5 Years On — Chemotherapy Works


I wrote someone out of my will today.

It was five years ago I had chemo­ther­apy for can­cer. It should have been six, but I held off get­ting a dia­gnosis because I was in the last year of my PhD and help­ing out with eld­erly rel­at­ives. I wasn’t strictly in denial about hav­ing can­cer, but the tim­ing was bad. Relatives died which caused more prob­lems. When another close rel­at­ive was hos­pit­al­ised it was obvi­ous there wasn’t going to be a con­veni­ent time.

I was dia­gnosed on a Monday after­noon and oper­ated on the fol­low­ing day. It wasn’t that bad a situ­ation, someone else had can­celled their oper­a­tion due to snow. I was offered either their spot, or else wait a few weeks for the oper­a­tion. Hanging around with the tumour inside me seemed like a really bad idea, so in I went. The follow-up was a brief course of chemotherapy.

There’s been a lot writ­ten about how bad chemo­ther­apy is, but I had no prob­lem. Here’s a selfie from five years ago while I’m hav­ing chemotherapy.

chemo selfie

I pottered around the house and had no trouble at all. I didn’t have any prob­lem, though one day I did fancy some Jaffa Cakes and there were none in the house. So I went out to the shops to get some. This is a map of how far away the shop was.

Map via Google Maps.

Map via Google Maps

I was tired well before the first corner. Continue read­ing

Psychic Readings are True

Psychic advert

Yes, it’s a delib­er­ately sceptic-baiting title. The plan is: it winds people up, they point out how I’m wrong and I learn something.

Psychic advert

I fore­see you are about to lose some money. Photo by Timothy Krause.

I’ve not com­pletely mad though. Obviously not all psychic read­ings are true. It would take an enorm­ous tal­ent to ignore real­ity that has shown many read­ings to be false or fraud­u­lent. If I could do that I’d have a golden future in polit­ics. No, I’m only arguing the true ones are true.

Even that sounds odd. By defin­i­tion the true read­ings are true. Isn’t it a bit dif­fi­cult to believe that any read­ings are true if, like me, you don’t believe in psychic powers? Surely that’s going to need a weaselly approach to ‘truth’? I prefer to say simple, but you can call weasel in the com­ment box below if you like.

The idea has been form­ing since I went on an Applied Cold Reading course. Applied Cold Reading works best if you can get things wrong, but some­times it hap­pens that you fail to get things wrong.* String a few of these fails together and your sub­ject is stunned by how much you got right. Now you and I know that we were aim­ing for misses, but to your sub­ject that doesn’t mat­ter. You were right. That’s what she knows. The fact that you were right by acci­dent or chance is irrel­ev­ant. You were right.

And now you’re in trouble because she’ll expect you to keep being right. But that’s your prob­lem.
Continue read­ing

Applied Cold Reading

Book in the snow
Book in the snow

The best photo I’ve seen of cold read­ing by SPDP at Flickr.

I took a week­end off to attend a course in London on Applied Cold Reading. The course was given by Ian Rowland, who might be famil­iar to some read­ers as ‘Ian who from where?’, for every­one else he’s the author of The Full Facts Book of Cold Reading.

The Full Facts Book is mainly about Cold Reading in a psychic con­text. There are lots of people who can tell you how cold read­ing works in a psychic con­text. It relies on Barnum state­ments, state­ments that feel per­sonal but they’re true for every­one. I don’t find that a sat­is­fy­ing explan­a­tion. I get the impres­sion that the Barnum effect works best on gull­ible people. I know a few people who take psych­ics ser­i­ously and they’re all far less gull­ible than me. Another reason it’s a poor explan­a­tion is that there aren’t many people with a father called Brian, with dark hair, who’s miss­ing fin­gers from his left hand.
Continue read­ing

Use cutting edge homeopathic hangover cures this New Year and party like it’s 1810


When one con­siders that Wagner’s father died of typhoid just six months after the future composer’s birth, it is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that it is likely that Richard Wagner’s con­tri­bu­tion to music would not have occurred without the homeo­pathic treat­ment he received.”

This is an exer­cise in stat­ing the obvi­ous but, like a lot of homeo­pathy, it’s so obvi­ous that it’s eas­ily over­looked. I’ve spot­ted what seems to be a flaw in pro­fes­sional homeo­pathy. Now a lot of people will point out that homeo­pathy is utter non­sense because the doses are so diluted that you wouldn’t find a molecule of act­ive ingredi­ent, even if you had enough homeo­pathic medi­cine to fill replace the oceans of the world. Some people think the implaus­ib­il­ity of extreme dilu­tion mat­ters. These are the kind of people who think that just because an idea is demon­strably false, that means it isn’t true, I’d like to ignore them for now. Let’s say, for the sake of argu­ment, homeo­pathy does work. I’m keep­ing an open mind. I don’t know why or how it works, I’ll just accept that it does for the moment. Why would I want to do that?

Well, it’s because Dana Ullman has put up an amaz­ing art­icle at the Huffington Post: 19th Century Musical Geniuses Who Loved Homeopathy. At first I wasn’t sure what expert­ise 19th cen­tury musical geni­uses had when deal­ing with 21st cen­tury med­ical claims. The idea made about as much sense to me as ‘Renaissance Sculptors and their insights into Quantum Mechanics’. It didn’t help that Dana Ullman was a bit too effus­ive in his writ­ing. The claim “…[I]t is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that it is likely that Richard Wagner’s con­tri­bu­tion to music would not have occurred without the homeo­pathic treat­ment he received,” set me thinking.

Typhoid is a nasty dis­ease, but I’ll admit I don’t know how nasty. So I looked it up.

Left untreated the mor­tal­ity rate for Typhoid is 12–30% for an untreated ill­ness. If you believe in homeo­pathy then it may have cured Wagner, but the sur­vival rate is high enough that it’s likely he would have sur­vived any­way. Wagner’s sur­vival doesn’t con­tra­dict the pos­sib­il­ity homeo­pathy works, but that’s not so emphatic as Ullman’s claim. Survival rates are con­sid­er­ably bet­ter with treat­ment. In Chicago dur­ing the Typhoid epi­demic of 1891, the mor­tal­ity rate peaked at almost 0.2% of the pop­u­la­tion. It might not sound a lot, but it’s a major pub­lic health haz­ard. It means there’s a good chance someone in your neigh­bour­hood could die of it. Still, if the same could be said of Wagner, then a 99.8% chance of sur­viv­ing typhoid by luck hardly makes homeo­pathy the likely cause. So what were Wagner’s chances?

Typhoid is spread by a bac­terium, which you can fight — if you have a the­ory of germs. Germ the­ory didn’t really start till the mid 1800s. In the 1840s Ignaz Semmelweis reduced the num­ber of deaths asso­ci­ated with child­birth by get­ting to doc­tors to wash their hands between per­form­ing autop­sies and deliv­er­ing babies. During the chol­era out­break of 1854 in London. John Snow was able to show how the dis­ease was trans­mit­ted from an infec­ted pump. In the 1860s Pasteur developed germ the­ory by examin­ing, among other things, the fer­ment­a­tion pro­cess of wine. You can’t apply mod­ern sur­vival rates to Wagner’s time, because medi­cines and know­ledge have improved since then. Wagner had typhoid in 1839, before any­one knew about germs. That would sug­gest a higher mor­tal­ity rate was likely, closer to 20% than 2%, but it’s still an exag­ger­a­tion to say that homeo­pathy was likely to have saved Wagner’s life. It’s pos­sible that neither homeo­pathy nor medi­cine was much help at the time.

This is what makes Ullman’s claims inter­est­ing. He pulls evid­ence from a very dif­fer­ent era in the his­tory of medi­cine into a mod­ern con­text. That doesn’t work for medicine.

Science has rad­ic­ally altered since Wagner’s time. If Semmelweis or Snow were brought into 2009, their know­ledge wouldn’t be of much use to medi­cine. They’d have to relearn medi­cine because there’s been an improve­ment in treat­ment with anti­bi­ot­ics, anti-virals and hygiene. There are iden­ti­fi­able mech­an­isms for the trans­mis­sion of bac­teria and a large num­ber of meth­ods for identi­fy­ing if they’re present and what type they are.

Steven Johnson talks about John Snow and the Ghost Map of London.

In con­trast Samuel Hahnemann, the inventor of homeo­pathy, would have no trouble set­ting him­self up as a homeo­path, Homeopathy still has no effect­ive mech­an­ism. Some people chunter on about nan­odoses, oth­ers quantum effects and oth­ers still memory of water but none has been demon­strated with any suc­cess. This doesn’t mat­ter if homeo­pathy works, but the sting is that no homeo­pathic treat­ments are demon­strably bet­ter than their suc­cessors. If homeo­pathy works, you’re still stuck with 1800s tech­no­logy. The treat­ments and meth­ods pro­posed by Hahnemann in the early 1800s remain just as effect­ive as mod­ern treatments.

That’s why Wagner mat­ters. Whatever treat­ment Wagner got is still state of the art tech­no­logy as far as homeo­pathy goes. It’s like medi­cine never got fur­ther than leeches. In fact that leech at the top of the page is pos­it­ively hi-tech as leeches were still used to an extent into the late 1800s. When one con­siders that Dana Ullman is pulling 19th cen­tury anec­dotes to sup­port mod­ern homeo­pathy, it is no exag­ger­a­tion to say that it is likely that he’s point­ing out that homeo­pathy is no bet­ter now that it was then.

Thankfully this is a simple post to refute. All a homeo­path would have to do is show a reli­able study demon­strat­ing mod­ern homeo­pathic medi­cines for treat­ing Typhoid are bet­ter than those used by Dr Prutzer, the homeo­path who treated Wagner.

Astrology in the Infinite Monkey Cage

A comedian and a physicist monkeying about.

A comedian and a phys­i­cist mon­key­ing about.

The Infinite Monkey Cage tackled astro­logy this week, amongst other things. Ben Miller vis­ited to Jonathan Cainer, astro­lo­ger extraordin­aire, to see how astro­logy works. This seems to have come as a shock to Prof. Brian Cox who doesn’t think that it works. Ben Miller, who was ABD in Physics, argued it did work. For Ben math­em­at­ics and phys­ical mod­els are rep­res­ent­a­tions of real­ity which are not strictly ‘true’. Astrology is also a model for under­stand­ing real­ity, so it wouldn’t have to be ‘true’ either. It’s a way of organ­ising inform­a­tion and com­ing to a con­clu­sion which works for many people. It depends on how you define ‘works’.

A phys­ical model works. With a phys­ical model you can put people in a rocket, fill it with fuel, find a launch win­dow and land people on the Moon. A phys­ical model can tell you when the rocket will land and at what speed. It’ll also tell you if there’s any chance the people will be able to return to Earth, or if they’ll be spend­ing the rest of their lives on the Moon. You can argue that Astrology works too. It can tell you “Today is a good day to travel, though you may not end up where you expec­ted!” Even if they are both mod­els, that doesn’t make both mod­els equally useful.

If you want to say how some­thing works, then you have to say what it is that is work­ing, and what is the out­put you will are seek­ing. I think Astrology works. But it doesn’t work for any reason to do with the stars or plan­ets. Here’s why I think the con­nect­ing the mech­an­ism with heav­enly bod­ies is misleading.

In 1781 Herschel dis­covered Uranus. That was great, but it was soon clear there was a prob­lem. In the mid-nineteenth cen­tury it was clear that another planet lay bey­ond Uranus and it was pos­sible to use math­em­at­ics to pre­dict where it should be. It’s a big achieve­ment, because Neptune was found by study­ing one body. But if we take astro­logy ser­i­ously then it should be far easier to astro­lo­gic­ally dis­cover planets.

For astro­logy it’s not just the pos­i­tions in the zodiac that mat­ter, it’s also the way plan­ets inter­act with other plan­ets. So it should have been pos­sible to dis­cover Sedna, not just by see­ing what sign it was in, but also noti­cing that odd things hap­pen when Jupiter or Venus were trine to a point where no known planet exis­ted or when the Sun was in oppos­i­tion to this mys­tery point. This is a reas­on­able thing to look for because, after Pluto was found, it was claimed that it was astro­lo­gic­ally observ­able. Indeed Pluto’s influ­ence is said to be so strong that des­pite the astro­nomers revis­ing their opin­ion, Pluto remains an astro­lo­gical planet. That means it should be pos­sible to astro­lo­gic­ally dis­cover plan­ets as the influ­ence known plan­ets should briefly alter as they go past a mys­tery point on a reg­u­lar basis.

If you’ve down­loaded the pod­cast you could quite reas­on­ably say I’m being unfair here. Indeed Jonathan Cainer says there’s plenty of explan­a­tions for astro­logy and he doesn’t believe any of them, and rejects the notion of cause and effect. Fair enough but there must be some observ­able cor­rel­a­tion else the whole thing is mean­ing­less in its own terms. And sure enough after reject­ing cause and effect Jonathan Cainer puts for­ward an explan­a­tion which depends on exactly that. He talks about clocks and how people uni­ver­sally respond to things at cer­tain times like stop­ping work at five o’clock. This falls apart if you stop to think about it? Why do people stop work at five?

You can come up with lots of reas­ons. Some are prox­im­ate, like “I stop get­ting paid at five o’clock.” Some are sys­temic like, “The eco­nomy is based on the diurnal cycle as ori­gin­ally used in agri­cul­ture and so it’s most effi­cient to deploy work­ers at that time.” They could be bio­lo­gical, “After five people get pro­gress­ively more tired so it’s best to have them work dur­ing day­light.” There are many answers, but there is no big inef­fable mys­tery. No one sits in the city at five and won­ders, “Why is it that so many people are leav­ing their offices? Perhaps it’s a mys­tery bey­ond that humans can­not answer within four dimen­sional space-time.”

The way astro­logy works is via cold read­ing, which may be inten­tional or acci­dental. Ben Miller men­tioned Jonathan Cainer intu­it­ing inform­a­tion, which sounds like cold read­ing in action. I don’t mean that in a sneery way. Some people say that cold read­ing is just a mat­ter of telling people what they want to hear. That’s true. And being a gour­met chef is just a mat­ter of cook­ing things for the right length of time. If you’re ser­i­ously inter­ested in cold read­ing then I’d recom­mend Ian Rowland’s book on the sub­ject. It’s amaz­ingly bril­liant and astro­logy is one of the examples he uses, at least in the edi­tion I have. The ritual and pro­ced­ure of astro­logy provides a scene for cold read­ing to oper­ate in. It’s not about wildly guess­ing the truth. Talking through the horo­scope provides a scaf­fold for the sub­ject to build her own nar­rat­ive over.

That sounds sus­pi­ciously like decep­tion, but I don’t think there’s much inten­tion­ally dis­hon­est about it a lot of the time. While the cor­rel­a­tions may be spuri­ous, they’re not arbit­rary. Serious astro­lo­gers will spend a long while learn­ing the tech­niques and tra­di­tions of the sub­ject. It may have no effect, indeed there seems to fairly reg­u­lar and some­times quite funny debunk­ings of astro­logy, but they may believe it them­selves. Success is meas­ured in terms of num­bers of cli­ents so there’s a rein­force­ment for per­form­ance. You could say the same about a doc­tor in private prac­tice, but there is the extra ele­ment of mor­tal­ity rates. I don’t know any astro­lo­gers who quiz their cli­ents to determ­ine their suc­cess rates.

Even so I don’t know any­one who argues that the daily horo­scopes in news­pa­pers are any­thing other than rub­bish. That’s why I’m not sure I agree with Brian Cox when he says astro­logy is a ‘slip­pery slope’ to other forms of pseudos­cience. Unlike homeo­pathy or chiro­practic I don’t think there is so much con­fu­sion of astro­logy with sci­ence. The giveaway is Ben Miller’s descrip­tion of Jonathan Cainer’s place as the ‘most purple’ room he’s been in. If you were vis­it­ing an astro­lo­ger, what would you expect to find? Me, I’d expect some purple along with a crys­tal ball, crys­tal chan­deliers and just plain crys­tals around the place. I’d expect some occult signs includ­ing at least one pen­ta­gram and a cres­cent moon. There’d be eth­nic drapes, a north American dream­catcher and a small statue of an Indian god. Either Ganesh, or one of the ones with lots of arms. I’d accept there’d be a com­puter, but oth­er­wise I’d be expect­ing a lot of stuff that you would not find in a lab.

I think this could make astro­logy help­ful, From the file marked I’ve no evid­ence for this — but I’m going to say it any­way, you could argue that astro­logy helps as part of an intel­lec­tual hygiene hypo­thesis. If astro­logy provides a help­ful eas­ily iden­ti­fi­able pseudos­cience, does expos­ure to it help build up res­ist­ance to other pseudos­cientific ideas? It wouldn’t be a simple thing to test. You’d expect people who accept astro­logy to also believe in homeo­pathy, chiro­practic and past life regres­sion. Also you’d expect them to have come into con­tact with astro­logy first, as it’s the most pub­lic pseudos­cience, so that would be con­sist­ent with the slip­pery slope argu­ment. That means look­ing at astro­lo­gers wouldn’t be a lot of help. What you’d need to see is if astro­logy turns many more people off, and if asso­ci­ation with astro­logy increases or dimin­ishes the cred­ib­il­ity of another pseudos­cience. That sounds like a ser­i­ous media stud­ies / anthro­po­logy pro­ject which would require a lot of effort.

I’ll admit my opin­ion of astro­logy tends to be tidal. It could be a bit more pos­it­ive tomor­row, or a lot more neg­at­ive. The more mys­tic it gets the closer it is to a spir­itual belief sys­tem rather than a sci­ence. I don’t feel the urge to stand out­side Buddhist temples yelling about the lack of evid­ence for trans­mi­gra­tion of souls, and I don’t see astro­logy as a major prob­lem either. The belief isn’t based on demon­strable evid­ence, but what you feel.

I think the fail­ure to tackle belief was really the only slip up in the epis­ode. A psy­cho­lo­gist or anthro­po­lo­gist could have added more to the dis­cus­sion, par­tic­u­larly a chro­no­psy­cho­lo­gist. Despite that I’m really enjoy­ing the series. Between this and It’s Only a Theory there’s been some enter­tain­ing sci­ence sneak­ing onto the BBC recently. Now all it needs is a weekly sci-tech news pro­gramme about what the world will be like tomorrow.

The latest edi­tion of the Infinite Monkey Cage should be avail­able to every­one as a pod­cast. See the programme’s homepage for more details.

A Titanic victory for the skeptics


I don’t know about you but I’ve been abso­lutely riv­eted by the recent release of records from a break-in at the White Star line. No really, it’s not just a stream of bilge from people who may not be experts but reckon some­thing. Frankly I can’t get enough of hear­ing about the same claim that one memo by one of the work­ers on the Titanic pro­ject clearly con­firms the ship was ‘unsink­able’. This should finally put to rest the biggest hoax of the 20th cen­tury, that the Titanic sunk in the North Atlantic. Still there’s always someone who isn’t going to find a bit of a memo quoted out-of-context con­vin­cing so it’s worth recap­ping the clear evid­ence that the ‘sink­ing’ of the Titanic is a scam.

1) The data is contradictory

The officers of the Titanic claimed it went down in one piece, yet some pas­sen­gers clearly saw it break up on the sur­face. How could this be? Either the ship broke or it didn’t. Obviously someone for­got to check every­one had their facts straight. If there’s dis­agree­ment on this one point then that’s enough to throw the whole sink­ing into doubt. This piece of evid­ence alone should be enough to con­vince you that the ship didn’t sink and arrived safely at New York, but there’s more.

2) The mod­els don’t work

Sure, phys­i­cists will try and tell you that iron sinks in water. They can even try and claim they can tell you roughly how long it would take for the Titanic to reach the sea bed. But look closely at the details and the mod­els fall apart. Can they explain how the ship is lying the way it is? Can they exactly explain the cor­ro­sion of the hull? The details of the cur­rents through the ship­wreck? The vari­ous mod­els may all agree on the broad pat­tern, but dis­agree­ments over the small details show the entire basis of these mod­els is flawed. If a phys­i­cist says that’s mad, look him in the eye and remind him Gravity is only a the­ory.

3) Ice is a nat­ural part of the ocean

Some people will try and tell you that ice­bergs are bad things to have in ship­ping lanes. Really. It’s like they’ve never seen the sea. Ice is what you get in the North Atlantic. It’s per­fectly nat­ural. In fact there’s noth­ing that could pos­sibly be bad about ice. As any chem­ist will tell you ice is H2O. Water is H2O. So really this is all about ‘sci­ent­ists’ find­ing water in the ocean. Pwned!

4) The QE2 crossed the Atlantic without sinking

In fact there’s evid­ence that sev­eral ships have crossed the Atlantic, which mars the claim that ships sink in the ocean. Yes someone will always try and tell you that an entirely dif­fer­ent ship on an entirely dif­fer­ent course will have a dif­fer­ent res­ult. But I deal with facts, not base­less speculation.

5) Natural detritus far out­weighs man-made wreckage

The bot­tom of the sea is a messy place. Whales die there and their skel­et­ons become home for all sorts of stuff. Have you seen a whale? They’re huge, espe­cially the huge ones. Imagine one of those pos­sibly killed by one of those stealth CO2 emit­ting vol­ca­noes that no-one’s found yet. Yet amongst all this there’s sup­posed to be a ‘ship­wreck’. Against the vast majesty of nature, isn’t a tiny bit arrog­ant to assume that man could do any­thing notice­able on the sea-bed?

6) There’s nowhere the ‘ice­berg’ could come from

Another thing is that there’s no ice in the Atlantic ocean. This is a fact. As Dr Fox would say it might not be true, but it is a fact. Sure west­ern sci­ent­ists will tell you there’s an ice cap in the north, but this is demon­strably false. Look at the inde­pend­ent evid­ence. A Chinese naval exped­i­tion found no ice at the north pole. No ice cap means no ice­bergs. No ice­bergs means no sinking.

7) Oceanographers need the Titanic to jus­tify their huge grants

You’ve prob­ably never been to an Oceanography depart­ment on cam­pus. Have you ever seen a ‘sci­ent­ist’ turn up in a Ferrari? No? That shows you how well hid­den many of these depart­ments are. They are massively rich from all the fund­ing gouged out of the tax­payer in the form of ‘ship­ping reg­u­la­tions’ because of the sup­posed Titanic sink­ing. What do you think would hap­pen to these depart­ments if it wasn’t for the Titanic? Think they’d spend their time research­ing another inter­est­ing prob­lem? Not a chance. Oceanography=Titanic and that’s that. Don’t for­get all that grant money, it’s money in the pocket. It wouldn’t, for example, be used to fund a research pro­ject with 10 staff and a fur­ther 12 post­grads.

…and if that’s not enough then some of these research­ers into the Titanic who’ve been a bit mean about us in their memos. I don’t know about you but I wouldn’t be put off by a sys­tem­atic politically-motivated cam­paign by a bunch of nut­ters free-market entrepreneurs.

I think that’s all pretty con­clus­ive. You can take these argu­ments, mangle them and denounce any­one who sup­ports the ‘Titanic Sinking Swindle’ as a cor­rupt liar who should be up on crim­inal charges. If any­one responds by say­ing your evid­ence is ludicrous or you use long debunked argu­ments then denounce that as an ad hom­inem attack. Follow that up with a sage pro­nounce­ment that there’s no place for that kind of smear in science.

Apparently not only do you have the right to an opin­ion, you also have the right to be taken ser­i­ously even if you’re mak­ing a career from being ignor­ant, mis­taken or just down­right barking.