John Edward is coming to eat your brain

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Somewhere out there, a reader named Sally has just suffered a terrible loss. Or maybe it’s Samantha, or Sarah – anyway, something that has an “s” sound in it. Her husband – actually, perhaps only a family member, or … well, someone close to her has recently passed. His name was John, or maybe Joseph? It’s something starting with “J”, anyhow, although that might be his nickname.

So what if prejudice is ‘natural’?

As published in Daily Maverick

Only a very brave or a very foolish person would be prepared to claim that they had no prejudices. I’m not talking about the conscious decisions we make to discriminate, for these are often justified, but the relatively thoughtless, perhaps instinctive, preference for one sort of thing over another, whether that thing be a type of animal, a football team or a variety of insect.

Patrick Holford’s feel-good quackery

As submitted to The Daily Maverick.

At times it appears alarmingly easy to be considered an expert in any given field. This is sometimes the case even when objective criteria for expertise are available, and you manifestly fail to meet them. Granted, there are some fields of knowledge where consensus is difficult to reach, and where equally qualified people can have opposing viewpoints. But this is rare, and (thankfully) becoming steadily more rare.

Patrick Holford supports Malema!

No, not really. I was just trying the TimesLive and Sunday Times strategy for getting hits, whereby you headline a piece with something very misleading, perhaps even false. But it is at least partly true that Holford supports Malema, because Holford cares about all of us – especially our health, which he believes he can improve via dietary advice, and of course via your purchasing of his various branded products.

Unfortunately for some of us – particularly the ones with HIV, Holford also endorses the notion that “AZT is potentially harmful and proving less effective than vitamin C” – a notion which comes from Dr Raxit Jariwalla, who works for the Matthias Rath Foundation. I’ll write more about this next week for The Daily Maverick, but in the meanwhile, here are the places to avoid if you don’t want to hear Holford giving bad advice, or run into any his cultish supporters. Or, the places to flock to, if you intend to heckle.

Though, if you do intend to heckle, you should know that you’d be disagreeing with at least some experts in dismissing Holford’s credentials. On his website, in the section on “What the experts say”, there’s this:

Patrick Holford is one of the world’s leading authorities on new approach to health and nutrition.

The expert in question? The Daily Mail.

Thanks to Twitter user ORapscallion for alerting me to the visit of this quackmeister, and of course to Radio702 / CapeTalk567, who I hope are spending this ad revenue on AIDS-related charities. I mean, surely they must be, being behind the #LeadSA campaign and all.

Static on the radio

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Just how much should radio stations, newspapers and magazines pander to the ignorance of some of their audiences? There is surely some merit to the notion that if you have a platform, where it could well be the case that the opinions of listeners and readers are shaped by what you air or print, you have some responsibility to not mislead them?

PowerBalance and the war on woo

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

There is a pestilence of woo sweeping the land. While some versions of pseudoscience, mysticism and general quackery are fairly constant insults to our sensibilities (Rhonda Byrne, Oprah, homeopathy, and chiropractic treatment are examples), others seem to go in and out of fashion like spinning tops and yo-yo’s used to do.

T4ProBalance – if you want headaches, burns and allergies

As many of you would know, I recently (on behalf of the Free Society Institute) submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority regarding PowerBalance bracelets and their particular brand of woo. Next up should surely be the scamsters who sell T4 ProBalance bracelets, who offer you 4 “technologies” in their magic bracelet. Four whole technologies, starting at just R369! Here’s what you get:

  • Bioenergetic scalar energy
  • 1200 negative ions
  • 100% surgical silicone
  • Antitstatic [sic]

That “antitstatic” alone is surely worth the price. But if you’re still not convinced, take a look at what the “benefits of T4 Pro Balance bracelets are“:

Alongside “power”, “focus” and “recovery”, they offer “burns”, “allergies” and “fatigue”. Oh, and don’t forget that “depression” you’ve been yearning for. Their website is a bit light on independent double-blind studies (i.e. there are none), so it’s unclear whether these bracelets are a good thing to wear on balance. But I suppose we have to assume that you get enough of the good stuff to outweigh those scarier-sounding “benefits”.

Or, alternately, what this shows is that they are simply too lazy, exploitative, incompetent or stupid to worry about details like having a poorly edited website. When you have fans defending the product saying things like “mabey [sic]you should look into something called science”, it seems that it doesn’t really matter what the website says. As P.T. Barnum reminded us, “there’s a sucker born every minute”, and those who sell these magic bracelets will keep on shamelessly exploiting those suckers for as long as they are able.

Updated African science and skepticism blogroll

As curated by Michael Meadon over at Ionian Enchantment, here is the updated list of African blogs focusing on science and skepticism. Please get in touch with Michael if you know of any others that merit inclusion on the list.

More on Hawking and the (latest) death of god

As submitted to The Daily Maverick

Note to reader: While the opening paragraph is identical to a previous post on this subject, the rest of the content is new.

I’m not a physicist, so won’t be able to say much about many of the claims Stephen Hawking reportedly makes in his new book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the excellent The Drunkard’s Walk). But based on reviews and responses to the book by other physicists, Hawking’s controversial claim – that God is no longer necessary to explain the origins of the universe – is premised on insights gleaned from a patchwork of string-theories known as “M-theory”.

Relegating God to the sidelines in this fashion has brought Hawking many headlines, and will no doubt help book sales. It’s also brought a swift flurry of responses from religious groups and leaders, who reject the notion of God’s redundancy. A summary of many of these responses consists of an admission that while Hawking may have provided insight into the “how” questions relating to the origin of the universe, he hasn’t helped us answer the “why” questions. Therefore, they say, God still has a role in helping us understand our lives on this dustbowl called Earth.

Hawking: science doesn’t need god

Unfortunately, I can’t say much about the physics underlying the claims Stephen Hawking reportedly makes in his new book The Grand Design (co-written with Leonard Mlodinow, author of the excellent The Drunkard’s Walk). First because I’m not a physicist, and second because I haven’t read the book yet. But one of the claims Hawking apparently makes is that god is no longer necessary to explain the origins of the universe. The extent to which god was ever necessary to explain the origins of the universe is of course itself highly debatable – especially if, by “god” we mean some particular version of god.

In other words, it’s all good and well to say that the universe was created by something we don’t (perhaps, yet) understand, but it’s a massive leap to go from that proposition to far more specific ones, such as “god is good”, “god wants me to wear plaid”, or “god wants you to give me money“. In short, we’ve got very little idea of how the universe came about, and the physics that “explains” it is highly speculative. Other physicists and philosophers of physics – even those who don’t believe in god themselves – have also been quick to point out that they don’t think Hawking is right or consistent on the physics.