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14/04/2014 / Jo Alabaster

World Homeopathy Awareness Week – Raising Awareness that Homeopathy is Bulldust!

Well, this week is rather special – it’s World Homeopathy Awareness Week!

First, a very brief primer on homeopathy. Homeopathy was founded in 1796 by Samuel Hahnemann, based on his postulation that “like cures like” – for example, a small amount of a stimulant, such as caffeine, is purported to help with sleep troubles. Homeopathic preparations are produced by “dynamisation” or “potentisation”, in which active ingredients are diluted with alcohol or distilled water, then “succussed” (a form of ritualistic vigorous shaking). The dilution process is repeated until the likelihood of a single molecule of the original ingredient being present in a bottle of homeopathic “remedy” is as close as can be to zero.

Homeopathic remedies are sold as liquids or sugar pills and can be found in health food stores, online shops and to my great disappointment, in pharmacies in Australia. Homeopathy is at times confused with herbalism, as it is included within the scope of “natural medicine”, thus it is worth noting that while herbal remedies contain active ingredients, homeopathic remedies contain no detectable trace of such. For more information, visit the 10:23 Campaign’s page, “What is Homeopathy?” 

 

Beginning on the 10th of April each year,coinciding with the birthday of Hahnemann, World Homeopathy Awareness Week (WHAW) has been established by the World Homeopathy Awareness Organization to coordinate global promotion of homeopathy by those who practice and advocate it. Simultaneously, WHAW has been embraced by critics of homeopathy as a fine time to raise awareness of the lack of plausibility behind the mechanisms used to create homeopathic “remedies”, and the lack of evidence that homeopathy has any physiological effect beyond that of a placebo.

This year, WHAW related discussion kicked off a couple of days early, as Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council released a draft of their information paper, “Evidence on the effectiveness of homeopathy for treating health conditions“. The NHMRC is accepting feedback on this paper until May 26th, so if you wish to provide them with any feedback for consideration, details on doing so are available via the above link.

Admittedly, when I first heard that the NHMRC were conducting a review on homeopathy studies, I was flummoxed – I was familiar with the findings on homeopathy already, and it seemed akin to reviewing findings on whether the sky was blue, or whether water was… wet. However, more public awareness on homeopathy - and the findings that no credible evidence supports its efficacy - has been a great prompt for the media to get on board and for public discussion of homeopathy to increase.

In short, people are still investing their money and hope in products and treatments which have no plausible mechanism of action beyond a placebo. Pharmacies are still selling homeopathic products, in what I consider to be a terribly unethical case of lending false credibility. A small but important minority of general practitioners are referring their patients to homeopaths and naturopaths (some of whom include homeopathy in their practice). There are people who, heart-breakingly, eschew evidence based medicine in favour of homeopathy – as was seen in the tragic case of Penelope Dingle. As such, I believe that it is worth getting the word out, loud and clear, that homeopathy is a sham.

 

I’ve spotted a few fantastic reads during WHAW this year. First up, Ken Harvey has written a piece on The Drum titled “Homeopathy – We Can’t Have it Both Ways“, in which he discusses the fact that, while the NHMRC paper condemns homeopathy, other authorities still give it legitimacy, by accrediting the study of homeopathy, including it in health insurance plans and allowing it to be sold in pharmacies.

From the Good Thinking Society, here is a wonderful page on Homeopathy Awareness Week, with a list of twelve quick facts on homeopathy. The project director, Michael Marshall, explains the importance of the site and of awareness of homeopathy in his Guardian piece, “Homeopathy Awareness Can Make The World A Happier and Healthier Place“.

This week’s episode of The Skeptic Zone Podcast (permalink) has more information on homeopathy than molecules of active ingredients in a homeopathic dilution, and includes my first attempt at a podcast report (replete with awful jokes, such as the one I’ve just made), in which I cover a minor skeptical activism success on the Better Health Channel’s promotion of WHAW. After an impromptu letter writing and social media campaign last week, and in light of the NHMRC draft report on homeopathy, the Better Health Channel made the commendable decision to remove WHAW from their events calendar. If you’re not already a regular Skeptic Zone listener, I encourage you to give it a go this week – despite my cheesy lines, the show is great.

Speaking of humour, I’d like to provide two more links on which to end this post. They’re not to be taken seriously, but sometimes laughter is… the best medicine. (Sorry – I’ll see myself out).

How Does Homeopathy Work? (from the 10:23 Campaign)

List of scientifically controlled double blind studies which have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy (from RationalWiki)

10:23 Campaign Against Homeopathy – Antarctic 2011 (a short video via The Skeptic Zone, in which Dr Paul Willis puts himself on the line and takes a homeopathic overdose!)

2009-11-02-homeoComic by Luke Surl, shared under Creative Commons Licence

11/04/2014 / Jo Alabaster

Anti-Vaccination Advocates on the Front Line of Public Health

I have a confession to make, people. Sometimes I read the comments. And sometimes I even join in.

Earlier today, ABC News posted a news article on their Facebook page regarding Federal Health Minister Peter Dutton’s meeting with his state counterparts to discuss a possible decision to withhold Family Tax Benefit payments from parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, for non-medical reasons. It’s a complicated issue and one that Dr Julie Leask has addressed in the news article itself.

ABC News’ Facebook moderator invited comments from Facebook users on the topic, prompting much discussion, both advocating and opposing vaccination itself, and agreeing with or criticising the proposal to withhold benefits from families who choose not to vaccinate their children. Having a little free time on my hands, I had a look over the comments and made a few myself; predominantly providing rebuttals to anti-vaccination rhetoric and suggesting that people discuss any concerns that they may have about immunisation with a qualified health professional.

Here’s a fairly typical example of the sort of comment that those who oppose vaccination make on such threads:

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Usually I’ll respond to this sort of statement with an explanation of herd immunity, that unimmunised children increase the risk of vaccine preventable diseases entering our community, the importance of protecting children for whom vaccines are medically contraindicated (be it due to medically diagnosed allergy, an immunocompromised state due to cancer therapy or organ transplant, or being too young to yet be immunised), that vaccines aren’t one hundred percent effective (often noting that seatbelts aren’t either, but it’s sensible to take the high level of protection that we can get over none at all).

We’ve got a couple more fallacies here. “Straight up poisons” sounds fairly terrifying, but doesn’t take into account the rigorous testing vaccines go through, nor the doses at which vaccine ingredients are administered. Break down our foodstuffs and you’ll find scary sounding chemicals in many fruits and vegetables in minute amounts; some of which also occur naturally in our own systems.

To suggest that anybody is proposing that parents will be “forced” to immunise children is also disingenuous. The current proposal is to withhold a payment as an incentive, the option to refuse to vaccinate would still be available.

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Earlier, I mentioned that I often suggest to people that if they have concerns about immunisation, they should discuss them with a qualified health professional. Here, Deb has informed us that she is indeed speaking as a health professional.

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In fact, she is a nurse. The sort of person we should reasonably be able to trust for sound advice and information on vaccines. A practitioner of evidence based medicine.

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Here are some odd generalisations regarding lifestyle choices! Thankfully, many parents who ensure that their kids get outside and play and give them… food stuff that is actually food stuff… also choose to vaccinate.

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Which epidemics? Were vaccinations around during these epidemics also?

Sanitation is a marvel for public health, but it is not responsible for the significant lowering of vaccine preventable diseases. More information on this frequently repeated myth from WHO.

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A healthcare practitioner who buys into the “Big Pharma” business?

It troubles me. Out of curiosity, and using publicly available data, I found Deb’s LinkedIn profile. Her name (she uses a pseudonym on Facebook, but her Facebook URL contained her surname), photo and job description matched, so I am quite confident that I’ve identified her correctly. She works as a clinical nurse in what she describes as a “large, busy, Metro ED Department”.

Her refusal to have the influenza vaccine leaves her prone to contracting it… and working in an emergency department, she is likely to have a high risk of exposure to the virus. If she is at work while contagious, there’s potential for her to pass it on to some very ill and vulnerable patients under her care.

What is also deeply disturbing to me though, is that somebody on the front line of public health – in a position of authority on healthcare – would hold views that so strongly reject many tenets of evidence based medicine. We should be able to trust clinical nurses to know better.

 

 

19:20 – 12/04/2014 Edited to add: Two more of Deb’s posts on the ABC News thread, presented without comment.

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Although the discussion on ABC News’ Facebook page is a public one and Deb uses a pseudonym, I have chosen to pixelate her photograph and surname for this post, as I am noting her as an example of a health professional who espouses anti-vaccination views, rather than an individual to be exposed.

10/03/2014 / Jo Alabaster

The Australian Vaccination Network’s Much Anticipated Name Change

Just in, an announcement from the Australian Vaccination Network that they are complying with the Administrative Decisions Tribunal’s court order to change their misleading name. Their chosen (and approved) new title: “The Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network”. From the AVN:

As of Friday, March 7th, the Australian Vaccination Network, Inc. will now officially be known as the Australian Vaccination-Skeptics Network, Inc. We will still have the same domain address (www.avn.org.au ) and will still go by the acronym "AVN".
Full announcement here.

Frankly, this strikes me as incredibly bizarre, but quite in keeping with the AVN’s previously demonstrated thinking. Admins on the AVN’s Facebook page have repeatedly condemned the skeptical movement, referring to skeptics as “Septics” and insisting that we are shills for Big Pharma and the like. At the same time, the AVN have registered the domain australiansceptics.com, an attack site which discredits the skeptical movement and claims that vaccine denialists of their ilk are “The REAL Australian Sceptics”. One wonders why the AVN wishes to co-opt a title which they have treated with such derision – I can only assume that they feel that their attempts to align themselves with skepticism lends them credibility not offered to those honest about their denialism. Presumably, this is why the AVN have been reticent to ever label themselves as anti-vaccination, regardless of the fact that all of the misinformation that they spread is undoubtedly anti-vaccine. Despite their continued attempts to discredit scientific skepticism, they are quite aware that their position is the one lacking credibility.

I would like to note here that scientific skeptics do well to approach the topics that they examine with an awareness of personal bias (and the utmost effort to remove such), apply critical thought and are open to changing their position based on empirical evidence. I would argue that the AVN do not qualify as such, given their dogmatic anti-vaccination position and refusal to accept the overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccination is the safest and most effective means by which we have to prevent people contracting vaccine preventable diseases. The AVN downplay the seriousness of illnesses such as pertussis and measles, spread misinformation regarding the efficacy of vaccination and make claims that the risks associated with vaccination are much higher than evidence shows.

Let us hope that if they are permitted to continue using their new name, the wider public will consider the AVN to be in the same category as “Climate Change Skeptics” – denialists without the integrity to openly admit that they are such.

30/12/2013 / Jo Alabaster

End of Year Detox – Free Gift Included!

With the end of the year upon us, many of us are feeling the effects of celebratory excesses. The traditional over-indulgence in alcohol and rich foods which can accompany the festive season can leave one feeling somewhat under the weather, particularly when combined with rushing about preparing for parties, attending gatherings of family and friends, and shopping. Tired and flat, the appeal of a New Year’s resolution to improve our health and fitness is understandably rather alluring to many. Gather round ye, ’tis the season for detox!

With the myriad advertisements for detox kits, cleansing diets, “superfood” secrets and liver supporting supplements appearing in health food store windows, on social media and on television, the detox industry is big business. Unfortunately, it’s a business that is built on a falsehood… our bodies are quite capable of “detoxing” themselves.

Unless an individual is suffering liver, kidney or lymphatic system malfunction, or has overdosed on a poisonous substance (both of which should be investigated and treated by a medical professional), our bodies are perfectly capable of filtering and removing waste products from our own systems. The best things that we can do to support these systems (and feel well in the process) are to eat a healthy and balanced diet, remain hydrated, be active and get sufficient sleep. No detox product can either take the place of basic self care, nor improve the body’s ability to look after itself.

So while the detox industry tries to sell you products or secrets this season, I would like to give you something for free. Admittedly, it’s just a somewhat daggy graphic to share – but my hope is that perhaps it may cause someone out there to think twice before investing their money and faith in detox products that are completely unnecessary.

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This was adapted from a tweet I sent to Dr Karl a last week, in response to somebody asking him about detoxing. It amassed a fair few retweets, so I figured that it was a message that people wanted to communicate – I know that I certainly do. And yes, his “billions” amendment is correct!

In this graphic, I also wanted to stress that should somebody have concerns about their health or lifestyle, I would urge them to speak with a qualified health professional. Regarding dietary issues, a dietitian is the most appropriate health professional to provide evidence-based assessment and advice – qualifications in dietetics are much more tightly regulated than those of nutritionists. Here’s a clear summary of the difference between dietitians and nutritionists via the Dietitians Association of Australia.

For more in-depth information on detoxification, visit Sense About Science – Debunking Detox, Science-Based Pharmacy – The Detox Delusion and Science-Based Medicine – The Science of Purging or the Purging of Science?

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On a personal note, I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all the best, whatever you celebrate (or don’t) at this time of the year.

The last couple of months have been busy but fulfilling ones for me; the rush of finishing my studies and sitting exams was punctuated by my first skeptics convention unfortunately said punctuation was a pair of brackets rather than a full stop – getting home and back to exam revision was a challenge. I’ve also celebrated the festive season with two curious preschoolers, my four year old son and two year old daughter both simultaneously hitting the “Why?” phase, which I admit I’m reveling in. A nerd parent moment was had last week when my son finally asked me why the ocean was blue – I adore asking the kids about their hypotheses and looking up information with them.

As an aspiring science communicator and advocate, several months ago I set myself a challenge to overcome my shyness and discomfort with verbal communication, be it recorded or with a live audience. Quite unexpectedly, at the Australian Skeptics National Convention, interviewer extraordinaire for The Skeptic Zone PodcastMaynard confronted me with a microphone and an array of questions – if you’re curious to hear my babbling, I make brief appearances on The Skeptic Zone #270 and #271. I don’t feel that it went too badly and have resolved to follow through with some podcast related plans for 2014. I also plan to continue working my way through my science degree – I have especially enjoyed my biology units over the past year and am looking forward to introductory epidemiology and infectious disease units when I hit the books again in late February.

During my break from uni, I hope to get a few posts written here – I have a couple of topics simmering away in the back of my mind. Comments and feedback on this blog are always welcome and if you’re so inclined, you can find me on Twitter at @joalabaster.

Thank you for being with me this year, here’s to a fascinating 2014!

28/11/2013 / Jo Alabaster

Applying Hitchens’ Razor to the Claims of Meryl Dorey

On Monday the 25th of November 2013, prominent anti-vaccination group the Australian Vaccination Network lost its appeal against the New South Wales Department of Fair Trading and was ordered again by the New South Wales Administrative Tribunal to change its name. This is fantastic news for those of us who believe that the AVN’s name is misleading and misrepresents their anti-vaccination stance. Reasonable Hank has done an excellent job of covering the news in his blog post “Australian Vaccination Network ordered to change duplicitous name“.

On the evening of the decision, ABC’s Lateline aired a report by Steve Cannane discussing the court’s decision, with interviews with Dr Rachael Dunlop and ex-president of the AVN, Meryl Dorey.

With thanks to Anne Blake for uploading the video.

I would like to say that the following quote from Meryl Dorey surprised me, but having followed her public statements for some time now, I am quite familiar with the Big Pharma Shill gambit. From the transcript of Lateline:

STEVE CANNANE: In response to today’s decision, Meryl Dorey claimed she was a victim of hate groups and vested interests.

MERYL DOREY: Many of those people either work in the pharmaceutical industry or work for the pharmaceutical industry and it is apparent that some of these people are quite close with certain members of the NSW Parliament and of our government. So, you know, you can call it a conspiracy theory, but I’d say that there is evidence.

Well Meryl, where is this evidence? I have asked twice on Twitter, but so far have had no response.

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TumbleweedTumbleweed .gif from RationalWiki page
"List of scientifically controlled double blind studies which have
conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy"

Meryl, if you are going to make public claims which assert that there is a conspiracy between those who campaign against the AVN, pharmaceutical companies and the Australian government, you’d do well to back them up. If you can or will not, I suggest that the public would do well to apply Hitchens’ Razor to your statements.

“What can be asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.”

NB: Given Meryl Dorey’s tendency to take her critics’ words as threats, I would absurdly like to point out that Hitchens’ Razor (coined by the interminably quotable late Christopher Hitchens) is an epistemological law regarding the onus of burden of proof and not a literal razor.

Further Reading:
Stop the Australian (anti)Vaccination Network on Facebook
@StopAVN on Twitter
#StopAVN on Twitter

26/11/2013 / Jo Alabaster

Australian Skeptics National Convention 2013 Blogroll

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Over the weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending the 2013 Australian Skeptics National Convention, held at the CSIRO Discovery Center in Canberra. After two days of entertaining and enlightening talks (plus several fringe events), and some time spent with wonderful friends new and old, I have come away feeling very much recharged and inspired to involve myself further in grassroots skeptical activism.

The last talk of the conference on Sunday afternoon was “Looking to the future: where to now for skeptical thought”, by the illustrious Paul Willis (@Fossilcrox) of the Royal Institution of Australia (link to a recording of the talk here, thank you Ed Brown!). One of the topics he addressed was the importance of skeptical outreach via online media, noting that creation of online content is an accessible and cost-effective way in which to engage audiences. During his speech, he requested a quick show of hands to ask who in the audience had a blog – and on a whim, I quickly tweeted the suggestion of creating a blogroll for convention attendees.

Here is the beginning, a list of convention attendees who replied to my initial tweet. I would love to keep adding to this, so that we can keep in touch, keep up to date with one another’s writing and help share posts that we feel would be valuable to give more exposure to. If you would like to be added to the blogroll, please leave a comment here or get in touch via Twitter (@joalabaster) and I’ll put you on the list.

Brisbane SITP by Brisbane Skeptics in the Pub (@BrisbaneSitp)

Dan’s Journal of Skepticism by Dan Buzzard (@DanBuzzard)

Etwas Luft by Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0)

Evidence, Please by Jo Alabaster (@joalabaster)

Luke Freeman’s posts on Young Australian Skeptics by Luke Freeman (@lukefreeman)

Medicandus on The Conversation by Mick Vagg (@mickvagg)

Peter Bowditch’s Blog and The Millenium Project by Peter Bowditch (@RatbagsDotCom)

rbutr Blog and Shane’s Soapbox by Shane Greenup (@Aegist)

Really, Ed Brown by Ed Brown (@reallyedbrown)

RiAus Blog by Paul Willis (@Fossilcrox)

Skeptimanda by Amanda Devaus (@AmandaDevaus)

Skeptimite by Phil Kent (@skeptimite)

The Logical Place by Tim Harding (@mordiskeptic)

The Lone Deranger by Linley (@Lone_Deranger_)

The Sceptic’s Book of Pooh Pooh by Rachael Dunlop (@DrRachie)

There should be a sign by Shelley Stocken (@shellity)

Victorian Skeptics by… the Victorian Skeptics

I’d also like to link to some wonderful online tools mentioned by Amanda Devaus (@AmandaDevaus) in her talk “Guerrilla Skepticism: No more preaching to the choir”.

Skeptools - Tim Farley (@krelnik)’s vast compendium of skeptical software tools.

rButr - a browser plugin that tells you when the webpage you are viewing has been disputed, rebutted or contradicted elsewhere on the internet, founded by @Aegist.

Web of Trust – a browser plugin with a rating system and link notifications which aims to offer protection against online threats that only real life experience can detect, such as scams, untrustworthy links, and rogue web stores.

Skeptic Action – Simple and useful online daily tasks for skeptics!

Guerrilla Skepticism on Wikipedia – Improving the skeptical content of Wikipedia entries.

I’d also like to include here the Eventifier summary of #auskepcon, which includes Tweets, photos and links posted over the weekend.

Finally, I’d like to note my personal thanks to Canberra Skeptics for all of their hard work in organising and running the convention, the speakers for presenting some excellent information for us all to ruminate upon and to everybody that I spoke with who was friendly and welcoming (being everyone that I interacted with). This was my first Big Skeptic Event(tm) and socially awkward and introverted as I am, I felt comfortable and valued – which I feel is testament to the wonderful sorts of people who have helped create the culture of Australian skepticism.

02/07/2013 / Jo Alabaster

Defending the Lion; The Vulnerability of Truth

“The truth is like a lion. You don’t have to defend it. Let it loose. It will defend itself.”

The above quote, attributed to St Augustine, has been doing the rounds as an inspirational meme for some time. Occasionally it will pop up on one of my social media streams, posted by somebody who I assume has faith that fact will prevail in the face of falsehood. And of course, I certainly hope that it will – but I disagree strongly with St Augustine’s sentiment. Based on my observations, I believe that the lion of this metaphor is vulnerable and that we do need to fight to defend it.

Ethical truths, which are highly subjective (and as such, it is highly debatable whether they are indeed truths at all), do not defend themselves – if they did, surely I would not be repulsed by honour killings, as those who commit them are behaving in a manner according to the ethical truth with which I find indefensible, that bringing dishonour to one’s family is a greater crime than murdering them. We would not have an anti-abortion/pro-choice debate, nor a euthanasia debate, nor disagreements regarding the death penalty. If ethical truths could defend themselves, should they not convince us all of their merit?

Likewise, logical truths are not agreed upon by all – be it through a lack of exploration or exposure to concepts, alternate well-argued conclusions or cognitive dissonance.

The clearest of all truths though, factual truths backed by solid evidence, are still vulnerable to falsehoods – some of which when taken as truth present real risks to our society.

The truth that vaccination is the safest and most effective means by which we can protect ourselves from vaccine preventable diseases (and that these diseases are a real threat to human health and life) is continually under attack from anti-vaccination advocates – and to some in our community, the anti-vaxxers can be persuasive, resulting in both danger to individuals’ health and lowered herd immunity in our communities. As such, I find it imperative that vaccination advocates defend the truth; and I am honoured to know many people who spend a lot of their time and energy doing just that.

Likewise, fluoridation of our water supply is a safe way to ensure that our population’s dental health is maintained, but anti-fluoridation activists believe differently. Not only are these activists able to convince individuals with their rhetoric, they can also influence policy to the extent that entire regions remove fluoride from their water supply as a result of their campaigning. In this case, to maintain evidence-based public health policy, we must defend the truth.

The truths that fringe conspiracy theorists deny – that the moon landing occurred, that chemtrails are merely contrails, that the reptilians or Illuminati control the world behind the scenes – arguably cause far less harm to communities and relatively little to the individuals who believe them (this moon landing hoaxer aside), but they do serve as examples of situations in which the truth is not defending itself. I’m inclined to spend less time defending these truths, though I do tend to take issue with the conspiracy theorists’ undermining of rational evidence-based thinking.

lion of truth

It is probable that St Augustine was referring to the biblical truth in which he believed – that the truth of his god would prevail without his defense. Clearly at this point in human history it has not, given the wide array of beliefs and lack thereof held by the people of this planet. His biblical truth is not defending itself.

We humans are capable of manipulating our world, both with concepts and with actions. Both metaphorically and in reality, we have rendered the lion vulnerable; and it relies our protection if it is to prevail. The benefits of defending the lion and whether we have a moral imperative to do so are truths to be explored.

Ethically, logically and factually, St Augustine’s truth, that truth can defend itself, does not hold true for me.

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