Next meet-up: SitP 2015-10-26

Mt View Hotel, Bridge Rd, Richmond.
Image: Mattinbgn / WikiMedia Commons

Our next meet-up is the Melbourne Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 26 October, 2015.

As usual we meet at the Mountain View Hotel, 70 Bridge Road in Richmond from 18:00 (6pm) onwards. Find us upstairs in the lounge, grab a meal and a drink as you please, and chat with other freethinkers!

Next meet-up: SitP 2015-09-28

Mt View Hotel, Bridge Rd, Richmond.
Image: Mattinbgn / WikiMedia Commons

Our next meet-up is the Melbourne Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 28 September, 2015.

As usual we meet at the Mountain View Hotel, 70 Bridge Road in Richmond from 18:00 (6pm) onwards. Find us upstairs in the lounge, grab a meal and a drink as you please, and chat with other freethinkers!

Next meet-up: SitP 2015-08-24

Mt View Hotel, Bridge Rd, Richmond.
Image: Mattinbgn / WikiMedia Commons

Our next meet-up is the Melbourne Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 24 August, 2015.

As usual we meet at the Mountain View Hotel, 70 Bridge Road in Richmond from 18:00 (6pm) onwards. Find us upstairs in the lounge, grab a meal and a drink as you please, and chat with other freethinkers!

Next meet-up: SitP 2015-07-27

Mt View Hotel, Bridge Rd, Richmond.
Image: Mattinbgn / WikiMedia Commons

Our next meet-up is the Melbourne Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 27 July, 2015.

As usual we meet at the Mountain View Hotel, 70 Bridge Road in Richmond from 18:00 (6pm) onwards. Find us upstairs in the lounge, grab a meal and a drink as you please, and chat with other freethinkers!

Next meet-up: SitP 2015-06-22

Mt View Hotel, Bridge Rd, Richmond.
Image: Mattinbgn / WikiMedia Commons

Our next meet-up is the Melbourne Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 22 June, 2015.

As usual we meet at the Mountain View Hotel, 70 Bridge Road in Richmond from 18:00 (6pm) onwards. Find us upstairs in the lounge, grab a meal and a drink as you please, and chat with other freethinkers!

Next meet-up: SitP 2015-05-25

Mt View Hotel, Bridge Rd, Richmond.
Image: Mattinbgn / WikiMedia Commons

Our next meet-up is the Melbourne Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 25 May, 2015.

As usual we meet at the Mount View Hotel, 70 Bridge Road in Richmond from 18:00 (6pm) onwards. Find us upstairs in the lounge, grab a meal and a drink as you please, and chat with other freethinkers!

Federal government to anti-vacc parents: No childcare payments

In a proposal supported by the incumbent and opposition governments in Australia, parents who opt out of vaccinating their children will no longer receive federal payments for childcare and family tax.

“Parents who vaccinate their children should have confidence that they can take their children to childcare without the fear that their children will be at risk of contracting a serious or potentially life-threatening illness because of the conscientious objections of others,” Mr Abbott said. […]

The change will need to be approved by Parliament.

There is, fortunately, bipartisan agreement with the facts in this issue.

Under the policy which the coalition took to the last election, and which is supported by Labor, “conscientious objection” would no longer be allowed for parents who refuse to vaccinate their children but still want to receive child care payments and family tax benefit supplements.

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten said it was a sensible step.

“We believe fundamentally in the science of vaccinations and we fundamentally believe that policy should be made by the best evidence and the best science,” he said.

“And we would say to the Liberal Government, we’re pleased that you’re agreeing with our position and yes we will cooperate to make sure that the safety of our children is what is paramount in public policy.”

As skeptics we should highly applaud the proposal. Parents who through ignorance, whether innocent or wilful, endanger the health of their children and those around them, should not receive public child support funding until they acknowledge the scientific facts of how disease works.

Next meet-up: SitP 2015-04-27

Mt View Hotel, Bridge Rd, Richmond.
Image: Mattinbgn / WikiMedia Commons

Our next meet-up is the Melbourne Skeptics in the Pub on Monday 27 April, 2015.

As usual we meet at the Mount View Hotel, 70 Bridge Road in Richmond from 18:00 (6pm) onwards. Find us upstairs in the lounge, grab a meal and a drink as you please, and chat with other freethinkers!

Unhealthy skepticism — When a request for evidence sounds like a hostile accusation

How should we ask for verifiable evidence from someone whose claims, if true, make them and others like them more vulnerable? Simple requests for information can easily be perceived as hostile accusations of fraud.

When one public figure is subject to claims of fraud, and those who previously supported them are shamed for not being more skeptical, people with similar claims often get defensive in a form of collateral damage.

The author, Sarah Darmody, has promoted a book about her cancer and received donations to support her, all the while looking vibrant and healthy. Belle Gibson has done the same.

But in the wake of claims Gibson lied about having cancer, Darmody asks how public scrutiny could be expected to be better:

I [Sarah Darmody] spent a year talking about cancer while looking well. No one ever asked to see a letter from my doctor. No one asked where my surgery was performed. No one questioned why I looked so healthy after enduring what amounted to a debilitating double amputation. No one asked who my physiotherapist was. No one suggested that my then strange-sounding malady might be self-serving bollocks. No one asked to see my scars.

So when I read comments that the well-meaning publishers and supporters of Belle Gibson should have been somehow icily vigilant; that Gibson’s apparent health and youth and unusual-sounding diagnoses should have led to immediate fact-checking and distrust, I want to ask, how? How exactly do you say to a young person who tells you that they were ill and are now looking to help others, “Sorry, I just don’t buy it…”?

On one level, Darmody’s question has an easy response: Don’t say that. Asking for specific evidence doesn’t ever need to be phrased as “you’re a fraud”, it can just as easily come as earnest requests for information.

James Randi has shown us the way for decades. Not in his rightly-hostile castigation of people demonstrated to be frauds; I mean, rather, in the moment of asking questions to claimants. You can look through his countless videos where he actually speaks with the people making extraordinary claims. His questions are not phrased accusingly; they overwhelmingly are polite but insistent requests for specific information about the claims.

Sarah Darmody’s question asks something more insightful, though. The Randi mode of making no accusation while asking for verifiable information is easy to phrase in the form of an honest question, but very difficult to address to the person without it being perceived as a challenge, an accusation of bullshit.

So she asks: How do we exercise critical inquiry without making the claimant, no matter what the truth of their claims, defensive and uncooperative? If we don’t actually get verifiable information out of them, that doesn’t tell us anything useful: it can easily mean they are truthful but unwilling to bear a perceived insult. So it’s counter-productive to provoke that reaction when the claims are true.

It is a good question, and one that is at the core of the skeptical mission: learning how to promote critical inquiry and ask people to reserve judgement in the absence of positive evidence, yet at the same time not make people feel impugned by our (typically repeated) requests for verifiable information.

This is essential to the job of the journalist, of course. My position with regard to publishers, reporters, TV hosts, etc. is that those with whom Gibson or Darmody speak should, with all the benefit of their journalistic training, ask hard questions to get verifiable answers, and proportion their support for the claims to the quality of the supporting evidence.

It is the shame of our current media landscape that it cares so little for journalism that they almost never do this; the times when they do are laudable, but they are also rare exceptions.

For the rest of us? I think we would all do well to keep Darmody’s question in mind, and take care to think how our requests for verifiable evidence sound to those who, even if truthful, will be alert for accusations of falsehood.

We can usually find a way to ask without being perceived as hostile, if we acknowledge the context and tone of our question. Learning to do this better can make us better skeptics, because we actually get more specific answers this way.

Deliberately spreading unreasonable expectations can kill

An Australian woman, the self-styled “Wellness Warrior” who campaigned against medical treatment for cancer, has died tragically from a particularly nasty form of cancer.

Jessica Ainscough was struck by a sarcoma which is particularly difficult to treat, attacking the soft tissues. Having undergone chemotherapy without success – the sarcoma returned – her only effective option available was amputation of the arm and continued chemotherapy.

She instead chose to abandon medicine, letting the cancer continue to spread through her body.

It’s not for me to say whether her choice to decline a drastic and debilitating treatment, in favour of letting the cancer continue to ravage her body, was right or wrong. That is for her to decide with those whom she was close with.

What can be criticised, though, is that after this decision, she actively and diligently spread harmful misinformation about medicine and cancer, to those most at risk.

In a magazine targeting young women, in 2012 she published an an article without reference to scientific fact, recommending an alternative to medicine instead. The treatment she opted for requires her to “detoxify”, consuming large quantities of fruit and frequent coffee enemas:

I began looking at the different ways I may have contributed to the manifestation of my disease and then stopped doing them. […]

This research led me to Gerson Therapy which ensures you have a perfectly balanced diet for optimum health, assisting your body to flush out nasties whilst feeding it with all the goodness it needs to flourish.

The therapy involves drinking 13 fresh organic veggie juices per day (yes that’s one an hour, every hour of my waking day), five coffee enemas per day and a basic organic whole food plant-based diet with additional supplements.

[…]
I am ecstatic to report that it has worked for me. I have had no cancer spread, no more lumps pop up (they were popping up rapidly before) and I can actually see some of my tumours coming out through my skin and disappearing.

This attitude, her vocal dismissal of science-based medicine and her active promotion of unscientific treatments for cancer, earned her the title “Wellness Warrior”.

At 30 years old, she has now sadly died of the same untreated cancer. Regardless how the treatment made her feel and how optimistic she was, it continued to spread unchecked without regard for her beliefs.


The cited treatment, Gerson Therapy, is dangerous anti-scientific quackery.

The Gerson Institute not only enlist sick people to spread their false promises, they also enlist well-meaning non-medical stooges to be their practicioners. One can gain qualification to practice the treatment on more people with serious chronic illness:

The purpose of our Gerson Practitioner Training program is to train qualified medical professionals in how to clinically guide and manage people who choose to use the Gerson Therapy, as developed by Dr. Max Gerson, to address chronic degenerative disease and cancer.

The Practitioner Training program consists of two modules. Both modules must be completed before a practitioner can use the Gerson name and become a certified Gerson practicioner.

The two modules are:

  1. Attend a course, costing US$3600 and lasting five (5) days, at a California resort.
  2. Treat a required minimum number of patients for the next couple of years, at your own cost and using your existing practice.

What an amazingly rapid route to certification! Only five days and you can start giving enemas and fruit smoothies to chronically ill cancer-ridden people on your own town, under the watchful eye of the Gerson Institute.

They won’t give it to just anyone, though — you have to already be a certain standard of practitioner:

Eligibility:

You must hold one of the following credentials:

– Medical Doctor (MD)
– Doctor of Osteopathy (DO)
– Naturopathic Doctor (*ND)
– Nurse Practitioner (*NP)
– Physician Assistant (PA)
– Doctor of Chiropractic (DC)
– Licensed Acupuncturist/ Oriental Medicine Doctor (*Li.Ac./OMD)
– Registered Nurse (*RN)
– Certified Clinical Nutritionist (*CCN)

This reminds me very much of “universities” where one can learn various dogmas unsupported by evidence, but only if one signs a formal “Statement of Faith” up front.

The Gerson Institute should crumple in shame.


I have argued in the past that people who are ill, even with diseases that are difficult to treat (even, sometimes, difficult to diagnose), are right to expect good access to properly-trained practicioners of science-based medicine.

But armed with nonsense from places like the Gerson Institute, patients are often spending their valuable face-time with doctors by arguing that science is wrong and demanding respect for unscientific treatments. Ranjana Srivastava recounts that conversations like this are all too common with her patients:

“Should I have my intravenous vitamins on the day of chemo or after it?”

I don’t have a chance to answer before she continues: “Can you move my chemo appointment to fit in a colon cleanse? They are really busy, you know. Booked out weeks in advance.”

It almost comes across as boasting and I feel mildly irritated.

“And my friend is having magnet therapy,” she continues. “She is nearly cured though the traditional doctors gave up on her.”

I have to interrupt her: “Can we discuss this another time? I am afraid there are many patients waiting.”

She is unfazed. “I need to feel heard, you know. I want to know about juicing therapy. It sounds so next generation.”

She makes the salient point that science-based medicine is regulated, and as a result is constrained to what is demonstrated to work. Practicioners of alternatives to medicine have no such constraint, and thereby are freed to spout unfounded nonsense that lets patients “feel heard”, even if it squanders their money, time, and life.

Health literacy moves at a very slow pace. The alternative health industry, worth many billions of dollars, marches briskly. It will always attract unguarded patients who will cling to the faintest promise of recovery without associated harm. Whenever money changes hands and the premise sounds too good to be true, the motto remains: Caveat Emptor.