Thursday, November 26, 2009

Scientology is a Leaking Vessel

For a while now, the PR arm of the Church of Scientology has abandoned attempts to convince the world at large that it means well. Apart from those admittedly delicious lookin TV spots earlier in the year, all energy seems to be directed towards not losing yet more members. The much-quoted expansion figures, previously dismantled on the Beacon and elsewhere, came not from a widely picked up press release, but from an internal magazine. CoS was not attempting to dissuade the world that Scientology is dwindling, it was attempting to paint a rosier picture for those left behind who were perhaps wondering why their org is so quiet.

Now, with legal cases in France, Australia and Belgium, continuing allegations about the violence at the heart of the church, a parade of high-ranking whistle-blowers, and the church's public exposure of parishioners personal files, members might be beginning to wonder exactly what kind of beast it is that they've signed up for. Grahame has posted a shocking link to a story about what Volunteer Ministers are doing in Samoa. We've heard stories before of how the VMs will visit disaster-struck countries in order to help with the relief effort; handing out Um Bongo to fire-fighters, that sort of thing. Some will even discuss VMs training medical professionals in their own brand of hands on healing "touch assists".

It seems that their usual level of reserve, however, has been abandoned. Now VMs are openly admitting that they find people who have been traumatised by disaster and teach them Dianetics. In an attempt to quell the criticism being levelled at the Church in Australia, they believe that demonstrating how they target people in crisis in order to promote their religion is something worth shouting about. So do we! This is not something that is going to win support from outside the Church, if anything it confirms what people may hitherto only suspect; the only benefit is to repair some of the damage the brand has sustained in the eyes of scientologists, and allow the Church to keep its hooks in its existing parishioners.

Mark Fisher has suggested that Miscavige has set up a task force to re-recruit departed members, which also makes it plain that the Church is struggling to maintain its paying customers. In the past, apostates would be disconnected, written off as lost causes, something the Church could afford to do because there was always fresh meat to be had. With over a year of Anonymous protests, the worst press the Church has had in decades, high profile defections, unwitting admissions of dodgy practices, and more, the "bodies" are now more innoculated against Hubbard's trap than they have ever been, and it is the best that Miscavige can do to stop the bubble bursting.

Friday, November 20, 2009

BHA Billboards and the Multi-Faith Irony

The BHA reports that it's final ad spend on the "bus campaign" has been a rip-roaring success. The billboards, which were unveiled this week, promote the idea of allowing children to decide for themselves what religion they belong to; of not labelling them a "Christian child", or a "muslim child", or, for that matter, a "Humanist child".

The previous campaign "There's Probably No God..." drew fire from many sides, but the current campaign is much trickier ground. The BBC, whose journalism tends to seek out and occasionally manufacture conflict, found Graham Coyle, of the Christian Schools Trust:

They seem to be saying that they don't want parents to pass on to their children their fundamental beliefs - about what is right and wrong, about respect for other people and living in harmony, ...
If that is what they are saying then they are asking parents to abrogate their responsibilities. And if parents don't pass on these beliefs who is going to fill the vacuum?
To say that we are labelling our children by passing on our fundamental values is mistaken.
This is largely blether, because it falls into the mistake of thinking that morality is based on religion, when clearly religion just formalises the morality that emerges from society. That's why we don't stone to death rape victims and children so much these days.

The thrust of the campaign isn't to attempt to bring up amoral monstrosities, but to bring kids up in a loving environment where they can encounter various religions and, when they are old enough, to write out their own religious label.

What I love about this campaign, though, is that it is much harder to argue against. It exposes, whether intentionally or not, the lie at the heart of interfaith relations. Stephen Green puts out a pamphlet entitled "Winning Muslims for Christ". I'm neither a Muslim or a Christian, but the existence of this title offends me. That said, it is a more honest position for the faithful to take. The notions of interfaith exchange is this "Let's all get along (but inside we know you're wrong)." and that's the button that the BHA campaign is pushing - it is asking the faithful to risk the salvation of their kids for the possible salvation of other people's kids, those idolatry types who are very nice and all, but are sadly mistaken. Few faithful people wish to speak too loudly against a poster campaign that may lead someone to their god.

The path to my own atheism involves in part this dilemma. Dawkins goes on about pantheons that have long-slipped from the religious focus of man, the Thors and the Zeuses. We tend to adopt the religions of our parents first and foremost, so our religious convictions, unless we have the strength to break free from it, are a product of when and where we are born. The salvation of human kind is a postcode and epoch lottery.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Adverse Events

CCHR promotional leaflet, inviting members of ...CCHR anti-psychiatry pamphlet from Wikipedia
 The 30 Second Skinny The Church of Scientology considers itself at war with psychiatry. There was much speculation when Jett Travolta died that the Church had advised him to stop taking anti-seizure medication. The Church responded saying that they did not advise anyone not to take medicine for physical ailments. However, the Church runs a website via the front group CCHR which describes the particular medication Jett had stopped taking prior to his death as "poision".

Thursday, November 05, 2009

You're Ill! POW! You're Cured!

The 30 Second Skinny DITI is being increasingly offered as a method of early detection of breast cancer, despite little evidence that it is even as effective as traditional mammography. It is also marketed at women in low-risk groups, meaning a greater chance that clients will test positive for abnormalities when none are there. Research suggests it may only be useful in conjunction with mammography.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Dear ***********,

The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) received £900,000 of state funding in order to set up as a voluntary regulatory body for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).

Their initial 2009 target for membership was 10,000. This was later reduced to 4,000. As it currently stands the Council have attracted little more than a quarter of this (1,029).
It seems that there is a deep philosophical conflict here. The main goal of the CNHC is to create a sense of respectability and legitimacy for alternative medicine. However this can only be achieved if the organisation puts in place a code of conduct that emphasises a level of honesty and openness about its medical claims, and the adoption of disciplinary procedures for practitioners guilty of misconduct.

Much of complementary and alternative medicine not only lacks an evidence base showing efficacy, but has a large body of evidence demonstrating a lack of efficacy. Practitioners are therefore unlikely to sign up to a a code of conduct that may forbid making unproven claims, facing up to the evidence that their treatments are ineffective, or encouraging patients to cease conventional treatments (there is a strong belief in CAM that conventional medicine is damaging). This seems to be borne out by the CNHC's figures, and it is no accident that the organisation has been most popular with massage therapists, a field that makes much more modest claims than chiropractors and acupuncturists.

It's also worth comparing CNHC to organisations such as the British Chiropractic Association. It too offers a veneer of respectability, but its code of practice chiefly concerns not bringing the BCA itself into disrepute; as this is the case, one must ask what the BCA is actualy for, and what it offers its members beyond the use of a logo.

I am writing to ask for some kind of assurance that, should the CNHC fail to meet their targets this year, it will be considered a sign that there is no market for a self-regulatory body for CAM, and that they will not be in a position to receive further funding.

Yours sincerely,


Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The French Verdict

The 30 Second Skinny Staff members of the Church of Scientology in France have been found guilty of fraud and fined €600,000. The fraudulent activities in question are not the peculiar acts of a a few bad apples but the same kind of behaviour that is routinely expected of staff members. The situation is similar to that of Operation Snow White in which a number of high-ranking staff members were convicted of breaking into Governtment buildings in America. The individuals were supposed to have been expelled from the church but it seems they never were.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Being Normal

The 30 Second Skinny Danone's have been told not to make further claims in their advertising about Actimel being better for a child's immune system than not having Actimel. Increasingly medical claims are being made for food products. Actimel is particularly of note because its entire marketing and identity is of a sciencey, medicinal product, not a foodstuff. This is becoming increasingly typical of food products, usually when there is no evidence to back up whatever claims is being made for it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Underground Updated

I got the following response back from the ASA on the Zhea Clinic ad.

Dear Mr Xxxxxxx


Thank you for your continued patience.

We have visited the Zhai Clinic website which provides further information about Dr Zhai. It states that she is qualified in both western and Chinese medicine. It also appears that the Zhai Clinic practises both western and Chinese medicine. On that basis and without further evidence to suggest otherwise, I’m afraid we do not have grounds to pursue this matter further.

If you can provide evidence to show that Dr Zhai does not hold a qualification in western medicine and more detail about why you believe the clinic does not have a 70% success rate, please forward it to me. In the meantime however I will close our file.

Our website,, contains further information about the ASA and the work we do.

To be honest, I am no expert on fertility treatment so I took this opportunity to get more acquainted with the success rates of infertility treatment. Taking figures from the HFEA I found that the 70% figure, if it represents a treatment cycle success rate, is about double the average success rate. And the London Fertility Centre's success rates match those average success rates. The ad does say that over 70% of couples following the Zhea clinic's programs go on to conceive, which might explain the discrepancy; these programs may consist of more than one treatment cycle. This, to me, would nevertheless still be misleading; if the program consists of as many treatment cycles as it takes to conceive (with, presumably, less chance each time), then is it still a single program in any real terms?

Added to that is the fact that these treatments clearly aren't "natural", and the TCM plays little if any part in efficacy. Dot dot dot

Dear Xxxxx,

Seventy percent is a very high success rate for any kind of fertility treatment. Traditional IVF treatment offers about 30% success if the woman is under 35, and that figure only decreases with age.

Furthermore the ad is making a claim about conceiving "the natural way" and is bringing in traditional Chinese medicine as a route to that natural conception. I don't see how they can say that IVF or related treatments can be deemed natural methods of conception.

Also I was unable to find Dr Zhai on the GMC database, although I've since learnt that the Zhai Clinic is a satellite for the London Fertility Centre.
Kind regards,


Monday, October 12, 2009

The Parliamentary Question Carter Ruck and Trafigura don’t want you to see

Thanks to the work of Don't Get Fooled Again...

From The Guardian

The Guardian has been prevented from reporting parliamentary proceedings on legal grounds which appear to call into question privileges guaranteeing free speech established under the 1688 Bill of Rights. Today’s published Commons order papers contain a question to be answered by a minister later this week. The Guardian is prevented from identifying the MP who has asked the question, what the question is, which minister might answer it, or where the question is to be found. The Guardian is also forbidden from telling its readers why the paper is prevented – for the first time in memory – from reporting parliament. Legal obstacles, which cannot be identified, involve proceedings, which cannot be mentioned, on behalf of a client who must remain secret. The only fact the Guardian can report is that the case involves the London solicitors
Carter-Ruck, who specialise in suing the media for clients, who include individuals or global corporations.


“Questions for Oral or Written Answer beginning on Tuesday 13 October 2009″

N Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme): To ask the Secretary of State for Justice, what assessment he has made of the effectiveness of legislation to protect (a) whistleblowers and (b) press freedom following the injunctions obtained in the High Court by (i) Barclays and Freshfields solicitors on 19 March 2009 on the publication of internal Barclays reports documenting alleged tax avoidance schemes and (ii) Trafigura and Carter-Ruck solicitors on 11 September 2009 on the publication of the Minton report on the alleged dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast, commissioned by Trafigura.

The question above may or may not be the subject of the gagging order. Who can say?

The Guardian covers the Trafigura case, and why it matters, here. Private Eye have also been making some noise about the gagging laws, and how ridiculously open to abuse they are.

And Twitter is alive with coverage, which raises the question that, if gagging orders are so easy to sidestep, isn't it time we got rid of them all together?

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Consumer Indirect

I know that recently the Unfair Commercial Practices Bill came in, broadening the measures that exist against naughty traders, and that despite making a large number of commerical practices unlawful, no budgetary increase was made to allow the Trading Standards Offices to actually cope with the attendant increase in workload. This, to some extent, is irrelevant anyway, because the TSOs decide what they should or shouldn't investigate.

However the following is my experience to date with attempting to get the diploma mill Chelsea University shut down. As explained in previous posts, I managed to find out an office address for the business in Westminster. Thinking that the easiest thing to do would be to complain to the TSO in Westminster, I trotted off an email explaining my concerns.

A few days later, I received an email from the Westminster TSO saying that I could only complain to my local TSO; that is, the TSO closest to my home address. To that end, if I were ripped off in Norwich, say, my first port of call would be Lambeth TSO. This seemed nonsensical, but not outrageously unreasonable. One short dish of cut and pasta later and I had emailed Lambeth.

I then heard nothing. For about six weeks. I fired off another email to ask what the delay was, and received a reply, stating the following:

Dear Mr Xxxxxxx,

Thank you for your email dated 8th October 2009 where you expressed concerns about the Chelsea's University website. Yesterday I checked the Trading Standards Inbox but was unable to locate your original enquiry dated 25th August 2009. This will probably explain why your enquiry was not acknowledged sooner. Please accept our sincere apologies for any inconvenience caused. I forwarded your message to a Trading Standards officer and he suggested that you refer the matter to Consumer Direct. Consumer Direct -, is the free advice and information service for UK consumers, initiated by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (formerly the Department of Trade and Industry) and supported by the Office of Fair Trading. You can contact them on 08454040506. They provide clear and practical advice to help sort out problems and disagreements with suppliers of goods or services. Your call will also ensure that the details are entered on the national database so that all complaints against the company can be monitored.

If Consumer Direct feels that a criminal offence has been committed or business practices need to be investigated, they will refer the case to the trading standards team where the company's head office is located or registered since Lambeth's team has no enforcing powers outside the borough. Thank you for bringing this matter to our attention, and I hope it will be resolved shortly.

Yours sincerely

Customer Services Officer
Public Protection
Housing, Regeneration and Environment
Lambeth Council

Let us leave aside whether "Yesterday I checked the Trading Standards Inbox but was unable to locate your original enquiry dated 25th August 2009." actually will "probably explain" the delay. Let us not ask quite whether my query fell into Housing, Regeneration or Environment. Let us instead revel in the fact that, having gone direct to the Westminster TSO, redirected to Lambeth, I was now being asked to contact a third body (given over to advice and information, rather than the handling of complaints) so that they might, in turn contact the same organisation I went to first.

But complain to Consumer Direct I did. Today I received the following:

Dear Mr Xxxxxxx,

Thank you for your enquiry to Consumer Direct dated 7th October. Your reference number for this case is LR – XXXXXX and should be quoted in all further correspondence regarding this case. Based on the information you have provided the key legal points in response to your enquiry are as follows: Consumer Direct is a practical advice service only and does not intervene or take action against traders. We have however created a case and passed this to trading standards for their consideration. Whilst being under no commitment to contact you they may take further action against the trader if they deem it necessary. If you require consumer advice, if you have paid this organisation or have a personal dispute then we request you get back to us with such details. If it was simply to report the trader then this has been logged and trading standards will take the appropriate action.

If you require any further advice or information about this case, please do not hesitate to contact Consumer Direct on 08454 04 05 06 quoting the case reference number.

Thank you for your enquiry.

Consumer Direct

Tel: 08454 04 05 06
Open: 8:00am to 6:30pm Monday to Friday, 9:00am to 1:00pm Saturday

So I am left now in a situation where an organisation is under no obligation to let me know whether my complaint merits investigation, and the onus is on me to contact them. I will, needless to say, be pursuing whether or not they do anything about Chelsea University, or the dodgy certificate seller, but I am somewhat irritated by the confusing level of administrative pass-the-parcel that has had to take place in order for the first person I contacted to actually decide whether or not the fraudulent degree mongers are worthy of the attention of the law.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Dark Satanic Diploma Mills

Because I find them useful people to know, and because they have a long history of involvement with skepticisim, I know a magician or three. Much of what interests me is about how beliefs in odd things are created and maintained, and magicians offer a way into exploring elements of that in a way that, being entertainment-led, is no less ethical than, say, a horror film.

It was through my magician friends that I learnt of a regular meeting of hypnotists that had to be disbanded due to the harrassment of an individual so dependent on publicity that I will simply refuse to name him here. He cited the 1952 Hypnosis Act which forbids unlicensed paid performances of hypnosis. Said contretemps felt that a bunch of mesmerists meeting up once a month and putting willing punters under the 'fluence was therefore breaking the law (despite no money changing hands) and put a small but thorny stick in the spokes. I should add, also, that the guy sold training materials that would teach people how to perform hypnosis within the law, so his vocal disapproval was as much a marketing exercise for him as any kind of altruism.

Wanting to learn more about him, I tracked down his web page where I learnt that he not only performs stage hypnosis, but under an assumed name also practices hypnotherapy. Not only did he assume a name, but he also assumed a title, that of Doctor. You might be tempted, knowing that Doctor is an unprotected title, that he merely plucked his doctorness out of thin air, but no. As he is quick to point out he has a "genuine" honorary phd from Chelsea University. Leaving aside the fact that you'd have to be a complete arse to actually call yourself "doctor" if your Phd is honorary, Chelsea University is not real. It's a diploma mill.

The registrar at Chelsea has an office at 63 Draycott Place, SW3 2SH. Or at least he would do if such an address existed. The website, on the other hand, is registered to 26 York Street, London, W1U 6PZ, which does exist, but is the site of a virtual office, so might as well be a PO Box.

Chelsea University is also listed on a number of websites devoted to exposing diploma mills, and warning foreign students that the education certificates offered by such places are not recognised in the real world. Chelsea University has no degree-granting status.

I've put in a complaint to Consumer Direct about them, as much to see what will happen as anything. CU is a ghost university, and I can't quite see how one can regulate against a university that has no buildings or staff. Hopefully the ISP can be asked to remove the site, which seems to be the sole base of operation.

And that nice Mr X has turned his noctorate to foul purpose. He offers as "novelty" items, very real looking and humourless qualification certificates so that untrained NLPers and hypnotherapists can claim they are adept in such innoccuous fields as "advanced psycho-sexual therapy". How fun to pretend you have specialist training in the use of advanced psycho-sexual therapy when you do not! How your patients will chuckle when they realise! You can get that full bundle of hilarity for about £127. Consumer Direct know about him, too, now...

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

The Problem Just Goes Underground

A friend the other day accused me of seeking out things that annoy me. This was following me posting a link to the Twitter feed that is promoting the execrable piece of HIV denialism House of Numbers. No, not the idiots at Raindance; someone else. As I explained to said friend, I tend not to hunt these people out. The joy of Twitter is that these people find me, c/o dumb computers and Twitter bots.

It is equally true that, as a result of having to ride the underground, I routinely encounter ads that are just plain wrong. Mainly these are for Vitabiotics (with their tiny tiny "this product probably isn't for you" writing) but tonight's journey offered up the Zhai clinic. They use a holistic, traditional Chinese approach to fertility treatment, boast a 70% success rate, and speak of Dr Xiao-Ping Zhai, who does not appear to be on the GMC register.

Thank heavens for camera phones and the ASA website, what?

The ad stated the clinic, which employs traditional Chinese medicine, enjoyed a 70% success rate. It also made a reference to a Dr Xiao-Ping Zhai.

I would be curious to know whether they can substantiate the 70% claim, and whether or not Mr Zhai is medically qualified.

It transpires that Zhai Clinic is listed under the HFEA, the authority in charge of fertility clinics. They are a "satellite clinic" for the London Fertility Clinic, which means "[the] assessment of patients, drug therapy and monitoring may take place [there] but the egg collection, mixing of sperm and eggs, embryo culturing and embryo replacement are all carried out at the primary clinic". The Zhai ad talks about traditional Chinese medicine - it is "Where Conception Comes Naturally". The implication is that the 70% success rate claimed (the website makes a claim of "about 80%") is attached to this incorporation of TCM; both the ad and the website downplay the role of the rather unnatural IVF program. Either 70% of couples conceive naturally, without IVF, or they conceive unnaturally with, to quote Zhai's site "artificial, invasive fertility treatments", or the 70% figure, which is high even for IVF, has been plucked out of the sky.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

HPV Vaccine Ruled Out As Cause Of Death

It transpires that Natalie Morton died of a malignant tumour, which obviously doesn't make her death any less tragic, but does give us a clearer picture of how slight the risks are of the HPV vaccine.

For decent information on the HPV vaccine and cervical cancer, visit the following links:

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Read A Book!

The 30 Second Skinny The Church of Scientology raises funds within its members in order to send books out to libraries. These books are likely bought for retail price, meaning a portion of the funds raised is paid to the Religious Technology Centre. Also it seems unclear whether the books genuinely go out, and if they do, that they reach the shelves of public libraries. Most public libraries seem not to own copies of Hubbard's work, despite the campaign being heralded as a success.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Decisions Decisions

Well the Daily Mail, having not done enough damage with the MMR hoax, has decided to run with the tragic story of Natalie Morton, who died a few hours after receiving the HPV vaccination to reduce her chances of getting cervical cancer. This is a vaccination that has already been administered to an estimated 1.5 million school girls in a vaccination programme that allows people to opt out. The cause of Natalie's death has yet to be ascertained but there are a number of possibilities.

1) She just died. It's awful, but otherwise healthy people do just die. Sudden Adult Death Syndrome is a genuine killer, and more can be found out about it here. A study in 2007 entitled Sudden Arrhythmic Death Syndrome (SADS) - a national survey of sudden unexplained cardiac death estimated about 500 deaths a year from the condition.
2) The vaccine batch administered at the school was in some way contaminated, and the contamination led to the fatality. This is being looked into. Other girls at the school experienced minor adverse reactions, such as nausea, and whereas these reactions have been recorded in relation to the HPV vaccine, the link is suggestive enough for the theory to carry some weight. The proof here will be in the analysis of the vaccine itself.
3) The vaccine was not contaminated, Natalie reacted badly to it and died.

As it currently stands, we do not know which of the three possibilities, if any, is correct, so let's have a look instead at the implications.

1) This is the clearest. The death was not preventable in any meaningful way. No further, similar deaths are likely in the next few days.
2) The particular batch of vaccines is now not in use pending analysis. No further similar deaths are likely in the next few days.
3) Out of 1.5 million people given the vaccine, one has had a fatal reaction to it. Further similar deaths are extremely unlikely in the next few days.

So really the most responsible thing a journalist could do would be to hold the story back until they had enough information to report on it correctly. Currently the story consists of uncertainty and panic. What are the implications of reporting that? People who would otherwise have received the vaccine will now not receive the vaccine. Some of these people may go on to suffer from cervical cancer as a result.

Much is said on the subject of vaccines about weighing risks and benefits, and it seems clear here that there was little benefit (beyond newspaper sales) and a great deal of risk involved in reporting this story.

For decent information on the HPV vaccine and cervical cancer, visit the following links:

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Regarding a Forthcoming LBC Outing


Dear Jeni,

I'm glad you're covering the concerns people may have over flu vaccination. You're right, of course, that people should be free to make informed choices about decisions that will affect not just their own health but the health of people around them. With this in mind, I trust that you will ensure your programme features solid information about the benefits and risks of the 'flu [vaccine]. It is too easy, in complaining of a lack of clarity or of mixed messages coming through about this pandemic, to contribute to that lack of clarity.


Beacon Schuler

Monday, July 13, 2009

CAM and Oppression

Store for traditional chinese medicineImage by Jonas in China via Flickr
The 30 Second Skinny Alternative medicine has often been taken up by oppressive regimes. Traditional Chines Medicine was revived by Mao Tse Tung following the people's revolution in order to fulfil a promise of healthcare for all. China could not provide Evidence Based Medicine, so resorted to TCM instead. Homeopathy was, for a time, championed by the Nazis.

Monday, July 06, 2009

God Wants Me For An Atheist

center Arrange the letters from Genesis 26:5 1...Image via Wikipedia
Here's a brief bit of autobiography for you. In 1997 Simon & Schuster released a book entitled the Bible Code by Michael Drosdin. This was a thorough analysis of the so-called ELS or Equidistant Letter Sequence as it applies to the Hebrew version of the Bible. Drosdin believed that looking for sequences of letters with uniform gaps in the Bible one could reveal hidden messages, and provided seemingly portentous examples such as references to the JFK assassinations. Quite why a Hebrew god several centuries ago would be quite so interested in the killing of a ruler of a country not yet formed is anyone's guess. Drosdin's belief is no more likely than a parent's belief that their child's record holds Satanic messages when played backwards.

When the book was released it was to fanfare and ridicule in equal measure, and I found myself stood in a bookshop staring at a display of hardbacks, wondering what kind of God would choose to communicate with his creation by way of wordsearch.

At that exact moment I felt as though I was in the embrace of something greater than myself; something warm, and welcoming, and confirmatory. I felt, at the time, as though I had been touched by God. Truly. I was moved to tears. For a long time, to think back to that moment would move me to tears.

And here I am some twelve years later in an odd place. The message, if message were to be had, in that embrace was that I, through inquisitiveness and rationality, had touched on something that told me I was headed in the right direction. And in that direction I have progressed until I stand before you Godless. I have certain esoteric views on the nature of the universe; they fall far outside the scope of this blog and it wouldn't do for me to go into too much detail about them. They're also wildly open to misinterpretation. However, in the main, I do not believe in God, despite that moment in the bookshop.

A religious friend of mine, when discussing the existence or otherwise of God, said to me "surely you want all of this to be for something; to have some kind of meaning?"

I replied that naturally I did, but wanting something, however deeply, doesn't bring that thing about. It's an odd bit of attempted logic that I've heard many believers employ, that their own needs take precedent over this accidental universe.

"But God has a plan for all of us," my religious friend continued.

"If that is so," I replied, "then the path he has chosen for me is that of an atheist."

Which is a puzzle, and possibly a cop-out, but as far as my own personal journey, it's the best I can do. It also span the logic round on my friend so quickly that he couldn't reply. God had a purpose for Judas, after all.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Will Scientology Survive?

Church of Scientology of Hamburg (Scientology ...Image via Wikipedia
Someone found the Beacon recently by using "will Scientology survive" as a search term. It's an interesting question because it gets to the heart of the problem with much of the criticism of Scientology. Let's have a quick run through the state of the church at present.

The Church is currently using its reserves to pay for new buildings, advertising, legal representation and other PR efforts, but that not very much of this is translating into "raw meat". Added to that, it seems that many people are fleeing the church not out of a rejection of Scientology beliefs but because they have issues with the way their church is being managed, be it the allegations about slappy Miscavige or resentment at the fact that having spent a small fortune on Hubbard books and courses they are being told that these courses and books were wrong, and that they would have to pay out another small fortune again to replace them. Public scientologists appear to be becoming more outspoken from individual perspectives; the level of control that once existed in the church is weakening as Scientologists embrace the internet not to, for example, deny the existence of the OT3 mythology in the scriptures, but to defend the existence of the mythology. We can only assume that this is because, for all of Miscavige's posturing, he is no longer able to command respect, obedience and "duplication" from his parishioners. Scientology is an unlocked cage, and it appears that more and more people are trying the door out for size.

But this is not Scientology, this is the Church of Scientology. Most hardened, long-term critics, despite believing that much of Scientology's belief system is nonsense, even dangerous nonsense, nevertheless realise that people are free to believe what they want. Occasionally these beliefs will spill over into behaviours that are dangerous or threatening, but that is a discussion for a different day. What is crucial here is that the problems Scientology currently have stem from the church and not the belief system. Admittedly, due to Hubbard and Miscavige's micromanagement, the line between the church and the religion is uncommonly slight, but most Scientologists will recognise that undergoing auditing is a religious observance of a different quality to cleaning windows with newspapers or forgoing air freshener.

The problems stem from the church, but they also belong to the church. The church here is the ongoing concern, which is an interesting difference that Scientology has to a lot of other religions. Anyone can pick up a bible and become a Christian. It's independent of any kind of organisation. Christian churches obviously help, by offering community, confirmation and religious services, but none of these are integral to a belief in Christianity. And as much as the Church of Scientology would have you think otherwise, the religion of Scientology can exist independently.

This is what makes such an irony of the Church's bleating about religious persecution when society makes attempts to curtail its less ethical behaviour. The legal case in France, for instance, is about fraud, not about belief. The ISPN numbers that have been banned from editing Wikipedia were banned not because of belief but because of a group of people breaking the rules governing the editing of Wikipedia pages. Believe what you like, but the same rules apply to you as apply to everybody else. It really is that simple.

That's why one of the most fruitful things you can do when confronted with Scientologists waving about their freedom of religion is to ask them where they stand on the Freezone. The Church of Scientology has, without the authority to do so, placed itself in a position where it and only it can declare who is and isn't a Scientologist. It's for the individual to claim that, not the church. That's the true spirit and meaning of religious freedom, but the Church does a great deal to prevent people outside the church from pursuing that religion. They talk the talk of religious freedom but they certainly don't walk the walk.

You would assume that any Church would welcome believers, whether or not that belief is expressed within its organisation. It's certainly true that believers of whatever faith seem to get along better than believers and non-believers. So why does the Church of Scientology differ? It's because the belief system of Scientology within the church is not based on "free faith". People do not come to Scientology and develop a deep-rooted belief in its view of the universe without a great deal of pressure and control. These are, and lets be candid, cult mechanics. These mechanics are embedded in the workings of the Orgs. If you take Scientology out of the Orgs then, although it is not completely free of manipulative tricks, it will need to be a much more robust philosophy if it is to survive. More to the point, if you take Scientology out of the Orgs then suddenly the RTC has been divorced of a source of revenue.

But it is the money stream and the control that is at the heart of all the trouble that the Church is currently up against. The thing that is an attempt to keep the Church going is the same thing that is seeing its membership dwindle and its coffers run dry. Unless it reforms, it will fail.

But the existence of the Freezone, and the fact that a fair few (but not, I suspect the majority) of those who leave the Church still class themselves as Scientologists suggests that, although it won't necessarily be in rude health, the religion itself will survive the organisation that invented it.

Friday, July 03, 2009

The Expanding Bubble

Scientology Today recently ran the 2009 expansion figures. Naturally when presented with figures from the organisation that claimed for years it had millions and millions of followers when it was plain judging by census figures and other sources that they did not need to be taken with a grain or two of salt. That said I don't want to discuss the figures themselves too much, merely note what they say about the organisation as it currently stands.

Given that these figures are intended in part to promote the Church, I'm sure they won't mind me pasting them up here.
The Church’s property holdings internationally have more than doubled in the last 5 years. The combined size of Church premises increased from 5.6 million square feet in 2004 to 11 million square feet in 2009.

The Church has acquired 66 buildings since 2004 in major population centers around the world.

The Church has completed 401,003 square feet of construction of new premises in the last 5 months. It currently has under construction another 475,887 square feet, including Churches in Washington D.C., Las Vegas, Quebec, Mexico City, Brussels, Rome and Tel Aviv.
So the leading three statistics are all about their building-buying project. If we assume for a moment that we're placing our most important achievements first, then here we have a reflection of the Church's current priorities which are all about property. If you want to know the marketing vision of David Miscavige it is, more or less, this: "If you build it, they will come."
It's also interesting to note that they're talking up the growth. If 5.6 million square feet has increased to 11 million square feet, it hasn't doubled, it has less than doubled. This is a minor quibble, but it's worth noting, simply because it demonstrates that these statistics are being talked up and massaged. It also speaks of the level of critical thought the Church are expecting these figures to meet with from the blog's target audience, Scientologists.
There are 8,071 Scientology Churches, Missions and groups in 165 nations, double the number five years ago.
I love this one. By lumping together churches with missions and groups, but not really defining what they mean by missions or groups, we end up with a figure that is impossible to extract into anything meaningful. I also suspect that the term "group" subsumes many of the front groups that, at any other time, are separate entities to the Church of Scientology.

80 million L. Ron Hubbard books and lectures on Dianetics and Scientology have been sold in the last decade, compared to 5.6 million in the prior decade, and 60 of that 80 million have been sold in the last two years-more than during the first 50 years of Dianetics and Scientology combined.
This, of course, covers both the "selling to base" of the squirrelled Basics books and the charity drives where books are bought by parishioners and sent unsolicited to libraries. These libraries tend to either return them, junk them, or sell them on ebay. If a public Scientologist is reading this and doubts it to be true, go to some local libraries and try and find copies of Hubbard's texts. The Church will often claim that you can walk into any library and find these books, but in truth, you can't. Added to that is the point that we're talking about books that are only available through Church of Scientology orgs, not mainstream bookshops, which, along with the low ebay prices, demonstrates clearly the market for Hubbard's writing.
The number of individuals completing auditing and training has doubled since 2007.
At last we have a statistic that actually relates to people, rather than property. And how does it differ from the property stats? We're not given any figures. Here we have what ought to be the most meaningful piece of information about the number of active Scientologists in the world today, but it's a piece of information that they just don't want people to know. Also, it's worth noting the use of the word "completing" because its meaning here is unclear. Is this bridge progression? It doesn't appear to be, because it would certainly be phrased as such. In that case it can only mean "getting to the end of the auditing session".
For many years the "practicing Scientologists" figure was based exclusively on the number of people that had had any kind of interaction with the Church. That means it would include people who, after their first auditing session, made up their mind that Scientology wasn't for them and moved swiftly on. Judging by the wording of this stat, their methodology hasn't changed much.
Since the Church undertook to publish and reproduce its scriptural materials in-house in 2007, the average price of Mr. Hubbard’s books and lectures sold has decreased dramatically.
I need to look into this further, but I find the use of the word "average" interesting. This certainly means that the prices haven't fallen across the board, that they are using an average to offset price increases somewhere on the range of Hubbard texts.
There were 12.4 million visitors to the Scientology website in the last year alone coming from 234 countries, with 23 million video views.
Without the actual figures and methodology of the "doubled" auditing figure, this, again, is pretty much meaningless; merely a symptom of their increased advertising spend. It's a shame because if we knew what that spend was, and how many people were now genuine active Scientologists, we'd know how much each of those Scientologists cost. This would tell us a great deal about the reality of the oft-touted "people find it work, people pass it along to others, it grows" mantra. It also would demonstrate how much "people pass it along" requires the assistance of glossily produced TV ads.
4.5 million pages of L. Ron Hubbard’s writings have been translated in the last 10 years alone compared to a total of 359,459 for the prior 50 years, making him the most translated author in history-according to the Guinness Book of World Records.
Leaving aside the inherent problem with taking something so allegedly precise as Hubbard's use of English and translating it into other tongues without any loss of meaning, this is an internal claim. It says no more about the growth of the church than the purchase of largely empty church buildings. It is how many translations they have commissioned.
Today there are 196,000 Scientology Volunteer Ministers worldwide-there were 45,000 in 2004. Volunteer Ministers helped over 1.4 million people in the last year alone, a 300% increase over the 2004 figure of 550,000 people helped.
It would be cheap and easy of me to want to compare the number of Volunteer Ministers to the likely number of active Scientologists worldwide, so I won't. I'll also not point out that three times 550,000 is 1.65 million, not 1.4 million. Again I suspect that anyone who has ever donned a yellow or red t-shirt has been factored into this number for however slight a reason.

I believe that what these figures show, and what they do not show, offers an insight into the current state of the church, that their buying up of buildings, and translations and advertising spots masks a lack of grass roots growth. That fewer and fewer people are crossing the thresholds of the orgs.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

St Petersburg Times - Readers Write

I've nothing much to add to the St Petersburg Times reports on the allegations of Miscavige's violence towards his employees, except to say that we at the Beacon can't quite fathom how the Church can play its "you should have spoken to us" card when, in fact, the newspaper did speak to them, and put the Church's side of the story across too.

Do pay close attention to the Tommy Davis interviews. Along with continuing the performance many of us first witnessed on the Panorama documentary, Davis also offers up further examples of his "almost lying". He describes the accusations as being "increasingly bizarre" in the same way that he said that the OT3 mythology, too, sounded pretty weird, as if the oddness in some way negated the possibility of the existence of either Miscavige's behaviour or the belief in you-know-who. Of the alleged victims, Tommy does not say that they weren't beaten by Miscavige, only that Tommy has spoken to them, and they will say they were not beaten by Miscavige. There's a choice moment where he starts to say "factually..." and then quickly changes tack to the less certain "I have signed affidavits from these people". He also tries to have his cake and eat it. His sorry show of denial begins by declaring that the Sea Org is a highly disciplined religious order, that they are "tough sons of bitches". It's as if he's saying "these guys shouldn't complain, because it's what they signed up for".

Much has been made of Rathbun and Rinder being "ex-scientologists" as if leaving the church instantly invalidates whatever they may say about their experience (for what it's worth I suspect they both class themselves very much as practicing Scientologists, and they have every right to). The Church has suggested that they have both talked up their position in the church, but their positions were well-known. The Church has suggested that they were incompetent, and were fired from the church, rather than left of their own volition. Rinder, according to Davis, is psychotic. So we have high-up members of the church who, according to the church itself, were incompetent and mentally ill. How could this have happened under the watchful eye of Miscavige with all his micromanagement and sec checks? How does someone with as much auditing therapy under his belt as Rinder end up so mentally ill that the Church's own spokesperson declares him psychotic? To suggest that Miscavige was blind to this incompetence and sickness seems as unlikely as L Ron Hubbard himself failing to ensure that the books he was slaving over were being edited out of all functional use prior to being published.

The article has led to a number of responses, mainly from scientologists complaining that the paper is biased in its reporting, and that they should run articles about all the good the church is doing. Well, we know why they don't. The rest have been from individuals writing to thank the paper for such focused and unflinching reporing. This letter in particular stood out, because it concisely makes very clear the "big picture" problem that people have with the Church of Scientology and what it does to people.

Irrational movement
Thank you for your excellent, thorough expose of Scientology. It makes for absorbing reading and, appalling as the Lisa McPherson pictures are, one sees evidence of careful research and the  professional restraint from any sensationalism.
Religion, cult, whatever one calls it, this description — its history and its astonishing growth and power — is a remarkable case history of the power of man's imagination and his infinite cunning. For here is a vivid picture of what happens when men and women deliberately turn away from reason. Here we see the scope of human gullibility and of human greed.
Scientology's goal is "to create a world without war, insanity and criminality." It opposes itself to psychiatry, whose goals are dismally opposite, seeking to make men and women "drugged or robotized" so they can be controlled. The result is vividly presented in the St. Petersburg Times account.
Lisa McPherson, terribly ill, was certainly "drugged and robotized" and deprived of proper care. Stripped of her money to pay for what care the organization gives her, and for any education in its tenets, she stands as a tragic symbol of what a determined, irrational, emotional movement can do to human beings.
Abigail Ann Martin, Brandon

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The BCA Writes

Thanks for your note. The BCA's Code of Conduct forms part of the BCA's Memorandum and Articles and is therefore only available for BCA members. What I can say, is that the Code relates specifically to members' responsibilities to the BCA - their requirements for professional conduct areset out in the GCC's Code of Practice and Standard of Proficiency. To my knowledge in the last five years, the BCA has not removed a member from the Association as a result of a breach of the Code of Conduct.

The Beacon Writes NICE

Dear sirs/mesdames,

Peter Littlejohns was recently paraphrased by the BBC in an article about the recent and controversial decision to support complementary and alternative medicines such as acupuncture and chiropractic, despite there being no evidence that they work better than treatments mentioned in previous advice. Littlejohns stated that:

the costs to the NHS would be minimal - in the order of £77,000 - because they are offset by the savings in terms of reducing future disability and healthcare needs and moving away from treatments with little supportive evidence.

This seems to suggest that these treatments have some kind of long-term benefit that rest, exercise and painkillers do not. I was wondering what supportive evidence NICE has that these expensive CAM measures are a long-term solution to back pain? Littlejohns quotes a specific figure, so I am assuming that the evidence exists and is robust; I'd be very keen to see it.

Kind regards,

Beacon Schuler.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Switzerland Embraces Pretend Medicine

There has been som quite jaw-dropping news from Switzerland where they have incorporated woo such as homeopathy (which doesn't work), acupuncture (which doesn't work), and herbalism (that mostly doesn't work) into their national health insurance scheme. Before, people's premiums were going towards funding evidence based medicine, but now rational human beings must stump up for a range of ineffective treatments. If someone ever says to you "alright, so these treatments are a load of hogwash, but what real harm are they doing?" you need only point to Switzerland to see the threat of real damage that these people pose. It's not even that the wrong pockets are being lined, but EBM is being massively undermined.

“It shows that we are beginning to come out of the two camps – one for orthodox medicine and the other for alternative medicine. In the future, hopefully, it will mean that medical students will study complementary therapies as part of their medical training and be able to integrate some of them into their practice,” says [Alexander] Harbaugh.

This is CAM fantasy, to force medical doctors to learn homeopathy, chiropractic and other nonsense despite it being at odds with our understanding of how our bodies work. David Colquhoun has attacked at length and with good cause at the fake respectability that CAM has been creating for itself, the creation of Bachelors of Science [sic] degrees in homeopathy, NICE's recent approval of chiropractic, Switzerland may prove to be a clear example of what may happen if such moves go unchecked.

The only fly in CAM's snake oil is hinted at in the following quote
The current criteria requires that the therapy benefits the patient, that it is cost-effective and appropriate for the patient’s condition.

This hopefully will mean that alternative medicine will have to prove that it is benefitial to the patient. I think most of us could live with evidence-based alternative medicine being included in state-run health schemes.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The General Chiropractic Council Writes

Dear Sir/Madam

The General Chiropractic Council investigates all the complaints its receives against its registrants, regardless of the source of the complaint.

The title 'doctor' is a courtesy title that chiropractors can choose to use. Our Code of Practice at C1.8 states that chiropractors

"must not use any title or qualification in such a way that the public may be misled as to its meaning or significance. In particular, chiropractors who use the title of ‘doctor’ and who are not registered medical practitioners must ensure that they make it clear that they are registered chiropractors and not registered medical practitioners."

The Code of Practice is binding and all registrants must comply with its provisions.

Please advise anyone who has a concern about a chiropractor to contact the GCC, the statutory regulatory body for chiropractors in the UK.

I hope this information assists you.

Yours sincerely

Specialist Officer (Regulation)
General Chiropractic Council
Anyone operating as a Chiropractic in the UK must be registered with the GCC; they are the statutory regulatory body for the industry. If a Chiropractic isn't registered they are already breaking the law. You can search for them in the GCC registry here.

I'm not quite sure how much effort a complaint about inappropriate advertising to the GCC may be. Instructions can be found here, though, and it would be useful to complain to both the GCC and the ASA simultaneously as the appropriateness of use of the term "Doctor" is ultimately subjective.

It amuses me that part of the GCC code states "Chiropractors must make sure their own beliefs and values do not prejudice their patients’ care." The rule is designed to prevent chiropractors discriminating against homosexual patients, say, or ethnic minorities. It's a pity "beliefs" doesn't include belief in efficacy.

The GCC appear to take regulation seriously, though they do put out a patient information leaflet which features implicit claims that chiropractic can help with asthma and colic. As the ASA pointed out earlier this week, there is enough evidence to suggest further research is needed, but not enough evidence to comfortably make these claims.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

How to Complain to the ASA

In forumland and the blogosphere I see a lot of people complaining about this or that advert for CAM, but suspect that these complaints don't get much further. Complaining to the ASA is quick, easy and worthwhile; they have the power to have ads removed and can insist on advertisers having to seek out approval from the Committee of Advertising Practices before placing further ads. Here's a quick guide on complaining where it counts.

1. Are the ASA the right people to complain to?

The ASA have a specific remit to handle complaints about the following media:
  • Magazine and newspaper advertisements
  • Radio and TV commercials (not programmes or programme sponsorship)
  • Television Shopping Channels
  • Posters on legitimate poster sites (not flyposters)
  • Leaflets and brochures
  • Cinema commercials
  • Direct mail (advertising sent through the post and addressed to you personally)
  • Door drops and circulars (advertising posted through the letter box without your name on)
  • Advertisements on the Internet, include banner ads and pop-up ads (not claims on companies’ own websites)
  • Commercial e-mail and SMS text message ads
  • Ads on CD ROMs, DVD and video, and faxes
But they don't cover:
2. What are the grounds of the complaint

There are three main columns of advertising regulation: misleadingness, harm and offense. Is the ad likely to materially mislead consumers? Is it likely to cause harm to consumers? Is it likely to cause widespread offense? As far as complaining about CAM advertising goes, you will primarily find grounds to complain due to misleadingness, where ads make unproven medical claims for a particular product, or harm, where ads, in promoting unproven products for serious conditions serve to dissuade consumers from seeking proper medical attention.

3. What is the procedure?

It couldn't be easier. The ASA website has an online form where you will be asked for information regarding the ad you wish to complain about - where and when you saw it, on what medium, and the specifics of your complaint. You don't need to go into too much detail here; it is enough to say that an advertiser is claiming homeopathy can treat asthma and that there is no evidence without having to point the ASA to a Cochrane review. The ASA take an evidence-based view of the world anyway - factual claims must be proved by the advertiser.

You will also be asked to provide, where possible, a copy of the advert itself. This isn't so important for radio or television, but is pretty vital for billboards, press and pamphlets. I find it easiest to just take a decent quality photo of the errant ad, which you can then upload to the ASA via the form.

It's also important to point out that although you give personal data to the ASA, they cannot pass this data on to the person being complained about without your consent. It's usually irrelevant, and tends only to come up where someone has failed to get something that was offered in an advert, or have entered into an agreement with an advertiser that didn't match the claims in the ad.

4. What Happens Next?

The ASA do not investigate every complaint that comes in. For each complaint lodged, they will identify whether a breach of the advertising standards codes may have taken place, and investigate only where they feel it appropriate. What they also will do is highlight aspects of the ad that they feel are in breach, whether or not that breach was part of the initial complaint. It is not unheard of for the ASA to not uphold a complaint from a member of the public, but go on to uphold elements of a complaint they themselves have introduced.

The ASA will keep you informed of the progress of the complaint. There are, in essence, three outcomes. The complaint will be either upheld or not upheld. Either way, the details of the complaint, the advertiser's response, and the ASA Council's decision, will be published on the ASA website. If the complaint is upheld, then there will be instructions to the advertiser on what they must do; invariably to withdraw the ad. Multiple offenders and non-respondents (not uncommon for CAM) will find themselves with additional instructions and the ASA may notify trade bodies of the issue with them. The third possibility is that the advertiser admits up front that their ad is misleading, withdraws it, and agrees to abide by the code in future. On this occasion the details of the investigation are not published in full on the website. This is what happened with a complaint I made against the Church of Scientology Stress hand-outs, who agreed that their medical claims were unfounded and that Dianetics was more of a belief system than a science as stated. So I just posted the letter from the ASA.

5. Post Adjudication

Once an adjudication is online, make use of it. They occasionally get picked up by the mainstream press (though often in a churnalism style) but ought to be bandied about a bit online. Complaints tend to be upheld because it is down to the advertiser to prove the claims they make and can't. That's something skeptics ought to be shouting out about!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Simon Singh's Bogus Journey

I was lucky enough to get along to the Simon Singh love in at Penderel's Oak last night. Simon, for the uninitiated, is a science journalist and co-author of Trick or Treatment, an excellent look at the evidence, or lack there-of, behind the claims of alternative medicince. Around the time this book was published, he wrote an article addressing some worrying claims being made about chiropractic and its use in the treatment of colic, along with feeding and sleeping problems. In it he suggested that the British Chiropractic Association promotes these "bogus treatments". The BCA felt such claims were damaging, and so decided, rather than to rebutt Singh's claims in the press, to simply silence Singh and other critics by bringing a libel suit against him.

The court case seemed, until recently, simple enough. The BCA simply cannot provide robust evidence for the claims made of chiropractic, and the court should note that Singh's article was correct inasmuch as he lays out exactly that claim in print. However, things took a rather unexpected turn when the Judge in the case, Sir David Eady, decided that what Singh had meant by "bogus" was that the BCA was knowingly and dishonestly promoting treatments that do not work. This placed Singh in a difficult position - if he were to continue with the trial it would be by defending a meaning he had not intended, and was much harder to prove, because it may well be that only the high-ups at the BCA really know their own mind when it comes to whether or not they believe in the powers of subluxation.

What the skeptic movement want to see happen is for Singh to appeal against Eady's ruling, to have the meaning returned to Singh's original sentiment, but, and quite rightly, this will only happen if Singh and his advisors feel that particular game is worth the candle. Last night's gathering was an opportunity for Singh to keep us posted as much as he is legally able, and for people following the trial to show their support.

Dave Gorman, TV humourist and professional geek, was the first to speak and rasied an interesting point, that in the eyes of the public Chiropractic isn't considered alternative medicine at all. It has taken people like Singh to bring to a wider audience the fact that Chiropractic has very little going for it in terms of evidence - some weak evidence that it may help with back pain; something slightly more intuitive than claims that it can cure deafness or heart disease.

And parallel to this, thanks to David Cohen's speech, it is becoming very clear to a widening audience that there is something dreadfully wrong with the English Libel laws. England's laws favour the plaintiff so much that we have become a destination for Libel tourism - where someone from Iceland sues someone from the Ukraine in an English court for something that was never even published in the English language.

It was clear from the mood in the room that there is a growing need for action, both against the pseudo-respectable claims made about Chiropractic and that drastic reforms are required for libel law in this country. What seems immediately clear is that the skeptic blogosphere is going to be scrutinising Chiropractic and Chiropractics very closely for the foreseeable future. I for my part will be writing to the BCA to ask if they have disciplined any bad advertisers and to request what evidence they had for the withdrawn pamphlet that Singh's article originated from. All in the interests of open discourse, of course.

Probably the best place to follow the Singh trial is the excellent legal blog Jack of Kent. And below is a post that, it seems, never made it to the Beacon proper, covering the origins of Chiropractic and some unusual parallels with a certain well known cult. During the seventies Chiropractics were considered ideal targets for recruitment for the Church.

Chiropractic was invented by D D Palmer, who believed that manipulation of the spine could cure all manner of ills, such as measles and deafness. Palmer believed that "innate intelligence" channeled through the spine and became blocked by misaligned vertebrae, and that reseating these vertebrae would bring the innate intelligence back into balance. Typical of much complimentary and alternative medicine, having had early initial successes in curing deafness in one individual and heart problems in another, Palmer went on to claim that Chiropractic could cure pretty much anything, despite seemingly never doing any proper research on it.

His "science" was so groundbreaking to him that he considered his discovery religious, likening himself to "Christ, Mohamed, Jo. Smith, Mrs Eddy, Martin Luther and other[s] who have founded religions." Palmer was repeatedly arrested for practicing medicine without a license, but this martyrdom only led to a strengthening of the cause of Chiropractic.

D D Palmer was killed after being run over by his son, B J Palmer, also a Chiropractor, and it is claimed that this may have been deliberate, as the two did not see eye to eye on a lot of things.

BJ went on to "invent," in 1924, a device called a neurocalometer that was said to be able to detect the blocks or "subluxations" in the innate intelligence. These devices were just thermocouples, a standard piece of lab equipment designed to detect temperature. That didn't stop BJ selling the devices for the price of a house.

As time went on, and as many earnest chiropractors became disillusioned with Palmer's initial claims for his treatment, the world of chiropractic became divided into the "straights" who stuck to Palmer's guns, and the "mixers" who recognised that chiropractic treatment could work towards easing back pain, but very little else. The straights accuse the mixers of never having been chiropractics to begin with. The mixers accuse the straights of being self-delusional.

So, a pseudo-scientific treatment offering medical claims with quasi-religious aspirations, an expensive device that is really just a simple bit of kit heavily overpriced, intergenerational rivalry leading to automobile-related death and a following fragmented into a body of fundementalists and a defamed bunch of open-minded and relatively more skeptical practitioners.

This, as a member of the Co€ pointed out to me in recent conversation, is true of many such organisations. What makes it moderately tastier, though, is that the e-meter's inventor, Volney Mathison, was a practicing chiropractor, and many chiropractors used e-meters in their treatments. This is conjecture, of course, but I can't help wonder as to whether or not Hubbard was familiar with Palmer's story as he set about creating Dianetics and Scientology.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

On Personal Integrity

I've been thinking more about Gary Mannion, and folk like him. A notion that is widepread in new age and magical thinking is that we are all following "paths"1; that we are given a set of experiences or a lesson to learn and sent on our way, and it is our duty to construct a worldview based on those experiences, to take onboard whatever purpose our three score and ten is supposed to teach us. This idea, in part, stems from certain notions - that reality is subjective, and that all viewpoints are equally valid. So lets deal with those two first.

Reality is not subjective. Our perception of reality, it could be argued, is subjective, but evidence abounds for reality's refusal to be bound by our perception - from the guy who walks into (and not through) a patio door he perceives to be open to clinical trials that overturn perceptions about blood-letting, or even our understanding of the way that diseases are carried. Perceptions of reality can indeed be subjective; I doubt there's a child alive who hasn't at some point toyed with the notion that what one person perceives as the color red is not the same thing that someone else perceives as red. But this is just a difference in perception; we have no innate control over the way we perceive the world. Many illusions still have the power to fool us even when we know we are being fooled, such as the so-called Thatcher Effect. When we perceive, we create in a fantastically sophisticated and complex way a mental model of the universe as we perceive it. But it's important to understand that this model is created by information flowing from the universe as it really exists, through our senses, before being thrown up in a necessarily corrupted and incomplete fashion in the theater of our mind. At no point does the information flow from the model to the universe. We cannot vividly imagine an apple, say, and have that apple genuinely appear before us. Even if we see that apple, we know it isn't there the moment we pick it up and offer it to somebody else.

New age readers at this stage may be reaching for their copies of The Secret. I refer you, also, to the previous Beacon post on cosmic ordering. Even if the universe did bend to our will in this way, it would take the form of external communication; the universe bends to our will to no greater extent that K-Mart bends to our shopping list.

If we take this on board, then it knocks a hole in the second idea; that all viewpoints are equally valid. Again, they are not. This might hold water in more illusory fields, such as English literature or art criticism, but only because we are faced with notions of constructing meaning from oblique sources, and variant readings of texts do not effect what was intended by the author. And even here, it is clear that some readings are more worthy than others.

To take something realworld, that is more on-topic, look at evolution vs. creationism2. Here we have a theory that is based on empirical evidence that presents a coherent picture of the origin of the species; it describes the world. It has found itself in conflict with creationism, which cannot even be described as a theory inasmuch as it is not based on evidence but on a kind of black hole of reasoning. It is difficult to explain the complexities of life on earth, therefore we kick the question to a place that we cannot go, handing creation to an entity that is all-powerful and sits outside of such logical constraints as those posed by the question "what created the creator". At best, these two ideas are poles apart; one is scientific, in that it is based on evidence and on a progression of ideas, the other is not scientific. Creationism comes nowhere near balancing the scales, and yet there are those who insist "in the interests of balance" that it be taught alongside evolution in the science classroom. That would be akin to teaching flat earth theory in geography, or holocaust denial in history. These ideas are lacking in validity.

So where does that leave us. It leaves us with the uncomfortable truth that whatever ideas we have in our head, some of them will have validity and some of them won't. The idea of personal integrity being about honouring the ideas we have seems to be flawed. It's not personal integrity but ideological integrity, which is a different kettle of fish. In essence, by blindly honouring our ideas in the face of contradictory evidence is the opposite of personal integrity; we dishonour ourselves by not testing our beliefs strongly enough.

But this is a normal human trait. That model of the universe we have is based to a fair degree on "heuristics", on logical shortcuts that aren't 100% accurate but make it possible for us to function more efficiently in the world. To cite an oft-used example, we do not feel the need to test the sidewalk before we walk on it each time. Heuristics tells us that the sidewalk is solid, and that it will take our weight. Heuristics tells us that its state has not changed since we last walked on it, and that it does not differ in any meaningful way from any other sidewalk we have encountered. So it's great for the sidewalk, but not so helpful when dealing with the ineffable. It's not even so great when dealing with medicine. I take such and such a pill; my headache clears. There's a corelation there that we are quick to interpret as cause, but it aint necessrily so, and is not something that can be determined by carrying on taking the pills; stopping taking the pills; or switching pills. The same goes for faith healing and lucky briefs.

I was fortunate enough to go along to a demonstration of mediumship recently. The medium did not fair very well, perhaps as a result of not being in front of an audience that was invested in receiving messages from beyond the grave. I suspect the majority of the people attending were there to see the medium rather than hear from Nanny Johnson. I've seen cold reading before, and felt that that was all that was taking place. I've posted before on my belief that it is perfectly possible for people to learn to cold read without knowing that that is the method they are using. When developing one's ability in this field, one is presented with hits and misses, but the process itself remains mysterious. We receive waves of information; images, words, voices, and over time develop the ability to discern in that noise the particular pieces of information that are more likely to hit home with someone in the audience.

Following the demonstration was a Q&A. Someone raised a question that wasn't really answered fully. How does the medium know when he is receiving information from the other side; how does he tell the difference between that and plain guesswork. I suspect that he can't, because he has shifted his perception of what guesswork is. He has defined it as spirit communication, presented it as such, and surrounded himself with people who are invested in that reality. Like Garry, it will become increasingly rare that he encounters data that challenges his view of what he does. Because of the environment that he has built around himself, he will become increasingly convinced that the patio door is open; will reach such a level of certainty that he never feels the need to prove this perception by attempting to step out into the garden.

There is a skeptic mantra which is "extraordinary claims require extraordinary proof". I feel the real definition of personal integrity is to realise that the claims you are making are extraordinary, and to go in search of extraordinary proof. Test your abilities, and test them properly. Test your tests. Not only do you owe it to the people you present your skills to, but you owe it to yourself.

1It's important to note, here, how passive the notion of "life paths" is in the first place. We do not blaze our own trail, we follow some predetermined route to which we are either oblivious or meekly a slave to. To think of our lives as paths we are forced to follow renounces a fair amount of personal responsibility.
2At the risk of boring people, creationism seeks to describe the origin of life, evolution seeks to explain biodiversity, so these ideas are not necessarily incompatible outside of Genesis.