Regulation Of Herbal Medicine

sassafras170In the UK there has been a drive to add medical herbalists to the growing list of health practitioners subject to statutory regulation (SR).  In fact this is government legislation we’re talking about, so the drive has been going on for over ten years. The stated motivation is, as usual, to ensure public safety.

However, many herbalists are fuming over the recent proposals. They claim that this regulation will take herbal medicine away from ordinary people whilst doing nothing to improve safety. They’ve even organised a rally in London and an online petition.

I’m in two minds about this. On the one hand, there is the rallying herbalists’ tendency to spell traditional with a capital T and employ the attendant fallacies of “traditional” or “natural” things being automatically better. On the other hand, some of their concerns may be valid.

Health risk mitigation

In particular, in their response to government consultation (PDF see questions 1 and 2), they question what risks there are to the public that SR would mitigate.

In fact, they are unwilling even to acknowledge any harm from traditional herbal medicine (they like to stress the traditional bit). And yes, some of the cases of harm have been outside of existing laws or regulatory advice, so presumably, by their definition, not traditional.

As far as we are aware, there is not any evidence of harm to the public. Replies received from the MHRA [Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency] and DH [Department of Health], our combined clinical experiences and research that we have undertaken cannot point to any evidence of harm. There has possibly been the odd one or two who have broken current laws.

However, a little more digging shows there is evidence of harm to the public as a result of herbal remedies. Here’s one example from the MCA report on the safety of herbal medicinal products (PDF).

In 1996, the UK the MCA extended its ‘Yellow Card Scheme’ to include reporting of suspected adverse reactions to unlicensed herbal products. This followed a report from Guy’s Hospital Toxicology Unit on potentially serious adverse reactions associated with herbal remedies. Twenty-one cases of liver toxicity, including two deaths, were associated with the use of TCM [Traditional Chinese Medicine].

Some of the more extreme and newsworthy examples of harm caused by herbal medicine from around the world are listed on the What’s The Harm website’s herbal medicine section which makes for grim reading.

So, there certainly are risks involved with herbal medicines, whether it’s the traditional use of heavy metals in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic remedies, traditional plants with toxic constituents, allergic reactions or the interactions of herbal medicine with conventional medicine. That and the traditional risk of being ineffective (more on that later).

However, what is unclear is whether the proposed regulation would do any good.

SaveOurHerbs also state (PDF) that they are not aware of any research on whether SR lessens harm, so instead they list their perceived disadvantages with SR. Here’s a sample:

Loss of traditional philosophies and diversity of practice due to orthodox standards in education, science and CPD.

Diversity of practice? Isn’t that a bad thing? Surely if there’s a right way to do something, then everyone should be doing it that way. Are they suggesting that all methods of treatment are equally valid?

State regulation will be extremely and unnecessarily expensive to the tax payer, as are all these repetitive committees, reports and consultations.

OK, I’m sure legislation and regulation would cost the taxpayer, but even this has to be weighed against the possible benefits.

The state regulatory body will be based on a system whereby the majority of board members will be from professions who do not share the same philosophies or training and will be biased towards orthodox standards and philosophies that may be inappropriate, restrictive and damaging.

hbst200This seems to be a case of needing special rules for herbal medicine in order for it to be seen as safe and effective.  Without a recognised framework to sort the safe, effective treatments from the ineffective or dangerous, researchers are stumbling in the dark, not learning or discovering but guessing. Unfortunately guessing leads to bad decisions and lost lives.  Any treatment should be able to undergo testing for efficacy and it is irresponsible to try to circumvent this.

Statutory regulation

I can’t claim to have read all the consultation papers in detail, but I did gather that SR would mean practitioners will have to be suitably qualified and able to show certain competencies in order to maintain their regulated status. These competencies (PDF, page 44) include such good things as knowing their limits and referring patients appropriately when a case is beyond their expertise. While this all sounds nice, I’m far from convinced that it would be effective in practice.  It’s only slightly better than a code of practice that says practitioners must dress smartly and have a degree.

Government regulation of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) has not exactly got a glowing record of separating the safe, effective practices from the rest. The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council CNHC (aka OffQuack) set up to “regulate” alternative therapies seem to be uncertain as to whether they are regulating or promoting CAM. As Matt Robbins of The Lay Scientist points out:

…this blatant conflict of interest is enshrined in their mission statement:

“CNHC’s mission is to support the use of complementary and natural healthcare as a uniquely positive, safe and effective experience”

Uniquely positive? Uniquely effective? How on Earth can they make such claims when they can provide nothing in the way of evidence to back it up? And why on Earth is a government sponsored regulator behaving like a bunch of lobbyists in making these claims in the first place? How can the body responsible for regulating therapists also be allowed to promote them? Again, if a pharamaceutical regulatory body behaved in this way, alternative medicine advocates would (rightly) be up in arms about it! It is utterly scandalous.

The government seems quite happy to gloss over this issue. In response to a petition demanding basic efficacy and safety requirements of all CNHC registered practitioners, they replied:

The Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC) does not promote the efficacy of disciplines practised by its registrants.  The aim of the CNHC is protection of the public. Registration means that the practitioner has met certain entry standards (in terms of having an accredited qualification or relevant experience) and that they subscribe to a set of professional standards…

That’s not enough. I think all healthcare providers, whether registered and professional or not, have a responsibility to ensure their treatments are effective. Anecdotes and personal testimonies, for example, would not be sufficient to prove conventional medicines and they’re not sufficient for alternative therapies either.

Incidentally, many herbalists are already voluntarily regulated, the way many professions are, by an independent governing body for that purpose. In this case the National Institute of Medical Herbalists (NIMH). Disappointingly, the NIMH don’t appear to be regulating in the much-needed sense either.

“The Institute promotes the benefits, the efficacy and safe use of herbal medicine.”

Interesting that – “promotes”. Not “regulates”, not “ensures”, not even the legally arse-covering, “strives to ensure”. No, what they do is promotion.

Safety and efficacy

hbengl200Safety and efficacy are not unreasonable things to insist upon. They seems to me to be the most basic requirements of a medicine. Safety is enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath – “First,  do no harm”. Safety and efficacy are intrinsically linked; if a treatment is ineffective, that puts the patient at risk. A patient taking an ineffective alternative treatment is more likely to forego conventional evidence-based medicine. Even when the alternative therapy itself doesn’t directly injure the patient, avoiding an effective treatment can be fatal. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Consider the distressing case of baby Gloria Thomas.

In the last months of her life, baby Gloria Thomas suffered such terrible eczema her skin would weep and peel, sticking to her clothing when she was changed.

Despite her bleeding, crying and malnutrition, her mother and homeopath father failed to get conventional medical help before she died a painful death, a Sydney jury has been told.

Note, I’m not trying to conflate the different practices of herbal medicine and homoeopathy, just to show that serious harm can occur indirectly even when harmless treatments such as water drop or sugar pills prescribed by homoeopaths are used. It seems any treatment which discourages the use of evidence-based medicines could have these kind of effects. Prayer is another example.

So, I think the herbalist campaigners are right to be suspicious of statutory regulation, but for the wrong reasons. I suspect deep down they are concerned that SR might one day be used to demand efficacy of their treatments. Conversely, I am unconvinced about SR because it doesn’t (yet) demand efficacy.


The Zealots Of Open-Source

uce-desktop1It’s about time I owned up to being a zealot and an evangelist… for open-source software. I’ve been using Ubuntu Linux as my main OS for about 4 years now along with Firefox for web browsing and OpenOffice for all that tedious work stuff. I’ve even managed to convert my technophobic mother to using Ubuntu, which ensures she doesn’t end up with viruses or other malware.

Now one of the benefits of open source software is choice and the ability to customise everything. As a result, there have recently been a number of religiously-reworked Ubuntu distributions created for and by people with particular beliefs. This started three years ago with the released of Ubuntu Christian Edition (CE). This includes custom wallpaper, bible study program GnomeSword and a filter to block unsavoury web content. In other respects it works exactly like your plain vanilla Ubuntu, just with Jesus lording it over your desktop. The people involved mesh their theology with open source philosophy via Matthew 10, “Freely ye have received, freely give”, showing that the Bible really can be used to justify anything. Sadly Ubuntu CE has now been discontinued so that its authors could pursue another religiously themed project that judging by the merchandising will be a lot more lucrative.

Not to be outdone, open-source zealots who are also followers of Islam have brought out their own ubuntu-mecustomised distro – Sabily. Again it has a custom theme, Islamic calendar, prayer time reminders and even a console that allows users to type from right to left for that Arabic feel.

Previously nothing more than a rather unfriendly joke, there now seems to be a genuine Jewish edition of Ubuntu, cleverly named Jewbuntu.

However, those with darker philosophies, a taste for the ironic, or simply a desire to wind up Christians, there’s “Linux for the damned”, Ubuntu Satanic Edition. ubuntu-seThis comes with a suitably dark, malevolent desktop theme and a collection of free metal music. Judging by some of the comments it has generated, Ubuntu SE has already succeeded in getting on the wick of some uptight believers, although it’s not clear if they are disgruntled Satanists who are complaining that it’s not the “right” kind of Satan worship, or Christians on a mission to save the damned.

So what about atheists? With all this choice, surely there is an Ubuntu distribution for us? Well, not really. The nearest thing is probably Buddhabuntu, which predictably caters for Buddhists and includes AI software for machine learning, so your PC can become enlightened too.


The main complaint about these distros is that there’s very little additional content to justify burning an entire CD. The same effects could be achieved by adding the desired programs and themes to an ordinary Ubuntu install with little hassle.

On the other hand, I’m all for choice, be it philosophically or in software. I think in both cases the majority of people are sadly ignorant of the vast choices that are available to them. Instead they tend to stick to what they know and never explore outside their comfort zone. If these distros encourage religious people to “get” open source, then that’s all to the good in my opinion. Plus, actually taking the time to read their holy books is one of the major factors in many people’s de-conversion, so Bible or Qu’ran verses poping up on people’s screens may have edifying consequences.

How about you? Are you a fan of open source? Are they any religiously-themed distros that I’ve missed?

Sinister Superstitions


Barely two generations ago left-handed children were being forced to write with their right hands. Nowadays left-handedness usually only brings good-natured teasing and a difficulty with tools designed by their right-handed oppressors.

However, superstitions about all things lefty go back centuries and can be found in almost every language and culture.

Left in language

The Latin word sinestra, originally meaning left, took on an unfortunate meaning over time and is where we get the English word sinister. A similar pattern is apparent in other languages. For example, in Welsh chwith means left, but also “wrong”. The Swedish word for left – vänster – is related to the word for infidelity, whilst in Chinese the adjective, 左 which means “improper” also means, you guessed it, left.

Left in culture

The left side or left hand is often seen as evil or untrustworthy in religious traditions. Buddhism sees the left path as being the wrong way of life and the right path as being the right way to Nirvana.

The Bible mentions the right hand of the Lord as being special or just, although there are many more references to both right and left hands, where no bias is obvious.

In Islamic society it is seen as wrong to eat with the left hand, which historically was reserved for unclean bodily duties.

The World of Handedness website tells us that “Ancient Mayan and Aztec (Central/South America) rituals use the middle finger of the right hand to first tip into the soil then to the lips in order to bring protection and blessing.”

Tarot cards usually depict the personification of justice holding a sword with his right hand whilst the devil is left-handed.

In sailing, a boat on a starboard tack (with the boat’s right side to windward) has right of way over one on a port tack.

According to Anything Left-Handed, “The Meru people of Kenya believed that the left-hand of their holy man has such evil power that he had to keep it hidden for the safety of others.”

There are a few traditions which favour the left hand side as being lucky, but they’re far outweighed by those which consider it evil.

Possible origins

calliostoma_ligatum-smFrom the examples above it seems that bias against the left hand is widespread and either very old, or derived from some common factor amongst all people. One possibility for this suspicion or resentment may have been due to the surprising advantages left-handers have in combat. This is apparent in one-on-one sports such as boxing or fencing. I’ve also noticed – anecdotally – a larger than expected percentage of left-handers who are successful in racket sports.

So why should left-handers have an advantage in these situations? Well, as less than 10% of all people are left-handers, most people will be used to competing against right-handers. So a left-hander causes confusion by being unexpectedly stronger and more skilful on their left side. This only works whilst left-handers are a relatively small proportion of the population, if the balance was 50% left-handers, then there would be no advantage. Why the majority of people are right-handed is still open for debate. It may be a simple chance of evolution.

The effect is also apparent in the case of other animals, such as aquatic snails and crabs:

The overwhelming majority of snail species are right-handed — their shells coil clockwise. Dietl studied a species of snail that are lefties, and have shells that coil counter-clockwise.

The left-handed advantage is realized when snails interact with predators of opposite handedness. Some predatory crabs are “righties” — and have a specialized tooth on their right claw that acts like a can opener to crack and peel the snail shells.

So when faced with a “left-handed” shell the crab ends up looking like a left-handed human trying to cut straight with right-handed scissors. Being self-concious about their clumsy feeding the right-handed crabs will often give up, leaving the left handed snail feeling rather smug about its shell design.

I don’t know whether snails and crabs have any superstitions about left or right handedness, but humans certainly do. The suspicion of left-handers may have been because their success seemed somehow sneaky or underhand.

While there are some theories about differences in thought-processes between left and right handers, there’s no evidence I know of to justify the malign superstitions sometimes expressed against lefties. Although I’m right-handed myself, I’m thankful that these superstitions have for the most part been left behind.

Religious Corroboration – Huhtikuism

280px-tas_native-henThe majority of beliefs I write about are relatively mainstream, but I recently stumbled upon the almost unknown Huhtiku belief system. This is a minor Scandanavian religion which went out of fashion over seven hundred years, so our limited knowledge of it relies on a few scraps of text and interpretation of artwork.

What is most notable about Huhtikuism is the claim that it was discovered by two separate groups of people, apparently before any contact had been made between them. As far as I know this is a unique claim – all other religions began in a particular part of the world from where they spread as believers traded or migrated.

Spirits within spirits

Huhtiku believers thought of every object, large or small, as being a spirit, or Tankero, with intentions and personality of its own. This belief stretches from seeds to areas of land or even the entire planet. The result is “overlapping” spirits, some within others, inhabiting the same physical space. So many rock spirits may be contained entirely in a mountain spirit which is within the spirit of the land. Some of the religious artwork looks like a complicated Venn Diagramme. The desires and movements of these spirits are said to account for all the intricate workings of nature.

The Huhtiku creation story is one of bizarre liberation. No one knows where these Tankero-spirits came from. However, at some time in the distant past before the physical world existed, they were uniform, no two different from each other.  The Tankero were unable to change form as they were confined in the bellies of Kaenna, which seem to be flightless birds, possibly chickens. They were only freed from this captivity when a savage fight broke out amongst their captors in which the all the Kaenna perished, freeing the Tankero.  Once released, they took on diverse physical forms and personalities as a way of expressing their new-found freedom.


As the Tankero are everywhere, Huhtiku teaches that it is very easy to offend one or more spirits with any simple action. Planting a seed requires thought of what the seed’s intention is; a rock should not be moved to a place that is unnatural for it. In spite of human efforts, Tankero are often offended and predictably this requires a ritual appeasement, usually by eating birds’ feet. Surely, a pretty unpleasant experience. Flightless birds are also treated with suspicion. To be injured whilst attempting to catch one is considered very unlucky.

Independently invented?

So was Hihtikuism actually discovered or invented independently in more than one place? Western anthropologists have long been aware that Huhtiku beliefs were widespread in Finland during the early middle ages, but it wasn’t until recently that a strikingly-similar belief system was discovered amongst indigenous Tazmanians. These beliefs date from a similar period in history and while Tazmania has no written records of it, numerous rock paintings have been found apparently depicting the Kaenna and Tankero creation story and the ritualistic consumption of birds’ feet. No oral tradition in Tasmania today is specific enough to be linked to Hihtikuism, but there are numerous superstitions around the hunting of the Tasmanian Native hen.

It seems highly unlikely that there could have been communication between medieval Tasmanians and Scandanavians, so what is the explanation for the similarity in their beliefs? For most believers this dual discovery would be a “holy grail” of confirmation that their beliefs came from an external, non-human source. Another possibility is coincidence. It is not unthinkable that two independent cultures could have invented similar creation stories and related practices. Whether or not a coincidence is plausible depends on exactly how detailed and similar the beliefs are. Unfortunately as the evidence is sparse we may never know the real story.

Contrasting Sikhism

The Golden Temple (Harmandir Sahib) at night..

It occurred to me recently that I am embarrassingly ignorant of Sikhism – the world’s 5th largest religion. So I’ve been doing some homework to remedy this. Although I’ve never discussed religion with them, I’ve found the few Sikhs I’ve met to be modest, friendly and helpful. Reading their underlying values, this fits with the ideal view of Sikh philosophy.

Apart from my admitted laziness, my lack of knowledge may be because Sikhs are not evangelistic. This contrasts with other religions, most of which find some form of coercion or persuasion tactics necessary to keep their numbers up. In fact Sikhism seems to contrast with its theological cousins in a variety of ways. As it was established in India between the 16th and 18th centuries, the Sikh religion may be viewed partly as a reaction to its religious neighbours. According to Ninian Smart’s book of The World’s Religions, Sikhism’s first Guru, Nanak was a bit of a smarty-pants when it came to other religions:

On Nanak’s journey to Mecca he is reported to have fallen asleep in error with his feet pointing toward Mecca, and so showing disrespect to the Muslim faith. A mullah had woken him angrily, but Nanak’s comment was devastating: “Then turn my feet in a direction where God is not.

Sikhism and other religions

Contrasting with Hinduism, Sikhs believe in a single omnipotent god. However, this differs from Christianity, as the Sikh impression of god is impersonal, seemingly pantheistic.

In contrast with some aspects of Budhism, Sikhism advocates family life, working for a living and being part of the world rather than living as a hermit.

sikh_temple_manning_drive_300Unlike Christianity, Sikhs believe to some extent in the idea of Karma – actions having consequences – both now and in later lives. Sikhism says that belief alone is not what affects a person’s destiny.

Contrasting with Judaism, Sikhs do not believe they are a chosen people of god. Anyone, they say, can reach salvation. In fact they’re quite adamant that all people, male and female, are equal, which contrasts with Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and no doubt many others.

Unlike almost every modern religion and religious sect, Sikhism doesn’t have priests, mullahs, rabbis or any equivalent. Enlightenment and salvation are available to any individual with or without an authority to guide them.

Contrasting with Islam, Christianity and most others, Sihkism does not claim to be the only path to salvation. It does however claim to be the simplest. Here’s a line from the Sri Guru Granth Sahib the like of which you won’t find in many other religions,

“Do not say that the Vedas, the Bible and the Koran are false. Those who do not contemplate them are false.”

So I guess they’re all for comparative religion classes? Sounds good, but you can’t simultaneously believe the claims of contradictory holy books to be true. Interesting, worth reading, maybe. But they can’t actually all be true. Surely that is beyond the abilities of even the most devoutly religious mental gymnast? I’m wondering how they manage to mesh Karma and reincarnation with a pantheistic deity.

A (very) brief history of Sikhism

Sikhism began around the year 1500 in the Punjab region of Pakistan and India. The beliefs evolved over the next 200 years as ten sucessive gurus guided the faithful, after which the holy book, Sri Guru Granth Sahib, was declared the enduring guru. Sikhs suffered at the hands of both the Islamic Mughal Empire and later the British Empire. However, Sikhism is still going strong, with the main populations of Sikhs located in India, Britain and Canada.

Sikhs are expected to meditate on God, be generally decent human beings and adhere to a fairly strict dress code:

The 5 items are: kēs (uncut hair), kaṅghā (small comb), kaṛā (circular iron bracelet), kirpān (ceremonial short sword), and kacchā (special undergarment). (from Wikipedia)

In modern times the five Ks as they are called have caused several disagreements. One issue has been over the difficulty in wearing a motorcycle helmet and a turban simultaneously. There was also concern that a turban could unravel at high speeds, presumably leading to some gory Isadora Duncan-type incident. One dedicated Sikh biker proved this to be wrong by racing around a track on a motorbike with his turban firmly in place.

Asking Questions

sikhguard300Much of my research has been at, which provides extensive FAQs with some interesting ideas and quotes, all phrased in a refreshingly un-authoritative tone. It may not be completely representative of modern Sikh thinking, but it makes for interesting reading. I particularly liked how they begin their answer to the question, “If Sikhism, is the true religion. How come it was created/revealed 300 years ago, and not at the beginning of time?“:

Which religion was created at the beginning of time? ….

However, the answers to the tougher questions get disappointingly woolly. Further reading shows some typical misconceptions about atheism and a rather weak answer to the problem of evil which amounts to little more than “Evil does not exist, only the absence of good. In any case, we don’t know what’s good for us, while God does.” (I paraphrase).

All in all Sikh beliefs make for interesting reading, with an impressive moral system and a dizzyingly eclectic collection of ideas. However, I’ve yet to see any great arguments for the truth of the supernatural claims. There are plenty of claims of the importance of truth,

“Realization of Truth is higher than all else.
Higher still is Truthful Living.” (Guru Nanak, Sri Rag)

What is missing is a reliable way of determining whether Sikh beliefs are true.

Cryonics – Eternal Life or Wishful Thinking?

Cryonics is the preservation of living humans or animals by extreme cooling with the aim of restoring them to a normal animate state at a later date. It is commonly confused (by me, at least) with cryogenics, which is simply the science of making things very cold.

I mention this as I was quite surprised to see the IET Engineering & Technology magazine featuring and article on cryonics. Like many people, I have always considered cryonics to be pure science fiction, taken seriously only by a minority of hopefuls who presumably desire to wake up in a world filled with rich eccentrics.

The article dispelled a number of my misconceptions. For example, modern cryonics is not freezing. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which makes a big gooey mess of cells, probably destroying any chance of revival. The modern process involves vitrification, which is achieved by replacing cell-fluid with cryprotectant fluid before extreme cooling. This fluid is unfortunately toxic, at least you can’t live with it in place of your cell-fluid. So all cryopreservation work has to be done after legal death, otherwise they’d be killing the patient. However, cryonicists do not consider clinical death to be a real death – unless it involves the destruction of information in the brain. Rather they consider cryonically preserved people to be alive but inactive, like someone in a deep coma. This is perhaps not unreasonable given the number of people who’ve been clinically dead – without heartbeat or breathing – and have been fully revived. Indeed this is the premise on which CPR is based.

While I certainly won’t be saving up to have myself cryopreserved, the whole thing seems slightly less crazy now. Slightly.

However, the process of reviving a cryonically preserved patient is still not possible with current technology. The hope is that future technology, especially nanotechnology, will someday be able to reconstruct a cyropreserved patient as well as reverse the aging process or condition which would have killed them. They also need to replace the cryoprotectant with cell-fluid. An alternative is to electronically scan the brain to reconstruct a working copy. Judging from the preservation case studies provided by the non-profit Cryonics Institute, preservation techniques appear to be carefully researched and carried out. Nevertheless, none of this is a guarantee of future revival. Cryonics currently requires an expensive leap of faith.

How big a leap? Is full revival of humans likely? The E&T article interviewed Tanya Jones, Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s executive director who said,

“While we are seeing that stem cells can actually revive every organ in the body, we still have many years of research until cryonics is a reversible procedure […] However, recent testing has proven that it is already reversible for an individual organ down to -130°C, based on the testing of rabbit kidneys.”

Meanwhile, Ben Best of the CI says,

“Bull sperm have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and used for fertilisation since the early 1950s… And, since 1982, human embryos stored in liquid nitrogen have been used by fertility clinics with much success. Additionally, nematode worms have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and then revived.”

I’m no biologist, but it would seem there are some big differences between sperm and a  brain. In particular, sperm are individual cells, adapated to live outside the body for extended periods. Plus only a few of them need to survive for the revival process to be considered a success. A brain however, needs a constant supply of oxygen to prevent damage and can be irrevocably changed if a small percentage of cells die or the connections between them are lost. It’s difficult to tell how much damage has been done to even the most carefully cryopreserved human brains. Only when a human or animal has been revived and shown to have retained earlier memories can we say that there’s evidence this is possible. For now, my guess is that it’s unlikely people being cryopreserved today could be reanimated with their identity intact.

Having learnt about this, I wondered what religious people made of it. My assumption was that they’d be hopping up and down in anger that science is daring to intrude on the afterlife, which is usually considered sacred religious turf. Certainly it seems that the willingness to believe that cryonics can work may stem from a similar motivation to the belief in a supernatural afterlife – the fear of death.

To my surprise I’ve found little religious consternation over the ideas and aims of cryonics. Steve Tsai at considers the implications of Crygenic Resuscitations for a Christian world-view and concludes them to be no different from short-term resuscitations.

Part of this may be due to the way cryonics markets itself as a medical intervention for the living, rather than a ressurection of the dead. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has a couple of thorough articles on cryonics and religion, comparing it to heart transplants and other life-saving surgery and concluding that we have a religiously-driven obligation to preserve life whenever possible and that this should include cryonics.

However, I suspect the main reason that religious institutions do not spend any time condemning organisations such as Alcor is because they don’t see them as a threat. There are still only a small minority of of the population willing and able to sign up for cryonic preservation and for most of us it remains science fiction. Even apparently innocuous subjects like Harry Potter or The Beatles can find themselves on the receiving end of religious wrath when they become popular enough to distract attention from religious ideas. I suspect that if cryonics was to become commonplace, such that many people’s fear of death was lessened, religions would lose one of their unique selling-points and express their disapproval in no uncertain terms.

Hands Up – Anyone Believe In Palmistry?

I did.

Palmistry (also known as Chiromancy) is the reading of people’s hands to discover their fortune and personality type.  This is not limited the lines on the palm, but the shape of the hand and its proportions including length of fingers, natural lumps or “mounts” on the palm and the colour and condition of the nails and skin.

I got interested in this in my early teens after observing a fellow holidaymaker informally read people’s hands for entertainment at a social gathering. I got a few books on the subject and read the hands of my friends, most of whom were intrigued. Some Christian friends made sanctimonious remarks, but I responded that the Bible has a (admittedly vague) reference to people’s hands in Job 37:7

He sealeth up the hand of every man; that all men may know his work.  – KJV

Actually, now I look at it again, that is really vague and says nothing about the legitimacy or not of reading hands. There are more direct references in many other cultures and religions.

I don’t think I was an especially convincing palmist. Although I certainly believed in the validity of what I was saying I was naturally hesitant and guarded in my pronouncements on people’s hands. Perhaps with time I could’ve unintentionally learnt cold reading. However, as with most teenage fads, I slowly lost interest in palmistry as I grew up.

Some modern palmists play down the future prediction aspect of hand reading, perhaps because it sounds too stereotyped, easy to say and difficult to verify until years later, when any failed predictions will likely be forgotten. However, a quick survey of palmist’s websites shows almost all are involved in some other method of fortune or personality divination. Amelie Appleby is a palmist who also practices crystal ball and tarot card readings. Philena Bruce also offers a wide variety of psychic services including readings of photographs and healing through sound. Unfortunately, none offer any independent research showing the efficacy of their claims.

However, I discovered with excitement that one hand reading website does include a discussion of the Forer Effect. Ken Lagerstrom of writes:

The Forer Effect (also called the Barnum Effect or Subjective Validation Effect) refers to the tendency to accept vague or general statements as being very personal and accurate. The Forer Effect is a serious consideration in hand analysis, for both the professional and client. Psychologist Bertram R. Forer ran a series of tests in which he gave people a personality profile and asked them to rate its accuracy. Forer actually gave each person the exact same profile…

The test subjects rated these supposedly individual profiles as 85% accurate! With a vague enough profile that is mostly positive, most people will believe at least part of it truly relates to them.

Positivity is clearly important for the clients of psychic readers. Amelie Appleby, perhaps unwittingly, acknowledges this need:

…Amelie’s intuitive palm, tarot and crystal ball readings are positive and upbeat, full of enthusiasm and integrity, good humour and great fun.

Certainly people paying money are more likely to be pleased with a reading that predicts meeting a tall dark handsome stranger (although they’re probably smart enough not to use those exact words) than one divining a life of miserable solitude. Crucially, I think people are also more likely to believe things they find comforting.

Sadly, despite a promising looking article, Ken Lagerstrom ends up resorting to ad-hominem attacks:

In my experience, the real hard-core skeptics are just as fanatical (and biased, judgemental, self-certain, etc.) as the more extreme religious zealots. It’s just a different “faith”.

To call skepticism a faith is to broaden the definition of faith to become meaningless. A hard-core skeptic (or at least a serious one) is willing to assess the evidence and reach a tentative conclusion. Some skeptics get sick of hearing anecdotal evidence presented as if it were absolute proof. That might make them cynical about vague pseudo-science claims after a while. That’s not the same as being a zealot.

Then he presents a flawed analogy:

If you go to your doctor and hear him say “You need to examine your habits with diet and exercise, because you are damaging your health with your present body weight.”, does that physician’s diagnosis get dismissed along with the entire field of orthodox medicine?

No, you’d test his claim. Excessive weight may affect many people, but you can measure the person’s BMI and compare it to the healthy band. All conventional medical advice is in a constant state of being formally tested and reviewed. This is a good thing; it leads to better understanding and treatments.

It might not be as simple to test a hand reading, but some fair experiments could be devised and carried out on a statistically significant number of people. Specific predictions could be recorded and compared in later years to reality and their chance of occurring. Importantly the subjects should be blind to the predictions made. For example, telling someone they’ll make a journey to the Far East could influence their decision and is statistically fairly likely for certain demographics. Recording as part of the experiment that they’ll find a new job in early 2009 with a French company would be more significant if it occurred. Similarly personality predictions could be carefully controlled (perhaps so only the hands are seen) and compared to psychological assessments and surveys made beforehand.

The problem was, I began really searching for statistical proof that all palmistry was nothing more than superstitious garbage for the weak-minded.

That certainly was the problem. Ken Lagerstrom was trying to prove a negative. No matter how many charlatans employing the Forer Effect, cold reading or other psychological techniques (whether deliberately or not) he uncovered, he would always be wondering if the next one might be genuine. It’s like trying to prove the non-existence of a celestial teapot orbiting the sun. Proving its existence is theoretically possible (simply by finding one), but proving it’s non-existence can never be done. At what point would you stop searching?

That doesn’t mean we have to believe all extraordinary claims by default. Rather, the skeptic should tentatively disbelieve something out of the ordinary until appropriate evidence is presented. The burden of proof is most definitely on the psychics making the claims, all the more so if they are charging money for their services.

In the UK at least, new regulations have made this clear and on one website I noticed that, below her many testimonials, at the bottom of the page in small print, Philena Bruce has included this message.

This service is intended for entertainment purposes.
This is a scientific experiment, the results of which cannot be guaranteed.

I wonder if such regulations will make a difference to the wishful-thinking punters considering paying for a psychic reading, but it is a step in the right direction. Just to be clear I’d have no problem with these businesses if they could provide evidence that their psychic claims are true – to a standard similar to that required of other products. If they can’t, then every consumer should ask themselves why that is.


Ignostic igtheists or weak atheists – what’s in a name?

I noticed recently that a friend’s online profile showed “Ignostic” to describe his religious beliefs. I hadn’t heard of this before, so I asked him about it. Joe responded that he’d not done much reading into the subject, but it seemed to sum up his objections to religion.

Put simply, my main reason for taking the ignostic position is that defining what it is you are blathering on about is simply a matter of intellectual honesty…It’s all very well to use words […] in a loose manner in which the listener can get the gist of what you are saying…

I suppose I like the socratian nature of it though: the idea to ask the question “What do you mean by God?” rather than to proscribe an answer to it.

Which is pretty much the informal definition of Ignosticism. It turns out that “ignostic” is a somewhat new term and Wikipedia marks it as a neologism – not yet in common usage or dictionaries.

As far as Wikiedia is concerned, Ignosticism is the same as Igtheism. I have heard of igtheism before – a local humanist explained it as, “Ignorance of existence of god(s), so we might as well act as if they don’t exist.”

The question is, do we need these new terms? The beliefs held by Ignostics and Igtheists seem to be adequately covered by the varieties of atheism and agnosticism. Even within those flavours of belief there is some overlap.

For example, Apathetic Agnosticism states that the existence of a supreme being is both unknown and unknowable and that any such being does not appear to take enough interest in the world to intervene and is therefore irrelevant. This is quite similar to strong agnosticism, or the humourously characterized “militant agnosticism” – “I don’t know and neither do you!”

All of this isn’t very far from the position of most atheists – that of weak atheism. My take on weak atheism is,

“Due to lack of evidence, I don’t believe that there are any gods. I think it is possible that such evidence may exist, but it seems very unlikely.”

Atheism is often misunderstood to mean “Strong atheism” – “There are definitely no gods”. A strong atheist couldn’t actually search everywhere inside and outside the universe to eliminate the possibility of all possible kinds of gods. So almost all atheists are, in practice weak atheists. An atheist may say, “There is no God”, but they will be talking about a specific kind of God and most will also tell you that they’d be willing to change their beliefs if given appropriate evidence.

So if you’re a igtheistic agnostic weak atheist ignostic, what should you write in the tiny box on survey forms? To those who ask you, what response should you give without sounding like a geeky bookworm?

I think it depends on your situation and what you’re trying to achieve.

If you’re talking to a group of bigoted fundamentalists who see atheists as the worst kind of sinners and a scourge to society you may wish to say “agnostic” for a quiet life, or dodge the question entirely. On the other hand, if these people already know you as a decent, moral person, then admitting your are an atheist might force them to reconsider their prejudices. Obviously it depends on how deeply those opinions are ingrained and how well they know you. Certainly prejudices have never been reduced by separating people with different views or lifestyles.

Going for a term like “Ignostic” that most people are unfamiliar with carries less baggage and potential for prejudice. It might also require an explanation allowing your to discuss your beliefs in more detail.

Personally, I tend to answer “humanist”. I know humanism has more to do with lifestyle than belief or disbelief in any deity, but I like that it is a simple and practical answer that tells you more about me than my scepticism about deities.



If you put all paranormal claims on a chart with the most likely at the top, orbs would be several pages down, perhaps only a few slots above stories of Neil Armstrong having traces of Cheddar on his boots when he returned to Earth.

Orbs can be created easily by the home enthusiast or naïve ghost hunter. First, you need a digital camera, preferably a basic one, but with a flash. Next find a suitable location – somewhere old, dark and dusty – orbs can still be seen in daylight, but they don’t show up so well. Then start snapping away. As long as there are some small particles caught in the flash, directly in front of the lens, but too close to be in focus, you’ll get good results. If by good results you mean blurry translucent circles across your image.

They are quite obviously natural rather than supernatural. Unfocussed light from a point source can appear as a circle when photographed and even with the naked eye if you’re too lazy to focus properly. However, it has been claimed that some orbs move or act intelligently, responding to commands. Unsurprisingly this claim has been investigated and found lacking.

The videos sometimes showed faster moving Orbs that performed aerobatic manoeuvres. They were as claimed under intelligent control, but, in these cases they were explainable by the fact that many buildings are inhabited by almost microscopic flying insects that survive all year round due to factors such as central heating and the milder winters. An evening spent in a haunted building with some flypaper and a UV Insect acuter soon proved they existed.

Orbs (or insects) responding to commands could certainly be explained by wishful thinking and confirmation bias – until some reliable evidence can show otherwise. In fact there good answers to all the “mysteries” surrounding orbs.

All of which makes orbs as a paranormal phenomenon seem pretty far-fetched, but doesn’t seem to stop people believing in them.

Leonore Sweet is one such person. Although she insists that she’s neither an expert on the paranormal nor on photography, she has written a book entitled How to Photograph the Paranormal. She also has a PhD, although in what, she doesn’t say.  She refers to orbs as “Light forms”, perhaps sounding deliberately similar to “Life forms”. Naturally she is forced to acknowledge that orbs can be created by dust, water droplets, etc, or it would be pretty easy to prove her wrong. But, like so many similar claims she insists that at least some of them are indeed real – just not the ones which have been properly investigated. Have a look at the photos on her What They [orbs] Are page and see what you make of the “types” she claims are legitimate.

If nothing else, these light forms have taught me I know next to nothing in the total scheme of things. This is an uncomfortable feeling for most. Loss of their comfort zone must be why people can look at ten inexplicable photographs and totally dismiss all of them as fraudulent when just one is shown to be from a natural cause.

That’s because it is the simpler explanation. The onus is on the claimant to provide evidence that these are something paranormal. If you can’t explain something it’s not enough to say, “It must be paranormal” – that’s not the default answer. If the police come questioning you about a murder and you don’t have an alibi, they don’t say, “Then you must be the murderer” and march you off to prison. They’d need some positive evidence too.

For example you could take simultaneous photos of the same person from different angles and see if the orb appears in exactly the same place. Get consistent results from two or more angles and you will actually have some idea if that orb is hovering right behind someone or is a speck only centimetres from the lens.

Leonore Sweet is smart enough not to make any solid claims about the “light forms” she photographs, in fact she rarely even speculates about what they are. Instead she points out that one appeared above a woman who had breathed her last breath or another seems to be hovering protectively near a child. This makes it harder to directly criticise her claims and leaves the speculation up to the reader’s imagination.

Other orb enthusiasts are not so guarded, however. The Sunday Times recently features a piece on Klaus Heinemann, an experimental physicist researching orbs. After waffling about science and how “orthodox research methods often go out the window” he makes some interesting claims:

Hundreds of sequential pictures of the same orb, taken under scientifically sound conditions in rapid succession, have demonstrated that they’re capable of moving very fast — up to 500mph or more. They can also change size and orientation almost instantaneously.
– Klaus Heinemann

Now if he says they can move at a particular speed he needs to know how far away they are – which must be difficult when they can also change size spontaneously. Sadly there’s not the room in this piece to examine his methods, nor any link that might allow us to do so. He goes on to say,

My working theory is that orbs are emanations from spirit beings. There has always been a huge body of anecdotal evidence that the spirit world exists, that consciousness survives physical death, and now, thanks to digital technology, we believe we are seeing it. Orbs are a non-physical, albeit real, phenomenon that can now be detected by physical means.
– Klaus Heinemann

I’d be interested to know how he intends to test that theory or indeed what made him believe it in the first place. Without these details his claims are little more than vague and imaginative claims that I suspect are intended to promote his book rather than help discover anything about reality.

Readers won’t be surprised to hear that the woo-spectrum doesn’t stop here on orbs. The furthest I’ve dared to tread is the delightfully-named Orbs by Beans. Put on your sunglasses and prepare to be dazzled by a smorgasbord of flim-flam!

Fundamentalism in the UK

Here in the UK, we’re often inclined to think that Christian Fundamentalism is something which happens in the US, whereas the Church in this country is all tea and cake with the woolly-minded but good natured vicar. That stereotype is not without foundation, but the attitudes of many Christians in this country are changing.

While the UK has an established religion, the Church of England, an attitude of tolerance has been prevalent for some time and even the now abolished blasphemy law has not been used since 1925. The taboo among most people in Britain seems to be to express any strong opinions on religion one way of the other. Lately however, I think opinions are polarising.

I recently spotted this Channel 4, Dispatches documentary on Christian Fundamentalism in the UK via The T.R.A.S.H. BIN website. The programme can be found in several sections on the T.R.A.S.H. website. It makes quite alarming viewing. For the most part, the interviewer allows the people he’s recording to speak for themselves and they do so eagerly. Only when he questions their motives and beliefs more deeply do they start to stammer, turn off their microphones or ask that the camera be stopped.

I’m sure the moderate, reasonable UK Christians I tend to meet will protest that they don’t think like this and that these bigots and that anyone so full of hatred has totally misunderstood the Bible. But the fundamentalists would probably claim the opposite.

From a humanistic perspective it’s easy to choose between these two outlooks. I’d rather have Rowan Williams living next door to me than any of the Christians featured. A moderate and tolerant society is obviously better for everyone to live in. However, if you limit yourself to theological and Biblical reasoning it’s hard to give any good reasons to choose one attitude over the other. The Bible contains plenty of hatred and intolerance which is less often quoted than “Love your neighbour as yourself”. Take for example, what Deutronomy 13 (KJV) has to say about prophets who suggest worshipping other gods:

And that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death;

Before you cry “context”, please read the rest of the chapter.

So I can see where the Fundamentalists get their inspiration and their Biblical beliefs should serve as an example of why the Bible is not much use as a moral guide. No more so than any other anachronistic work of fiction, anyway.