Wednesday, February 28, 2007

DNA on a Rainy Day (continued...)

On a previous post I attempted to extract some DNA from peas and the experiment raised some questions which I'm trying to address below.

I decided to test some of these conclusions/hypotheses by means of a small factorial experimental design using split v. frozen, filtered v. unfiltered pineapple juice and 1 ml v. 3 ml of pineapple juice as factors. Using a saturated randomised experiment matrix, I can evaluate the effects of these three factors by means of just four runs.

Not being able to find split peas, I settled for dried marrowfat peas, a British favourite used in preparing mushy peas (a common accompaniment to fish 'n chips). I used 100 g of these but due to their extreme water absorption (I soaked them overnight, as I did the frozen peas), I had to add another 50 ml of water to the standard 200 ml, in order to be able to blitz the peas into "pea cell soup". So the comparison below is really between 100 g of frozen peas/200 ml of water on the one hand, and 100 g of dried marrowfat peas/250 ml of water on the other hand. All other factors, such as the amount of salt, the amount of washing-up liquid and working time, were kept as constantly as possible. The "pea cell soup" obtained from the marrowfat peas was much thicker and a lighter shade of green with a bit of froth (foam) on top (see also below).

The pineapple juice was obtained by blitzing half of a baby pineapple, passing the fruit paste through a tea trainer and filtering half of that using a funnel and some kitchen towel (tissue). The filtered pineapple juice was slightly opaque and thin, the strained pineapple juice was thick and completely non-transparent.

The experiments were run almost simultaneously, using about four ml of the treated pea soup (

Here's the experiment matrix and the response variables obtained:

Run>>>>> Peas>>>>>> Juice>>>>> Juice>>>> DNA (rating 1- 5)

#1>>>>>> Frozen>>>>> Unfiltered >3 ml>>>> 1

#2>>>>>> Frozen>>>>> Filtered>>> 1 ml>>>> 1

#3>>>>>> Dried>>>>>> Unfiltered>> 1 ml>>>> 4

#4>>>>>> Dried>>>>>> Filtered>>>> 3 ml>>>> 5

Thanks to a "free gift" from DELL, I'm the owner of what must be the crappiest digital camera in the universe, so bear with me on the image below. The tubes are arranged for left to right as #1, #2, #3 and #4. The photo below was taken approximately 5 min after adding the methylated spirits. Although the images make it difficult to discern the amount of DNA separated, I used a visual (direct, non-photographical) ranking system as my response variable, on a scale from 1 to 5, with ranking 5 indicating the highest amount of DNA and 1 the lowest. This system is of course subjective and imprecise but at the time it was the best I could do: the amounts would not lend themselves to weighing with my electronic scales, which only have a 0.1 g precision.

In tube #1, an opaque disc of DNA could be seen, risen to the top of the alcohol phase. In tube#2, a similarly faint disc was about to rise to the top too. I ranked both as 1.

For tubes #3 and #4, please note that the foam mentioned before had settled on top of the alcohol phase and this foam is not indicative of the amount of DNA. But between the pea soup/alcohol separation and the foam, it can be clearly seen that much more DNA has gathered there than in the case of runs #1 and #2. I ranked #3 as a 4 and #4 as a 5.

To calculate the effects of the factors, simply add the response variables (DNA) of both runs where the factor was at one level (1), add the response variables (DNA) of both runs where the factor was at the other level (2), calculate (2) - (1) and divide by 2.

For example in the case of the type of peas, (1) = 1 + 1 = 2, (2) = 4 + 5 = 9, (2) - (1) = 7 and the effect of switching from frozen to dried peas thus equals 7/2 = +3.5.

Similarly the effect of switching from unfiltered to filtered pineapple juice was +0.5 and the effect of switching from 1 ml to 3 ml of pineapple juice was -0.5. The average of all four runs was 2.75.

So, let's draw some conclusions:

  1. Peas: the effect of the type of peas, predictably perhaps, was very clear; dried peas yield more of the stringy stuff, presumably because they contain more cell matter and less water.

  2. Filtering: due to the low resolution of the design, an effect value of +0.5 is probably not statistically significant. It's also in breach of a previous assumption, namely that using pineapple cell pulp, instead of filtered pineapple juice, would introduce more DNA to the mix and increase yield. It's entirely possible though that using unfiltered pineapple juice in conjunction with a DNA-poor cell soup (i.e. using frozen peas) could slightly increase the yield of DNA (as was previously observed).

  3. Amount of pineapple juice: again, due to the low resolution of the design, an effect value of -0.5 is probably not statistically significant. In practice this would mean that the required amount of pineapple juice is probably less than 1 ml and that a few drops would do the trick. Enzymes are bio-catalysts and very effective at what they do: a small amount probably suffices.

And so, I'll probably be running one more test, this time using split peas and determining the minimum needed quantity of filtered pineapple juice...

    Monday, February 26, 2007

    DNA on a Rainy Day

    I while ago I stumbled on a science site that expanded on a simple procedure to extract DNA from living matter (or from anything that once was alive and hasn't decayed too much). Yesterday I decided to put it to the test. You can find a complete layman's version here, including some enlightening schematics. It's applied to peas.

    Briefly put, the protocol constitutes four separate steps:

    1. Making lightly salted "pea cell soup".

    2. Breaking down the cells and nucleus membranes, thereby releasing the raw DNA into the mix, by adding washing-up liquid.

    3. Breaking down the proteins onto which the DNA is coiled, by adding an enzyme to the mix.

    4. Separating the freed DNA by means of alcohol.

    I had to make a few small changes to the recipe though:

    1. Having no split peas at hand I used frozen ones and substituted the recommended 100 ml of the former by 100 g of the latter (a bit of a mistake).

    2. Having no "meat tenderizer" at hand (it seems they don't sell that stuff in Europe, at least not in retail), I followed the suggestion of trying pineapple juice, which contains the enzyme Bromelain, also found in meat tenderizers. I made freshly squeezed pineapple juice by straining some 10 ml of finely chopped pineapple through a tea-strainer.

    3. Having no rubbing alcohol, I replaced it with (purple) methylated spirits, which is essentially methanol.

    Not having the slightest idea how much Bromelain my juice contained, I decided to run a few tests at once. And so after completing steps 1 and 2, I added respectively 1 ml, 2 ml and 3 ml of pineapple juice to three test-tubes (from my daughter's chemset, every home should have one!), each containing the same amount of treated pea soup (about 3 ml).

    After that I carefully added the methylated spirits (which I had previously cooled in the freezer, as
    recommended in this slightly more advanced procedure), about 3 ml to each of the three tubes.

    Very little patience was rewarded almost immediately, as a white, flocular material started to appear in the zone separating the pea soup and the alcohol! It's slightly eerie to see the stuff that is so vital to life appear before your very own eyes...

    A few conclusions could also be drawn:

    1. The total amount of DNA (plus some RNA, as this is so-called 'genomic DNA') seemed a lot smaller "than in the picture". This I believe is partly due to my ill-advised substitution of the recommended 100 ml of split peas, by 100 g of frozen peas: split peas are a lot more dense than frozen or fresh peas, so a 100 ml of splits probably weighs up to 150 to 200 g. My concoction simply didn't contain as much DNA as planned...

    2. As it rose through the methanol, the DNA showed its stringy nature but it wasn't quire as stringy as I expected: too much stirring (these macromolecules are fragile) or too high expectations?

    3. The amount of DNA was clearly proportional to the amount of pineapple juice used. At first glance it would be tempting to attribute this to the greater quantity of enzyme present but that doesn't necessarily make sense. The pineapple juice was a thick and non transparent liquid, probably closer to "pineapple cell soup" than an actual Bromelain solution and thus more DNA will have been present in the test-tubes containing the higher amounts of pineapple juice. An additional test using 3 ml of pineapple juice with a reduced amount (about 2 ml) of pea cell soup yielded about the same amount of DNA as the 3/3 combination, indicating I was also extracting pineapple DNA and not just pea DNA. One way to find out would be to filter the pineapple juice...

    In a next session I'll be testing some of these conclusions/hypotheses by means of a small factorial experimental design using split v. frozen, filtered v. unfiltered pineapple juice and 1 ml v. 3 ml of pineapple juice as factors. Using a saturated randomised experiment matrix, I can evaluate the effects of these three factors by means of just four runs (and as luck would have it, I have exactly four test-tubes!)

    The procedure can be applied to just about any living matter and I'll be testing it on one of my closest enemies soon enough (just kiddin', just kiddin'!) but peas are a good source because they are seeds and contain lots of the stringy stuff. And most of
    Gregor Mendel's groundbreaking work on the laws of genetic inheritance was also done on peas and pea plants. So, let's hear it for the father of modern genetics and his trusted friend, the good old pea! But if you can't be bothered with DNA or genetics, here's some recipes for tasty pea soup...

    Update: the results of the additional tests can be found here.

    Sunday, February 25, 2007

    We love you really

    Protests against US foreign policy are often wrongly interpreted as anti-Americanism, which could be the seeds of a crisis for the European left.

    Ben Hammersley - CiF

    You know you're doing badly when even your best mates start to wander off. On Wednesday we saw Italy lose its government over its support for US foreign policy; the UK has announced that it's pulling its troops out of Iraq just as the Americans are throwing more in; Denmark is pulling most of theirs out too. If you were American, you might start to take this all a bit personally.

    And therein could be the seeds of a crisis for the European left. Because just as any criticism of Israel is invariably called anti-semitism, criticism of Bush's policies will be called, very soon, anti-Americanism. With that we risk a "nobody-likes-us, everybody-hates-us, down in the garden eating worms" American government. One that uses its lack of popular support abroad as proof it's on the right track. With the forthcoming election campaigns, we have to be careful that apparent isolation doesn't turn into exceptionalism and unilateral action by an American public under the impression that a lack of support somehow equates to hostility.

    The route to such a risky state is quite simple. As the Telegraph reported earlier this month, Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer equated criticism of America with aiding terrorism " ... but America's enemies take comfort from continual attacks on America by America's friends," he said. "Before you leap out there and vigorously attack America, think about the consequences of what you're saying."

    From there it's an easy rhetorical step for the American right to say "and therefore the more you criticise us about the way we handle ourselves, the more we're going to have to do it our way". From rendition flights to kidnappings off European streets by the CIA, campaigns by the European left against the US's actions need to be tempered to refer specifically to the government's actions, and not the country as a whole. Every generalisation, every snarky comment about dumb A'murkins, every demonstration without specific target actually strengthens the very people the left don't like.

    As John Hooper wrote on Wednesday the arguments over the Italy-US relationship has put Prodi, and the country, into a typically Italian political crisis, but it's not really one that actually has anything to do with the US. It just looks that way from anywhere else, and certainly from Washington. As the picture above shows, the demonstration in Vicenza last weekend that kicked the crisis off was ostensibly anti-American - a point emphasised by the US embassy in Rome, who warned all Americans in Vicenza to stay indoors for fear of violence against them.

    In reality though, the protest was only against the US foreign policy (specifically their desire to open a US air force base just outside the city.) Speaker after speaker on the stage in Vicenza spoke about loving Americans, but disagreeing with their president. As Europeans we need to point this out a lot more, lest we find that someone who thinks they have no friends left to lose usually stops listening entirely.

    Saturday, February 24, 2007

    Tony Blair makes Comical Ali seem the voice of reason

    Marina Hyde - Saturday February 24, 2007 - The Guardian

    Cast your mind back to the Iraq war as it was originally billed - the one where we won in three weeks - and which revisionist historians may just come to classify as a kind of phoney war curtain-raiser to the prolonged horror that succeeded it. Quite the most entertaining cameo of the day - even counting Clare Short's hilarious insistence on staying in the cabinet so she could oversee the reconstruction effort - was that played by Saddam's information minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, who we came to know as Comical Ali.

    Not for him the relentless negativity that so exasperates Tony Blair where critics of his mission's success are concerned. "There are only two American tanks in the city," the information minister would beam beatifically during one of his must-watch daily briefings in early 2003, surrounded by reporters who would have been to able to count at least three if they stood on a low chair. Or recall his declaration as news channels screened footage of coalition troops patrolling Saddam international airport: "They are not in control of any airport."
    Read on...

    Friday, February 23, 2007

    The US psychological torture system is finally on trial

    America has deliberately driven hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners insane. Now it is being held to account in a Miami court

    Naomi Klein - Friday February 23, 2007 - The Guardian
    Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom. The cruel methods US interrogators have used since September 11 to "break" prisoners are finally being put on trial. This was not supposed to happen. The Bush administration's plan was to put José Padilla on trial for allegedly being part of a network linked to international terrorists. But Padilla's lawyers are arguing that he is not fit to stand trial because he has been driven insane by the government. Read on

    It's also worthwhile to read the comments to this article...

    Ten reasons the left hates Israel - five good, five bad (bad title)

    Apart from the highly contentious title - "the left hates Israel" is a ludicrously broad generalisation which negates the fact that many on the left are simply critical of some aspects of Israeli foreign policy and hatred just doesn't come into that - Bradley Burston get's it right on his assessment of five good reasons to be critical of Israel's policies on the Israel/Palestine conflict and his five bad reasons. It will be interesting to see if he will follow-up with an assessment of the right's 'undying (and sometimes unedifying) love of Israel'. I'm not holding my breath though...

    Bradley Burston

    A few thoughts engendered by the controversy over Alvin H. Rosenfeld's article "'Progressive'" Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism."

    Five of the following are reasonable. Five are not.

    This is a reflection, if nothing else, of the duality of leftist criticism of Israel. There are leftists whose critiques are clear-eyed, factually valid, morally on point. And then there are those for whom Israel represents a blood-boiling factory of evil, an entity whose very existence is an affront, an abomination. Those who are convinced, and seek to convince the world, that the Jewish state should cease to exist.

    Why does the left hate Israel? Here are five good reasons:

    1. Because Israel's policies are frequently marked by gratuitous humiliation of and disdain for the Palestinians.

    2. Because Israelis can live with this.

    If the policies hinted at in 1. above are associated with a status quo which Israelis find tolerably calm and Palestinians find unbearable, even lethal, Israel's leaders often view this as a viable and even optimal outcome.

    3. Because Israel, in practice, values settlements more than it values social justice.

    The right will tell you that there is contradiction between settlements and social justice. Which would be true if there were no Palestinians, and if the Palestinians did not view the land occupied by settlements as theirs, historically, legally, and morally. And which would be true if the same consideration offered settlers in fixing the route of the West Bank fence were applied to Palestinians, that is, were farmers not cut off from their fields, pupils from their schools, and close relatives from one another.

    The right will tell you that the settlements are no obstacle to peace. But that same right will also argue that the settlements are the only real bulwark between the Palestinians and an independent Palestine.

    4. Because Israel, even in withdrawing from Gaza, has left it to die.

    It is not lost on leftists that many Israelis reap a distinct satisfaction from the Palestinians' inability to help themselves, govern themselves, save themselves. Leftists may note that Israel has done everything in its power to convince the world to deny much-needed aid to a democratically elected government, and that Israel has not acted as a neighbor whose primary concern is an eventual peace.

    5. Because of the propensity of Israel's leaders to demonstrate arrogance, claim a monopoly on the moral high ground, set non-negotiable demands to which Palestinian politicians cannot agree, then condemn Palestinians for intransigence.

    Here, then, are five bad reasons:

    1. The Palestinian cause is inherently progressive.

    As currently constituted, Palestinian governance is marked by institutional graft, widespread human rights violations, curbs on press freedoms, tribalism, blood feuds, murders of women on the basis of contentions of preservation of family honor, and celebration of the targeting and killing of non-combatants as a legitimate form of resistance to occupation.

    2. Israel remains the sole root cause of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the reason it remains unresolved

    As root causes go, both sides have demonstrated profound intransigence, both sides have violated agreements with abandon, both sides suffer from extremists whose power to destroy a peace process far outweighs their proportion of the population.

    In addition, the contention that Israel is solely responsible suggests that the solution of the Mideast conflict is the dissolution of Israel. This brings us to:

    3. Israel is a Jewish state.

    For a vocal minority of leftists, this fact alone ? coupled with the following two arguments - is enough to call into serious question Israel's right to exist. This argument, which holds that the formally Jewish nature of the state enshrines an unconscionable level of racism, dovetails with:

    4. Israel is an apartheid state.

    See Occupation: It's horrid, but it's not apartheid

    5. Israel's actions are comparable to those of Nazi Germany.

    This contention may be the genuine litmus test for anti-Semitism on the left.

    In the end, the compulsion to accuse Israel of genocide, while turning a blind eye to wholesale slaughter in Darfur and elsewhere, tends to say a great deal more about the accuser than the accused.

    A Bad Ad Hominem Day?

    Is it just me or am I right in saying that the frequency and ferocity of ad hominem attacks in fora, blog comment sections and other arenas of Internet discussion is actually strongly increasing? No, this piece isn't about my sensitivity, me having been at the receiving end of personal attacks or my bleeding heart for that matter. But for the purpose of illustration, I will show one comment which I consider to be one of the longest and most vituperous I've come across in a while, directed at me or anyone else for that matter. It's worth quoting in its entirety because obviously some work went into composing such a diatribe:
    The source, a comment made on this Jultra blogpost
    Gert, you hairy Troll

    You haven't got anything to say about WHAT WE ARE TALKING ABOUT you simpering bollock-less troll.

    If you have something to say about the subject, i.e., you have SEEN THE DOCUMENTARY IN QUESTION and have come to a different conclusion, then by all means, OFFER THAT you TWAT, instead of your lilly livered puked up pabulum of TWADDLE.

    Jultra says Iran is next. You say, in a condescending tone, "its more complicated than that". You utter arsehole, just what the HELL does that mean? Do you have SOMETHING TO OFFER to demonstrate why Jultra's conclusion is wrong? Of course not, you are just a simpering troll, you have nothing to offer, you are an empty vessel, a pathetic debunker, an idiot, and frankly, a part of the problem, because you try and shut up people who DO have something to say, which is their absolute right. And by the way MANY people believe that Iran is next, what the hell, cant you even READ the internet that you claim to be able to sell services for?

    Uneducated types like you are the cause of all our problems. You are small thinkers, concerned only with the form of a thought and not its content. You and your grammar checking rats really make me sick.

    I know your type. You have a whining nasal Yorkshire accent, you think you are cultured, intelligent, reasonable and worldly, and yet, you are as thick as shit, put ketchup on your food, are insular as they come and deeply resentful of the 'southerners' who own and control you.

    You are a Skeptic, the worst type of inhuman beast on this planet. You science cult followers, without independent thought are the type that burned the early astronomers. Now we can put your comment that 'its a little more complicated than that' into perspective. You are a PATERNALIST just like the BBC garbage eaters who made that program. Anyone who doesn't think like you is a threat. That is why you slavishly follow crappy little sites like BadScience. You are an atheist, and against people following religion. You are a rancid fanatical follower of the 100% evil scientist Dawkins, witchfynder general of modern science.

    We know your number Gert, we read your blog! [this bit does actually come across as slightly menacing, my edit]

    Typical of your rabid foam mouthed blathering is your slavish repetition of the standard attacks on Dr Gillian McKeith, who has more money than you, helps more people than you do and is a female, hence your utter contempt and hatred for her. You parrot the garbage of other 'science' people in your attack piece on her. How sad you little northerners are, and that pathetic image is multiplied and exacerbated by your dribbling fawning fanboy 'scientific' posturing. What a joke. You are as easy to read as a puppy that has just pissed its owners lap. You are a monumental simpleton and a fucking jackass.

    Please bugger off back to your religion you bastard, and leave the real science and debating to the people who are actually interested in the facts, and not dogmatic proclamations from your slimy science pulpit.

    You utter tosser.

    It's worth looking into the phenomenon of excessive and baseless name-calling that so pervades the blogosphere because it seriously stands in the way of a frank but respectful exchange of ideas and the latter is one the Internet's goals and in many respects one of its achievements. No-one cannot be tempted to simply break off the 'conversation' when the point of mudslinging is reached, or alternatively the target of the attack will merely retaliate with similar filth and the whole thing then spirals out of control and into a meaningless cacophony of slanderous epithets.

    The truth of the matter is that things get written that most bloggers or fora members would never dare say when face-to-face with a person, or in the presence of friends, peers, parents, work-colleagues or other people for that matter. For one, the person at the receiving end might just put your nose out of joint and if not, you'd look in any case mostly foolish in front of the audience.

    It kind of reminds me of the
    Milgram experiment which clearly showed that people are more willing to dish out 'punishment' when they are physically further removed from the 'punished'. And where can you be further removed from the object of your dislike or even hatred than in the anonymity of Tinterwebs? The absence of any consequences of what one writes or says about another person, this complete absence of deterrence is what makes it possible to be offensive to a degree that is broadly speaking unimaginable in the 'physical world'.

    In the name of dialogue, I urge anyone to reconsider when tempted to resort to mudslinging: it stands in the way of reasoned debate and achieves nothing at all...

    Thursday, February 22, 2007

    That Shrivelling ID Movement...

    From Larry Moran - Sandwalk blog

    Phillip Johnson has just posted a long essay on Intelligent Design Creationism [
    Intelligent Design in Biology: the Current Situation and Future Prospects].
    ... my personal view is that I identify the designer of life with the God of the Bible, although intelligent design theory as such does not entail that. Phillip Johnson

    Like most IDiot arguments, this one relies on two main points: (1) evolution is wrong, (2) the bad guys are picking on us. There isn't one single scientific argument in favor of intelligent design.

    This isn't really news but it's still worth pointing out. The Intelligent Design Creationists often claim that their case does not rely on disproving evolution but instead relies on positive evidence for intelligent design. Well, here was their big chance to prove it in an essay by the founding father. They blew it. I hate hypocrisy.

    A kind word for Condoleezza

    By Aluf Benn - Ha'aretz

    People who spoke to United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her visit this week were impressed by her determination to invest the remainder of her tenure in promoting a "two-state solution" for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The triple handshake she produced with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, which was reminiscent of the old peace ceremonies at the White House, says something about the magnitude of her aspirations. Like her predecessors, Rice has been captivated by the strange enchantment of Middle Eastern diplomacy, and according to her acquaintances she too is frustrated by the abyss that gapes between the obvious solution and the tremendous difficulty of achieving it.

    There is no doubt that Rice has personal, political and strategic interests in her frequent trips to the Middle East. She wants an achievement that can be chalked up to her credit. It's good for her to get away from the troubles in Iraq and to appear as a peacemaker at a time when her colleagues in the administration are busy with war. She has to show that she is doing something for the Palestinians, in order to placate Saudi Arabia and Egypt and harness them to the front against Iran. And even though she does not talk about this in public, she sees putting an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state as a moral imperative. In closed conversations, Rice has used imagery from the racist American South where she grew up.
    Read this article...

    Wednesday, February 21, 2007

    A Hillbilly Atheist...

    Here's an unusual atheist who deserves a pat on the back for standing up and being counted: And you can learn something about these rednecks too. Useful!

    And here's
    our redneck's presentation on atheism as hosted by Richard Dawkins, no less!

    Man, I'm green with envy...

    'I can cure Aids, and I will'

    The Guardian
    From the pockets of his billowing white robe, Gambia's president pulled out a plastic container, closed his eyes in prayer and rubbed a green herbal paste into the ribcage of his patient. He then ordered the thin man to swallow a bitter yellow drink, followed by two bananas.

    "Whatever you do, there are bound to be sceptics - but I can tell you my method is foolproof," Yahya Jammeh said, surrounded by bodyguards inside his presidential compound as he prepared to treat more patients.

    "Mine is not an argument, mine is a proof," he added. "It's a declaration. I can cure Aids, and I will."

    In a continent suffering from the world's worst Aids epidemic, claims of miracle cures have alarmed public health workers already struggling against the corrosive effect of faith healers dispensing herbal remedies from thatched huts.

    Experts are concerned that Mr Jammeh requires his patients to cease their anti-retroviral drugs - a dangerous step, because doing so can weaken the body's immune system, making the patient prone to infection, Dr Antonio Filipe, the local head of the World Health Organisation in neighbouring Senegal, said.

    Since January, when Mr Jammeh announced his "cure" to a gathering of foreign diplomats, he has thrown the bureaucratic machinery of the small West African country behind his claim of a cure.
    Read the rest here...

    Please tell me again that quack-medicine is a matter of choice, of free will, that people should be allowed to believe in what they want to believe in, even if it's potentially terminal, that it's their money after all...

    This news comes on the heels of last night's episode of BBC 2's "Trust me: I'm a healer". Is Tony Chadwick God's gift to infertile women?
    Watch the clips and make up your own mind. When pressed, Tony reluctantly admitted that his unusually propped methods (involving a crown of thorns and what looks like a home-made solar panel), had not yet resulted in any babies being born although one of the "treated" women had a miscarriage and another had an ectopic pregnancy.

    Out of sheer curiosity I clicked on the '
    spiritual healing blog' link on that same BBC page, to be greeted immediately with a large pop-up (despite having a quite effective Google pop-up blocker in place): Discover how easy it is to create online wealth!

    Spiritual healing, as well as most other forms of alternative medicine, is much more about healing the wallet of the 'healer' than providing some form of reliable, effective and safe treatment for the afflicted...

    Venus in the Early Evening Sky

    If on a clear evening you've been looking toward the West shortly after sunset, you may have noticed a bright start not far above the horizon. This "star" is the planet Venus, which at this part of its orbit around the sun is often called the "evening star". Venus is speeding towards the point of Greatest Eastern Elongation which this year will be reached on June 9. At Greatest Elongation (Eastern or Western) the angle between the line connecting the sun and the Earth and the line connecting the sun and Venus is greatest of all year. This diagram shows it better than any lengthy explanation can do. You can also follow the positions of the planets respective to the sun at this CGI page (use the controls to enlarge if needed).

    As a result, at Eastern Elongation, the planet can be seen shortly after sunset, in the Western sky, fairly low over the horizon. Conversely, at Western Elongation the planet rises shortly before sunrise (in the Eastern sky) and then it's known as the "morning star".

    Like the other inner planet, Mercury (but Mercury is so close to the sun, it's very hard to spot), Venus shows clear phases (much like the Moon) and at Greatest Elongation the planet is at half phase.

    Whilst we're clearly still some time away from Greatest Eastern Elongation, I've already taken a couple of preliminary peeks at Venus, using my 150 mm reflector telescope. Unfortunately, a quick set-up from my front-porch yielded a very poor image, even in good seeing conditions: the planet is low over the horizon and in an urban area that means an amateur astronomer is peering over rooftops and through the heat and light pollution of the city (well, town in my case). Whilst I could clearly discern the disc, the magnified swirls of rising warm air made it look more like a flaming sun than a planet!

    But at the earliest possible opportunity, I'm taking my trusted scope out to the seafront where the clear horizon causes light and heat pollution to be much less of a problem. Fingers crossed!

    Tuesday, February 20, 2007

    9/11 fantasists pose a mortal danger to popular oppositional campaigns

    These conspiracy idiots are a boon for Bush and Blair as they destroy the movements some of us have spent years building

    George Monbiot - The Guardian

    'You did this hit piece because your corporate masters instructed you to. You are a controlled asset of the new world order ... bought and paid for." "Everyone has some skeleton in the cupboard. How else would MI5 and special branch recruit agents?" "Shill, traitor, sleeper", "leftwing gatekeeper", "accessory after the fact", "political whore of the biggest conspiracy of them all".

    These are a few of the measured responses to my article, a fortnight ago, about the film Loose Change, which maintains that the United States government destroyed the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. Having spent years building up my leftwing credibility on behalf of my paymasters in MI5, I've blown it. I overplayed my hand, and have been exposed, like Bush and Cheney, by a bunch of kids with laptops. My handlers are furious.

    I believe that George Bush is surrounded by some of the most scheming, devious, ruthless men to have found their way into government since the days of the Borgias. I believe that they were criminally negligent in failing to respond to intelligence about a potential attack by al-Qaida, and that they have sought to disguise their incompetence by classifying crucial documents.

    I believe, too, that the Bush government seized the opportunity provided by the attacks to pursue a longstanding plan to invade Iraq and reshape the Middle East, knowing full well that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11. Bush deliberately misled the American people about the links between 9/11 and Iraq and about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction. He is responsible for the murder of many tens of thousands of Iraqis.

    But none of this is sufficient. To qualify as a true opponent of the Bush regime, you must also now believe that it is capable of magic. It could blast the Pentagon with a cruise missile while persuading hundreds of onlookers that they saw a plane. It could wire every floor of the twin towers with explosives without attracting attention and prime the charges (though planes had ploughed through the middle of the sequence) to drop each tower in a perfectly timed collapse. It could make Flight 93 disappear into thin air, and somehow ensure that the relatives of the passengers collaborated with the deception. It could recruit tens of thousands of conspirators to participate in these great crimes and induce them all to have kept their mouths shut, for ever.

    In other words, you must believe that Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and their pals are all-knowing, all-seeing and all-powerful, despite the fact that they were incapable of faking either weapons of mass destruction or any evidence at Ground Zero that Saddam Hussein was responsible. You must believe that the impression of cackhandedness and incompetence they have managed to project since taking office is a front. Otherwise you are a traitor and a spy.

    Why do I bother with these morons? Because they are destroying the movements some of us have spent a long time trying to build. Those of us who believe that the crucial global issues - climate change, the Iraq war, nuclear proliferation, inequality - are insufficiently debated in parliament or congress, that corporate power stands too heavily on democracy, that war criminals, cheats and liars are not being held to account, have invested our efforts in movements outside the mainstream political process. These, we are now discovering, are peculiarly susceptible to this epidemic of gibberish.

    The obvious corollorary to the belief that the Bush administration is all-powerful is that the rest of us are completely powerless. In fact it seems to me that the purpose of the "9/11 truth movement" is to be powerless. The omnipotence of the Bush regime is the coward's fantasy, an excuse for inaction used by those who don't have the stomach to engage in real political fights.

    Let me give you an example. The column I wrote about Loose Change two weeks ago generated 777 posts on the Guardian Comment is Free website, which is almost a record. Most of them were furious. The response from a producer of the film, published last week, attracted 467. On the same day the Guardian published my article about a genuine, demonstrable conspiracy: a spy network feeding confidential information from an arms control campaign to Britain's biggest weapons manufacturer, BAE Systems. It drew 60 responses. The members of the 9/11 cult weren't interested. If they had been, they might have had to do something. The great virtue of a fake conspiracy is that it calls on you to do nothing.

    The 9/11 conspiracy theories are a displacement activity. A displacement activity is something you do because you feel incapable of doing what you ought to do. A squirrel sees a larger squirrel stealing its horde of nuts. Instead of attacking its rival, it sinks its teeth into a tree and starts ripping it to pieces. Faced with the mountainous challenge of the real issues we must confront, the chickens in the "truth" movement focus instead on a fairytale, knowing that nothing they do or say will count, knowing that because the perpetrators don't exist, they can't fight back. They demonstrate their courage by repeatedly bayoneting a scarecrow.

    Many of those who posted responses on Comment is Free contend that Loose Change (which was neatly demolished in the BBC's film The Conspiracy Files on Sunday night) is a poor representation of the conspiracists' case. They urge us instead to visit websites like, and, and to read articles by the theology professor David Ray Griffin and the physicist Steven E Jones.

    Concerned that I might have missed something, I have now done all those things, and have come across exactly the same concatenation of ill-attested nonsense as I saw in Loose Change. In all these cases you will find wild supposition raised to the status of incontrovertible fact, rumour and confusion transformed into evidence, selective editing, the citation of fake experts, the dismissal of real ones. Doubtless I will now be told that these are not the true believers: I will need to dive into another vat of tripe to get to the heart of the conspiracy.

    The 9/11 truthers remind me of nothing so much as the climate change deniers, cherry-picking their evidence, seizing any excuse for ignoring the arguments of their opponents. Witness the respondents to my Loose Change column who maintain that the magazine Popular Mechanics, which has ripped the demolition theories apart, is a government front. They know this because one of its editors, Benjamin Chertoff, is the brother/nephew/first cousin of the US homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff. (They are, as far as Benjamin can discover, unrelated, but what does he know?)

    Like the millenarian fantasies which helped to destroy the Levellers as a political force in the mid-17th century, this crazy distraction presents a mortal danger to popular oppositional movements. If I were Bush or Blair, nothing would please me more than to see my opponents making idiots of themselves, while devoting their lives to chasing a phantom. But as a controlled asset of the new world order, I would say that, wouldn't I? It's all part of the plot.

    Sunday, February 18, 2007

    Thumbs up to

    Firstly, introducing Ben Goldacre, the man behind From Wiki:
    Goldacre writes a weekly column, Bad Science, in the Saturday edition of The Guardian newspaper's daily science page,[1] with expanded versions of the columns with reader comments on his website[4] Devoted to satirical criticism of scientific inaccuracy, health scares, pseudoscience and quackery [my emph.], it focuses especially on examples from the mass media, consumer product marketing and complementary and alternative medicine in Britain.[5]

    The era of Enlightenment is definitely over and its goals weren't achieved. Despite centuries of tremendous scientific accomplishments and advancement in just about every field, "scientific inaccuracy, health scares, pseudoscience and quackery" are all strongly on the rise, mostly motivated by plain financial gain (dare I say GREED?)

    But pseudo-science isn't just a threat to common sense, it can be and often is downright dangerous, especially (but not exclusively) when applied to medical/dietary/nutritional problems. Pseudo-science and its acolytes, armed with the ubiquitous lab coat and a veneer of scientific parlance, preys on the gullible and the ignorant. The latter, often in search of more "choice" or "pseudo-spirituality" tend to lap it up and open their wallets wide for "treatments", "medicines", "remedies", etc which very often are entirely unproven (and frequently can be proven to contain no active ingredients whatsoever). In most cases the peddlers are really modern-day snake oil merchants.

    Some cases are more blatant than others. The marketing and advertising machineries of most cosmetics firms nearly all use pseudo-scientific veneer to vaguely ascribe effects to their products which what is essentially face paint simply can't deliver. L'Oreal 's "DNAge" range is one of the worst offenders because the term DNAge implies the products somehow act as at the molecular level when in reality they can't even penetrate the epidermis, never mind do some genetic engineering.

    Producers of shampoos and conditioners will also have gullible (and possibly vain) women (and men?) believe putting vitamins on your hair will make it look better. Ladies (and gentlemen): hair is dead matter and isn't even made of cells: the best hair conditioner is probably something like olive oil, but vitamins won't make a jot of difference. They're an expensive waste of time when it comes to hair.

    Personally I find it amazing that the advertising standards bureaus don't come down hard and fast on these dubious advertising claims. But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised: nobody really likes to interfere with the Holy Pound, do they? And these companies have great PR and expensive lawyers...

    Enough of my ranting which could never beat Ben Goldacre's lucid observations, so do yourselves a favour and visit now. Visit often. Learn. Contribute. Go on, I tell thee, it's for your own good...

    Saturday, February 17, 2007

    Facing Mecca

    By Uri Avnery

    MUST A Native-American recognize the right of the United States of America to exist?

    Interesting question. The USA was established by Europeans who invaded a continent that did not belong to them, eradicated most of the indigenous population (the "Red Indians") in a prolonged campaign of genocide, and exploited the labor of millions of slaves who had been brutally torn from their lives in Africa. Not to mention what is going on today. Must a Native-American - or indeed anybody at all - recognize the right of such a state to exist?

    But nobody raises the question. The United States does not give a damn if anybody recognizes its right to exist or not. It does not demand this from the countries with which it maintains relations.

    Why? Because this is a ridiculous demand to start with.

    OK, the United States is older than the State of Israel, as well as bigger and more powerful. But countries that are not super-powers do not demand this either. India, for example, is not expected to recognize Pakistan's "right to exist", in spite of the fact that Pakistan was established at the same time as Israel, and - like Israel - on an ethnic/religious basis.

    SO WHY is Hamas required to "recognize Israel's right to exist"?
    Please read on here...

    I'm the Daddy...

    Look folks, it's official, okay? I'm the daddy of Anna Nicole Smith's baby, by means of immaculate conception no less. So, quit all your genetic shenanigans and give me Anna's estate, now. Don't believe the other 17 impostors, it's me. Okay? Me, MOI!

    Thursday, February 15, 2007

    The Most Ridiculous Creationist of the Week...

    Actually, you're getting two ridiculouses for the price of one, the prize for possibly the most improbable website of tinterwebs going to! Yep, folks, flat-Earthism is dying but geocentrism is alive and kicking!


    Can any Texan reading this explain how these lunatic yahoos get elected? I've read Molly Ivins, but she hasn't explained how normal, ordinary folk can walk into a voting booth and pull a lever for some macho pseudo-cowboy with slicked back hair and a belief that the earth doesn't rotate, and that all atheists are actually Jews in disguise. Read it and weep.

    The second most powerful member of the Texas House has circulated a Georgia lawmaker's call for a broad assault on teaching of evolution.

    House Appropriations Committee Chairman Warren Chisum, R-Pampa, used House operations Tuesday to deliver a memo from Georgia state Rep. Ben Bridges.

    The memo assails what it calls "the evolution monopoly in the schools."

    Mr. Bridges' memo claims that teaching evolution amounts to indoctrinating students in an ancient Jewish sect's beliefs.

    "Indisputable evidence – long hidden but now available to everyone – demonstrates conclusively that so-called 'secular evolution science' is the Big Bang, 15-billion-year, alternate 'creation scenario' of the Pharisee Religion," writes Mr. Bridges, a Republican from Cleveland, Ga. He has argued against teaching of evolution in Georgia schools for several years.

    He then refers to a Web site,, that contains a model bill for state Legislatures to pass to attack instruction on evolution as an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

    Mr. Bridges also supplies a link to a document that describes scientists Carl Sagan and Albert Einstein as "Kabbalists" and laments "Hollywood's unrelenting role in flooding the movie theaters with explicit or implicit endorsement of evolutionism."

    Fixed Earth, as you might guess from the name, is a site that advocates that the earth is stationary at the center of the universe. That's how low these gomers are sinking.

    But one of the funniest parts of Pharygula's blogpost are the comments. Here are some pure gems:
    #2: What I love best about geocentrists, is how far they go to differentiate themselves from flat-earthers. After all, "those people are crazy! Everyone knows the world is round."

    #5: "Indisputable evidence - long hidden but now available to everyone - demonstrates conclusively that so-called 'secular evolution science' is the Big Bang, 15-billion-year, alternate 'creation scenario' of the Pharisee Religion,"

    And that evidence would be? The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, perhaps? Not that I'm detecting even the faintest whiff of anti-Semitism from that site, oh no...

    As for the idea of the Earth not even rotating... Coriolis force, anyone?

    It does raise an interesting question though - just how far out can you go and still get taken seriously in contemporary American politics? Is there even a limit?

    #6: On behalf of all the smart Texans, I would like to apologize. Our efforts to clean up all the stupid have been quite difficult, and we realize we're far behind schedule.

    #35: I've been reading this amazingly entertaining "fixed earth" website. I'm not quite sure I understand his premise (Yes, I know, I'm trying to understand the insane.)

    Is it only the Earth that is fixed, and the rest of the universe rotates around it? Or is everything fixed, and the motion of the heavens that we see some kind of trick? I haven't read that far as yet.

    You see, I have this "fixed crankshaft" hypothesis. The crankshaft in my car is fixed, and my car (along with the rest of the Earth and heavens) rotates around it.

    Think I can get a Texas Representative to endorse me?

    The Most Ridiculous Haaretz Article

    Has Haaretz gone mad? Or is it just Bradley Burston who's suffering a temporary bout of insanity? Or is Mitt Romney an anti-Semite? Or are all owners of Ford products anti-Semites?

    Ridiculous doesn't begin to describe it... Shame on you, Bradley.
    And now we have Mitt Romney.

    On Tuesday, the former governor of Massachusetts is set to formally launch his campaign for the Republican nomination for the presidency.

    He has chosen as the venue a museum which bills itself as America's Greatest History Attraction, the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

    Named for America's greatest anti-Semite.

    Named for a man revered by Adolf Hitler, who awarded him the Grand Service Cross of the Supreme Order of the German Eagle. Named for the U.S. publisher of the "Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion" and "The International Jew: the World's foremost problem."

    Perhaps unfortunately, perhaps inevitably, the first to take Romney to task for the decision was the National Jewish Democratic Council. The council's executive director Ira Forman said the group was "deeply troubled by Governor Romney's choice of locations to announce his presidential campaign."

    "Romney has been traveling the country talking about inclusiveness and understanding of people from all walks of life," Forman continued. "Yet he chooses to kick [off] his presidential campaign on the former estate of a well-known and outspoken anti-Semite and xenophobe."

    Complete article here.

    Wednesday, February 14, 2007

    The Mr Deity Videos

    Rarely have I come across (probably somewhat belatedly) a series of savvy video clips poking fun at the whole 'G-d concept' as the Mr Deity series published on Youtube. Frankly, they're all funny and very well acted but the following three are my favourites:

    Mr Deity and Lucifer:

    Mr Deity and the Really Big Favor:

    Mr Deity and the Messages:

    Praise Mr Deity! These American Culture Wars do produce some really great stuff. Heep, heep, hurray for American atheists/agnostics....

    Tuesday, February 13, 2007

    Sign the Petition to Abolish Faith Schools from the UK

    We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to abolish all faith schools and prohibit the teaching of creationism and other religious mythology in all UK schools.

    Faith schools remove the rights of children to choose their own religious, philosophical and ethical beliefs. They also sanction ethnic segregation and create tension and divisiveness within society. Schools should be places where children are given a free education, not centres for indoctrination. Creationism and other religious myths should not be taught as fact regardless of the funding status of a school. Abolishing faith schools will provide children with more freedom of choice and help to promote a fully multi-cultural, peaceful society.

    Sign the petition or find out more here...

    American Atheism and Sound Bite TV...

    Following a small CNN altercation regarding a debate on atheism without an atheist participant, CNN have now tried to make amends. Unfortunately their cut-and-run format leads itself unequally well to understanding the issues as it does for any form of rebuttal.

    First off, Richard Dawkins, who can't get his message across in the allotted two nano seconds:

    Then, digging their own hole even deeper, we get a bigoted Reverend somebody, to show just how "Christian" Amewikah really is. Not particularly enlightening either:

    Related but not from CNN, this guy gets accosted by a couple of Fundies and shows remarkable restraint and patience:

    Aaahhh, praise the Lawd!

    Monday, February 12, 2007

    A menace to science

    For years, 'Dr' Gillian McKeith has used her title to sell TV shows, diet books and herbal sex pills. Now the Advertising Standards Authority has stepped in. Yet the real problem is not what she calls herself, but the mumbo-jumbo she dresses up as scientific fact, says Ben Goldacre

    The Guardian, hat tip to Pharygula

    Call her the Awful Poo Lady, call her Dr Gillian McKeith PhD: she is an empire, a multi-millionaire, a phenomenon, a prime-time TV celebrity, a bestselling author. She has her own range of foods and mysterious powders, she has pills to give you an erection, and her face is in every health food store in the country. Scottish Conservative politicians want her to advise the government. The Soil Association gave her a prize for educating the public. And yet, to anyone who knows the slightest bit about science, this woman is a bad joke.

    One of those angry nerds took her down this week. A regular from my website - I can barely contain my pride - took McKeith to the Advertising Standards Authority, complaining about her using the title "doctor" on the basis of a qualification gained by correspondence course from a non-accredited American college. He won. She may have sidestepped the publication of a damning ASA draft adjudication at the last minute by accepting - "voluntarily" - not to call herself "doctor" in her advertising any more. But would you know it, a copy of that draft adjudication has fallen into our laps, and it concludes that "the claim 'Dr' was likely to mislead". The advert allegedly breached two clauses of the Committee of Advertising Practice code: "substantiation" and "truthfulness".
    Is it petty to take pleasure in this? No. McKeith is a menace to the public understanding of science. She seems to misunderstand not nuances, but the most basic aspects of biology - things that a 14-year-old could put her straight on.

    She talks endlessly about chlorophyll, for example: how it's "high in oxygen" and will "oxygenate your blood" - but chlorophyll will only make oxygen in the presence of light. It's dark in your intestines, and even if you stuck a searchlight up your bum to prove a point, you probably wouldn't absorb much oxygen in there, because you don't have gills in your gut. In fact, neither do fish. In fact, forgive me, but I don't think you really want oxygen up there, because methane fart gas mixed with oxygen is a potentially explosive combination.

    Future generations will look back on this phenomenon with astonishment. Channel 4, let's not forget, branded her very strongly, from the start, as a "clinical nutritionist". She was Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, appearing on television every week, interpreting blood tests, and examining patients who had earlier had irrigation equipment stuck right up into their rectums. She was "Dr McKeith", "the diet doctor", giving diagnoses, talking knowledgeably about treatment, with complex scientific terminology, and all the authority her white coat and laboratory setting could muster.

    So back to the science. She says DNA is an anti-ageing constituent: if you "do not have enough RNA/DNA", in fact, you "may ultimately age prematurely". Stress can deplete your DNA, but algae will increase it: and she reckons it's only present in growing cells. Is my semen growing? Is a virus growing? Is chicken liver pate growing? All of these contain plenty of DNA. She says that "each sprouting seed is packed with the nutritional energy needed to create a full-grown, healthy plant". Does a banana plant have the same amount of calories as a banana seed? The ridiculousness is endless.

    In fact, I don't care what kind of squabbles McKeith wants to engage in over the technicalities of whether a non-accredited correspondence-course PhD from the US entitles you, by the strictest letter of the law, to call yourself "doctor": to me, nobody can be said to have a meaningful qualification in any biology-related subject if they make the same kind of basic mistakes made by McKeith.

    And the scholarliness of her work is a thing to behold: she produces lengthy documents that have an air of "referenciness", with nice little superscript numbers, which talk about trials, and studies, and research, and papers ... but when you follow the numbers, and check the references, it's shocking how often they aren't what she claimed them to be in the main body of the text. Or they refer to funny little magazines and books, such as Delicious, Creative Living, Healthy Eating, and my favourite, Spiritual Nutrition and the Rainbow Diet, rather than proper academic journals.

    She even does this in the book Miracle Superfood, which, we are told, is the published form of her PhD. "In laboratory experiments with anaemic animals, red-blood cell counts have returned to normal within four or five days when chlorophyll was given," she says. Her reference for this experimental data is a magazine called Health Store News. "In the heart," she explains, "chlorophyll aids in the transmission of nerve impulses that control contraction." A statement that is referenced to the second issue of a magazine called Earthletter.

    To me this is cargo cult science, as the great Professor Richard Feynman described Melanesian religious activities 30 years ago: "During the war they saw aeroplanes with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head as headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas - he's the controller - and they wait for the aeroplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No aeroplanes land."

    McKeith's pseudo-academic work is like the rituals of the cargo cult: the form is superficially right, the superscript numbers are there, the technical words are scattered about, she talks about research and trials and findings, but the substance is lacking. I actually don't find this bit very funny. It makes me quite depressed to think about her, sitting up, perhaps alone, studiously and earnestly typing this stuff out.

    One window into her world is the extraordinary way she responds to criticism: with legal threats and blatantly, outrageously misleading statements, emitted with such regularity that it's reasonable to assume she will do the same thing with this current kerfuffle over her use of the title "doctor". So that you know how to approach the rebuttals to come, let's look at McKeith's rebuttals of the recent past.

    Three months ago she was censured by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) for illegally selling a rather tragic range of herbal sex pills called Fast Formula Horny Goat Weed Complex, advertised as shown by a "controlled study" to promote sexual satisfaction, and sold with explicit medicinal claims. She was ordered to remove the products from sale immediately. She complied - the alternative would have been prosecution - but in response, McKeith's website announced that the sex pills had been withdrawn because of "the new EU licensing laws regarding herbal products". She engaged in Europhobic banter with the Scottish Herald newspaper: "EU bureaucrats are clearly concerned that people in the UK are having too much good sex," she explained.

    Rubbish. I contacted the MHRA, and they said: "This has nothing to do with new EU regulations. The information on the McKeith website is incorrect." Was it a mistake? "Ms McKeith's organisation had already been made aware of the requirements of medicines legislation in previous years; there was no reason at all for all the products not to be compliant with the law." They go on. "The Wild Pink Yam and Horny Goat Weed products marketed by McKeith Research Ltd were never legal for sale in the UK."

    Now, once would be unfortunate, but this is an enduring pattern. When McKeith was first caught out on the ridiculous and erroneous claims of her CV - she claimed, for example, to have a PhD from the reputable American College of Nutrition - her representatives suggested that this was a mistake, made by a Spanish work experience kid, who posted the wrong CV. Except the very same claim about the American College of Nutrition was also in one of her books from several years previously. That's a long work experience stint.


    More on Gillian McKeith, including her PhDs.

    Light relief: Gillian sings the Poo Song!

    Gillian's Bad science...

    She even sneaked one into this very newspaper, during a profile on her: "Doubt has also been cast on the value of McKeith's certified membership of the American Association of Nutritional Consultants, especially since Guardian journalist Ben Goldacre managed to buy the same membership online for his dead cat for $60. McKeith's spokeswoman says of this membership: "Gillian has 'professional membership', which is membership designed for practising nutritional and dietary professionals, and is distinct from 'associate membership', which is open to all individuals. To gain professional membership Gillian provided proof of her degree and three professional references."

    Well. My dead cat Hettie is also a "certified professional member" of the AANC. I have the certificate hanging in my loo. Perhaps it didn't even occur to the journalist that McKeith could be wrong. More likely, of course, in the tradition of nervous journalists, I suspect she was hurried, on deadline, and felt she had to get McKeith's "right of reply" in, even if it cast doubts on - I'll admit my beef here - my own hard-won investigative revelations about my dead cat. I mean, I don't sign my dead cat up to bogus professional organisations for the good of my health, you know.

    But those who criticise McKeith have reason to worry. McKeith goes after people, and nastily. She has a libel case against the Sun over comments they made in 2004 that has still not seen much movement. But the Sun is a large, wealthy institution, and it can protect itself with a large and well-remunerated legal team. Others can't. A charming but - forgive me - obscure blogger called PhDiva made some relatively innocent comments about nutritionists, mentioning McKeith, and received a letter threatening costly legal action from Atkins Solicitors, "the reputation and brand-management specialists". Google received a threatening legal letter simply for linking to - forgive me - a fairly obscure webpage on McKeith.

    She has also made legal threats to a fantastically funny website called Eclectech for hosting a silly animation of McKeith singing a silly song, at around the time she was on Fame Academy.

    Most of these legal tussles revolve around the issue of her qualifications, though these things shouldn't be difficult or complicated. If anyone wanted to check my degrees, memberships, or affiliations, then they could call up the institutions, and get instant confirmation: job done. If you said I wasn't a doctor, I wouldn't sue you; I'd roar with laughter.

    If you contact the Australasian College of Health Sciences (Portland, US) where McKeith has a "pending diploma in herbal medicine", they say they can't tell you anything about their students. When you contact Clayton College of Natural Health to ask where you can read her PhD, they say you can't. What kind of organisations are these? If I said I had a PhD from Cambridge, US or UK (I have neither), it would only take you a day to find it.

    But McKeith's most heinous abuse of legal chill is exemplified by a nasty little story from 2000, when she threatened a retired professor of nutritional medicine for questioning her ideas.

    Shortly after the publication of McKeith's book Living Food for Health, before she was famous, John Garrow wrote an article about some of the rather bizarre scientific claims she was making. He was struck by the strength with which she presented her credentials as a scientist ("I continue every day to research, test and write furiously so that you may benefit ..." etc). In fact, he has since said that he assumed - like many others - that she was a proper doctor. Sorry: a medical doctor. Sorry: a qualified conventional medical doctor who attended an accredited medical school.

    Anyway, in this book, McKeith promised to explain how you can "boost your energy, heal your organs and cells, detoxify your body, strengthen your kidneys, improve your digestion, strengthen your immune system, reduce cholesterol and high blood pressure, break down fat, cellulose and starch, activate the enzyme energies of your body, strengthen your spleen and liver function, increase mental and physical endurance, regulate your blood sugar, and lessen hunger cravings and lose weight."

    These are not modest goals, but her thesis was that it was all possible with a diet rich in enzymes from "live" raw food - fruit, vegetables, seeds, nuts, and especially live sprouts, which "are the food sources of digestive enzymes". McKeith even offered "combination living food powder for clinical purposes" in case people didn't want to change their diet, and she used this for "clinical trials" with patients at her clinic.

    Garrow was sceptical of her claims. Apart from anything else, as emeritus professor of human nutrition at the University of London, he knew that human animals have their own digestive enzymes, and a plant enzyme you eat is likely to be digested like any other protein. As any professor of nutrition, and indeed many GCSE biology students, could happily tell you.

    Garrow read the book closely, as have I. These "clinical trials" seemed to be a few anecdotes in her book about how incredibly well McKeith's patients felt after seeing her. No controls, no placebo, no attempt to quantify or measure improvements. So Garrow made a modest proposal, and I am quoting it in its entirety, partly because it is a rather elegantly written exposition of the scientific method by an extremely eminent academic authority on the science of nutrition, but mainly because I want you to see how politely he stated his case.

    "I also am a clinical nutritionist," began Professor Garrow, "and I believe that many of the statements in this book are wrong. My hypothesis is that any benefits which Dr McKeith has observed in her patients who take her living food powder have nothing to do with their enzyme content. If I am correct, then patients given powder which has been heated above 118F for 20 minutes will do just as well as patients given the active powder. This amount of heat would destroy all enzymes, but make little change to other nutrients apart from vitamin C, so both groups of patients should receive a small supplement of vitamin C (say 60mg/day). However, if Dr McKeith is correct, it should be easy to deduce from the boosting of energy, etc, which patients received the active powder and which the inactivated one.

    "Here, then, is a testable hypothesis by which nutritional science might be advanced. I hope that Dr McKeith's instincts, as a fellow-scientist, will impel her to accept this challenge. As a further inducement I suggest we each post, say, £1,000, with an independent stakeholder. If we carry out the test, and I am proved wrong, she will, of course, collect my stake, and I will publish a fulsome apology in this newsletter. If the results show that she is wrong I will donate her stake to HealthWatch [a medical campaigning group], and suggest that she should tell the 1,500 patients on her waiting list that further research has shown that the claimed benefits of her diet have not been observed under controlled conditions. We scientists have a noble tradition of formally withdrawing our publications if subsequent research shows the results are not reproducible - don't we?"

    This was published in an obscure medical newsletter. Sadly, McKeith - who, to the best of my knowledge, has never published in a proper "Pubmed-listed" peer-reviewed academic journal - did not take up this offer to collaborate on a piece of research with a professor of nutrition.

    Instead, Garrow received a call from McKeith's lawyer husband, Howard Magaziner, accusing him of defamation and promising legal action. Garrow, an immensely affable and relaxed old academic, shrugged this off with style. He told me. "I said, 'Sue me.' I'm still waiting." His offer of £1,000 still stands; I'll make it £2,000.

    But, to me, it's tempting to dismiss the question of whether or not McKeith should call herself "doctor" as a red herring, a distraction, an unnecessary ad hominem squabble. Because despite her litigiousness, her illegal medicinal products, her ropey qualifications, her abusiveness, despite her making the wounded and obese cry on television, despite her apparently misunderstanding some of the most basic aspects of GCSE biology, while doling out "scientific" advice in a white coat, despite her farcical "academic" work, despite the unpleasantness of the food she endorses, there are still many who will claim: "You can say what you like about McKeith, but she has improved the nation's diet."

    Let me be very clear. Anyone who tells you to eat your greens is all right by me. If that was the end of it, I'd be McKeith's biggest fan, because I'm all in favour of "evidence-based interventions to improve the nation's health", as they used to say to us in medical school.

    But let's look at the evidence. Diet has been studied very extensively, and there are some things that we know with a fair degree of certainty: there is convincing evidence that diets rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, with natural sources of dietary fibre, avoiding obesity, moderate alcohol, and physical exercise, are protective against things such as cancer and heart disease.

    But nutritionists don't stop there, because they can't: they have to manufacture complication, to justify the existence of their profession. And what an extraordinary new profession it is. They've appeared out of nowhere, with a strong new-age bent, but dressing themselves up in the cloak of scientific authority. Because there is, of course, a genuine body of research about nutrition and health, to which these new "nutritionists" are spectacularly unreliable witnesses. You don't get sober professors from the Medical Research Council's Human Nutrition Research Unit on telly talking about the evidence on food and health; you get the media nutritionists. It's like the difference between astrology and astronomy.

    These new nutritionists have a major commercial problem with evidence. There's nothing very professional or proprietary about "eat your greens", so they have had to push things further: but unfortunately for the nutritionists, the technical, confusing, overcomplicated, tinkering interventions that they promote are very frequently not supported by convincing evidence.

    And that's not for lack of looking. This is not about the medical hegemony neglecting to address the holistic needs of the people. In many cases, the research has been done, and we know that the more specific claims of nutritionists are actively wrong.

    I've got too much sense to subject you to reams of scientific detail - I've learned from McKeith that you need theatrical abuse to hold the public's attention - but we can easily do one representative example. The antioxidant story is one of the most ubiquitous health claims of the nutritionists. Antioxidants mop up free radicals, so in theory, looking at metabolism flow charts in biochemistry textbooks, having more of them might be beneficial to health. High blood levels of antioxidants were associated, in the 1980s, with longer life. Fruit and vegetables have lots of antioxidants, and fruit and veg really are good for you. So it all made sense.

    But when you do compare people taking antioxidant supplement tablets with people on placebo, there's no benefit; if anything, the antioxidant pills are harmful. Fruit and veg are still good for you, but as you can see, it looks as if it's complicated and it might not just be about the extra antioxidants. It's a surprising finding, but that's science all over: the results are often counterintuitive. And that's exactly why you do scientific research, to check your assumptions. Otherwise it wouldn't be called "science", it would be called "assuming", or "guessing", or "making it up as you go along".

    But don't get distracted. Basic, sensible dietary advice, that we all know - be honest - still stands. It's the unjustified, self-serving and unnecessary overcomplication of this basic sensible dietary advice that is, to my mind, one of the greatest crimes of the nutritionist movement. I don't think it's excessive to talk about consumers paralysed with confusion in supermarkets.

    Although it's just as likely that they will be paralysed with fear, because McKeith's stock in trade is abuse, on a scale that would have any doctor struck off: making people cry for the television cameras, I assume deliberately, and using fear and bullying to get them to change their lifestyles. As a posture it is seductive, it has a sense of generating movement, but if you drag yourself away from the theatricality of souped-up recipe and lifestyle shows on telly, the evidence shows that scare campaigns tend not to get people changing their behaviour in the long term.

    So what can you do? There's the rub. In reality, again, away from the cameras, the most significant "lifestyle" cause of death and disease is social class. Here's a perfect example. I rent a flat in London's Kentish Town on my modest junior doctor's salary (don't believe what you read in the papers about doctors' wages, either). This is a very poor working-class area, and the male life expectancy is about 70 years. Two miles away in Hampstead, meanwhile, where the millionaire Dr Gillian McKeith PhD owns a very large property, surrounded by other wealthy middle-class people, male life expectancy is almost 80 years. I know this because I have the Annual Public Health Report for Camden open on the table right now.

    This phenomenal disparity in life expectancy - the difference between a lengthy and rich retirement, and a very truncated one indeed - is not because the people in Hampstead are careful to eat a handful of Brazil nuts every day, to make sure they're not deficient in selenium, as per nutritionists' advice.

    And that's the most sinister feature of the whole nutritionist project, graphically exemplified by McKeith: it's a manifesto of rightwing individualism - you are what you eat, and people die young because they deserve it. They choose death, through ignorance and laziness, but you choose life, fresh fish, olive oil, and that's why you're healthy. You're going to see 78. You deserve it. Not like them.

    How can I be sure that this phenomenal difference in life expectancy between rich and poor isn't due to the difference in diet? Because I've read the dietary intervention studies: when you intervene and make a huge effort to change people's diets, and get them eating more fruit and veg, you find the benefits, where they are positive at all, are actually very modest. Nothing like 10 years.

    But genuine public health interventions to address the real social and lifestyle causes of disease are far less lucrative, and far less of a spectacle, than anything a food crank or a TV producer would ever dream of dipping into. What prime-time TV series looks at food deserts created by giant supermarket chains, the very companies with which stellar media nutritionists so often have lucrative commercial contracts? What show deals with social inequality driving health inequality? Where's the human interest in prohibiting the promotion of bad foods; facilitating access to nutrient-rich foods with taxation; or maintaining a clear labelling system? Where is the spectacle in "enabling environments" that naturally promote exercise, or urban planning that prioritises cyclists, pedestrians and public transport over the car? Or reducing the ever-increasing inequality between senior executive and shop-floor pay?

    This is serious stuff. We don't need any more stupid ideas about health in the world. We have a president of South Africa who has denied that HIV exists, we have mumps and measles on the rise, we have quackery in the ascendant like never before, and whatever Tony Blair might have to say about homoeopathy being a fight not worth fighting for scientists, we cannot indulge portions of pseudoscientific ludicrousness as if they don't have wider ramifications for society, and for the public misunderstanding of science.

    I am writing this article, sneakily, late, at the back of the room, in the Royal College of Physicians, at a conference discussing how to free up access to medical academic knowledge for the public. At the front, as I type, Sir Muir Gray, director of the NHS National Electronic Library For Health, is speaking: "Ignorance is like cholera," he says. "It cannot be controlled by the individual alone: it requires the organised efforts of society." He's right: in the 19th and 20th centuries, we made huge advances through the provision of clean, clear water; and in the 21st century, clean, clear information will produce those same advances.

    Gillian McKeith has nothing to contribute: and Channel 4, which bent over backwards to dress her up in the cloak of scientific authority, should be ashamed of itself.

    'With all due respect, you're wrong': When McKeith put a cabbie in his place

    Here is a bizarre story, which McKeith is evidently proud of, because not only does she recount it in her book, she has also recounted it in other published articles. She is in a cab, and the cab driver has spotted her, and tries to spark up a conversation:

    "As I sat down to enjoy the ride and sighed a sense of relief in honour of some quiet time, I barely heard some mumbling from Harry to break a much cherished silence. Ignoring it to soak in the rapidly moving scenery, I heard it again ... 'You know, fish has more omegas than flax,' he stated. 'I beg your pardon,' I said. 'I said that fish has more omegas than flax seeds,' he re-stated. The only thing I could think of was: 'Why was this invasive, somewhat jovial, but truly kind man, talking about flax ...' 'In all due respect, you're wrong, Harry.

    Flax seeds contain far greater levels of the healthy oils (omega-3 and omega-6) in a properly balanced and assimilable form,' I explained. 'No, I disagree,' he argued. 'What do you mean, you disagree? Have you spent years conducting clinical research, working with patients, lecturing, teaching, studying the omega oils in flax, obtaining worldwide data, compiling one of the largest private health libraries on the planet, and writing extensively on the topic?' I asked. Not to mention writing this very article on this very day.

    'No,' Harry feebly replied. I wondered, 'Are you a scientist, a biochemist, a botanist, or have you spent a lifetime studying food and biochemistry as I have done?' 'No,' he again replied. 'So, where do you get such stuff? Where is your scientific authority?' I demanded. Harry proudly announced: 'Oh, my wife is a doctor - a gynaecologist - by the way.' 'Is she a food specialist or nutritional biochemist as well?' I quickly retorted. 'Um, ah, well, no, but she is a doctor,' he offered."

    Charming. But flax seeds contain oestrogenic compounds, and fibre, so they're not very "assimilable" unless you crush them, in which case they taste foul, and they're sold as a laxative in doses of 15g. And you will need a lot of them. When you account for the poor conversion in the body from plant-form omega oils to the animal forms that are most beneficial (called DHA and EPA) then flax seeds and fish contain roughly the same amounts.

    But in the real world, rather than the raw figures, it's very easy to eat 100g of mackerel, whereas it's tricky to get a tablespoon of flax seed into you. (Similarly, parsley is a rich source of vitamin C, but you're not going to eat an orange sized lump of it.) As for "properly balanced", I don't know if she means spiritually or biologically, but fish is much higher in omega-3, which most people would say is better.

    Saturday, February 10, 2007

    Occupation and human rights

    By remaining in the West Bank, Israel has done enormous harm to itself, its reputation and its long-term future.

    Tony Klug

    To my mind, the issue is not whether Israel is a serious human rights violator in the occupied territories, but why. The carefully documented pattern of abuses by respected Israeli organisations like B'Tselem and esteemed international human rights bodies such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch speak for themselves.

    Homes are demolished, civilians are mistreated, prisoners are abused, elderly people are humiliated, basic freedoms are curtailed and non-combatants are killed. And that's just a part of it. It gets us nowhere to keep denying the reports or justifying everything on security grounds or claiming these bodies are prejudiced.

    I worked for Amnesty International for many years and know that the primacy of political impartiality is drilled into all its workers. Of course, this didn't then and doesn't now stop the governments of numerous countries around the world, including Israel's (and many Arab governments too), from accusing the organisation of having a particular bias against them.

    But Israel was not always a serious violator of human rights. As a researcher, I used to move about virtually unhindered through the West Bank in the 1970s, often in the company of Palestinians or Israelis or both. There were few checkpoints, few Israeli settlements and few terror attacks. Even travel across the old green line was barely monitored. As occupations go, it was relatively benign (if occupations can ever be benign). But then the land confiscations started in earnest and the settlement programme accelerated. The occupation began to look as if it had come to stay.

    If there is one cast-iron law of history, it is probably that all occupations and other forms of colonial rule are, eventually, resisted. The occupier then has a choice of pulling out and letting the native people exercise their self-determination, or remaining and clamping down. Despite its avowal in the years immediately following the 1967 war to stay only temporarily, Israel unfortunately chose to remain, and over time it came to resemble the harsh - at times brutal - occupier that it had falsely been claimed to be in earlier years.

    As British citizens, Jewish or non-Jewish, we should be careful not to be too smug or sanctimonious about this. There were times during the British empire when colonial rule was likewise relatively benign and other times when it was unbelievably cruel. Although it is invidious to make comparisons, some if its excesses were far worse and on a much larger scale than any Israel has committed. A parallel point may be made with regard to some of the atrocities perpetrated by the resistance groups. These practices stopped when colonial rule ended.

    This has been the familiar pattern through history, regardless of the geographical origin or political affiliation of the colonial ruler. The contemporary US/British occupation of Iraq and even the prolonged Nato presence in Afghanistan are treading a worryingly similar path. This is not to excuse Israeli conduct - nor either the murderous attacks on Israeli civilians by certain armed Palestinian groups, that the aforementioned human rights organisations have also condemned - but to place it in context.

    There are serious human rights violations in the occupied territories not because the perpetrators are Israelis, nor even because they are Zionists - patriotic Israelis and self-proclaimed Zionists have been among the most vocal critics - and certainly not because they are Jews. It is because they are occupiers, and the violations will end when the occupation ends.

    Enforced rule over another people brutalises the occupier as well as the occupied. By remaining in the West Bank, if only to protect the settlers it unwisely and illegally planted there, Israel has done enormous harm to itself, its reputation and its long-term future in the region of which it strives to be a part, to say nothing of the profound damage the occupation has done to the Palestinians who live there. It should not be left to Israel's enemies to call for a full and final end to Israel's occupation, now in its 40th year. True friends of Israel should be asserting the same demand.