There is no such thing as “alternative medicine”

There is no such thing as “alternative medicine” – any more than there is “alternative mathematics”.

Yes, there are different ways to practise medicine, just as there are different ways of calculating the value of pi – but the fundamental remains: something is either medically valid or it is not. If it is not – and that means if it cannot prove its efficacy – then it is not any sort of medicine.

I am move to write this by two things – firstly what appears to be a major outbreak of measles in the United States that has been brought about not by a failure of medicine but by a cold and deliberate attempt to undermine medicine, and secondly by the current vogue in the UK of otherwise rational people saying they would support the Green Party – a party dedicated, amongst other things to the promotion of anti-science in medicine.

The US measles outbreak is not just because of the “irresponsible and dishonest” work of Andrew Wakefield – a man who manipulated research findings in a way that stood to bring substantial financial benefits to lots of people he was associated with. Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited by anyone with the remotest concern for scientific credibility.

What has fuelled the outbreak is the belief by some – too many – that somehow they know better than science that their “alternative” medicine is better. In fact they are putting the lives of their children at risk through their refusal to accept medicine. If you want a contemporary example of “shouting fire in a crowded theatre” then this, surely, is it.

As for the Green Party – which were reported to be as high as 11% in one opinion poll last week and which have also won the right to appear in leaders’ debates on UK television – at least they are no longer explicitly describing homoeopathy (also known as “water”) as “natural medicine”) and they have also seemingly distanced themselves from past demands that scientific research only follow government-approved routes (Lysenko-ism anybody?). But they still state this on their policy website:

Current theory and practice place too much emphasis on interventions at the biochemical and individual levels, too little on the social and ecological.

Of course, perhaps that is just a meaningless left-over from their past days as new age hippies – but it has a distinct anti-science tone to my ears, especially as it is followed up with the statement that their aim is to:

…develop a new public health consciousness, which, through individual and collective action, will challenge vested interests and promote the personal, social and political changes needed to achieve improved states of health.

Wouldn’t actually some new “biochemical interventions” also be a good idea? I certainly think so, but if health is all about lifestyle you might feel otherwise.

Then there is this “aim”:

To develop health services which place as much emphasis on illness prevention, health promotion and the development of individual and community self-reliance as on the treatment and cure of disease. Such services will of necessity be empowering, participatory and democratic and their development will be guided by users’ own perceptions of their health needs.

By now I am beginning to feel distinctly uncomfortable – to me the above statement is seriously anti-scientific in tone and intent: truth, after all, is not democratic.

And, then, under policies we have this:

We will work to reduce the number of interventions in childbirth, and change the culture of the NHS so that birth is treated as a normal and non-medical event, in which mothers are empowered and able to be in control.

(Shades here of the Soviet approach – and the claim that pain was all in the mind of the mother – as described in Red Plenty. Most mothers I know were very glad of medical help at birth, especially in the form of pain relief. Is the Green Party’s policy really to “change the culture” of the NHS to limit access to that?)

And this…

The safety and regulation of medicines will be controled by a single agency. This agency will ensure that medicines meet minimum safety standards, provide clear labelling of both ingredients and side-effects. The agency will cover existing synthetic medicines as well as those considered as natural or alternative medicines.

Considered by whom to be “alternative” medicines? It’s not a purely rhetorical question as the Green’s current sole MP, Caroline Lucas, has a disappointing record as an advocate of “alternative” medicine campaigns funded by commercial interests in this field.

Not even an April Fool

I can remember my first encounter with the metric system very clearly…
In the Summer of 1972 the British Army mobilised in massive numbers to end the “no go areas” that had sprung up in nationalist areas of Belfast and elsewhere over the previous two and a half years. Operation Motorman was to be the biggest ever “peacetime” military operation in the UK since the end of the Second World War.

One of those areas was in Lenadoon where my school, Blessed Oliver Plunkett, was based.  As the Army took over the two tower blocks on the estate as observation posts, the residents left and bedded down in the only place available – the school.

The result was that, to all effects and purposes, the school was closed and I – like hundreds of others – started the next academic year somewhere else – in my case at Holy Child Primary School (in consequence of “Olly Plunkett’s” closure, and the rapid expansion of the Catholic population of West Belfast,  Holy Child that year became the largest ever school in the UK – with over 2700 pupils.)

On my first day in Mrs MacManus’s class we had a maths lesson and I was confronted, for the first time, with these strange metric measurements, the centimetre, the gramme and the millilitre.

My point is this – in the UK, even in the bits of the UK that were least keen on being in the UK, we have been teaching our children in metric measurements since 1972 – 42 years.

Yet, along comes the Prime Minister, David Cameron, last night, and this happens:

“I think I’d still go for pounds and ounces, yes I do,” Cameron told BBC2’s Newsnight when asked which should be taught predominantly.

I admit, I am no fan of David Cameron to begin with. But where do you begin when faced with such idiocy?

I suppose you can start with the fact that Cameron is a graduate of PPE – politics, philosophy and economics – and plainly knows nothing, or next to nothing, about science and the fact that sciences have been taught, the world over, in some form of metric measurement since at least the 1950s. Teaching our children in imperial measurements would be to actively seek to disadvantage them.

Then again I could just recall that John Stuart Mill was moved to remark to the House of Commons: “What I stated was, that the Conservative party was, by the law of its constitution, necessarily the stupidest party. Now, I do not retract this assertion; but I did not mean that Conservatives are generally stupid; I meant, that stupid persons are generally Conservative. I believe that to be so obvious and undeniable a fact that I hardly think any hon. Gentleman will question it.” (My emphasis).

With Cameron one never quite knows of course – and this may just be the latest piece of his rather desperate efforts to appease the anti-Europeans in his party who want him to follow the lead of the hard-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP).

UKIP’s platform is built on two propositions – that it would be better if we returned to the 1950s and that all that is bad in the UK emanates from the European Union. In metrication they find both enemies – modernity and Europe. At least in their minds they do – given that the UK did not join the then EEC until 1973 I am not sure Europe really is “to blame” for the end of the rood and the chain and the rise of the hectare and the metre.

Already the Tories have thrown a bone to the cave men of UKIP by bringing back rote learning of “twelve times table” – once an essential for a country where twelve pennies made a shilling but an anachronism since “decimalisation day” – 15 February 1971. So maybe this is next.

Or, more likely, it is Cameron not having the guts to stand up to them in public, even on such an obviously rational issue as the use of the metric system.

Forty five years on

Archive: Apollo 11 Sees Earthrise (NASA, Marsh...
Archive: Apollo 11 Sees Earthrise (NASA, Marshall, 07/69) (Photo credit: NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center)

I’m a day late here, but the sheer brilliance of the achievement of Apollo 11 means I have to write of it.

I was just three, but I remember the day well, watching the black and white images on the TV in the corner of the room in Donegal – where we were on holiday.

Apollo 11 has shaped my life in a very real way – a lifelong love of science.

The disruptive impact of a knowledge-based technology

Cheltenham Science Festival, 2011
Jim Al-Khalili, Cheltenham Science Festival, 2011 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

War is the spur and the technology is originally concentrated in just one place, close to the frontline.

But then it spreads and multiplies – and the commercial centres become the centres of the new technology.

Within a few decades the old technologies – which have been steadily advancing up to this point – have been rendered obsolete and a whole new range of skills and technologies – particularly those that allow the more rapid and lower cost distribution of knowledge – are in demand.

More than that, the technology itself allows the revolutionising of multiple aspects of daily life by spreading knowledge ever wider and accelerating the rate at which new knowledge is acquired.

Eventually the technology is globalised and there comes a point where the old centres of manufacturing are eclipsed but the technology itself is more important than ever….

The computer revolution? No, the coming of paper to the Arab world as outlined in Jim Al-Khalili‘s wonderful Pathfinders: The Golden Age of Arabic Science. I’ve only read about 50 pages so far but I cannot recommend this book highly enough – as it has lots to say about today’s world as well as that of 11 centuries ago.

(The Arabs learned how to make paper from Chinese prisoners of war and first factory was at Samarkand, close to the front line. Then it spread throughout the Islamic Caliphate – at a time when the Caliphate was open to ideas and scientific exploration. The availability of paper spurred the mass translation of works of Greek, Indian and Persian science and then allowed Arab scientists to disseminate their new ideas. It also transformed the leather, wood and ink and dye industries. Arab works – not just those of the ancients – became known in Europe and then became essential in spurring the humanist revolution we call the renaissance…)

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Astrology: the anti-science acceptable to the educated élite?

Man Booker Prize
Man Booker Prize (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Imagine if, in the US, a new novel that celebrated creationism was awarded the greatest of all literary prizes, topped the local best seller lists, gained five star reviews in the papers and was recommended to school pupils by their teachers. Typical American idiocy, eh?

Then imagine in the rest of the English-speaking world a new novel that celebrated astrology was awarded… well you don’t have to imagine, because it has already happened with the award of the Man Booker Prize to The Luminaries – a book the plot of which revolves (literally, apparently) around astrology.

Now, you might argue, the fact that a character in the plot, or even the plot itself, focused on astrology is hardly that shocking – this is the world of the imagination after all. But that ignores the fact that the author, Eleanor Catton, noted that it was 28 years since a New Zealander had last won the prize and that this was of astrological significance – because it was the orbital period of Saturn? Frankly, if I was a Booker judge, I’d be tempted to sue over the suggestion that my decision to award the prize was based on something other than rational thought!

It seems no one has batted an eye-lid about the astrological theme. Astrology is the anti-science that our arts degree holding élite find completely acceptable – it’s just a bit of fun, after all, isn’t it?

No, it’s not. It ought to be a matter of national shame that our children know far more about this rubbish than any true cosmology.

In fact my view is that astrology is the “gateway drug” to all sorts of far more pernicious anti-science ideas. It needs to be confronted not tolerated.

As you might have guessed I have no intention of reading Ms Catton’s book. So, maybe I am being unfair – a bit like those prudes of years gone by who denounced Monty Python’s Life Of Brian without ever bothering to watch it. That’s a risk I am taking writing this, I admit. But the evidence I can see suggests Ms Catton takes astrology more than semi-seriously:

Is Catton trying to legitimize astrology for our modern age, perhaps rescue it from newspapers’ back pages?

“I do feel like I have a special fondness for any school of thought that is not fashionable,” she says with a shy laugh. “It’s just kind of a rebellious streak in me, and certainly astrology does not command a great deal of intellectual respect.”

The zodiac, she explains, “is incredibly psychologically complex, I think. As a sequence, it makes a great deal of harmonic sense: You know, the 12 signs from Aries through to Pisces really are a 12-part story, and each sign kind of rejects the principles of the sign that precedes it. And reacts against them, in a funny kind of way.”

As an example, she cites Aries, “which is understood as the objective principle; Taurus, the subjective, which is a reaction against the objective; and then Gemini, which is a kind of synthesis of objective and subjective, and moves freely between them. And so on and so forth, all the way around.

“So, yeah, I think I do find astrology really interesting as a kind of primitive or naive version of psychology, really. Or, like, a psychological schema.”

(From The Globe and Mail – here)

She’s entitled to her view, no matter how plain stupid it makes her look. The Booker Judges aren’t entitled to give it credibility without being open to ridicule though.

My one problem with Feynman’s QED

Stimulated emission of photon from an atom
Stimulated emission of photon from an atom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Well, as predicted, I finished off Richard Feynman‘s QED – The Strange Theory of Light and Matter in short order this morning – and it is a truly marvellous book. I just wish I had read it as an undergraduate.

My one problem with it was its explanation of “stimulated emission“. Now, as an undergraduate, I remember I understood this quite well – it came up in a discussion of MASERs (intense microwave sources in deep space) as opposed to the more familiar LASERs ifI remember correctly. But that’s a long time ago.

Perhaps I should look it all up again.

What a brilliant book

Signature of Richard P. Feynman
Signature of Richard P. Feynman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Just over three hours ago I started reading Richard Feynman‘s QED – The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Penguin Press Science): and now, 110 pages later, I am stunned at its brilliance.

If you are any sort of physics undergraduate you must read it. Similarly, if I was teaching ‘A’ level physics I would be handing it out to my students.

There is little maths in it and not much physics either – but as a way of explaining a high concept of physics – without cutting corners with bad analogies – it is just fantastic.

I’ve taken a break now because reading that much of a science book at more or less one sitting is not conducive to grasping all its points – but I am sure it will be finished either this evening or tomorrow morning.

A celebration of science

This picture is of Cabbage White caterpillars chomping away at nasturtiums (tropaeolum majus) in my garden. Cabbage White caterpillars

Nasturtiums are, as is well known, fantastically easy to grow and I have wondered for a while why they also seem quite resistant to attacks by the snails and slugs that ravage everything else in my garden.

Now, possibly, and with thanks to Tim Waters, who has a DPhil from Oxford and so actually knows something about this, I may have an answer.

Nasturtiums are closely related to cabbages and this family of plants have developed what Tim calls “vicious” methods to deter insect attack (NB: Tim has not said this includes molluscs – I am hypothesising that on the basis of not much at all) through various poisons in the leaves. The Cabbage Whites have developed counter measures – a paper here describes this battle in some detail.

Having recently come to realise the deep links between genetics and computation I find this fascinating and the whole thing – the link between the seemingly mundane question of which plants grow well in a garden over-run with slugs while also offering some support back to native species and the continuum of maths, physics, chemistry and biology – seems to me like a celebration of the explanatory power of science and the immensity of the last fifty years of achievement by scientists in so many domains.

Unicorns and the Juche

The authorities in North Korea have “reconfirmed” the discovery of a Unicorn lair, reports the Guardian.

Happily they were aided by the fact that someone carved the words “unicorn lair” into the rock outside the animals’ home.

Given the nature of the state we can only assume that the latest Kim to head the world’s first and last (though Cubans might disagree) Stalinist hereditary monarchy is a strong believer in the existence of unicorns. Much in the same way that the Soviet authorities promoted Lysenkoism because it was a pet theory of Josef Stalin and Nikita Khruschev despite most Soviet geneticists – or those who survived – knowing it to be garbage. (This presents another opportunity to recommend Red Plenty).

The decline of the chemistry set

I had a couple of chemistry sets when I was young and also had great fun with them (though as they involved a naked flame my mother always supervised).

English: 1940s Gilbert chemistry set. Photogra...
English: 1940s Gilbert chemistry set. Photographed at Shoreline Historical Museum, Shoreline, Washington. Includes: Top row * * * * (Haematoxylum campechianum) * * * * * * Powdered * Powdered * Second row * * * Powdered * * Bottom row * * solution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One set allowed me to manufacture a foul-smelling, green-coloured gas – which the guide asserted had been used as a weapon during the Great War.

I bought my eldest daughter a kit a few years ago and it was so boring and lacking in excitement that we both gave up on it after an hour. It was not used a second time.

The BBC report that our experience is not a solitary one and that safety concerns have more or less destroyed the market for kids’ chemistry sets. It’s quite hard to justify selling anyone a set that allows them to manufacture weapons of mass destruction, never mind give it to children. But without the magic, what’s the point?