Archive for July, 2009

Spinal Trap rebroadcast


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.




Don’t speak. Just watch it.

What do you think?

Thanks, Ken.

When ridicule is all an idea deserves


Check out this awesome video of an Irish comedian, on alternative medicine and affiliated topics (thanks to Mike, The Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, for pointing it out):

Does God Believe in Atheists? (1 of 5)


As a humanist, I am vividly aware that none of my knowledge is infallible. None of it. I must always be open to the possibility that any of my beliefs – from the most mundane to the most fundamental – could be wrong.

So, when a friend offered to lend me the book Does God Believe in Atheists? by Christian apologist John Blanchard, I was delighted to accept. The cover claims that the book “exposes the errors of secular humanism, materialism, relativism, determinism and existentialism”, “traces the rise of Darwinian evolutionism and uncovers the weaknesses in claims made by its contemporary exponents”, and “highlights the fundamental flaws in nine world religions and fourteen major cults.”

What’s more, a promotional blurb from Today proclaims that “John Blanchard masterfully engages both Christian and unbeliever alike.” So I had every reason to expect a robust challenge to my ideas.

Well, not every reason.

Shouldn’t a book that masterfully engages nonbelievers be able to muster at least one endorsement from an actual atheist for the cover? A quick web search throws up plenty of Christians’ reviews of the book, but none by atheists (except some unimpressed reviews on Amazon).

And there’s that quip about “Darwinian evolutionism”. Something about people using non-standard terms for biology’s grand unifying theory puts me on alert for misrepresentations of its substance.

Also, why bother talking about cults and other world religions when the thrust of the book is clearly to weigh the relative merits of atheism and Christianity?

Okay, simple solution. Before embarking on a cover-to-cover voyage through this good-sized tome (it’s about the size of my hardcover copy of The God Delusion), I checked the three areas that I was worried about – areas where I would be able to judge from my own knowledge whether Blanchard was putting an honest effort into engaging my worldview.

In a series of weekly posts, I will address each of these areas.

I’ll look at what Blanchard says about evolution; I’ll look at how he characterizes humanism; and I’ll look at why he’s spending time on other religions.

I hope that, along the way, I can help my non-humanist readers understand humanism (and evolution) a little better. I also hope that we can get a better idea about how to actually engage people of opposing beliefs (or at least, how not to engage people).

First up: Does Blanchard understand evolution?

For readers who enjoy this sort of thing, I also recommend Ebonmuse’s extensive and (currently) ongoing discussion of Lee Strobel’s book The Case for a Creator, over at Daylight Atheism.

Science, skepticism, and chiropractors


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.

Pagan police


According to the BBC, “Pagan police officers in some areas are being allowed to take as many as eight days leave a year for events such as the summer solstice and Halloween.”

At first blush, this seems obvious and uncontroversial. Pagan officers are being given similar rights to officers who profess other religious beliefs. Whatever one might think of the beliefs themselves, those who hold them deserve the same rights as anyone else.

But two very different sources have an alternative take on it.

On the one hand, National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson says, “The police should call a stop to this and dismantle all religious groups,” according to the Metro. (I was unable to confirm this on the NSS’s own website. All they seem to have is this rather neutral description of the news item.) [Edit: An anonymous commenter has given a link to the NSS page with this quote.]

Expressing his support for the NSS position is Christian blogger Cranmer:

Cranmer is all for freedom of religion: it is foundational to liberal democracy. But Her Majesty’s Police Service is not charged with the provision of religious services: it is not a theological college, a sexual health clinic or an identity counselling service.

Let me just respond to a couple of the key ideas here.

First, it does not seem to be the case that public money supports these sectarian groups within the police services. The BBC reports that “A Home Office spokesman said: the Pagan Police Association did not receive any funding from the Home Office.” It sounds more like police officers spontaneously self-organizing groups that speak to their particular, independently-held identities. People may like or dislike the idea of police officers identifying with different parts of the community they come from, but I can’t see any solid grounds for “dismantling” groups that celebrate the force’s diverse background.

Second, Cranmer points out that everyone is a minority of one, if you add enough qualifiers. His example of this extreme his tongue-in-cheek proposal of a “Gay Black Jedi Police Association”. So we need to be careful that any provisions we make for sub-groups within the community are compatible with such extremes.

After all, I could make the case for my family’s birthdays being sacred to me. (I won’t, but it is no more ridiculous than any more common religious observance.) Does this entitle me to take those days as holidays in lieu of Easter and Christmas?

The obvious answer (please tell me if I’m missing something) is yes. In a society that doesn’t privilege one religion over others, any individual’s declaration of faith, however idiosyncratic or apparently ridiculous it seems to others, deserves the same legal privileges as any other individual’s. This should hold whether the belief is shared by nobody else or by everybody.

As a result, one is forced to be much more canny about what privileges the more popular beliefs get. Do religious dress codes trump professional uniform codes? Do people get to exempt themselves from tasks they find distasteful on account of their beliefs? How about cubicle decorations? (The line between okay and not-okay is always a vague and controversial one.)

So what is the lesson from the pagan holidays for police officers? Well, it seems to me that the employers in question have struck the right balance. They are not privileging pagans over others; they are not privileging others over pagans. They are not (so far as I can tell) diverting public resources to support sectarian beliefs of any kind.

Well done them.

Image credit:

The Pentacle, a common symbol of Pagan beliefs, is from Wikimedia Commons, posted by user Nyo. Public domain.

Vanishing head video


Check out this amazing video from Quirkologist Richard Wiseman:

Here’s a link to an earlier video of his, also cool. Actually, check out all of the Quirkology videos you can find. They’re cool. I have to get his new book, 59 Seconds.

What loss is death?


From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius (121-180 CE), book 2, paragraph 14:

Were you to live three thousand years, or even thirty thousand, remember that the sole life which a man can lose is that which he is living at the moment; and furthermore, that he can have no other life except the one he loses. This means that the longest life and the shortest amount to the same thing. For the passing minute is every man’s equal possession, but what has once gone by is not ours. Our loss, therefore, is limited to that one fleeting instant, since no one can lose what is already past, nor yet what is still to come – for how can he be deprived of what he does not possess? So two things should be borne in mind. First, that all the cycles of creation since the beginning of time exhibit the same recurring pattern, so that it can make no difference whether you watch the identical spectacle for a hundred years, or for two hundred, or for ever. Secondly, that when the longest- and the shortest-lived of us come to die, their loss is precisely equal. For the sole thing of which any man can be deprived is the present; since this is all he owns, and nobody can lose what is not his.

Photo credit:

Photo of a bust of Marcus Aurelius, from the Wikimedia commons. Taken by user Bibi Saint-Pol and released into the public domain.

What do you know about Canada?


It’s Canada Day again. Last year I was actually in Canada for this national day. Today, I am hard at work at my desk in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Well, except for this brief break to blog of course.)

In the interest of brevity, I will simply list a couple of neat facts about Canada.

Did you know that the name “Canada” comes from an aboriginal word meaning “village”? Wikipedia did.

Incidentally, I learned in that article that the American ‘Articles of Confederation (1777) included a clause pre-authorizing the admission of “Canada” as a new state if it wished to join the U.S.’

Of course, we did not join the US. In fact, in the War of 1812*, we (as part of Britain) fought the States. One of the consequences was that the White House was burned down.

However, any ill-feelings from that incident have not survived. Canadians generally have a strong sense of national identity, often making a particular point of our differences from the Americans. But we also have a great big long (8891 km) border that has not needed military guarding (by either side) for yonks**.

On the other hand, we are perhaps more affected than any other country by the cultural exports of the US – particularly movies and television. Some of the effect is negative (Canadians sometimes knowing American geography and history better than Canadian geography and history). Some is positive (a lot of American television and movie production has been done at Canadian sites, largely because it’s often cheaper).

Anyway, I hope this has been informative for my readers (Canadian and non-Canadian). If you have any other interesting Canadian facts, please share it in the comments.

* Note, this is the Anglo-American War of 1812, not Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Apparently, the Russian composer Tchaikovsky had the latter in mind, not the former, when he composed the 1812 Overture. It’s a good bit of music nevertheless.

** many years (highly technical Canadian term)

Image credit:

Canada flag from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.