Friday, May 29, 2009

Expecting the unreasonable.

A 'natural remedy' shop has taken the brave step of asking for comments. Predictably, the comments are from sceptics and that's only to be expected. The sceptics are at least being mostly polite on this one.

But what they are asking is unreasonable. Not unreasonable in a scientific sense. They are asking for proof that the remedies work. That's perfectly fair comment, speaking as a scientist. If you're producing a remedy for an illness, especially if you claim it works on illnesses that kill people, there should have been studies published to show it works. What is unreasonable is expecting the end-point seller, the shop, to provide references to those studies.

If you go into a pharmacy and ask for aspirin, would you demand that the pharmacist refer you to the studies that proved aspirin works? Would you honestly expect the pharmacist to know?

In fact, when you get right down to it, do you know of any studies that prove aspirin works? To all the sceptics out there who are now scoffing and shouting 'Don't be silly, of course it works', consider that I have asked the same question you demand of homeopaths etc. You have just given the same answer.

It's not easy to find the studies that prove any form of medication works. As for aspirin, would those of you who eschew natural remedies turn away a dose of wintergreen? I'm sure you would become derisive at the very notion of curing your headache with a shrub. Wintergreen contains salicylic acid. The active ingredient in aspirin. It's a natural form of that little white pill. Yet there are those who would pay for a chemical while the remedy might be available in the local woods for free. All you need to know is a little botany.

I'll put my cards on the table before you all dismiss me as some sandal-wearing weirdie beardie. I don't take homeopathic remedies. The whole 'memory of water' idea has been demonstrated to be wrong (in an embarrassingly theatrical way, but demonstrated nonetheless). So I don't see how homeopathy can work. At the same time I don't dismiss it as nonsense. I haven't studied it or tested it. I have no time to do so, so I won't scoff because well, you never know. I don't have a beard or sandals either.

I do take herbal remedies but I'm not religious about it. If I was diagnosed with cancer I'd be off to have it cut out, not relying on chamomile tea and oregano. For trivial things, headaches and the like, I'd rather consume something natural than hit the chemotherapy straight away.

Consider, those who defend modern medicine as if it knows all there is to know - was thalidomide such a roaring success for pharmacological science? There are many people still suffering the effects of that particular triumph of modern medicine. No herbal or homeopathic remedy has ever done anywhere near that scale of damage. Before you throw stones, remember your house is made of glass.

Blood transfusions, too, are defended as though Moses brought them down on a third tablet of stone. Find the reference to the clinical trials. There isn't one. Blood transfusions started in an age when leeches were used to treat most illnesses and mercury was given to treat syphilis. They have been refined since then but they have never been put through a clinical trial. Yet the blood transfusion is lauded and evening primrose oil is derided.

Natural remedies are the product of centuries of knowledge. Some work, some are placebos, some do nothing at all but few do actual harm. Where harm is shown it's because someone has such faith in the natural remedy that they refuse modern treatment, even where the modern treatment is far more effective. That's not the fault of the herbs, it's the fault of the idiot who refuses to accept they have limits.

Modern medicine, on the other hand, has killed, irreparably damaged and maimed people using modern treatments. Again, not the fault of the treatment, but the fault of the idiot who refuses to accept they have limits... and side-effects.

Modern medicine is not perfect. Not by a long way. The British health service has killed more people this year than all the natural remedies, of any kind, have ever done.

So don't get too smug because you are a believer in the religion of science. Science isn't finished yet. There is a great deal more to do and we won't live to see even a fraction of it.

It is NOT the Perfect Word of God. It was never meant to be. Stop treating it as though it is.

For us scientists, that's really embarrassing.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Missing link found.

Or so it is claimed.

It looks like this. I have to say, it looks far more monkey than human. This thing is being hailed as proof of human evolution. While I come down on the side of science in any religion vs. science debate, I don't think this constitutes proof. Strong evidence maybe, but not proof. There's a write-up here.

The 'opposable thumb' is in fact its big toe. None of my toes are opposable. It has teeth like a monkey and nails like a primate. It's an early primate, certainly, but did it develop into humans?

We know that there are many genetic and physiological similarities between modern apes and humans. There is even some evidence of similarities in mental processes. All strong evidence that the apes and ourselves developed from a common ancestor. Strong evidence is not proof.

Of all people, I'm in a position to know the difference. A photograph of a ghost is strong evidence. It's not proof. A tape of an unidentified voice is strong evidence. It's not proof. A single observation is certainly not proof. There are thousands of ghost photos out there. There is one single skeleton of a long-tailed monkey.

Whenever someone shows off a photograph as 'proof of the supernatural', I cringe. It is easy to show that this does not constitute proof. In the same way, if the evolutionists crow 'proof' with this skeleton, they will find their opponents will have little difficulty in refuting it.

It's proof that some sort of proto-primate was around 47 million years ago (I'm not going to get into all that 'age of earth' stuff). It doesn't prove that this particular specimen lived long enough to reproduce, that it was part of a whole tribe and not just a one-off freak, that it spawned any lineage of anything.

This is showbiz science. By all means, make the find public but make clear that it's just one find. As P.T. Barnum might have said, one freak does not make a circus. Finding more of them would strengthen the case. With one complete specimen, other incomplete specimens can be matched to it. Build your data over time, keep it to yourself until you're ready, and then let the whole lot out at once.

Most of all, be absolutely sure your case is watertight before going public.

It's an impressive find. It's not proof of human evolution.

That particular goal is still open.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The new voodoo priests.

Everyone's heard of voodoo. It's not all like the James Bond film with Baron Samedi having the half-white, half-black face and working for SPECTRE, although Baron Samedi does feature in the real thing. It's a religion and to its adherents, it's as real as any other religion to their own followers. A very serious and important thing.

I'm sure everyone has heard mostly about zombies and voodoo curses. There's much more to it than that, but this isn't a treatise on voodoo beliefs. It's about the curses. Zombies are a separate subject, and they are real. Not raised from the dead, but drugged into catatonia so everyone thinks they're dead, then revived and kept in a drugged state to use as slaves. A perfect abduction because nobody is looking for someone they think is dead!

Anyway, those curses. A voodoo priest might lay a curse by various means, tell the victim they will die and all too often, despite having nothing medically wrong with them, they waste away and die.

It's psychological. They believe they will die so strongly that their bodies just give up. An extreme form of psychosomatic illness, perhaps, but they're still dead anyway. These people trust the priest so absolutely that if he says they will die, they will die.

I'm sure those reading this are thinking 'Pah. Primitive savages. No voodoo priest can convince me to die. I Am Civilised.'

No, you are human, the same species with the same body and brain as the voodoo follower. You too can have a psychosomatic illness. You too can be convinced to die on command.

No? Still claim to be more rational, more immune to suggestion, than anyone else?

I have a friend who delights in attempting to convince people of crazy things. I know he has been spreading the idea that the Romans built straight roads because they hadn't invented steering, because someone related it to me in deadly earnest. I knew where it had come from. Driving through the countryside, passing an area of felled trees, he explains that this is what is meant by the phrase 'out in the sticks'. 'These,' he says, 'are the sticks of which they speak'. I have been present when he convinced several city dwellers that sheep lay eggs, cows build nests and pigs live in burrows. His best is the traffic cones, which he insists are alive. The 'cat's eyes' in the road are cone eggs. Cones migrate to the middle of the road to lay these, which eventually grow into the straight, thin cones, then into full cones which migrate back to the side of the road where they are harvested by cone-herders and taken away to be made into microwave dinners. Stacked cones are mating. Cones with flashing lights are males in courtship display. He has this worked into such fine detail that he can convince people it's all real!

I hope he writes a book on it.

What he's proving is that people, even intelligent people, can be convinced of just about anything with the right delivery. He can keep a straight face throughout these manic rants. I can't. That's the basis of it all. Trust in that what the speaker is saying must be true.

So it is with the voodoo curses. The subject trusts the priest so deeply that when the priest says they will die, they believe it, and do.

Now, this can't happen in our civilised world, can it? All those sceptics and atheists have no truck with witchdoctors so must be immune.

What would you do if your doctor, backed by the most expensive tests medical science can get away with, told you you had three months to live? Really. What would you do?

You'd put your affairs in order. Maybe take that cruise you've been putting off. Make sure your will was up to date. Say goodbye to family and friends, especially those you might not have seen for years. You'd get ready to die. In many cases, right on cue, you'd die.

Sometimes doctors are right. Sometimes they are wrong. When faced with scans and X-rays and test results, few of us could say 'Nah, your voodoo curse won't work on me'. But it does.

New Scientist this week covers this with a main article. Well worth reading. It includes cases like the man who died on time even though an autopsy showed his cancer hadn't spread as predicted after all. As the article says, he didn't die of cancer. He died of believing he would die of cancer.

He died of a voodoo-style curse unintentionally laid on him by a modern doctor.

We are all the same. All human. We might scoff at people who don't have digital cameras and iPods and flat screen TVs but we are the same as them. We are not superior to those who believe things we don't believe in. We are not necessarily right. Nobody is. We're all just doing the best we can with what we have.

We are all susceptible to belief. We can all be fooled.

We can even be fooled to death.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Scarier than ghosts.

I'm used to being alone in the dark. It doesn't make me nervous. I don't imagine things, I recognise most night sounds such as mice, rabbits, birds and so on. A rustle in the grass won't faze me, the wind through gaps in stones won't make me jump. I've spent enough time lurking among dark ruins that, if I say so myself, it's hard to scare me now.

The photo, taken in daylight, shows a few local cows. They are dark brown with white markings, the white is on their faces, their underbellies and in some cases a few patches on the body and legs. If you haven't spent any time around cows you'll probably expect them to be lumbering, clumsy beasts, but they can move surprisingly quietly when they want. I remember one river-fishing trip where I checked behind me before casting and saw a clear field. Next cast, I checked behind again and there were a row of cows watching me over the fence. They weren't moving so I had to. I couldn't cast with them in the way. They hadn't made a sound.

Cows are inherently curious and will come along to see what you're up to if you're busy near their field. Sometimes they run, but they aren't charging. They're just racing for the best spot.

These particular cows live in a field well away from any streetlights but next to the site of an old ruined church. In near-total darkness, the dark brown bodies are invisible. The heads are so white they pick up every photon of moonlight.

As I said, it's not easy to scare me, but I have to admit that the sight of several advancing, silent, disembodied white cow-faces did the trick. Ghosts, I was expecting. Floating cow-heads, I was not expecting.

If there are any ghosts at that old church, I bet they're still laughing.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

The past says 'hello'.

I've been playing with that negative scanner. I found a folder full of very old negatives, some of which showed my first car, a Cortina Mk II. The black band on the left is where the negative didn't quite fit the holder. The car was several shades of blue although the photo is monochrome, which I used a lot because I could develop the film myself. With colour, it was cheaper to get it done by a shop, but developing monochrome was cheaper if you had the gear yourself. That's still true, I think, but now I use colour film because it's hard to get the monochrome.

You know how some people buy dogs from dogs' homes to save them from euthanasia? I do that with cars. I buy them when they're nearly dead and let them finish their lives as cars should - on the road. This one cost me £75 (at current rates I think that's about $100) and lasted three years before the gearbox failed. I had to hold it in fourth gear because it wouldn't stay there. The selector forks had gone and were beyond my ability to repair so the car died. It died a good death, still driving, rather than the ignominious end of being fully functional and cubed anyway.

I often wish I'd kept that car. No computers in the engine, no inaccessible bits behind the dashboard, easy to fix and easy to drive. Plus, it was cheap so the occasional ding didn't worry me at all. A simple and reliable piece of machinery. Not like the one I have now - I open the bonnet and recognise nothing. No distributor. No coil. As far as I can tell, no carburettor. What makes it go? I don't know, something to do with a computer and various mysterious cables.

There are ghost cars reported sometimes. I've never taken them seriously because cars aren't alive and so have no reason to hang around. They're just metal.

Still, if there are any real ghost cars out there, I hope my old Cortina is one of them. It took me the length and breadth of the UK in moderate comfort and without breaking down too often.

Oh, and among those old negatives are photos of a long-ago girlfriend in the nude. One of the advantages of developing your own films. Unfortunately she didn't become famous so the photos aren't worth anything, but I won't put them here because this isn't that kind of blog.

And, for all I know, she might have become a lawyer.

Friday, May 01, 2009

Beltane and Voodoo

Beltane has just passed, and Mayday has begun. There are no specific ghostly associations with Beltane (I won't argue about the spelling because the name predates any defined English spelling system). It's not like Halloween, but it's an important festival in the Pagan calendar.

In Haiti, the 30th April is known as 'Mange les Morts', which, if you know a smattering of French, is a little disturbing. Actually it means 'Feed the Dead', not 'Eat the Dead'.

I tried for a link but there are so many, and none give details. I was amused by how many links give the date as April 31st. Someone's made a mistake and a lot of people have been copying without thinking.

Reminds me of my teaching days.

Oh, and for fans of Bill Plympton's cartoons, it was his birthday too.

All in the mind?

(I haven't been blogging much lately because I've been rushing around checking my accounts. My credit card was cloned, but cancelled before they made off with any money, but now I have to double-check everything. It actually ended up saving me money, since I'm now paranoid about using any kind of card).

There's a very interesting article on methods for faking telepathy here. Telepathy isn't a subject I study, and I've no experience of it, so I'm not going to take sides on whether it's real or not. It can certainly be faked. Stage magicians do it all the time. That does not prove there's no real telepathy out there, but if there is, all those fakes will make it very hard to find.

What struck me was that the methods used by the fakes involve extraordinary skill. Reading subtle eye and body cues, holding someone's wrist and deducing their unspoken response from the tension in their muscles, are talents that are wasted on fakery.

Why fake a particular skill when you have a real one? When these people claim to be telepathic and are found out, that's it. End of career, and rightly so, because fakes are a bane to any investigator.

If, instead, they claimed 'I can tell what you're thinking just by holding on to your wrist and feeling the tension in your muscles when I ask you questions', wouldn't that be something to show off? They would pass tests designed to see whether they really can do this, because they can. Why don't they take up careers on stage, showing off their real skills?

It amazes me how much effort people put into fakery. They develop skills that could make them famous but then use those skills to deceive, and thereby end up as objects of ridicule.

My sympathy is, of course, limited by the research time these people waste. If not for the huge numbers of fakes, then researching the paranormal would not be like looking for a needle in a haystack. Worse, it can be like looking for hay in a needlestack because an investigator taken in by a fake gets stung when the fake is exposed. Not many careers can survive that.

Come on, fakers, get a real job using your real skills.

And get out of the way. Maybe then we'll have more luck working out where the real paranormal investigations should be concentrated.

Some hope. We're stuck with the needlestack for some time yet.