I’ve never felt that the religious side was particularly important. It’s about celebrating this wonderful little nation of (currently) five million people, who have produced so much.** (Including, I should point out, many of the central historical figures and cultural traditions celebrated in my homeland, Canada.)

Humanists and atheists often chastise religious people for being too sensitive about their beliefs. I think this is a great opportunity to show that we mean it. Saint Andrew’s Day does not exclude us; it does not demean us. So let’s set aside the historical religious basis of the day and enjoy it for what it is now.***

Lang may your lum reek!

Footnotes:

* I feel I should point out this post by Cath, in which I learned that even very conservative Christians don’t necessarily observe Christmas. This doesn’t change the fact that it’s historically a religiously-motivated festival, but it does somewhat derail the assumption that Christianity and Christmas necessarily go together.

** I should also acknowledge that Saint Andrew’s Day is not a huge thing, even in Scotland. In fact, my main experience of it is the free admission to the castle, and perhaps token acknowledgement in the media. So it’s a very different issue in many ways from Christmas. But the parallels are intriguing.

*** Also, I should acknowledge a certain personal bias: Saint Andrew’s Day is also my birthday. It’s quite nice to be offered free admission to national monuments on your birthday.

Image credit:

Saltire from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

 

Christians against sectarianism

2009/11/20

I wrote just the other day about the new humanist ad campaign – this time directed at combating sectarianism.

I’m delighted to report that the campaign is drawing support not only from other humanists, but also from religious people. The Evangelical Alliance has put out a press release in support of the ads’ message:

Justin Thacker, Head of Theology at the Evangelical Alliance said: “It is great to see that the Humanists are now agreeing that children have to make their own decisions about faith. 

“Evangelicals do not believe that God has any grandchildren, only children. You are not a Christian simply because your parents are. Every child or adult has to make up their own minds about the reality of God.

Thanks to Dale for pointing out this welcome source of agreement with the humanist campaign. Like him, I was unable to find any mainstream media noting this support – only religious publications like Christianity Today and Ekklesia. Not to demean those publications – I simply mean to point out that, in the interest of controversy, the mainstream media has once again missed an important part of the story: they seem to have latched onto the frothing and uninformed reaction of a fundamentalist Irish minister, who doesn’t seem to have read the ads, and certainly hasn’t read the background information.

Why don’t we all help spread the word? Let’s make it clear that this is an issue that can and does resonate with many segments of society, not just with the nonreligious.

Campaign against sectarianism

2009/11/18

I recently shared some brief thoughts about sectarian education (“faith schools”) in the UK. I’ve now learned of a follow-up to the hugely popular atheist bus campaign.

The British Humanist Association is launching the “Atheist Billboard Campaign“. An interesting twist is that (contrary to what many kneejerk commentators are likely to declare), the billboards do not promote atheism at all.

Accompanying a picture of two unbearably cute kids jumping joyfully (left) is the text:

“Please don’t label me. Let me grow up and choose for myself.”

Another version (right) says:

“No faith schools. Yes you can donate today.”

Yes, I suppose “No faith schools” may sound, to some ears, like a promotion of atheism, or at least an attack on religion. It’s not – and the campaign is clear in that it’s against sectarianism, not against religion in general. However you feel about it, the idea appears to enjoy popular support. A poll by Accord reports that 57% of people in the UK feel that faith schools undermine community cohesion. A four-year-old poll reported in the Guardian reports ’64% agreeing that “the government should not be funding faith schools of any kind”.’

Now look at the text in the background of the ad (it’s clearest in the big version, which I’ve included at the bottom of this post). Clearly among the labels that we should avoid (according to the ad) are “agnostic child”, “atheist child”, and “humanist child”.

If you agree with this message – that children should not be labelled according to the beliefs of their parents, and that faith schools should not be publicly funded, go donate to the campaign here or here. If you disagree, or aren’t sure, go learn more.

And, as always, please let me know what you think.

Defending Christians

2009/09/23

From the Friendly Atheist, I have learned that there is a couple in Liverpool facing criminal charges for saying things that hurt the feelings of a Muslim woman who was staying at their hotel.

According to the Telegraph,

Among the things Mr Vogelenzang, 53, is alleged to have said is that Mohammad was a warlord. His wife, 54, is said to have stated that Muslim dress is a form of bondage for women.

The couple now face fines up up to £2500 each and a criminal record under Section 5 of the Public Order Act (causing harassment, alarm or distress).

Now, I generally don’t trust the press’s ability (or inclination) to accurately portray events such as these. However, if we assume for the moment that the Telegraph isn’t distorting the facts, then this is an abominable application of a (probably) bad law. Sure, statements like those reported above aren’t particularly pleasant. But illegal?

According to the paper, the statements were made during a conversation the woman was participating in. She wasn’t being harassed; she wasn’t being bullied or proselytized. She was engaging in a conversation about her religious beliefs with people who didn’t share them. Certainly she should have been prepared for challenging statements?

Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on how this pans out. I’d really like to think that this country can learn to set aside or amend bad laws whose only function is to censor honest opinions which harm nobody.

Positively unjust?

2009/09/18

The latest issue of Humanitie magazine just arrived in the mail. In this issue, Mike and I discuss our (somewhat different) thoughts on positive discrimination. Make sure to read his thoughts here.

I was all ready to deliver a column arguing against “positive discrimination”.

I was going to argue that the solution to discrimination is not counter-discrimination. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I would point out that even the people supposedly helped by it are, really, just being patronised: “You can’t get this job on merit, so we’ll give you a hand up because of your sex/race/etc.”

I’d have pointed out that the statistics you run across in the media about pay gaps and hiring biases are probably rife with holes. For example, the workers at my daughter’s nursery are almost all women. Does this imply discrimination against male nursery workers? More likely, it’s simply a consequence of free choice: more women than men choose to be nursery workers (for whatever reason). Trying to “equalize” this with quotas would devalue the choices those women and men are freely making.

I was even ready to loftily concede that there are situations of extreme, institutional discrimination where positive discrimination as a temporary counterbalance – as part of a wider program promoting education and social change – might be justifiable as a lesser evil.

And of course, I would have generously acknowledged my potential conflict of interest on this issue: I am a white man. I hate the idea of being passed over for a job in favour of a less-qualified candidate because of my sex or race (what “positive discrimination” means to many people).

But then, at Deena’s suggestion, I started looking into what programs actually exist here, and my righteous indignation vanished.

Because, you see, so-called “positive discrimination” is illegal in Britain. Existing human rights legislation, and the proposed new Equality Bill, specifically prohibit the hiring or promoting of one job candidate over another on the basis of sex or race – or any other protected category, such as sexual orientation, religion, and age.

What is promoted is “positive action”. An employer can encourage under-represented categories of people to apply for a job or promotion; an agency can target disadvantaged groups in promoting training courses. This means things like advertising in media that target these segments of the population, or using language in job adverts that encourages them to apply. (“Women and minorities welcome!”, for example.)

While people might argue about the effectiveness of such measures, it seems clear that positive action hardly constitutes inappropriate discrimination against “dispreferred groups” (such as white male columnists). In fact, it seems to be just the level at which opponents of “positive discrimination” (like me) suggest we should be channelling our efforts.

I think we probably do still have low-level discrimination (both conscious and unconscious) in our society, and it needs combating. Even accounting for self-selection and shortcomings of popular statistics, some unfairness does exist. I have plenty of loved ones in “disadvantaged” groups – women, older people, people with mental health problems, etc. So, in addition to my above-mentioned interest, I have a strong personal interest in trying to make our employment landscape fair.

So I say, keep positive discrimination illegal, and keep positive action around.

Spinal Trap rebroadcast

2009/07/31

On Wednesday, a large number of online and print sources showed solidarity with Simon Singh by reprinting his critique of the British Chiropractic Association. They have removed the allegedly libellous portions – I invite you to read them, then the original, and decide whether the substance is different.

Here is a list of blogs that have reproduced the article, as compiled at Sense About Science.

Although I’m late joining in, I hereby offer the same service: a reproduction of the original article. Like most others, I’m omitting the allegedly libellous lines.

Let me be clear: I do not think they are libellous. I think the BCA’s case is a cowardly attack meant to silence a critic, not a legitimate attempt to protect itself from malicious falsehoods. But I do not have the means to mount a defense should the BCA come after me. In my case, their cowardly tactics work. (That is one reason why the law must change.)

But, as I said, I think the substance of the article is unchanged by the omission (further evidence of the ridiculousness of their accusation). So here it is, as presented on the Sense About Science site:

Beware the spinal trap

Some practitioners claim it is a cure-all, but the research suggests chiropractic therapy has mixed results – and can even be lethal, says Simon Singh.

You might be surprised to know that the founder of chiropractic therapy, Daniel David Palmer, wrote that ’99% of all diseases are caused by displaced vertebrae’. In the 1860s, Palmer began to develop his theory that the spine was involved in almost every illness because the spinal cord connects the brain to the rest of the body. Therefore any misalignment could cause a problem in distant parts of the body.

In fact, Palmer’s first chiropractic intervention supposedly cured a man who had been profoundly deaf for 17 years. His second treatment was equally strange, because he claimed that he treated a patient with heart trouble by correcting a displaced vertebra.

You might think that modern chiropractors restrict themselves to treating back problems, but in fact some still possess quite wacky ideas. The fundamentalists argue that they can cure anything, including helping treat children with colic, sleeping and feeding problems, frequent ear infections, asthma and prolonged crying – even though there is not a jot of evidence.

I can confidently label these assertions as utter nonsense because I have co-authored a book about alternative medicine with the world’s first professor of complementary medicine, Edzard Ernst. He learned chiropractic techniques himself and used them as a doctor. This is when he began to see the need for some critical evaluation. Among other projects, he examined the evidence from 70 trials exploring the benefits of chiropractic therapy in conditions unrelated to the back. He found no evidence to suggest that chiropractors could treat any such conditions.

But what about chiropractic in the context of treating back problems? Manipulating the spine can cure some problems, but results are mixed. To be fair, conventional approaches, such as physiotherapy, also struggle to treat back problems with any consistency. Nevertheless, conventional therapy is still preferable because of the serious dangers associated with chiropractic.

In 2001, a systematic review of five studies revealed that roughly half of all chiropractic patients experience temporary adverse effects, such as pain, numbness, stiffness, dizziness and headaches. These are relatively minor effects, but the frequency is very high, and this has to be weighed against the limited benefit offered by chiropractors.

More worryingly, the hallmark technique of the chiropractor, known as high-velocity, low-amplitude thrust, carries much more significant risks. This involves pushing joints beyond their natural range of motion by applying a short, sharp force. Although this is a safe procedure for most patients, others can suffer dislocations and fractures.

Worse still, manipulation of the neck can damage the vertebral arteries, which supply blood to the brain. So-called vertebral dissection can ultimately cut off the blood supply, which in turn can lead to a stroke and even death. Because there is usually a delay between the vertebral dissection and the blockage of blood to the brain, the link between chiropractic and strokes went unnoticed for many years. Recently, however, it has been possible to identify cases where spinal manipulation has certainly been the cause of vertebral dissection.

Laurie Mathiason was a 20-year-old Canadian waitress who visited a chiropractor 21 times between 1997 and 1998 to relieve her low-back pain. On her penultimate visit she complained of stiffness in her neck. That evening she began dropping plates at the restaurant, so she returned to the chiropractor. As the chiropractor manipulated her neck, Mathiason began to cry, her eyes started to roll, she foamed at the mouth and her body began to convulse. She was rushed to hospital, slipped into a coma and died three days later. At the inquest, the coroner declared: ‘Laurie died of a ruptured vertebral artery, which occurred in association with a chiropractic manipulation of the neck.’

This case is not unique. In Canada alone there have been several other women who have died after receiving chiropractic therapy, and Edzard Ernst has identified about 700 cases of serious complications among the medical literature. This should be a major concern for health officials, particularly as under-reporting will mean that the actual number of cases is much higher. If spinal manipulation were a drug with such serious adverse effects and so little demonstrable benefit, then it would almost certainly have been taken off the market.

Simon Singh is a science writer in London and the co-author, with Edzard Ernst, of Trick or Treatment? Alternative Medicine on Trial. This is an edited version of an article published in The Guardian for which Singh is being personally sued for libel by the British Chiropractic Association.

Science, skepticism, and chiropractors

2009/07/23

In an apparent response to the great indignation stirred up by their libel suit against Simon Singh (which I have blogged about already, here and here), the British Chiropractic Association has put forth another defense of their actions (and their profession). This time, it takes the form of a letter to the British Medical Journal written by BCA vice-president Richard Brown. It is freely available on the BMJ’s website, alongside a thorough critique by Edzard Ernst (professor of complementary medicine in Exeter) and an editorial by Fiona Godlee of the BMJ.

Brown claims that the BCA didn’t want to sue Singh, but he left them no choice when he refused to retract his original article. That’s the one that claimed the BCA promoted chiropractic as a treatment for childhood conditions when there is no good evidence that it is effective. He lists several studies, claiming that they demonstrate the effectiveness of chiropractic for “various childhood conditions.” In effect, his letter suggests that they have evidence to support their medical claims, but that it is appropriate to sue someone who criticizes those claims (rather than simply presenting the evidence, as they were invited to back when Singh’s article first came out).

Ernst doesn’t address the legal or political issues at all, instead producing a thorough and easy-to-follow demolition of the studies that Brown puts forth – each of which is either irrelevant to the claims being debated or is of insufficient quality to count as substantial evidence. He also points out that “At least three relevant randomised controlled trials and two systematic reviews are missing from [Brown's list].” That is, not only is the BCA’s evidence base of poor quality – they rely on it while ignoring good evidence that the interventions don’t work.

Godlee’s editorial provides a good summary. Remember that this is comment from an editor of one of the most prestigious medical journals around. It’s titled “Keep libel laws out of science.” (Sound familiar?) It is a masterful piece of writing, so you ought to read the whole thing. But here are some of the more delightful bits:

I hope all readers of the BMJ are signed up to organised scepticism. It’s not a blog, but it could be. It’s one of the four principles of good science as articulated by Robert Merton nearly 70 years ago. 

The Guardian offered the BCA an opportunity to lay out their evidence rather than to sue him for libel. The BCA opted to sue.

Readers can decide for themselves whether or not they are convinced [by the evidence presented by Brown]. Edzard Ernst is not. His demolition of the 18 references is, to my mind, complete.

Weak science sheltered from criticism by officious laws means bad medicine.

And naturally, she echoes another medical journal editor who was faced with similar bullying recently:

And last year when chiropractors threatened to sue over an article in the New Zealand Medical Journal, its editor Frank Frizelle spoke for all of us when he asked them to provide “your evidence not your legal muscle.” 

As Chris Kavanagh points out in his post on this (where I learned about this latest development), the BCA has yet again failed to vindicate themselves in any way. They have at last presented their evidence in a forum where its actual quality matters, rather than its superficial plausibility. Which is good – they should have done this in the first place, rather than stooping to the level of legal bullying. But the fact is that their evidence is poor. Very poor. The fact is that Simon Singh was right in his original article. This was bound to come out when the issue made it to a scientific journal.

I don’t know if this will have any effect on Simon’s case – after all, that is based on a fundamentally bad law, and does not (as far as I know) depend on the quality of the scientific evidence. But perhaps it will help people see through the veneer of medical respectability that chiropractors try to project.

Marriage equality

2009/06/15

There’s a Downing Street petition to get the British government to allow religious groups to perform civil partnerships (the closest Britain has to same-sex marriages) in religious buildings.

Currently civil partnerships are not permissible in religious buildings or buildings used primarily for religious purposes. Some faith groups are open to civil partnerships but are unable to perform legal partnership ceremonies under the current restrictions. This provides the churches the freedom to decide for themselves.

I find it deeply encouraging that religious organizations are calling for an expansion of same-sex marriage rights as a matter of religious freedom. (Read more in this article.)

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Amend the Civil Partnership Act 2004 to allow faith groups to perform civil partnerships within their religious buildings.

If you are a British resident (religious or not), I encourage you to sign this petition.

As a side-note, I hadn’t realized until recently how many bizarre and arbitrary rules surround weddings in this country. For example, did you know that

If you are having a Civil Ceremony your choice of reading must be a non-religious one, whose use must be authorised by the Superintendent Registrar before your wedding day. (source)

I strongly suspect that rules like this (as well as the fact that we have “civil partnerships” rather than simply marriage for same-sex couples) are connected with the fact that Britain has an established church. It is a fact that continues to irk me, in this otherwise fairly enlightened nation – though some people think it’s fine and dandy. (Readers are invited to count the fallacies of reasoning in the article linked from the previous sentence.) But that’s a rant for another time.

[Correction: Cath has rightfully called me out on a point of fact in the preceding paragraph: although England has an established church, Scotland does not. I apologize for my lapse in fact-checking. I maintain that it is the strong history and tradition of Christian privilege in this country that makes daft rules like the one quoted above possible.]

I’d like to thank Maud, the minister at the local Unitarian church, for bringing this petition to my attention.

Thanks, Maud.


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