Friday, 27 August 2010

Some very big thank yous

I'm feeling very emotional this evening!

A week ago, the charity I work for was burgled. The thief or thieves kicked down our front door and broke the cupboard which contained our safe in order to make off with it. It was locked, of course, but I suppose they'll get into it . . . It contained all our donations, all the hire fees and deposits people had left for equipment they're using, our paying in book, and various useful records kept by our Queen of the Wheelchairs (as I call her). Not only that, but also several of the keys to our mobility scooters (so they can't work now!), all our stamps, and the biscuit tin!

We were all pretty shocked as you can imagine. I've lost count of the number of people who've told me of their disgust that someone would choose to do this to a charity. For my part, I feel a huge amount of personal loyalty to my current workplace. (I'm employed by them - I can't afford to volunteer!) Not only because it's a charity and one very much used by locals and holidaymakers, but also because the people working there are terrific and they mean a lot to me. We've only just had to stump up a large sum to be at the Pembrokeshire County Show and coped with major cuts to our budget - etc., etc., etc.

Anyway, I'd been thinking for a while of giving some fundraising astronomy talks, and had gone so far as to ask the local library about the price of hiring their gallery (which has held some great exhibitions and events such as a Writers' Day). Following this break-in, I found myself possessed with a major drive to get on with it.

I asked on Twitter if anyone knew of any good cheap venues, explaining what it was for. Stephanie (@stephmog) pointed me to the Pembrokeshire Tea Company. A couple of e-mails later and Tony, who works there, gave me a call to offer me their upstairs gallery for free!

I was gobsmacked. I told the others in my office with great excitement. Then, today, I paid Pembrokeshire Tea a visit. They're based at Nant-y-Coy Mill in Treffgarne Gorge. Pembrokeshire is mostly full of steep rounded hills, and its roads have rather unique hedgebanks. Driving along them can often feel like driving on top of the world: you see the banks and the hedges, and beyond them, just sky. Treffgarne Gorge, however, is a huge deep crevasse of sharp-looking rock, with spiky formations hundreds of feet above the winding roads, the River Cleddau well hidden behind bushes and trees. (The geology of Pembrokeshire is stunning - Pembrokeshire and Cornwall, I believe, have far more variety than the rest of the UK put together!) Just beyond the village of Treffgarne is Nant-y-Coy Mill, and that is where the Pembrokeshire Tea Company and some other small businesses are based. Besides tourist attractions such as a nature walk, a water wheel and (less touristy) tea plantations up the hill, it's a collection of beautiful old stone houses. It appears out of the cliffs quite suddenly.

Tony met me at the counter and showed me the gallery upstairs. It's currently full of textile artwork and is an interesting shape (for example, it seems to have a boarded up hole in the middle of the floor with banisters round it!), but it has a projector and tables and enough seating room. It also has a computer with delicious sound-effects: converted-to-audio radio waves! Tony offered to play that as people arrived, presumably drinking Pembrokeshire tea. I hope there'll be a way to let them all know what it is, but even if anyone misses that, it'll be very atmospheric. There'll also be wi-fi, so if I can get enough people to bring a laptop in, they can start classifying galaxies right there.

The idea of just giving a talk about Galaxy Zoo (which I should mention is in no way affiliated with my workplace - I'm simply talking about it because that's my expertise) promptly expanded hugely . . .

It turned out Tony is an astronomer - a real one, far more learned and professional than I am. He's worked on Sir Patrick's books, and lectured in the UK and US about non-standard cosmology. To cut a long story short, this subject suggests that the Big Bang, the expanding universe and (I think) relativity are wrong interpretations of what we've observed. "Human life has a beginning, a middle and an end, and that's what the theorists have imposed on the Universe," Tony explained as we and an artist chatted outside - that, or something along those lines (correct me if I'm wrong, Tony!). I asked him how we account for the abundance of hydrogen in the Universe and he suggested that perhaps this was simply how things naturally occur. I then asked about redshift and Hubble's constant, and his response was that we cannot prove redshift is due to an expanding Universe. It might be something getting in the way of the light and "tiring" it. It did occur to me that photons' energy is greatly sapped during their journey from the centre of the Sun to its surface, and indeed that visible light reaching the Earth is often absorbed and re-radiated as infra-red. I've no idea whether that is what Tony or non-standard cosmology has in mind. But Tony's very keen on using as many observations as possible.

Well, he will have ample opportunity to tell me a lot more about non-standard cosmology. As of today's introduction, I'm certainly not convinced (and haven't asked him quite a lot more questions, such as about the Cosmic Microwave Background!), but he did make two extremely good points with which I can't disagree. One was that the Big Bang leaves a lot of questions unanswered, such as how it happened - how "something" came out of "nothing" (and that the laws of physics break down at the point of a singularity). Secondly, he reminded me, just because an expert scientist says something is true, that does not make it true. The human race is still learning about a lot of things. Cosmology seems to be being turned upside down every few decades with the latest astonishing finding, and who says we aren't in for a lot more of those?

Ample opportunity, I say . . . Yes - because we've decided to hold regular public astronomy gatherings! Probably on Thursday nights, we'll start with a talk and, weather permitting, go on to an observing session, open to all. He's got telescopes, a meadow, and beautifully dark skies. I will do some talks, I expect Tony can do some, and you never know - perhaps more people will want to give them too. We'll probably advertise on the local radio, and I'll look into where else will do it affordably. And Tony's quite happy for my charity to benefit financially from these evenings. "Oh, I'm not worried about money, I make enough running Pembrokeshire Tea. And I want to help," he told me in his upstairs office just behind the gallery. Well . . . suffice to say, I have few words. I was quite blown over, and hope very much that Pembrokeshire Tea benefits greatly as well!

The only snag is that the gallery does not have disabled access. That is a big nuisance, considering what charity I work for! Tony is also interested in making life easier for the disabled, and has been in a battle to get planning permission for some kind of stairlift to be installed. Because it's a historic building, however, this permission keeps being refused - even though nothing would show on the outside. This seems like misplaced priorities to me. We hope our events raise awareness of this as well as astronomy . . .

I drove back to Haverfordwest feeling thrilled. I can't wait to get started! Pembrokeshire is a place where astronomy should be celebrated - we have some of the best skies in the UK. As soon as these events start taking place, I'll let you know - if you live in or near Pembrokeshire, I hope you can make it.

In Haverfordwest I stopped at the Pembrokeshire Mobility store. Today was its last day - not enough of their stock was being bought, and they were selling off everything they could. (Pembrokeshire Care, which shares its premises, is not closing.) Steph, who I mentioned earlier, is one of the staff. She told me they'd far rather see things go to my charity than to a shed for several years, and gave me what must have been hundreds of pounds' worth of equipment to take along! Wheeled walkers, a bath hoist, a walker with two trays, spare scooter keys (in case they fit any of the key-less scooters), a wheelchair, a special perching chair to allow you to sit without bending your legs and not have to stand up again, bath chairs, toilet raisers, crutch bags to carry on your scooter, and equipment to get you from your wheelchair to the bed and vice versa . . . these all went into my car. I had to make two trips. There seemed so much, so many things, so many lovely brand-new items. I felt even more speechless than at Tony's generosity. It is awful to think of the amount Steph's family's business is losing - and very emotional to think that rather than auction it they are happy to give it to the local community through us.

I arrived an hour before closing time, and decided to give them that last hour to see if any more stock could sell and use the time to obtain chocolate and iced latte and give piggyback rides to a seven-year-old! I don't feel I can even begin to repay this huge debt - I guess the best way will be to use it all well. There are always people in need - it's a matter of letting them know we're here, and doing our best for them.

I hope to see people use our new equipment, and lots of people come to the astronomy talks at Nant-y-Coy Mill!

Things are certainly going to get busy in Pembrokeshire in the next few weeks!

Tony, Pembrokeshire Tea, Steph, Pembrokeshire Mobility, you've done some wonderful things:

Fireworks myspace profile -

Monday, 23 August 2010

Getting into the health pages

It intrigues and amuses me that, while it took three years of devoted care and learning to get anywhere in the field of astronomy communication, all I have to do is annoy a couple of people by pointing out that homeopathy doesn't work and next thing I know I'm grinning like a moron in a newspaper.

The first time was in my local, as part of the Ten23 campaign. The second was in the Western Mail a couple of weeks ago. Upon the birth of Cardiff Skeptics, Dean and I were contacted by a very friendly, straightforward lady named Kirstie McCrum, asking us for more information. Her editor is not (yet) interested in running a piece on us - though we have had some interest from a new radio program - but we did pelt her with information about our skeptical acvitities in the hope that she could use it somehow. I was pleasantly surprised when she got back to me a few weeks ago to let me know she was writing up a piece on the pros and cons of homeopathy to go in the health section of the Western Mail.

It came out on Saturday 14th August. I wrote to ask if there was a link. It never did make it online, but Kirstie has kindly sent me a PDF and given me permission to put it here. As luck would have it, I can't upload PDFs, but I've taken some screenshots which with luck you should be able to expand. (Click on them and then click again.) I can also e-mail it to you if you ask!

The full page spread:

The "yes" column:

The "no" column:

Thanks to my sister, incidentally, for coming out into the sunny garden with me to take this photograph at two minutes' notice!

Now you may be interested to know, if you don't already, that things have a great deal of room for alteration between the time they get said or written to the journalist and the time they end up in the paper. Kirstie offered to interview me by telephone, but in the end we decided that I would write a 600 word article and she would write with any more questions. I did, and she asked me how I'd got into skepticism in the first place and a few other good ones that got me thinking and drew out a lot more information.

The only thing that really snuck in on its own was the point that my parents were doctors. I mean, they are, and she asked and I answered, but the article gives the impression that that is the reason I'm a skeptic. I'm a skeptic because I've spent three years working with scientists and dealing with large amounts of data and working on the communication of that data, and I've seen how easily the mind and eye can be tricked by exceptions or led by other people's interpretations. I'm a skeptic because I joined Twitter and learnt what was going on with Simon Singh and the BCA, and I learnt through that just how much misinformation there is out there. My parents certainly encouraged me to learn and to think scientifically, but alternative medicine is not a huge interest of theirs, pro or con! But if that's the only inaccuracy, then all's certainly well.

It was of course just my luck that I warn against homeopaths who believe that all conventional medicine is evil, and then it turns out that my "opponent" does not say this at all. Elaine Weatherly-Jones is definitely a moderate - not at all typical of the sort whose voices are loudest on the web - which makes me look a little hysterical by comparison. I expect some of the readers will have come across less moderate homeopaths, however, and that many homeopaths would villify her for her moderation! Not to mention her referring to clinical trials as "the gold standard". Note her careful wording, though. She does not say that they prove homeopathy works, only that some people like it and believe that it has worked. She can't say otherwise, and what she says does not refute my statement that the sugar pills are effectively all the same and swapping them around unknowingly would have no effect at all.

Anyway, Kirstie and I agreed that a great way to start would be the story of my overdosing on arnica, and here is the text of what I originally wrote for her . . .

On a snowy day in January, I swallowed an entire bottle of homeopathic pills. They tasted nice, of crunchy sugar. They allegedly also contained arnica.

Spread on the skin, arnica is an effective traditional herbal remedy. It works by encouraging dilation of nearby blood vessels. If swallowed, this leads to gastrointestinal bleeding and danger.

I felt no effects, good or ill. Whatever arnica had been in those pills had been so diluted that I would have had to take millions to consume one molecule of the stuff.

Homeopathy is not a natural herbal remedy. It is a a multi-billion pound industry using an 18th-century idea which contradicts basic science. Jacques Benveniste claimed that water "remembered" antibodies, but no scientist has been able to reproduce these effects when experiments are carried out in an unbiased manner.

Water molecules move around freely until frozen; they readily collect around dissolved substances; they then continue on their way.

Banging them ten times against a leather and horsehair contraption, as Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, suggested, does not magically cause them to swim back into the (gigantically larger) shape of a molecule a person wants - physically or metaphorically. Sorry.

The manufacturers had got another principle of homeopathy confused when they marketed the pills, anyway. "Like cures like" is the dogma, such as caffeine for sleeplessness. But this arnica had been sold for its healing properties of the skin. The packet certainly contained no information about the difference between that and swallowing it, nor any warnings about the dangers of swallowing arnica. I looked those up.

It did contain some extreme specifics, such as not touching the pills with your hand and dissolving them under the tongue. No reasons were given. One might feel proud of accomplishing this fiddly activity. It would be easy, later, to atrribute your recovery from illness to that achievement. "Our medicine stimulates the body to heal itself." But bodies heal themselves anyway. Next time you have a cold, make sure you wear red socks every day. You'll probably get better then, too.

Homeopaths occasionally try to get round this by claiming: "If you feel worse temporarily, this is your body excreting toxins," but are never able to say what these toxins are. Again, your body naturally excretes waste that would be harmful if it built up. Think a) jaundice, b) going to the toilet.

When you're ill, it's a comfort to feel that someone is doing something about it. An industry with plenty of money, homeopathy can offer a listening ear and a great specificity of choice between diluted substances - none of which prove any more effective or specific than another when swapped around.

Effectively, it's hope, and the illusion of power over your fate. Perfectly harmless, until you actually need medication.

Gloria Thomas was only 9 months old when her eczema killed her. Doctor after doctor revealed that her life could have been saved even hours before her death, but her parents refused. They treated her with homeopathy alone. Diabetic Nakhira Harris died when her insulin was replaced with homeopathy. Both sets of parents doubtless meant the best for their children.

Belief in homeopathy may boost your sense of well-being. But it also demands a belief in the evil of conventional medicine and the "Big Pharma" that also manufactures it (read the label). Nasty little stories are spreading of people being advised not to be vaccinated for malaria before going to the tropics, or to give up their medicine for heart trouble.

There are things wrong with "Big Pharma" - but my great love, science, sides with neither. It does not tell, but shows. It'll show you what's really going on with all those beautiful little water molecules, with the complexities of biology and our bodies. And it'll show you what medicine works, even if it's not what you want to hear.

I guess not all of that would have fitted onto the page spread!

Many thanks Kirstie for being helpful and interested and appreciative throughout, and I hope I can persuade her (among many others) to come along to Cardiff Skeptics' opening night.

If you're in the mood for something from a bigger newspaper, there is a wonderful article - "Government ignored our advice" - in the Independent, backed up by brilliant columns from David Colquhoun and Julian Huppert. How sad that Julian Huppert is the only scientist left in the House of Commons, and science is such an essential part of the world now. We can but keep trying to get it out there!

Thursday, 19 August 2010

So many galaxies, so little coffee . . .

So wrote ZookeeperKevin as his forum profile signature, probably in memory of the week in which he classified 50,000 galaxies in one go. So wrote I, struggling to think of a title for an article I wrote for the Astronomy Now magazine in May. A thousand guesses what the subject is (no, not homeopathy actually) . . . But now it is out . . .

I like the cover.

Here's a preview of my article, from the Features link:

It's not available online I'm afraid. But if you buy the magazine I hope you enjoy it!

One of the things that pleases me most is that they gave me space to write about the huge variety of projects going on, and mention even a tiny fraction of the lovely, smart, hardworking zooites who've contributed to the most exciting project I've ever been involved with. Sorry to the hundreds more who I'd have liked to mention too . . .

Keith Cooper, editor of Astronomy Now and who invited me to do this piece of work, very kindly says he hopes I'll feel as enthusiastic about science journalism after my 100th article as my 1st. I first considered science journalism in my final year of university, but didn't honestly think I could do it at the time. It's great to be wrong sometimes!

Sunday, 15 August 2010

An introduction to Withybush Hospital

Four years ago, the Labour government wished to close several hospitals, including Withybush Hospital, Haverfordwest.

Withybush Hospital is the only hospital in Pembrokeshire with an Accident and Emergency Department. It was long needed, and finally built, in 1978 as a result of a public outcry when a man died on the way to Carmarthen.

You won't find it in Withybush's "About Us" section, because its staunchest supporters are the medical staff and members of the public who do not get such an official voice, but Withybush Hospital is a burning political and emotional centre of the otherwise quiet Pembrokeshire. Calculations about 4 years ago revealed that, on average, each citizen of Pembrokeshire gave £5 to Withybush - especially Ward 10, the cancer care unit. (In a great many obituaries, you see "Donations to Ward 10". Ward 10 is never defined, because everybody knows.) It's the largest employer in the county, to the best of my knowledge it has the lowest rates of infection in Wales, and it's been listed as one of the UK's "Top 40" hospitals.

Pembrokeshire's winter population of 100,000 often swells to 300,000 in the summer because of the influx of tourists. It's not exactly a risk-free county: we have cliffs, we have the sea, we have several oil refineries and no overnight fire service.

We also have a great deal of space between ourselves and Carmarthen. So nothing was more symbolic when a government official was dispatched to come and tell us why Withybush should close, and had to start by explaining why he arrived late. "I didn't look at a map first, so I didn't realise how far away you are."

It's a long hilly road to Carmarthen, 30 miles along an almost entirely single-lane road heavily populated by oil tankers and tractors. It takes the best part of an hour to get there from Haverfordwest. From various corners of Pembrokeshire, it can take about an hour to get to Haverfordwest itself. Trains leave Haverfordwest every 2 hours, and take about 40 minutes to get to Carmarthen.

"The golden hour" is a phrase used by doctors to describe the amount of time a patient has to live without treatment should they have a severe heart attack. To close Withybush would therefore be a death sentence for all such patients.

So keeping Withybush Hospital open seems like a pretty good idea to me, for reasons moral, economic, and health-wise. I believe it costs in the region of £8 billion a year, admittedly a lot more than the £4 million currently spent on homeopathy for "patient choice", but an extremely small fraction of what is currently spent on illegal wars.

I make no apology for including this blogpost in the category of "Health/Science/Medicine Versus Nonsense". There's a lot more nonsense out there than quack remedies marketing themselves as miracles, and I'm afraid uninformed (or indeed misinformed) government policy can qualify as just such nonsense.

In 2006, upon plans to close or massively downgrade the hospital, Pembrokeshire suddenly churned with activity. A group called "SWAT" - Save Withybush Action Team - sprang to life: many of its members were doctors. (Sadly their website seems to have vanished within only the last few months.) 1000 people attended a public debate in the vast agricultural hall outside Haverfordwest, and many more attended smaller meetings in their villages. Thousands of people wrote letters and signed postcards and petitions.

We remained entirely unimpressed with pontifications such as "quality of patient care has to be at the heart of a progressive health service", and arguments that more care could take place "in the community" therefore led onto a necessity to close the hospital. The Local Health Board was staffed with government officials who knew nothing about Pembrokeshire, and were basically there to tell us a lot of things we knew perfectly well were untrue. Fortunately, our arguments were actually so well-researched, so noisy, and so strong, that in the end the lady in charge actually announced that the Local Health Board wished to pursue the agenda chosen by the activists, rather than one of the two dictated by the government. We had some suspicion that this would be pushed under the carpet until the next election, but for now, Withybush was safe.

Until a brave soul leaked a certain document to the Western Telegraph . . .

The health board are, of course, furious, and denied everything. They also assured the BBC that Withybush is here to stay. But can we trust them? There are, I understand, still plans to move many essential services away through the back door. Not only will this mean it takes a great deal longer to treat people, and that ill people will have to undergo the discomfort and danger of a great deal more travelling, but also it will discourage doctors and nurses and other medical people from coming to work here. There has been quite enough deliberate discouragement of that already - including, it is alleged, tearing up and hiding of job applications in order to skew appearances of a department's viability.

I'm sorry that this entry contained so few references. Especially in the last paragraph, such things can only be spread by word of mouth - you're hardly going to find written proof anywhere. Sadly, much of the material that was online and available at the time now seems to have been taken down. But when you get as involved with something as I was, you don't forget the facts and figures. They will come, I hope, because SWAT will doubtless reform, and I am also going to ask them to help me retrieve them!

I'm going to follow this up with - I hope - at least two blogposts: one about the history of Withybush Hospital and the plans for closure, and the other about my recollections of the campaigning. I'll also address exactly why I am so strongly in favour of what the politicians think of as the "the old way" and "inefficiency", and why the grand words about community care and access to specialised services basically do not make sense for the majority.

Now, should this flare up and it turns out that "the first document" is the accurate one, you'll see several more blogposts on Withybush Hospital - I hope a few of you will join the fight!

In the meantime, a few little news items from 2006:
A BBC report on the activities of SWAT, and how the poor little health board feels these people are really Luddite and getting in the way of inevitability;
A transcript of a conversation with someone who has witnessed the consequences of this "progress";
Another BBC news item about the "disappointment that people have decided to demonstrate";
Wales Online about the "two options" (i.e. both closure) between which the public was originally "invited" to choose, closure or massive downgrade amounting to closure being this wonderful "patient choice";
The Western Telegraph on how SWAT planned to create an "Option 3" despite not having the time and resources the Local Health Board did (recall that not only did SWAT do that, but Option 3 got chosen!);
The Western Telegraph records a debate between Bernadine Rees of the Local Health Board and Dr Chris Overton of Withybush Hospital (NB Dr Overton was suspended for 6 weeks for his original whistle-blowing over the dangers facing Withybush Hospital, while Bernadine Rees was given an MBE);
Our local MP Stephen Crabb, the Tories in Carmarthenshire, and Paul Davies AM, give their support to Withybush.

Friday, 13 August 2010

Moderators of a medical forum hide safety warning about drinking what is effectively bleach

Yes, they really did. But let me give you a little background.

I love chemistry, so I'm going to start with the element chlorine. For the chemists, it's element no. 17, the second lightest halogen - you'll find it on the second-from-right column (called "Row 17") of the Periodic Table (not this Periodic Table, excellent as that is). There are some pretty good visual aids of the atomic structure here.

Each atom has a different number of protons, neutrons and electrons (please do scroll down if you already know this). The number of protons and electrons are the same. It's the number of neutrons and protons that determine the "big" stuff, for example in stellar reactions such as the Sun making helium from hydrogen - that determines the qualities of the element, as well as swaps around masses amounts of energy. The number of electrons is, effectively, the skin. That determines what the element does in more shall we say relaxed conditions, such as on Planet Earth, where lots of things change in a mundane way without (usually) nuclear bombs and so on.

This works because, although chemists will tell you that electrons are found in "probability clouds", these clouds have a rather well-formed structure that we can represent as shells, or layers, around the nucleus of protons and electrons. You can think of these like bookshelves longing to be filled up, too. The innermost one only has space for two electrons. The next two can hold eight. Now, an atom prefers that all its shells are filled up, and the closer it comes to this state, the more upset it gets - and the more eagerly it will rush to do anything to achieve this state, either by casting an electron off, or by snatching one. Chlorine belongs to the latter group.

Chlorine's outer "shell" has seven out of eight possible, and so it's always longing to get another one. Sodum, meanwhile, has one out of eight, so it's all too pleased to throw an electron off. So if a sodium atom meets a chlorine atom, the chlorine will snatch the sodium's electron. Now the chlorine has too many electrons. This means it's now a chloride ion, that it has a negative charge, and that correspondingly the sodium has a positive charge. This makes them stick together. That makes salt.

This kind of thing can happen with other elements, too, but chlorine is particularly eager to do it.

That's ionic bonding. Now what happens among non-metals, organic chemistry, and generally a great deal on this Earth, is covalent bonding. In this case, picture two chlorine atoms. They "share" two of their electrons. Although they've still only got seven electrons in their outer shell each, this "sharing" allows them a lot more stability. Not a great deal, though. Chlorine gas is very reactive.

It's a powerful oxidant, or oxidising agent. To oxidise something often means you add some oxygen, which is the case with rusted iron. What this oxygen does is steal some electrons. And that's what, in chemistry terms, "oxidising" really means - to nick some electrons. This of course changes the properties of whatever has been oxidised. It makes them want to bond with other materials, because they're unstable now. With fats in foods, it often makes them smell rancid. With iron, it makes it brown and flaky. With biological matter, it often completely screws it up.

That's why chlorine is often used as a sterelising agent in swimming pools, and why labels keep going on about "antioxidants" as a matter of safety as well as taste. And why it was used as a weapon, poisonous gas, in World War I. Oxidising is a nasty process.

And it's really not a good idea to drink the stuff. (Did anyone else do "An Inspector Calls" at school, in which Eva Smith drinks a bottle of disinfectant that "burnt out her throat"?)

However, a 15-year-old skeptic, Rhys Morgan, has been permanently banned from a medical forum for pointing out this danger to vulnerable people.

I first came across Rhys on Twitter when FerFrias introduced him to my homeopathy post. It was clear that he was exceptionally keen on what was real science and what wasn't, and what is good for people's health and what is just a belief, or indeed a scam. He suffers from Crohn's Disease, which I understand varies in severity but can be extremely nasty. I suffered from digestive problems for several years and had to deal with daily pain and nausea, sometimes non-stop for days on end. Rhys is extremely brave and optimistic about it, but he also knows how vulnerable people can be when they're ill, how they are driven to try absolutely anything for a cure.

He joined a forum for suffers of Crohn's disease and colitis - to exchange mutual support and medical information. There are many of such forums, but this one is called crohnsforum so is probably the first that most people find. Here he encountered a user who fervently encouraged his fellow forum users to use "Miracle Mineral Solution", abbreviated to MMS.

Look at that link a moment.

Yes, it says 28% sodium chlorite.

Just scroll up a moment and read back to what I wrote about chlorine.

Yes, sodium chlorite is not chlorine - but it contains chlorine and will easily let it go. It's also not sodium chloride, which is salt. A mere flick through the Wiki entry (which seems to have been thoroughly researched) reveals snippets such as: "Do not mix with organic chemicals in case of explosion" (such as . . . Your throat?); that it's used as an antiseptic (i.e. to kill germs) in mastitis in cattle; that it's used in the bleaching of paper; that "chronic exposure . . . could cause reproductive and neurodevelopmental damage"; and that it's an oxidant (see above where I mentioned oxidation reactions).

Not something I'd much fancy drinking, thanks. For more information on Jim Humble, its first advocate, check out this excellent blogpost by Noodlemaz (but finish reading this first, please, because you will get about as distracted as it's possible to get!).

However, a user on the forum of which Rhys was a member urged a user with a sore throat not only to drink this solution, but to continue drinking it when he said his thraot was getting worse. Drinking MMS makes you feel nauseous. I gather the reasoning is that the nausea demonstrates the removal of toxins.

I've often heard about toxins, and educated science students talking about detox. I have yet to hear what these toxins actually are, or how they could so suddenly be removed from the body, from where or to where. In his book "Bad Science", Ben Goldacre writes brilliantly about how, just as people used to wish for penance to "cleanse" themselves of their sins, the modern consumer longs for "detox" in a similar wish to feel somehow pure and good.

I've also read a book about self-harm, which makes it very clear how going through pain can often feel like an achievement. Not to mention articles which remark on how people can be quite competitive about how stressed they are. It sounds to me as if vulnerable people are being encouraged, effectively, to self-harm, and feel that the discomfort and indeed agony they go through is going to help them.

Besides all this being basically twisted, wrong, and not going to cure the person at all, it sounds bloody dangerous to me.

Rhys challenged this person and was on the receiving end of a great deal of public and private abuse for it. He was sworn at, for a start; he was also informed that "Big Pharma" should pay for medical trials because the poor little billion-pound complementary and alternative medicine industry can't afford them, that conventional medicine has problems (see "ARGUMENT FROM NECESSARY OPPOSITES (1)"), and that conventional medicine only contains chlorine.

All right, let's actually deal with some of these points. Why is it so expensive to do a proper medical trial? Again, read Ben Goldacre's book, which tells you in a very straightforward way how to do one. (I have some ideas on that and citizen science myself, which I hope to speak about at Skeptics in the Pub some time . . .) Also, the fact that you're too poor to test something for safety doesn't mean it's safe, or that you have any right to promote it. Trying to make others feel guilty is really not an argument!

As for the chlorine - recall the sodium chloride. You ever see salt turning into sodium and chlorine again, out of the school lab where you do electrolysis with a load of wires and rusty crocodile clips? No. Because chlorine's very reactivity gives it another important characteristic. Because it's so reactive, once it does make a bond it's "happy" with, it stays that way. The chlorine-chlorine bond isn't very strong - nor are the bonds in sodium chlorite - so they'll fall apart easily. But chlorine's very strenth can give it amazingly strong bonds. Once it's chloride - the negative ion - it's perfectly happy, and that's how it'll stay. You'll find chloride ions all over the world - they're the biggest component, after water, of sea water. I hope this makes it clear that, when pointing out the "such and such" uses chlorine, you need to be a tad more specific if you want to make a proper argument.

By now you might also be thinking: "Hang on, our stomach contains hydrochloric acid - that's half chlorine!" And the penny might also have dropped . . . yes - chlorine with different properties, again. The chlorine exists as the chloride ion, again, so it won't have the same effects at all as the sodium chlorite. The hydrogen exists simply as lone protons, having had their one electron "snatched". It's an extremely strong acid, designed to kill germs and bore ways into the food to make it more digestable. All that acid's later neutralised by bile from the gall bladder, so that the bacteria in your gut can get on peacefully with their lives.

Anyway, two of Rhys's threads have been deleted. However, the brilliant JoBrodie got them both off Freezepage! (Please be aware these might expire after 2 weeks.) In one of them he posted the official FDA warning against MMS, and was argued against vigorously on the grounds that conventional medicine also had problems. Rhys remarks that it is unsafe to urge someone whose health is clearly very poor to continue taking MMS despite hideous pain and discomfort, and is accused of "slander". Upon retrieving the conversation, he's accused of "taking the quotes out of context" and informed that "I have requested that you be banned".

In the other, Rhys asks why people on the forum are often so anti-science and anti-conventional medicine: he agrees that there are problems with it, but it's the best we've got. "I made an evidence based posting, not one even from a skeptical point of view, warning people about Miracle Mineral Solution," he wrote. "The forum's response? Trying to silence me, childish name calling and of course, blaming Big Pharma for the lack of medical trials on such unproven non-treatments."

After banning him permanently for his "attitude", both these threads were deleted.

Rhys tweeted: "It's disgustingly irresponsible that they deleted my post which was merely a link to the FDA warning page. They were willfully keeping others ignorant, by doing so." (Said tweets here and here.)

A forum moderator myself, I am stunned. Stunned that safety warnings were hidden; stunned that science was silenced. I can see that, in their uninformed view, Rhys was not being diplomatic; but seriously, the worst he said was "grow up", which is nothing compared to the abuse he's received. I suppose they felt that the majority must be right. But my God, deleting an official safety warning and making sure such vulnerable people remained in ignorance about what they were doing? I am so stunned I don't think I have any words. I don't think I need any, anyway. Rhys and his 30+ commentators say enough here!

He's been extremely active since then, calling Cardiff Trading Standards, who called him back with more information, and hopes to start a campaign to at least raise awareness of MMS even if it doesn't get banned. This bit I don't know much about, so we'll have to wait for that. I've predicted he'll be giving Skeptics in the Pub talks in a year or so, and have his own forum a year or so after that!

Let me just mention one or two more issues. JoBrodie quite rightly pointed out the issue of cliquiness. This often makes forums miserable and annoying, skews issue in favour of opinions that aren't necessarily correct, and if the moderators are involved, certainly leads to injustice. That's one cause - the effect is a lot worse. Another cause may simply be ignorance on the part of the moderators. As pretty well anyone can set up a forum, it must be exceedingly difficult for medics and scientists to keep track of them, let alone make sure that the right information gets out to the right people. Still, as forums grow large, and especially on such a responsible topic, shouldn't we at least try? Or would that mean a lot more regulation and stifling - and could that regulation and stifling indeed lead to more censorship of science, through officialdom rather than cliques? What do you think? Someone like me should know, but sadly I don't!

Another issue is the idea purported by some that MMS will sterelise unwanted organisms within the body. This is about as likely as a homeopathic remedy remembering the presence of arnica rather than whatever else the water has been in contact with over its billions of years of existence. Your digestive tract contains a huge number of microscopic organisms, most of them benign and indeed beneficial. The first place the sodium chlorite gets (apart from the poor throat) is, of course, the stomach, in which the strong acid attacks incoming bacteria. Adding chlorine is totally out of line with what the body's doing, and is at least as likely to attack your insides as any bacteria you don't want in there.

Well, I thought I'd go for the "sciencey" side, since a lot of people have covered this issue now - my favourite blogpost so far is Noodlemaz's (not the same one I linked to earlier). It was all over Twitter the other day - I wish I'd written about it sooner, but I've been a bit distracted - and retweeted by the likes of Ben Goldacre and James Randi. Rhys is famous!

He's done an interview for the Pod Delusion, will be a subject discussed by the SkepChicks, and has been contacted by a video production company in Yorkshire. When he said he was off to London, lots of us assumed it was to the BBC. Well done Rhys, and looking forward to seeing you at Cardiff Skeptics!

Now, who says 15 year olds can't do things?

Sunday, 8 August 2010

#Meteorwatch 2010

My, oh my.

We very rarely get clear skies where I live in west Wales. Also, although my county is supposed to be one of the UK's best for darkness, and I live in the country, our best view is to the south - slap into the very bright oil refineries.

If I was a more competitive person, I'd say that was my excuse for being such a hopeless stargazer; but actually I'm just calmly and gloriously incompetent. Which detracts absolutely nothing from the sense of peace and wonder I get from looking at the stars. I smile at them. They twinkle back. They're hundreds of light years away. But they're my friends.

They made us all, and we rotate around the centre of the Galaxy together.

Playing around on Twitter and Scrabble, a good way to enjoy a weekend in a not-very-exciting area, it vaguely entered my mind that #meteorwatch, a project initiated by VirtualAstro, is here again. In August we get the Perseids, an annual meteor shower due to us passing through an old tail of the comet Swift-Tuttle (what a great name!), and which get their name by appearing, apparently, to come from the constellation Perseus. (I have no idea where that is.) Stephanie suddenly tweeted just before 2am that she'd been out and seen two meteors - in a clear sky. I hadn't realised there was one of those out there tonight. Excited, I leapt up and grabbed socks and a thick jumper.

I turned the kitchen light right down, so as to avoid spilling light out onto the drive, and unlocked the front door - and gasped. Although the sky looked pale, it positively tingled with stars. I crept out onto the flagstones and there were hundreds more behind the house. I realised I'd have to lie flat, and slightly away from the house, to appreciate this properly. I crept back inside and looked for our foamy groundsheets. Having banged and crashed around and hopefully not woken everyone else up, I finally located them behind a load of displaced furniture in the porch not by the front door. Grabbing a torch, I turned off all the lights again and laid it on the driveway in front of the car.

I felt a little dizzy, as if I was going to fall into that glittering array. As I got used to the sensation of lying flat, the stars seemed to grow odd tails or form nebulae around themselves that vanished when I looked again. They were most spectacular to the north-east, brighter and harder somehow, but fewer; directly overhead they seemed more crowded, but almost dissolved in a sea of soft sky. Brighter patches, I guessed, were the Milky Way.

I remembered a friend telling me how to locate Andromeda from Pegasus. I did see the square of what I surmised - correctly (really!) - was Pegasus, but couldn't remember where to go from there. When she showed me Andromeda, I saw a dot through binoculars tinier than any star. That was two years ago. Since then, I've read that across our sky it covers six full Moons. So I suppose it was too faint for me to see anything. Speaking of the Moon, it had the courtesy to have left the sky to the stars tonight. That's the first time since 2007, I think.

A very bright, yellowish point, which I was sure was a planet, stood in the East. I saw a W-shape that I assumed was Cassiopeia. I made mental notes to look them up. The most time-consuming part of my recent Open University course (introducing astronomy; very little that was new, but a good grounding in the bits I didn't!) was learning how to use stellarium software. I got back to discover that I was only 180 degrees out with Cassieopeia, and what I saw was probably Lyra; the bright yellowish point was Jupiter.

I stayed out there until I started shivering. At that point it got less pleasant, and the delight and calm and concentration had gone. When I got up, I felt very dizzy, which is disconcerting in the dark with your hands full. On the steps back up to the front door, I saw some white furry paws. It was my beloved Cassie. She had probably been sitting there watching me all that time, wondering what on Earth I was up to.

Once inside, I locked up, switched the lights on, and made myself a clear Earl Grey tea! Then I rushed upstairs to get back to Twitter and look at stellarium software. The exact patterns I saw are already streaming out of my head, which is sad. I don't think I'll ever get very good at the practical side of astronomy - though I haven't given up trying.

Seriously, if someone as rubbish as me can enjoy stargazing, anybody can. Just dress up warm.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Cardiff Skeptics now has a website

Just a quick announcement that Cardiff Skeptics now has its own website - please take a look!

We hope Cardiff will be the first of many Welsh towns or areas. There have been a few Facebook murmurings about Swansea, and some promising tweeting about Aberyswtwyth.

29 people have so far announced that they will come to our launch on Monday 20th September, and a lot more will do their best. Our speakers will be Simon Perry and Jack of Kent, and one of our guests of honour will be the local Councillor John Dixon whose claim to honour is best expressed here.

Dean was infuriated when he woke up with (he claims) every intention to sort the website out that day, only to find I'd finally got my head round how to put it together myself. He should blame Simon. I'd been so kindly leaving it for Dean, who was cruelly thwarted by Simon e-mailing me at 1am the other night to prod me to get on with the wretched thing. Which he paid for, by the way, by spending the next hour sending dozens of one-sentence e-mails back to my stupid questions!

Although there's been a lot of criticism of skeptics (mostly by skeptics) lately, you can't say we don't work well together . . .

I hope to see you at Cardiff!