Tuesday, 29 December 2009

In the company of woo

I find myself in the company of woo, and as a skeptic it is bringing me some grief.

It's all about homebirth - planning to deliver a baby at home, attended by a midwife, rather than in a hospital.

Deena and I came to homebirth through an examination of the evidence. (Here's a discussion I participated in on the Bad Science forums before Kaia's birth.) We were convinced, by scientific studies and analyses, that planning a home birth here in the UK was at least as safe as planning a hospital birth, given a competent attendant and a handy hospital in the event of complications. So we went for it.

However, many people choose homebirth for less evidence-based reasons. They cite personal intuition, or the "naturalness" of it. Not just as reasons to prefer homebirth, but as evidence of its safety.

At Edinburgh's Pregnancy and Parents Centre (a haven for various types of woo, as well as useful support groups and great toddler activities), when we went to the "home birth support group" to relate our experiences and our evidence-based approach, it was alongside others promoting woo of various flavours as part of their support of homebirth.

A recent post on homebirth at Science-Based Medicine has stirred up an epic-length discussion, with passionate defenders on both sides. I've participated, but fear that just being on the homebirth side has made me, in some people's eyes, an advocate of woo.

This is the problem: I agree with the woo-birthers that homebirth can be safe, but I disagree (passionately, vigorously) about why this is a legitimate position. And the disagreement isn't immaterial. At the homebirth meeting, someone recommended homeopathy to treat post-partem haemorrhage. One of the most serious and potentially life-threatening complications of pregnancy, and she advised drinking high-priced water. That is dangerous advice, and I wish I'd been quick-thinking enough to respond persuasively (rather than sitting like a lump and grinding my teeth).

What is a skeptic to do? On the one hand, having someone agree with me in one breath, and back me up with an appeal to intuition in the next, makes me want to revisit and question my beliefs that much more carefully. (That's something a skeptic should be doing anyway, for all their beliefs, but who has the time?) On the other hand, to adapt Niven's 16th law, "There is no belief so true that one cannot find a fool believing it." Just because someone agrees with you for bad reasons doesn't mean you're wrong. I came to my belief about homebirth on the basis of the science, and I'm determined that only science will dissuade me.

But there's also the whole social side. Just as many of my fellow atheists wrinkle their brows at me when I say I go to church, many skeptics seem to do the same when I talk about homebirth. Atheists often assume that the word "church" is synonymous with supernatural beliefs and submission to a holy text, things that would feel alien in our Unitarian church. Similarly, many skeptics assume that, because it's associated with modern medicine, hospital-based birth is inherently safer.

I'm tempted to close by declaring, evangelist-style, that skeptics must beware of this tendency to take association as evidence. Its association with woo-birthers says nothing about the safety of homebirth; nor does its association with high-tech hospitals demonstrate the superiority of hospital birth.

But perhaps a more humble conclusion is in order. Here goes:

I promise to keep vigilant for evidence that might contradict my current beliefs.
I promise to honestly communicate any changes of position that such evidence might lead me to.
I promise to avoid being swayed by other people's assumptions (whether or not they are skeptics).
I promise to make every effort to pin my beliefs to the evidence, and nothing else.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

More on Free Will

Since my March article about free will, I've learned that my position - that having free will is consistent with a mechanistic model of the universe (with or without quantum uncertainty thrown in) - is known as compatibilism.

I recently read Thomas Pink's book, Free Will: A Very Short Introduction (from the excellent Very Short Introduction series put out by OUP) - and so I now fancy myself knowledgeable enough to connect my own casual ponderings with the great web of philosophy.

The position Mike took in his article is known as scepticism (in the context of free will, a combination of incompatibilism and a belief in causal determinism - not to be confused with other, more general forms of scepticism).

Guess who Pink identifies as the first compatibilist? Here's a quote:
A FREE-MAN, is he, that ... is not hindred to doe what he has a will to ... from the use of the word Free-will, no Liberty can be inferred of the will, desire or inclination, but the Liberty of the man; which consisteth in this, that he finds no stop, in doing what he has the will, desire, or inclination to doe.
The quote is from p65 of Pink's book, and it's by 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.

I wouldn't go so far as to call myself a Hobbesian - he wrote about more than just this, and I don't know if the whole of his philosophy would appeal to me. But I tend to agree with this quote.

Note that this passage makes no claims about what it means for someone to "have a will to do" something. One thing I like about compatibilism is that it does not rely on a particular model (deterministic, non-deterministic, etc) of the universe.

See also:

Wikipedia article on Free Will.

Image credit:

Image of Hobbes via this collection. (On the topic of this post, check out this fan comic, inspired by the Calvin and Hobbes scene shown here.)

Sunday, 20 December 2009

Is Saint Andrew's Day controversial?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lang may your lum reek!


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

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

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

Image credit:

Saltire from Wikimedia Commons. Public domain.

Friday, 18 December 2009

Why should humanists be in chaplaincy?

Humanitie, the quarterly magazine of the Humanist Society of Scotland, has a new issue out. Once again, Mike and I present our rather different perspectives - this time, on the relationship between humanists and chaplaincy. Don't forget to read Mike's column over at his blog.

I was recently asked a question about the place of humanists in chaplaincy life. In a chaplaincy, even an inclusive multi-faith chaplaincy, most people are religious. To what extent is it worthwhile and appropriate for humanists and other non-religious people to seek a place in chaplaincy?

The answer is obvious to me. Clearly, though, some religious people and even many humanists don't see things as I do. So here is my take on it.

First, some background. Our university chaplaincy is very deliberately open to students and staff of "all faiths and none".

My earliest experience with the chaplaincy was when I was first learning and reading about humanism, and coming to realize that it reflected a deep part of my identity. I started looking for like-minded people, for a community to connect with. I had heard of the chaplaincy and its openness to people of no religion. I visited the chaplain and asked if she knew of any humanist groups at the university. She didn't, but she thought it would be wonderful if there were a group. She also pointed me to the Humanist Society of Scotland (HSS), which has an Edinburgh group.

There is a whole story following on from that - of attending an HSS philosophy book group, of meeting another humanist student, of forming a student group with him that has become far more active and successful than I expected - but for now let's look at that first move on my part. Why did I go to the chaplaincy in search of humanists?

First, there was my awareness that the chaplaincy branded itself as inclusive - they reach out not only to religious folks, but to folks like me. Second, for all that some humanists like to distance themselves from religious believers, there is a crucial feature that we share. Humanism is a framework for seeking meaning, for defining an ethical stance, and for sharing inspiration and expressing awe. For most religious people I've talked to, their religion does just the same: it provides meaning, defines ethics, and it is the lens through which inspiration and awe are experienced and shared. Also, perhaps even more importantly, both humanism and religions are identities around which human communities gather. So humanism is to me as religion is to religious folks. Even then, new as I was to humanism, I could see that.

So it seemed obvious that the chaplaincy - a place for religious folks to meet like-minded people, a place for people to go for spiritual counselling, and a place that explicitly included non-religious people in its remit - was the right place to look for humanist groups at the university.

And of course, that answers the question I opened with too. If chaplaincy is an obvious place for a lone humanist to go in search of kindred spirits, then chaplaincy is an obvious place for a humanist group to be connected with so that those lone humanists can find us.

Yes, there is the Internet. Yes, there are other avenues for us to find one another. But that's no reason to shut such an obvious means of connection. Besides, the sort of personal bond that people visiting the chaplaincy tend to seek is not something that can be transmitted through a computer screen.

Of course, there is more to the chaplaincy than just finding folks like yourself. There is also the inter-faith element*. The idea of people of different backgrounds coming together to discover common ground. And I think that's incredibly valuable. It's something that's lacking from a lot of the "culture war" discussions that get headlines. It's important that humanists are involved in that as well.

True, I may think that the other guy's god is imaginary. True, he may think that I'm destined for hell if I don't come to believe as he does. But equally true is the fact that we both value compassion. We both try to buy products whose production doesn't exploit the vulnerable. We both try to act in ways that will preserve the planet for the next generation. We both strongly believe in each other's right to believe as we will.

In my experience, there is no place like a multi-faith chaplaincy for bringing people of different backgrounds together and helping us to realize how much we share. Not just superficial stuff. Deep stuff. Important stuff.**

Stuff we can draw on to make the world a better place, together.

That's why humanists should be involved in chaplaincy, and in other inter-faith endeavours.

Footnotes (not included in the print version):

* Yes, I know, the term inter-faith is problematic for people like us, who consciously set ourselves apart from religious faith. It is also often used in a manner that really does exclude us. But until you can come up with a better term for a meeting of religious and non-religious worldviews, and show that other people will use and understand it, it's better than nothing.

** A Unitarian church may do the same, but I don't have enough experience at one yet to say for sure.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

Cosmic Advent

It's that time of year again, when the Cosmic Calendar brings almost daily events to reflect on. Today we see the Cambrian Explosion (about 540 million years ago), and the first vertebrates (around 534 million years ago). See the list of upcoming events in the sidebar on the right for the next 5, or go to the Google Calendar for the whole schedule.

I'm still working out, for myself and my family, how to integrate the Cosmic Calendar into personal holiday traditions. I like the idea of building some sort of advent calendar around these last couple of weeks. How would you go about that? Would you used biologically-themed sweets? Toys? Snappy passages from The Ancestor's Tale?

I'd also like to fill in the blank days - the 20th, 24th, 25th, and 29th. I'm sure things were happening during these periods - every day represents about 37.5 million years of time, after all. But the big-ticket events like the first amphibians, the first birds, etc just haven't happened to fall on those days.

Would you like to participate? Do you have any thoughts for things to include in the Cosmic Calendar? Corrections on the dates I'm using? Other ideas? Please let me know!

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Confession of a born essentialist

We have an innate tendency to psychological essentialism. Bruce Hood articulates this tendency well (see his book Supersense). His most vivid example is the serial-killer's shirt. If you are given a nice shirt - one that fits well and suits your style and wardrobe - and told that it once belonged to a serial killer, how will you react? Most people will avoid the shirt - even avoid touching it. Of course, the shirt contains no "serial-killer essence", but the association sparks something deep our psychology: we want to avoid objects that are associated with bad things.

This was probably hugely adaptive in our evolutionary history: if you avoid touching things that have been handled by, say, a seriously ill person, you are less likely to become infected yourself. It doesn't matter if the reason you avoid them is rooted in an accurate knowledge of the germ theory of disease or an improbable metaphysical notion of guilt-by-association - if it saves your life and is affected by your genes, it will give you a selective advantage over people without the trait, or with a weaker version of the same trait.

Essentialist psychology provides a compelling explanation for why people would believe in certain immaterial properties of matter even if the universe is completely material. Which leads some philosophical naturalists (humanists, atheists, etc) to smugly think that we've risen above the illusion: we see through the illusory sense that our instincts push us into. We aren't tricked into god-belief or imagining a life after death.

Well, it's not that easy.

I was playing with Kaia (my 2-year-old daughter), and she told me that her doll needed a nappy change*. As an expert, I was invited to conduct the procedure. I used a nose tissue to wipe the doll's bottom.

When I went to put the tissue back in my pocket (for future use), I was momentarily overcome by my inner essentialist. I had a strong sense that the tissue was unclean. All simply because of an act of imagination!

I quickly realized what was happening, and put the tissue in my pocket anyway. In fact, once I became conscious of the illusion, it quickly dissipated. Thank goodness for skepticism. I wonder if I would have recovered as quickly if I had not, a few years ago, attended a talk here in Edinburgh given by Bruce Hood.

Have you ever had a "silly essentialist" moment like this? How did you react? How did you feel once you realized what was going on?

* I feel I should point out that this wasn't one of those modern imagination-free dolls that actually produce wet nappies.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

DIY spirituality

I think I've mentioned once or twice about humanist spirituality. And I know I've talked about Unitarians a few times. Well, I just read an interesting article, The DIY Spiritual Practice, by Doug Muder, in the UU World magazine. In it, he describes a spiritual practice that he and his wife have evolved over the years. (It was linked from his blog here, so go there to drop him a comment if you like - or dislike - what he says.)
It's not that I don't have a discipline. I do, but it's like so much of what Unitarian Universalists do—my wife Deb and I have cobbled it together for ourselves over a couple of decades.
For those hard-nosed skeptics among you who think that "spiritual practice" is simply a euphemism for rituals reinforcing supernatural beliefs, with no real effect on anything, I strongly recommend you give his article a read. You may not decide to try out his solution, but at least you'll get an idea of a very humanist approach to spirituality and spiritual practice.
So what is this do-it-yourself discipline my wife and I have been practicing for 21 years? The heart of it is very mundane: We talk to each other.
I don't know if Doug and his wife are "religious" (in the sense of believing in some supernatural reality). But the practice that he describes sounds to me like a well-grounded, practical, and enjoyable way to deal with the emotional (and other) issues that arise in daily life, and to appreciate life's events as they come.

What do you think?

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

To what must we aspire, and why?

Well, Marc has done it again. Talking along, making all sort of sense - even wisdom (but don't tell him I said so) - and then completely losing me as he finishes:
Expressions that were once current have gone out of use nowadays. Names, too, that were formerly household words are virtually archaisms today; Camillus, Caeso, Volesus, Dentatus; or a little later, Scipio and Cato; Augustus too, and even Hadrian and Antoninus. All things fade into the storied past, and in a little while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as for the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer's words, they are 'lost to sight alike and hearsay'. What, after all, is immortal fame? An empty, hollow thing. To what, then, must we aspire? This, and this alone: the just thought, the unselfish act, the tongue that utters no falsehood, the temper that greets each passing event as something predestined, expected, and emanating from the One source and origin. (Meditations, book 4, paragraph 33)
Okay, I understand that the whole "One source" bit is consistent with the rest - he's not doing a U-turn at the end. But it's unnecessary. Yes, fame and recognition are fleeting. Yes, living for eternal glory is a futile pursuit. Yes, it is enough to aspire to think clearly, do good, and speak truth. And an even temper is certainly something worth cultivating.

But my even temper is not based on a belief in predestiny, in all things coming from a common source. It is simply based on the observation that level-headedness is the most powerful frame of mind from which to advance my understanding and improve my lot and that of my fellow humans.

Anyway, I continue to enjoy my discourse with Marc. We usually agree, and even when we don't we have some fun exploring why not. (I don't think that I've ever changed his mind, but that's not the point.)

Postscript: I have discussed this with Darren, the mutual acquaintance who introduced me to Marc. Darren has spent more time with Marc and his crowd, and was able to cast the "one source" stuff in a light that I find easier to get on board with. I hope to discuss this (or perhaps invite Darren to tell you himself) in the not-too-distant future.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Defending Dawkins (2)

This is a further entry in a back-and-forth between me and bettynoirbettyblanc (henceforth "Betty"), on evolution and Richard Dawkins. It began in this post of hers, to which I responded here. She followed up with a response here. The following will make more sense if you have read those posts first.

Betty, I can certainly understand your dislike of Richard Dawkins. He often neglects to soften his critique of religious ideas (individually and collectively), and it is natural that many religious people feel that he misrepresents them. Some of their complaints - your complaints - are justified.

However, I feel that your response ignores or misses many of the key points I was trying to convey, and exaggerates Dawkins' faults beyond reason.

First, I did not accuse you of denying evolution. You will notice, if you look again at my post, that I direct my criticisms on that point at creationists.The language of your original post leaves plenty of room for people to assume that you are more sympathetic to the creationist perspective than the scientific perspective, but I was (and continue to be) careful not to pigeonhole you unjustly.

You say "I would guard against listening to anyone who claims they are an expert on something just because they have a few ladybird guides on their shelf." You certainly shouldn't believe me, just because I've read some popular science books on evolution. Nor should you even take an expert's opinion as incontrovertible fact. As I said:
These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don't make arguments of the form "I believe this, and I'm and expert so just take my word for it." They make arguments of the form "Here's some evidence. Here's why it supports evolution." With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don't trust them.
As for Dawkins' "obsession" with religion - you make a valid point. Much of his online presence seems to be centred around religion. I offered a possible explanation, which is supported by an excerpt from Dawkins' new book - an explanation which you seem to have ignored. I'll reiterate it here, as I think it is important. Dawkins is a biologist, and studies evolution. One of the greatest forces opposing science education is the creationist movement, which undermines the teaching of evolution in schools. By far the most common motivation for this opposition is a particular literal take on the Abramic creation story. Thus, Dawkins is well-motivated to oppose this particular version of religion. He recognizes that it is not the whole of religion. Here are his own words (talking about his new book):
The Archbishop of Canterbury has no problem with evolution, nor does the Pope (give or take the odd wobble over the precise palaeontological juncture when the human soul was injected), nor do educated priests and professors of theology. The Greatest Show on Earth is a book about the positive evidence that evolution is a fact. It is not intended as an anti-religious book. I’ve done that, it’s another T-shirt, this is not the place to wear it again. Bishops and theologians who have attended to the evidence for evolution have given up the struggle against it. Some may do so reluctantly, some, like Richard Harries, enthusiastically, but all except the woefully uninformed are forced to accept the fact of evolution.
Note that he's explicitly stepping out of his role as a critic of religion in this book.

In that same article (I encourage you to read it, so that you can see the context for yourself), Dawkins explains his use of the Holocaust-denier comparison - a comparison that you, Betty, seem particularly offended by. You ask, in your response post, "The Friendly Humanist says this [is] accurate, but says he would not use this analogy himself. Why not? Could it be that comparing creationists to Holocaust deniers is grossly offensive?"

First, you are right: the reason I would not use the analogy is because it is offensive. Holocaust-denial is associated with more than just a denial of historical facts; it is associated (rightly) with an evil political and social ideology. Here is what I said in defense of his analogy:
First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology.
A better analogy, which shares this important characteristic while not being so offensive, might be to moon-hoaxers - people who believe that humans have never stepped on the Moon, and that the Apollo landings were an elaborate deceit.

You also suggest that supporters of evolution harbour "smug assumptions which lurk not too far from the surface: ‘we are smart, they are not’ followed by ‘we are European and sophisticated, they are American and primitive’ or ‘we are Western and progressive, they are Middle Eastern or Oriental, and barbaric’."

I can only respond that I have never come across this attitude, either explicitly or implicitly. As I said in my post, the biologists I've read point to the evidence, explain how it was interpreted, and draw their conclusions. The claim, then, is "we have followed the evidence, they have not". Is this smug? Perhaps, but only to the extent that anyone is smug who defends one position based on the evidence, in the knowledge that some people sincerely hold another.

I realize that you are not interested in getting into a debate over evolution, and I don't intend to engage you in one. I am not a biologist, after all, just a fan of science.

For all that I sometimes disagree with the tone (and occasionally the content) of his writings, I feel that you have misrepresented Dawkins in your posts, Betty. He is not a diplomat, but he is not the mean, attention-mongering anti-theist that you make him out to be. He works together with religious people on causes of common interest (as noted in the aforementioned excerpt from his new book). He acknowledges the literary value of the Bible (in The God Delusion). He objected to the title of his BBC documentary, The Root of all Evil, because he recognizes that religion is not the root of all evil.

Of course, he remains an atheist. He has reasons for his position, and he shares them in books and articles. He makes money from his writing. You are free to continue to dislike him for this or any reason. You are even free to be skeptical of evolution if you are so inclined. But I implore you, if you do read anything he writes, to do so with a more sympathetic eye. Give him the benefit of the doubt. He may disappoint you in places, but I think it will be far less frequently than you expect.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Homeopathy at Boots: an open letter

In a move reminiscent of the very successful Australian Skeptics open letter to pharmacists, the Merseyside Skeptics Society has issued an open letter to Boots pharmacies.

This is in the wake of a parliamentary subcommittee meeting on the status and labelling of homeopathic remedies sold in pharmacies ("chemists" in this country). If you have time, check out the transcript here - a long but interesting read. (Thanks to Mike for the heads-up.) Here's Ben Goldacre's summary, as one of the people who gave evidence at the meeting.Link
Boots sells homeopathic products. By association, it lends medical authority to these products - which have been demonstrated, so far as good research is able to demonstrate, to be medically indistinguishable from placebos. That is, they are not real medicine, and do not replace real medicine. The will not protect you from malaria; they will not protect you from H1N1. They won't even cure your headache. If your headache does get better after homeopathy, there are three much more likely explanations: (1) it was a random coincidence (unsatisfying, but sometimes the world works that way), (2) it was going to get better anyway (you can't tell this from a single case, but a large study of many people could), or (3) your belief in the treatment had a real effect on your malady (a very cool possibility - see Ben Goldacre's book Bad Science for more, or go read his blog).

Though they sell them, the Boots representative who spoke to the committee admitted that homeopathic treatments have no good evidence supporting their effectiveness in dealing with any health complaint. His best argument for selling homeopathy comes out in this excerpt from the start of the transcript:

Mr Bennett: We do indeed sell them and there is certainly a consumer demand for those products.

Q4 Chairman: I did not ask you that question. I said do they work beyond the placebo effect?

Mr Bennett: I have no evidence before me to suggest that they are efficacious, and we look very much for the evidence to support that, and so I am unable to give you a yes or no answer to that question.

Q5 Chairman: You sell them but you do not believe they are efficacious?

Mr Bennett: It is about consumer choice for us. A large number of our consumers actually do believe they are efficacious, but they are licensed medicinal products and, therefore, we believe it is right to make them available.

Q6 Chairman: But as a company you do not believe that they necessarily are?

Mr Bennett: We do not disbelieve either. It is an evidence issue.

They don't have good evidence that they work, but people want to spend money on them. This is a disgustingly cynical attitude toward the public, and toward Boots pharmacists' own responsibility as front-line dispensers of medicine.

I include the open letter below. I will also be contacting Boots. If you are interested in this issue, I encourage you to do the same.

An Open Letter to Alliance Boots

The Boots brand is synonymous with health care in the United Kingdom. Your website speaks proudly about your role as a health care provider and your commitment to deliver exceptional patient care. For many people, you are their first resource for medical advice; and their chosen dispensary for prescription and non-prescription medicines. The British public trusts Boots.

However, in evidence given recently to the Commons Science and Technology Committee, you admitted that you do not believe homeopathy to be efficacious. Despite this, homeopathic products are offered for sale in Boots pharmacies – many of them bearing the trusted Boots brand.

Not only is this two-hundred-year-old pseudo-therapy implausible, it is scientifically absurd. The purported mechanisms of action fly in the face of our understanding of chemistry, physics, pharmacology and physiology. As you are aware, the best and most rigorous scientific research concludes that homeopathy offers no therapeutic effect beyond placebo, but you continue to sell these products regardless because “customers believe they work”. Is this the standard you set for yourselves?

The majority of people do not have the time or inclination to check whether the scientific literature supports the claims of efficacy made by products such as homeopathy. We trust brands such as Boots to check the facts for us, to provide sound medical advice that is in our interest and supply only those products with a demonstrable medical benefit.

We don’t expect to find products on the shelf at our local pharmacy which do not work.

Not only are these products ineffective, they can also be dangerous. Patients may delay seeking proper medical assistance because they believe homeopathy can treat their condition. Until recently, the Boots website even went so far as to tell patients that “after taking a homeopathic medicine your symptoms may become slightly worse,” and that this is “a sign that the body’s natural energies have started to counteract the illness”. Advice such as this directly encourages patients to wait before seeking real medical attention, even when their condition deteriorates.

We call upon Boots to withdraw all homeopathic products from your shelves. You should not be involved in the sale of ineffective products, because your customers trust you to do what is right for their health. Surely you agree that your commitment to excellent patient care is better served by supplying only those products whose claims can be substantiated by rigorous scientific research? Or do you really believe that Boots should be in the business of selling placebos to the sick and the injured?

The support lent by Boots to this quack therapy contributes directly to its acceptance as a valid medical treatment by the British public, acceptance it does not warrant and support it does not deserve. Please do the right thing, and remove this bogus therapy from your shelves.

Yours sincerely,
Merseyside Skeptics Society


Other blogs and websites have noted this, including Skepchick, The Not Quite So Friendly Humanist, Bruce Hood, Bad Science, A Glasgow Skeptic, RichardDawkins.net, Bad Homeopathy, and New Humanist.

Also, various newspapers have picked up on Boots' strange position: The Telegraph, Daily Express, Daily Mail, Guardian (and Ben Goldacre again, and their liveblog of the meeting), Times, and Mirror.

Feel free to comment and link to any I've missed.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Secular double entendre

(Note to my religious readers: The following is not intended as an attack on religious belief, but I can foresee some sensitivities being nettled nevertheless. If you'd rather avoid being offended, feel free to stop reading now.)

I was just watching a video at the Friendly Atheist, promoting the Secular Student Alliance (SSA). It's the American version of our National Federation of Atheist, Humanist and Secular Student Societies (AHS) - a nationwide organization aimed at building communities of secular students (atheists, agnostics, etc) at universities, colleges, and schools. Here's the video:

Now, I know this will reveal my linguistic geekiness in its fullest degree, but the line that stuck out most to me was this:
[We believe] that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than faith.
Why, you ask? Syntacticians in the audience will already see where I'm going. There are, in fact, two high-probability, grammatical ways to parse this sentence in English.

The one that was intended could be paraphrased as so:
We believe that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than faith does.
Here's the alternative reading:
We believe that science and reason lead to more reliable knowledge than to faith.
Okay, so the second reading doesn't works quite so well. But, both readings are consistent with the general outlook of atheists and humanists. We trust science and reason above faith* as paths to reliable knowledge, and we think that science and reason lead us to knowledge rather than leading us to faith.

Oh, and hooray for SSA and AHS - go check them out if you're a student!


* It is worth noting that this all uses the meaning of "faith" used by most humanists, which could most succinctly be expressed as "belief that does not rely on evidence". Many religious people use different definitions. I think I may need to add another post to my series on definitions.