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Entries in UK (37)


Pseudoscience is criminal - James McCormick deserves jail

Today James McCormick was found guilty of massive fraud, after pocketing £50m profit from selling dowsing sticks. The "harmless" activity of dowsing is not just carrying around a Y-shaped stick looking for water; like many other ancient superstitions it has been incorporated into New Age nonsense and is used to look for everything from untapped oil reserves to lost golf-balls. 

I hope you are thinking "what nonsense"; I expect you followed it up with "but who does it hurt?". The problem is that believing in any pseudoscientific nonsense is a faith-based enterprise, removing evidence and reason from the decision-making process. If someone sells "lost golf ball dowsers" and sells them to the gullible at $20 each, it doesn't do much direct harm. But when society embraces this garbage it can do a lot of harm indeed.

Moving on to James McCormick, he bought up large shipments of the $20 "lost golf ball dowsers", replaced the stickers and then sold them to the Iraqi government at $40,000 each as explosive detectors. The claims were so over the top (it is powered by the user's static electricity, it can detect explosives from the air or even 1km underground, you can reprogram it by putting it in a jar with any other substance to absorb the vapours), that it is obvious to any rational person that the thing was a shame. McCormick even said in an interview that "the theory behind dowsing and the theory behind how we actually detect explosives is very similar". 

Unfortunately, we aren't all rational people, and anyone who believes in dowsing for water is hardly in a position to rationally reject the concept of dowsing for explosives. The Iraqi government was so taken with these devices that they replaced physical inspections with dowsing - and people died as a consequence. When confronted with the scam the Iraqi General Directorate for Combating Explosives replied: "Whether it's magic or scientific, what I care about is detecting bombs". And that is exactly the problem. It does matter whether it is magic or science, because science works but magic/dowsing/crystals/prayer/etc do not. Before you laugh too hard at Iraq, more than 20 different countries have bought into this scam, including Belgian police using them for detecting drugs.

James McCormick deserves jail. The greater point, however, is that a society which embraces "harmless" faith-based rubbish is more susceptible to harmful faith-based rubbish. Belief in crystal healing doesn't hurt directly, but it can lead to use of alternative medicines that can kill. Praying to get better from a cold leads to praying to get better from HIV - and hence less diligent use of actual HIV meds. Believing in a God looking out for you makes you more susceptible to lottery scams and the like. And the worst, of course, is when the gullible fools taken in are in positions of power, so we all feel the consequences of their faith-based decision making.



Canterbury canals

The gate to Canterbury cathedral

Why not try the best sandwich in Sandwich, as judged by the Earl of Sandwich?

The white cliffs of Dover

Egg hunting in Whitstable


We went to Scotland, it was raining

From the moment we crossed over from England to Scotland the drizzle started. Hayden prompty fell asleep, leaving me to wander around the streets of Edinburgh by myself. My first impression was of a frightfully grim city. It felt as though the old stone used to build the city had been rained on for so many hundreds of years that it had absorbed the gloom and joined forces with the sky to suffocate any colour from a gray city. 

Gray stone creates a certain gothic splendour, or at least an imposing sense of permance that makes the onlooker understand that they will need to accept the building if nothing else. Not so for gray concrete, which invariables degrades into a dirty water-stained muck, which is why the design of new Scottish Parliament building is an insult to a proud city.

A plaque in St Giles Cathedral in the old town had me shaking my head in disbelief. "Thank God for James Young Simpson's discovery of chloroform anaesthesia in 1847". Obviously we are all happy about the discovery of chloroform anaesthesia, but shouldn't James Young Simpson be the one who is thanked? I don't even understand the religious rationale behind it. Either God directly inspired Simpson, in which case he was a bit of a bastard ignoring the needless pain before 1847, or God does not directly intervene to aid science, in which case he should get no credit. At the very least, God should get the blame for the many who died of chloroform anaesthesia before better drugs were invented.


Images of York

York Minster

The Shambles

The Treasurer's House

Lydia's favourites: the squirrels of York


Men's room vending machines

I've always thought that the vending machines in men's bathrooms must say something about a culture. This one in a pub in York only has one option of getting condoms. The other five options are taken up by lube, a vibrating ring to stimulate your partner, two different sets of herbs with fake promises to increase your sexual prowess, and (my favourite) TicTacs for your bad breath. Low self confidence, men of York?


The monkeys and politics of Gibraltar

While staying in Marbella, we made a delightful day-trip out to Gibraltar, that British rock clinging to the south of Spain.

When we were visiting Gibraltar we found out that Hayden had chickenpox. Happily we could use the rare situation of being in an English-speaking country to purchase medicine, but unhappily, after the pharmacy had closed for the day Hayden's medicine was stolen by a monkey. In fact, this monkey:

The barbary macaques are the most famous residents of Gibraltar. Irritatingly, everywhere they are referred to as Rock Apes or the apes of Gibraltar, despite clearly being monkeys and not apes. These monkeys are the only wild non-human primates in Europe, although many tourists obviously struggle with the concept of "wild". Despite many signs and verbal warnings given about the monkeys being wild and biting people who get too close, we saw many visitors touching them. One little boy even went up and hugged a large adult male. Okay, he was young, and years of soft toy monkeys would obviously confuse him, but the idiotic parents just pushed their other son over to take a group photo. Fortunately, there was a local nearby who yelled at the parents to get their children away before the "ape" gave them a lesson in natural selection.

"I can see Africa from my house". View of Jebel Musa, Morocco, from the top of the rock.

Gibraltar was captured from the Spanish in 1704, and while it was officially ceded to the UK in 1713 "in perpetuity", Spain has long wanted the mountain territory back. Oddly enough, for a rock surrounded by Spain and far from the motherland, the citizens of Gibraltar are enormously, defiantly, British. They are certainly far more British than anyone living in, for example, Britian - I doubt England, Scotland or Wales would get a vote of nearly 99% to stay part of the UK. It was probably heightened by the Diamond Jubilee and the royal visit that weekend, but the number of flags flying over the city was even greater than you see at a 4th of July picnic in America.

I was talking to our guide in Istán about the issue of soverignity over Gibraltar, and while he said that he personally would not shed any blood over Gibraltar, it was a hot button topic within Spain, that the area should rightfully go back to Spain, regardless of the feelings of the residents. When I asked about Ceuta and Melilla (two Gibraltar-like outposts on the coast of Morocco, occupied by Spain), he responded "We have a saying in Spain, what does a pig have to do with speed?" The answer, of course, being "nothing", as if the British enclave in Spain and the Spanish enclave in Morocco drew no parallels. When I asked whether Ceuta and Melilla should be given back to Morocco, he said of course not, since the residents want to be Spanish. 

Personally, I think the principle of the residents' right to determine their own soverignity is correct, so I'll agree with Spain over the Ceuta-Melilla issue and with the UK on Gibraltar. But it is not only Spain that is being hypocritical - the UK uses the "residents' right" argument for Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands, but consistently denies the use of that argument by the residents of South Ossetia to gain independence from Georgia. As I commented earlier, there is only one country in the world that has consistently applied the "residents' right" argument to both South Ossetia and Kosovo, so I don't give the UK much credit for applying it solely in those cases where it is beneficial to them.


Bruisyard, Suffolk

Bruisyard Hall

St Peter's Bruisyard





Advertising Standards Authority concludes: God doesn't heal

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK is required to investigate claims of false advertising that are reported to it. Their job:

The ASA is the UK's independent regulator of advertising across all media, now including marketing on websites. We work to ensure ads are legal, decent, honest and truthful by applying the Advertising Codes.

Especially important are claims of medical origin: it is illegal to claim that your Boost Juice has the power to reduce the duration of your flu, or your Snake Oil can cure cancer, unless you actually have clinical evidence demonstrating that this is so.

Recently a Christian leaflet was reported to the Authority. It claimed:

Need Healing? God can heal today! Do you suffer from Back Pain, Arthritis, MS, Addiction ... Ulcers, Depression, Allergies, Fibromyalgia, Asthma, Paralysis, Crippling Disease, Phobias, Sleeping disorders or any other sickness?

We'd love to pray for your healing right now!

We're Christian from churches in Bath and we pray in the name of Jesus. We believe that God loves you and can heal you from any sickness.

The Advertising Standards Authority received complaints, looked into the claims made by the group, and correctly concluded that there was a lack of clinical evidence demonstrating that God or prayer could heal any of these conditions, and banned them from making these claims in the future. In their statement they said, "We are not here to stop religious or faith-based organisations from promoting what they believe in. But if they are making absolute claims about curing serious conditions then we have to see that evidence to back it up." Absolutely, what a fantastic decision. Religious claims should not be exempt from the law, and should be scrutinised in exactly the same way as secular claims.


Promoting universal human rights is not cultural imperialism

In the past few months have heralded a titanic shift in international gay rights. In October, advancing international gay rights was a topic of conversation at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, with UK Prime Minister David Cameron stating that gay rights in Africa is a major concern, and that respect for gay rights should influence foreign aid decisions. Then in December the US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a statement indicating a similar shift in US foreign policy, that the US would use all of the tools of American foreign diplomacy to promote international gay rights and fight criminalisation of sexuality. 

These statements were aimed squarely at Africa, where gay rights have lagged behind the rest of the world, and in particular countries like Uganda, where gay rights are actively being destroyed. In Uganda there has been a major backlash in response to these comments, such as from John Nagenda, a senior Presidental advisor, who said in response "Homosexuality here is taboo, it’s something anathema to Africans, and I can say that this idea of Clinton’s, of Obama’s, is something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of.” One Ugandan commentator summed up the response: "It is unfortunate that Uganda is now being judged on the actions of opportunists whose ideas are based on violence and blackmail and even worse, on the actions of aid attached strings. It is regrettable that government is pretentiously expected to observe their 'human rights', yet, by their own actions, they have surrendered their right to human rights."

Persecutors of homosexuality, both in Africa and in developed nations, commonly shout "cultural imperalism" or "ex-colonial mentality" to defend their "right" to kill gays. Cultural imperalism is a major problem, and leaders like David Cameron do show signs of a deep-seated racism in their policy decisions. However defending gay rights in Africa does not met any of the criteria for cultural imperalism, for three reasons.

Firstly, universal human rights is not a "Western construct". It is too easy for non-Western governments to claim that the human rights agenda is simply an import of Western values. This is a cop-out, and disgracefully ignores the non-Western contribution to the concept of human rights. To understand the basis of universal human rights we need to accept the contribution of multiple historical strands, which independently derived universal rights and built on each other. Ancient Greek philosophy, Zen Buddhism and Confusionism all sewed the seeds for individual rights. Early Islamic scholarship, the European enlightenment, the American Revolution and the labour movement all built on these foundations. The leading figures in the modern human rights movement were global - from Gandhi in India, Mandela in Africa, and Martin Luther King in America. Today if you are looking for beacons of gay rights you can include countries from South Africa to Argentina to Nepal. In fact, only half of the people who live in countries allowing gay marriage are in Europe or North America; universal rights has been a global collaborative venture. 

Secondly, African homophobia is actually the cultural import. Ironically, those people who scream "cultural imperalism" when they are asked not to kill gays in Africa are actually defending a cultural import. The virulent anti-gay culture is based on the British import of Christianity and the recent evangelical campaign from America. In fact, African leaders such as Nelson Mandela have been among the bravest politicians in the world in standing up for gay rights. In short, there is nothing authentically "African" about wanting to kill gays. 

Thirdly, Gay rights is (sadly) not "Western culture". Western countries do not have a long history of accepting homosexuality. As previously mentioned, they actively exported homophobia; sexuality equality is a recent development that has grown from the concept of universal human rights. In the case of Uganda, the two main imperial players have been the UK and America. Both have a long history of persecuting people based on their sexuality. Removal of persecuation of homosexuality started in 1967 in the UK, with equal sexual rights only achieved in 2003. The US was even worse, with laws against homosexuality standing until 2003 and discrimination laws still in place in parts of the country today. Neither country today provides for full equity. 

When conservative thugs try to excuse their thuggery by citing "culture" it is tempting to simply echo the sentiment of Charles Napier, the British General who stopped the practice of suttee in India: "Be it so. This burning of widows is your custom; prepare the funeral pile. But my nation has also a custom. When men burn women alive we hang them, and confiscate all their property. My carpenters shall therefore erect gibbets on which to hang all concerned when the widow is consumed. Let us all act according to national customs." With both telling and pithy, we can come up with a better attack than this. Mrs Clinton is exactly right when she argues that gay rights are like other universal human rights, transending cultural, religious and national boundaries. Afterall, "universal" does not mean "everyone but the gays".

Most people would argue that the right to maintain your culture is also a universal right. This I would agree with, and for example I have actively defended the right of Islamic women to wear the headscarf or burqa, even though I disagree with the practice. So how is wearing a burqa different from imprisoning gays? Quite simply, the right to maintain your culture is a personal right. If you want to wear a burqa or a kippah based on your culture, go ahead. If you want to hate gays or women based on your religion, that is your right. But, and this is a big but, everyone else also has the right to maintain their own personal culture and rights. Cultural rights do not only go to straight male bigots. Women have the right to wear a burqa if they chose; no-one has the right to force them to wear a burqa against their will. A gay evangelical can chose to punish himself for violating his own religion, or even seek out punishment from his church, or he can chose to accept his sexuality - it is a personal decision.

Conservative thugs always invoke their culture or tradition when defending their right to persecute others. Whether it is slave owners invoking culture for keeping slaves, men invoking culture for dominating women or heterosexuals invoking culture for persecuting homosexuals, we can't let them get away with it. Their personal right to culture and tradition does not over-ride everyone else's rights to their own free choice in culture and tradition. If an Islamic woman wants to say that she is making a cultural choice to wear a mini-skirt, or a Ugandan woman decides to live openly as a lesbian, then that is her choice, and her choice alone. We are ethically bound to support those choices.