The Big Brexit Conspiracy

The United Kingdom is divided, it’s civil war. Like a belly button with a vote, you’re either an ‘innie’ or an ‘outie’. Such is the level of feeling that the ‘unfriend’ button on Facebook is getting worn out from the number of clicks it receives per minute in the wake of irate comment wars concerning the curvature of bananas and whether our opinion should be weighed in pounds or kilograms.

It’s Brexit – the badly thought-out referendum to let ‘the people’ decide whether Britain should remain a member of the European Union, or cut all ties and drift off into a glorious twilight of isolation.

One aspect that has been fascinating is how the discourse has strongly resembled that which is so familiar to conspiracy theory watchers everywhere. In fact, have the words ‘conspiracy theory’ ever been so often used in a political debate?

Newspaper columnists and journalists have used the term liberally within the millions of words written during the heated campaign. George Osbourne invoked it along with fake moon landings and the Loch Ness Monster in relation to the tactics of the Leave campaign. David Cameron name-checked the Odd-Father of conspiracy, David Icke, in a speech in France in March, stating there was no “David Icke-style” conspiracy to keep Britain within the EU. To which Icke responded, “there bloody is!”

Of course it’s no surprise that David Icke backs a Brexit vote. Just as it’s true that not every Brexit voter is a racist, but every racist is a Brexit voter, so it goes for conspiracy believers – they want out.

Why could that be? Do they think Britain will be able to forge stronger trade relations with the rest of the world as a free agent? Do they want an end to the fishing quota? Are they worried about the strain on local services due to the free movement of people across European borders?

It’s unlikely their train of thought gets that far. Fed on an exclusive diet of InfoWars, David Icke, Henry Makow, Rense, Veterans Today, Benjamin Fulford and endless others, for them the EU has nothing but evil at the very core of its making. Of course, as with any conspiracy theory, that core is as confusing, fantastical and self-conflicting as any of the myriad other theories they swallow whole-heartedly.

For most, it comes down to a ’shadowy elite’, controlling our every move. As to who this supposed shadowy elite is, well that depends …

For some, the EU was instigated by the Nazis, the next stage in their planned conquest when the military phase ended – and the political one started: the Fourth Reich. In this narrative, we’ve all been fooled and the idealogical descendants of Adolf Hitler have ended up winning World War II in the form of a Europe governed by German economic power.

For others the origins of the EU lie in the opposite corner. It’s the Jews and their plan of financial mastery, as laid out in the (totally fabricated) ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, and their desire to breed out the ‘Western races’ and produce a pan-European man, a ‘mongrel’ as several far-right organisations put it, through the widespread inter-marriage of Europeans with Arabs and Africans.

Of course the shadowy elite can also be any number of the other usual suspects (or, invariably, a mixture) – the Bilderberg Group, the Illuminati, the Rothschilds, the Khazarian Mafia, the CIA, the Rockerfellers. A Communist influence is conjured with the name of the EUSSR, reflecting the supposed dictatorial position taken by the Union’s secretive leaders.

Or it could be a Catholic plot, with the Vatican being identified as the prime mover behind the various EU directives. After all, it is argued, the twelve stars of the EU flag is merely a representation of the Virgin Mary as depicted in the Book of Revelation (12:1).

The very idea of a flag is enough proof for some that the EU was a plot from the very beginning. It legitimises the Union as a federal state, the United States of Europe. As Alex ’False Flag’ Jones repeatedly says, it’s the first stage of the reality envisioned by a global cabal for a New World Order – one in which the entire planet will be eventually subdued under the oppressive fist of a faceless elite. This elite could be the ‘banksters’, the Illuminati, or even Icke’s lizards – take your pick, or choose them all if you want, consistency is not required in this worldview.

For ex-UKIP leadership contester (and dangerous alternative medicine quack) David Noakes, the EU was founded by Nazis but has since been taken over by Communists. The Bilderberg group decides who will be the UK’s Prime Minister in fixed elections, and then they train us to hate Muslims so we’ll go to war with them. Soon, he says, we’ll have a ‘Church of the EU’. He wants the Queen (a Nazi, he claims) to be hanged.

For MI5 whistleblower, 9/11 Truther, and self-proclaimed Messiah David Shayler, the whole EU Referendum is a charade run by a Zionist cabal that is dictated by a CIA-lead agenda – all eventually leading to a planned European ‘civil war’.

This might all seem rather far-fetched and remote from the mainstream views of the opposing camps in the Referendum. But when you come back to Earth from this flight through delusional conspiracy theory, you might be surprised to discover there’s very little wiggle room between the fantasists of the InfoWars forums and our politicians and their supporters, especially those on the side of the ‘Out’ campaign.

Tory MP Philip Hollobone, in the House of Commons, suggested the Bilderberg Group was looking to influence the outcome of the EU Referendum, but he’s far from alone in promoting such paranoid ideas. An idle glance at the comments on the Vote Leave Facebook page reveals a number of people advising voters to take their own pen so the ‘authorities’ cannot easily cheat the outcome.

Boris Johnson, a wolf in clown’s clothing whose desire for No. 10 is greater than any morals he may have once had, didn’t take long to raise the spectre of the Nazi conspiracy when he claimed the EU had exactly the same goal as Hitler – a unified superstate. He even got in on Donald Trump’s act, alluding to the ‘Birther’ conspiracy  by emphasising Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” ancestry after the US President offered his view that the UK would fare better by remaining in the EU.

Many quickly saw the obvious comparison between Nigel Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster – showing lines of desperate Syrian refugees crossing the Slovenian border – and Nazi propaganda of the 30s and 40s where lines of Jewish migrants were described as ‘parasites’.

A very short line can be drawn between the message of Farage and his fellow UKIP xenophobes and one of the strongest and most troubling of the modern EU-related conspiracy theories: the concept of Eurabia.

This has echoes of the Jewish conspiracy mentioned above, where the EU are deliberately allowing, in fact deliberately causing, the huge influx of refugees from the Middle East in order to dilute and destroy the various unique white European cultures, or as David Icke put it, to make us ‘less resistant to EU power”.

Using the terms and tropes of conspiracy theorists, with their image of tin-foil hats and ridiculous lizards, might seem like the jokey side of the Referendum, but to see where ideas like this lead just read the manifesto of Anders Breivik, the Norwegian white supremacist and conspiracy theorist who, like many of his far-right brethren, firmly believed that the idea of Eurabia was real and that something should be done about it. For him that thing was the horrifying cold-blooded murder of 77 of his fellow citizens in July 2011.

And now we have the awful murder of the Labour MP, Jo Cox, by a man who appears at first glance to hold not dissimilar views. Before the mother of two young children had even breathed her last, members of the David Icke forum were describing the attack as a false flag by the Remain campaign in order to bolster their flagging poll results, a refrain soon taken up by others in the conspiracy fruit bowl, including Benjamin Fulford who casually claimed that Cox was an agent of the Rothschilds.

A number of commentators quickly recognised that the atmosphere generated by the Leave campaign (and it is mainly that side) may have contributed to the actions carried out that day. Nigel Farage, who once called the ban on handguns “ludicrous”, had also stated that the next step of a public frustrated with immigration could be violence.

Farage is a prolific propagator of EU conspiracy theories, and if his own words weren’t evidence enough, then the fact that he took time out to be interviewed by conspiracy maestro Alex Jones should settle it. Here Farage indulged himself – the EU was created by elites aiming for global governance, the war on terror is manufactured by the EU to achieve their agenda, and the fact of global warming is actually just “scaremongering” – a conspiracy.

The Brexit propaganda has spewn out thick and fast, and has been hungrily devoured by a public blissfully ignorant of the actual workings of the EU, blank slates upon which the likes of Boris, Gove and Farage can scrawl whatever disinformation they wish: Hitler would have loved the EU! We pay them £350 million a week! With that money we could build dozens of new hospitals! Turkey are going to join and we’ll be inundated by even more foreigners! The EU is undemocratic! A shadowy elite rules us from afar! We’ll be stronger on our own! We want our country back!

This is just the message being sold through a crowdfunded film, Brexit the Movie, a disingenuous, one-sided, look at the EU through conspiracy goggles, where Janet Daley can get away with saying that the EU “was devised to make sure that the great mass of the people couldn’t control government ever again.”

The film was made by Martin Durkin, the self-proclaimed ‘Michael Moore of the right’, a climate change denialist who compared environmentalists to Nazis, and claimed – against all the scientific evidence – that silicone breast implants could reduce the risk of breast cancer. He has been strongly criticised for his selective editing and for breaching Ofcom guidelines, but he’s perfectly at home glamourising conspiracy, being the producer of a whole box of TV nonsense, including programmes such as The Holy Grail and the Labyrinth, Nazi Ice Fortress and Did We Nuke Jupiter? His Brexit the Movie fits right in.

If you start paddling in the intellectual shallows of conspiracy, you’ll find all it takes is a strong current – a gust of Farage, a bluster of Boris – and you could quickly be immersed in deeper waters, wading into the distorted worlds of the likes of David Icke and Alex Jones. A few may be carried further out by stronger waves, perhaps depending on their state of mind, and might even find themselves in over their heads, clinging on to people who look a lot like Thomas Mair or Anders Breivik.

The EU is a long way from perfection and it has many problems – of course it does, it’s run by humans. But the facts, the expert opinion (yes, Mr. Gove) and the rational arguments, are nearly all overwhelmingly on the side of remaining in Europe, of having a seat at the table, of working together to try and make the world a better place for all of us.

Conspiracy theories – at whatever level – are a poison to rational thinking and a grave hinderance to informed decision making. Lies, contorted truths and deceptions, as widely spread by the Leave campaign, far right organisations, and pedlars of conspiracies of all kinds, promote division, foster hate, and lead to bad thinking and potentially dangerous outcomes. I do hope we don’t risk our future due to such blatant nonsense.

Can Scientology Cure Asthma?

“With the oil of Aphrodite, and the dust of the Grand Wazoo
He said you might not believe this, little fella
But it’ll cure your asthma too!”
– Frank Zappa, Cosmik Debris (1974)

The news is hardly ever good for ‘The Church’ of Scientology these days, and with the recent release of a tell-all biography of the current head of the organisation, David Miscavige, by no less a person than his own father, Ron Miscavige, the heat just got a little hotter.

While I personally don’t think Ruthless: Scientology, My Son David Miscavige and Me will give as big a kick as some believe (it has too much the feel of a personal vendetta and remains largely pro-Scientology), it does contain a lot that is of great interest, not least of which is an answer to the question: what turned David Miscavige on to Scientology and set the wheels in motion for him to take over as head of the cult, becoming the alleged megalomaniacal bully of so many accounts?

The answer … is asthma. From The Hollywood Reporter:

“… Ron went back to the beginning of his and David’s story to describe how he introduced 9-year-old David to Scientology … and how the church’s auditing routines helped David with his asthma attacks. Ron described that as the key turning point in David’s life, the moment he decided he would dedicate his life to the church.”

The book has been widely reviewed, with many noting the fantastic asthma claim. Vulture has ten ‘strange stories’ from Ron’s book, including:

“David’s own eureka moment would come when his father took him to see a Scientologist to rid him of his asthma, which was successful.”

Popdust increases the boy’s age and adds allergies into the mix:

“The Miscaviges joined Scientology back in 1971, after the then-11-year-old David underwent a 45-minute Dianetics session which, he claims, miraculously cured his asthma and severe allergies.”

While from Publishers Weekly:

“Ron Miscavige … still appreciates founder L. Ron Hubbard’s philosophy and credits its auditing process – a kind of psychoanalysis, as he describes – with curing David’s boyhood asthma.”

And ‘critical thinker at large’, Chris Shelton, in his review of the book said:

“There’s a story that he relates about David Miscavige and his asthma, as a child, and how Scientology didn’t cure it, but certainly reduced its traumatic effects on him … and almost made it totally go away. And that’s pretty interesting … and I’m not going to sit here and refute it and say it didn’t happen … because it very clearly did.”

Scientology themselves, despite producing an entire website to try and discredit the book, at least agree with that bit:

“After an auditing session that lasted approximately an hour, the asthma attack Mr. Miscavige was suffering from completely subsided. From that moment Mr. Miscavige knew he had found the answer to both his ailment and what he would make his life’s pursuit.”

Now, we all know Scientology’s a bit weird, you know, with its thetans and e-meters and volcanoes and jumping up and down on Oprah’s sofa … but, maybe, just maybe, there’s something to this. You quite often hear that Scientology hooks you in with some ‘workable’ ‘good’ stuff in its early levels, and something must have happened to David Miscavige for him to become so enamoured with it, right?

Asthma is one of those conditions that almost every ‘alternative medicine’ makes a claim on … homeopathy should be the treatment of choice for asthma …”, “asthma can be tackled with acupuncture in a variety of ways …”, “reflexology can reduce the severity of asthma, and the frequency of asthma attacks …”, “asthma is one of the conditions most commonly treated using magnetic therapy …”,“chiropractic care can be effective in alleviating the symptoms related to asthma …”, and so on. You could even try swallowing a live fish with the ‘100% cure’ offered by the Bathini Goud clan in India.

Scientology’s claim to be able to treat asthma should be viewed with as much seriousness as with any quack medicine, and by that I mean they should be taken very seriously, because such quack medicine is ineffective and asthma has the potential to kill.

Ron Miscavige himself is convinced that Scientology caused his son’s severe asthma to disappear. In the book (contradicting the ‘Church’s’ statement above – his son was not actually experiencing an attack at the time), the young Miscavige emerged from the 45-minute auditing session and …

“That was the end of David’s asthma. Throughout the rest of his childhood, he never again had a serious attack – some minor ones, yes, but never where he was gasping and couldn’t breathe. It was truly an amazing occurrence, a miracle actually … something had definitely definitely definitely worked.”

Got that? Definitely. Well, sort of.

Asthma was a target for cure by L. Ron Hubbard, Scientology’s founder, in the embryonic stages of the cult’s formation. In his 1950 book, Dianetics: The Modern Science of Mental Health, he explains how asthma and other ‘psychosomatic illnesses’ are a product of the ‘reactive mind’:

“Discharge the content of this mind’s bank and the arthritis vanishes, myopia gets better, heart illness decreases, asthma disappears … the whole catalogue of ills goes away and stays away.”

For Hubbard and his followers, asthma is an idea that gets planted in the mind through some major or minor trauma; this could be at birth, or – in a development that came after Dianetics – it could even be from a past life. The only way to cure it (“and the word cure is used in its fullest sense”) is to clear that idea, the ‘engram’, through auditing. Erase the engram, cure the ailment.

In the late 1960s Hubbard created the ‘Allergy or Asthma Rundown’, an auditing process that was used to identify certain keywords that would reveal the root cause of the asthma which could then be magically audited away.

Ron and David Miscavige aren’t the only ones who believe Scientology is able to cure asthma …

“… in his twenties, my brother was able to rid himself of 19 years of asthma through Dianetics procedures. My first wife … was diagnosed as totally incapable of bearing children, yet later gave birth to our two beautiful girls as a direct result of Scientology spiritual counselling.”

“… my mom started a Dianetics session with me immediately … after some time I recalled an injury I had received to my chest and opened my eyes to look at my mom and said, “Mom, that’s why I have asthma!”  … I carefully took a deep breath, and I realised that my asthma was gone!”

One of the more famous devotees of the idea that Dianetics could cure asthma was John W, Campbell, editor of Astounding Science Fiction. In the December 1949 issue he announced the impending arrival of Hubbard’s ‘new science’, claiming:

“… its power is unbelievable; it proves the mind not only can but does rule the body completely … physical ills such as ulcers, asthma and arthritis can be cured …”

The magician and skeptic James Randi met both Campbell and Hubbard, as part of the Trap Door Spiders writers’ group in New York. After recalling “nobody liked [Hubbard]” and that he thought him “an evil man … a wilfully evil man”, he said:

“… Campbell fell for him … he always claimed he was healed in his asthma … and he still went around using his inhaler all the time. Dianetics healed his asthma – right.”

Is this possible? Can someone believe they’ve been cured of an ailment at the same time as they’re experiencing its symptoms? Of course, the set-up and belief involved in an auditing session can produce a temporarily effective placebo response, a calming situation, and give the appearance of a successful treatment for a mild attack for a few hours at least. So it is not devoid of value, despite being pseudoscience.

But other things can play into the mind-game too – mythologising and cherrypicking the narrative over time to fit a belief in which you’re heavily invested, cognitive dissonance leading to the dismissal of any countering evidence, confirmation bias, the natural waning of the condition (either periodic or permanent), bare hope, and good old self-delusion.

There’s a glimpse of this doublethink in Miscavige’s book and in the extract above: in the space of a single sentence he claims the end of his son’s asthma, and then immediately backtracks to admit it wasn’t completely cured. Yet it was “a miracle”.

There’s a story concerning the young David Miscavige that is not told in his father’s largely pro-Scientology book, but does appear in Lawrence Wright’s more critical Going Clear. In the early 1970s the Miscaviges moved to England to train at Saint Hill in East Grinstead (I would have been there at this time myself, albeit as a small child), and for a couple of weeks David was left in the care of another Scientologist, Ervin Scott. Scott – whose wife also suffered from asthma – noted that Miscavige, then aged 12, owned two inhalers, and his parents had warned him that the boy could become violent during asthma attacks.

In fact Scott says he did experience David having some kind of severe attack one night, finding him with his face blue and his eyes rolled back in his head. In another incident he witnessed the young Miscavige storming out of an auditing session with his auditee, a young woman, following him out, clutching her arm in pain and in tears. The claim was that he had struck her. Karen de la Carriere, a fellow intern at the time, says they were told to keep the story quiet and that the incident was blamed on David’s asthma medication.

It doesn’t really matter, in this case, whose side you believe in these stories – both end up confirming that David Miscavige still suffered from severe asthma attacks as a child (the ‘Church’ claim he could not be violent at the same time as having one of his attacks).

From various accounts the asthma has continued into Miscavige’s adulthood. Hubbard’s daughter, Suzette, apparently noticed that David used to try and hide his inhaler when he used it, nicknaming him the Asthmatic Dwarf. At the age of 20, as recounted by his miracle-believing father, he was hospitalised by a serious asthma attack. Upon being released he was said to have stated “power is not granted … it is assumed” – an ominous phrase in the light of his subsequent takeover of the ‘Church’. And in a story from Andrew Morton’s biography of Tom Cruise, ex-Scientologist Jesse Prince recalls the intense stress Miscavige was under while working for Hubbard and how it would lead to asthma attacks:

“Sometimes he would get so upset that his eyes were bulging and he couldn’t breathe … He wouldn’t take medication or inhalers, so I would have to calm him down and then he would sleep for days after an attack.”

Furthermore, he was said to keep an oxygen tank under his bed in case of emergency. Asthma was evidently still very much part of his life – even when fully immersed in Scientology. The stress and his heavy smoking didn’t help.

Still, when you’re led to believe that the cause of illness lies in the mind, and you truly believe in the power of your guru’s snake oil treatment (especially after investing so much time and money in it), the cognitive dissonance is enough for that mind to play some truly wonderful tricks in order to shove the reality of a chronic condition out of the frame. Plus, of course, there’s the Scientology idea that you pull in what you deserve, and if you’re some kind of ‘clear’ super-being, you can’t be having that asthma now, can you? Like so much alternative medicine, if it’s not working then it’s you who’s at fault, not the infallible magic cure.

At the time it was developed and written, Dianetics wasn’t too far from the mainstream view of asthma that the condition was one of several supposed psychosomatic diseases. Thomas French and Franz Alexander posited that the wheeze of the asthmatic was the suppressed wail of an affection-starved child for a mother who would not allow it to cry. Psychoanalysis was often the treatment of choice.

But asthma is not a psychosomatic illness, and the idea that it was almost certainly delayed any real progress in managing the condition, not to mention dumping a heavy weight of guilt on the sufferer for thinking they – or their parents – were somehow to blame for the affliction in the first place. Thankfully, advancing science, unlike dogmatic religion, is able to discard bad ideas and move on.

The total cure claimed by Hubbard is quite plainly complete hokum, and even the mild benefits of a formal counselling session (with or without added Xenu) do not mask the very real dangers of an ineffective treatment for asthma – whether it’s homeopathy, magnets, reiki or Dianetics and Scientology.

Gerald Baxter, a New Zealand-based Scientologist, considered that auditing had helped his asthma. When he started experiencing mild attacks again he was told by his ‘Church’ superiors that he had to handle it and was forbidden to use his inhaler (it’s all in the mind, remember?). After one severe attack, in which he couldn’t find his inhaler, he was congratulated on “doing the right thing”. The next attack he didn’t survive.

Genny Gray, another Antipodean (now ex-) Scientologist, recalls how she was told that auditing would cure her asthma and was ordered to abandon her inhaler. She did so, became ill, and was eventually hospitalised. Thankfully she did survive.

Stories of much-needed medication being taken away once a person is in the clutches of Scientology are sadly not uncommon, and this has also been reported to be the case within the Scientology ‘drug rehabilitation’ front group, Narconon.

A 2013 Oklahoma law suit detailed how a Lake Arrowhead Narconon ‘student’ was left for long periods without his inhaler, including in a room where smoking was permitted, resulting in an alarming increase in the severity of his asthma and no medical doctor present.

Service men and women who participated in the New York Rescue Workers Detoxification Project, co-founded by Scientology-Jesus, Tom Cruise, and which, like Narconon, is based on Hubbard’s unproven Purification Rundown, were required by the project to stop using their inhalers and discard medication. One fireman, Robert McGuire, suffered a serious asthma attack while out shopping …

“They wanted me off my meds for 30 days before I started [the detox]. Two weeks into it I was by myself [in a store], my inhaler was in the car and I thought I was going to die. I was taken to the emergency room – it was really scary.”

As stated in my previous article, Narconon is pseudoscience, but it is especially dangerous for anyone who suffers from asthma. The overly-long sauna treatments are singled out as inappropriate for asthmatics, while the large doses of niacin are known to aggravate the condition – both are key aspects of the Purification Rundown.

Scientology might present itself with a glossy veneer of ‘science’, but in the end it’s just another peddler of wishful thinking, pushing flimflam with no actual research or expert knowledge to back it up. It has more in common with its fellow New Thought zealots such as Christian Scientists (who believe illness is an illusion) or Germanic New Medicine (which states that disease is caused by traumatic events which must be resolved in order to heal – sounds familiar!).

As with most pseudoscience, these ‘philosophies’ are not harmless. At best they delay or interfere with real effective treatment, at worst they demonise it and withhold it completely. Asthma can be a difficult condition to live with, and many sufferers are understandably desperate to be free of it. They become prime targets for those vying to make a profit with their exclusive panaceas.

Over a quarter of a million people die from asthma every year – and though the fallacious claim that illness “goes away and stays away” with auditing is by no means the worst aspect of the toxic cult that is Scientology, care should be taken that mythical anecdote does not end up lending credence and promoting the false hope of a cure.

Osteopathy Part 2 – a review of 100 Osteopathy websites

Last weekend I wrote a skeptical overview of osteopathy, how it was generally seen as a mainstream healthcare option but was actually born of pseudoscience, and how, even though modern evidence has pushed back many of its original wild claims, it is still rooted there and has at least one foot fully planted in the world of complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM). You can read part 1 here.

As part of my research I had started to survey a number of osteopaths’ websites within my own home county, and used that data to show the field’s continued connection to unevidenced CAM. As a result I received more than one criticism that I had cherry-picked osteopaths who were on the fringes of the field, and that mainstream osteopathy was scientific and well-researched medicine.

With that in mind I decided to continue my review and spend the rest of (coincidentally) International Osteopathic Healthcare Week (17-23 April 2016) surveying the websites of 100 randomly chosen osteopaths in the UK and Ireland, to see just how much pseudoscience remained within the profession. Is it fringe?

Selection procedure

Obviously, this is not a scientific study, I can only claim it is a careful review. I used only declarations published on the websites (as they appeared in April 2016) and took them at face value. The websites were selected using a random number generator and the General Osteopathic Council’s own online register of members.

The majority of osteopaths practice in the south, so the randomly selected websites come from four southern counties (ten each from West Sussex, Dorset, Surrey and Devon), two midland (not Midlands) counties (ten each from Staffordshire and Suffolk), two northern counties (ten each from Yorkshire and Lancashire), and then ten from Scotland, six from Wales, and four from Ireland. If a random number selected a GOC register entry with no website (or a dead link), I continued down the register until I hit the next entry with a working website.


To check for pseudoscientific claims I picked four criteria:

i. the claim that osteopathy allows the body to ‘heal itself’;
ii. the practice of cranial osteopathy;
iii. the claim that osteopathy can treat specific conditions not related to the musculoskeletal system;
iv. whether an osteopath also personally uses another CAM therapy as part of his or her treatment system.

Let’s look at these in more detail …

i. Self-healing

The claim that a therapy aids the ‘self-healing’ process is a recognised red flag of pseudoscience and one that osteopathy shares with other CAM treatments such as chiropractic, naturopathy, homeopathy, reiki, therapeutic touch, energy healing, reflexology, acupuncture … and I could go on and on. It’s pretty much the central refrain of most quackery, and is perfectly placed to take credit for conditions that are temporary, that regress to the mean, or that appear to react to various placebo factors. The best evidence for this kind of self-healing is the least reliable: post-treatment anecdote.

The philosophy of Andrew T. Still, the founder of osteopathy, stated that the human body is perfect and contains within it everything needed to self-heal, and that the only impediment to this is if bones or nerves cause an obstruction to the free-flow of the body’s “fluids of life”. Osteopathic manipulation, he asserted, can be used to clear the obstruction and allow the body to return to its natural state of self-healing.

While it has been tempered slightly, this philosophy remains at the core of osteopathic medicine, often accompanied by a statement saying that no drugs or surgery are needed – it’s ‘natural healing’. Here’s how the World Health Organisation defines osteopathy:

“Osteopathy is grounded in the following principles for treatment and patient management:
i. the human being is a dynamic functional unit, whose state of health is influenced by the body, mind and spirit;
ii. the body possesses self-regulatory mechanisms and is naturally self-healing;
iii. structure and function are interrelated at all levels of the human body“

In my survey of 100 randomly selected osteopath websites, 57%, just over half, explicitly stated that osteopathic treatment aids the body’s own innate self-healing mechanism.

I did not count those that alluded to the idea but weren’t explicit, eg. “osteopathy is based on the principle that the body has the ability to heal”. No one can deny that, but the question is whether money is paid for a treatment that actually aids that process, whether it would have happened anyway, or even if it would have happened more quickly without treatment.

The greatest danger with the CAM definition of ‘self-healing’ comes when it is applied to the many serious and semi-serious afflictions that do not normally obey this supposed universal rule of ‘natural healing’.

ii. Cranial osteopathy

I discussed cranial osteopathy (also known as craniosacral therapy) in part 1, but, briefly, it’s based on the belief that tiny pulsations can be felt with the fingertips and can be gently manipulated to ‘release restrictions’ and promote health.

There is no strong evidence behind this claim, and it remains scientifically implausible. In the words of Dr. Stephen Barrett – “cranial therapy is silly”.

In my survey of 100 randomly selected osteopath websites, 70% said they offered cranial osteopathy as part of their treatment services.

It was especially pushed as being beneficial for babies and children, with many setting no lower limit on age – often explicitly stating “from birth” or “from a few days old”. One website said “osteopaths believe all babies should be routinely checked after birth”. (Out of interest, only 2% of osteopathic practitioners reviewed stated they would not see babies).

And whereas general structural osteopathic manipulation focussed predominantly on conditions related to the musculoskeletal system, cranial therapy had much fuzzier claims made for it, often relating to general health and unsettled babies (eg. 19% said it could help with colic).

iii. Treatment of conditions unrelated to the musculoskeletal system

The NHS website proclaims that there’s …

“good evidence that osteopathy is effective in treating persistent lower back pain* … there’s currently no good evidence that osteopathy is effective as a treatment for health conditions unrelated to the musculoskeletal system (bones and muscle).”

(*Many osteopathy websites cite NICE’s 2009 guidance that suggested this positive outcome for early lower back pain, but in March 2016 this advice was updated to say that manual therapy should not be used on its own due to a lack of evidence.)

About this time last year, the Good Thinking Society investigated a number of websites that claimed osteopathy could treat a variety of non-musculoskeletal conditions, including colic, asthma, dyslexia, and many more. After a number of complaints made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) this eventually resulted in a directive from the General Osteopathic Council suggesting that their members check their claims were in line with those advised by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).

While the profession has reigned in many of the wilder claims on their marketing, osteopathy still sees itself as a ‘holistic’ treatment that can tackle a plethora of human disabilities and illnesses.

In my survey of 100 randomly selected osteopath websites, 61% claimed to be able to help with specific conditions that were unrelated to the musculoskeletal system. These included various digestive problems, asthma, colic, ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, eye and ear infections, haemorrhoids, post-natal depression, boosting the immune system, menstrual problems, insomnia and more.

In the light of the CAP guidelines, there were some interesting statements. The majority of websites included a list of CAP-approved conditions, rounded off with “plus many more” (such generalisations were not counted in my survey). Some were more brazen …

“Osteopathy can help with many other conditions. If your symptoms are not listed, please telephone to enquire whether osteopathy might be effective for you.”

Another alluded to the ASA directly …

“The Advertising Standards Agency will only allow osteopaths to mention conditions where the efficacy has been proven by large-scale clinical trials. This data is not available for many conditions that patients report improvement in, so they may not be mentioned here.”

While another said …

“There is no statistical evidence it [osteopathy] can treat conditions such as asthma, colic, IBS, painful periods. However, there is plenty of clinical and anecdotal evidence suggesting it can.”

One even stretched his hand into the world of conspiracy theories …

“Most clinical trials are funded by drug & pharmaceutical companies, and osteopaths do not have prescribing rights for drugs. As a result data is not currently available for a lot of the conditions that our patients report to have improved, and so we cannot mention them here.”

Although I only looked at four osteopathic clinics in Ireland, these made some of the most far-fetched claims and were out of the jurisdiction of the ASA, including some bold statements about the treatment of autism, cerebral palsy, dyslexia, Down’s Syndrome, fertility and immune difficulties due to ‘post vaccination’, to name a few.

Concerning vaccines (excuse this short detour into another personal interest), while it is by no means a mainstream osteopathic view, the founding philosophy of osteopathy was anti-vaccine. On his website, one UK osteopath states …

“not only does immunisation directly oppose our [osteopaths] principles, it is a key point on how our principles supersede others. Immunisation is a slow poison.”

Another UK osteopath uses the shield of ‘I’m not anti-vaccine, I’m pro-choice’, before stating “often, it is the family that has vaccinated and has lived through the horror of vaccine damage unfolding within their family, that precipitates a change in their choices”.

The British Institute of Osteopathy also has an ‘interesting’ view on vaccines, strongly suggesting you have a choice whether to vaccinate or not and then spending some time adding weight to the ‘not’, in particular by linking to the website of ‘vaccine-concerned’ homeopath, Jayne Donegan, not the only osteopath I found to do so.

Thankfully, these are outliers, and the vast majority of UK osteopaths accept the science, the safety, and the benefit of vaccination.

iv. Osteopaths who use other CAM therapies

While this category does not address the field of osteopathy directly, it does, I believe, say something quite strongly about the mindset and philosophy of the practitioner in question. It is an interesting marker of how much store they set in science-based medicine, and perhaps how much they are happy to wallow in pseudoscience.

In my survey of 100 randomly selected osteopath websites, 48%, almost half, had practitioners who personally practiced and offered another CAM therapy. The majority of these were acupuncture, but they also included naturopathy, homeopathy, reiki, ear candling and even magnified healing and Bach flower remedies.

While just 29% of websites surveyed seemed to show they practiced osteopathy alone with no other CAM available in their clinic, 71% practiced in clinics where other CAM was available, either from themselves or from fellow clinic tenants. Many presented this as having the advantage of quick referral to one of the other CAM therapies as part of an ‘holistic treatment’.

In relation to children, one osteopath said “I may suggest using homeopathic remedies. These are harmless, have no side effects and can be extremely helpful.”

Another had a different source of healing power … “God’s values and principles will underpin your treatment session”.

To sum up

57% of websites in the survey published the ‘self-healing’ claim;
70% publicised the fact they offered cranial therapy;
61% made a claim to treat one or more specific ailments not related to the musculoskeletal system;
48% of practitioners also personally offered another CAM therapy – with 71% of all sites surveyed located in a setting where other CAM was immediately available.

All in all, 93% of the randomly selected websites in my survey checked at least one, often more, of these criteria for pseudoscientific claims, concluding that they are far from existing only on the fringe of osteopathic practice.

The average price for treatments seemed to be around the £40 mark, with hour-long initial consultations being more expensive than the subsequent half-hour regular treatments.

And while the FAQs often indicated a finite number of sessions were required to bring the patient back to a ‘state of balance’, there was also a strong suggestion that clients should continue with regular treatments, or ‘MOTs’, to prevent old conditions from resurfacing, and to forestall new ones from emerging. As one website put it …

“Who needs an Osteopath? Potentially everybody, of any age!”

See part 1 here.

Notes: A good follow-up by Professor Edzard Ernst can be read here.

Osteopathy part 1 – pseudoscience in disguise?

It’s happened many times – you may have seen it yourself. There’s a Facebook thread on the effectiveness of ‘alternative medicine’, the skeptical parties are deflecting pseudoscience left, right and centre, citing evidence, throwing facts, and then someone mentions osteopathy (or even chiropractic), and suddenly the skeptics are arguing with each other … “no, this one is science! It works!”

Many people do not think of osteopathy or chiropractic as alternative medicine, perhaps largely because you see them on the High Street in almost every town, because they are often recommended by GPs, because they seem sciencey, because they have governing bodies and training programmes, because they’re manual therapies, and because so many people use them.

Anecdotes about successful treatments are everywhere. If someone has a bad back, they’re quite likely to think of a chiropractor or an osteopath before they think of a GP or a physiotherapist. I’ve seen both a chiropractor and an osteopath myself, and I came out of each feeling more ‘balanced’ and generally … good!

Out of the two, chiropractic and osteopathy, it’s osteopathy that has the better reputation. This may be partly to do with the status of each in the United States, where chiropractors are campaigning (and failing) to achieve the status of primary care-givers, and osteopaths are already recognised as such – being just about on a par with medical doctors, and often rarely using any actual osteopathic manipulative treatment but relying on the more conventional and scientific medical practices in which they’ve also been trained.

There is a greater awareness (though still not great enough) that chiropractors were born out of non-evidenced pseudoscience and that they retain those shackles even now, in the 21st century. Most hold on to the fantasy of the ‘subluxation theory’, and quite often also hold views that promote anti-vaccination, reject the germ theory of disease, and align with various ‘Big Pharma’ conspiracy theories. It is not true of all, but generally they are more Natural News than BMJ.

Many people may be surprised to know that, in the UK, some osteopaths are not far off this mark themselves. Like chiropractic, osteopathy was born of blatant pseudoscience, and while the field has had to make some advances due to public awareness of scientific principles and stricter standards of practice, it keeps at least one foot firmly in the world of ‘complimentary and alternative medicine’ (CAM), and the actual scientific evidence for osteopathy is scant.

The originator of osteopathy was Andrew Taylor Still (1828-1917). A read of his autobiography reveals that he hated “allopathic” medicine (doctors could not save three of his family from spinal meningitis) but he was a physician of a sort. He admits he learned anatomy by desecrating the graves of dead Native Americans (“[they] never objected … their relatives knew nothing about it …”) and eventually came to the conclusion that “all the remedies necessary to health exist in the human body”, all you had to do was ‘adjust’ that body and it would heal itself – nothing else should be used.

Still believed that there was no such thing as disease, and that what we call disease is actually just the effects of a “partial or complete failure of the nerves to properly conduct the fluids of life”. He goes on to detail how his osteopathy cured colds, croup, diphtheria, pneumonia, flux, ulcerated eyes, erysipelas, asthma, and how he delivered twenty babies painlessly, stopped scarlet fever with the “shake of a child”, and whooping cough with a “wring of its neck”.

If you search Google for the websites of osteopaths (see my survey in part 2 here) you’ll see that, while the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has made sure many of the field’s wilder claims are no longer openly promoted, the central beliefs of A. T. Still remain at the core of the profession’s philosophy and four-year training course. Here’s a few statements from the websites of osteopaths, from around my own locality in the south-east of England, all certified members of the regulating General Osteopathic Council

“We believe in the body’s inherent ability to heal itself, and the techniques used aim to set the best conditions for recovery.”

“Osteopaths work to restore your body to a state of balance, where possible without the use of drugs or surgery … to enhance the blood and nerve supply and to help your body’s own healing mechanisms.”

“An osteopath spends many years training to develop a very fine sense of palpation to enable them to feel and effectively listen via their hands to what is going on in the body.”

“Treatment can improve the circulation, immune and nervous system functioning along with improved digestion, breathing and energy levels … treatment has significantly improved conditions such as acid reflux, constipation, menstrual pain, sleeping problems and fatigue …”

“The entire connective tissue matrix, the largest organ of the body, is controlled by the unifying influence of water … treatment encourages tissues to release, promoting blood flow and cellular communication.”

“We work with the philosophy espoused by the founding fathers of osteopathy who understood the relationship between the physical body, the rhythmic forces within the body and the bio-energetic flow systems in and around the body.”

Again and again it is emphasised that osteopathic techniques restore the body to its ‘natural balance’ allowing it to ‘heal itself’ – this is the essence of osteopathy (also, by the way, of naturopathy), and the theory is not backed up by science. Alongside such phrases as ‘holistic’ and ‘individual’ treatment, there’s enough vagueness in the language that a fairly sizeable cartload of pseudoscientific claims can be ushered in through the door.

In addition, while a few practices offer osteopathy alone, the majority also provide some other form of unproven alternative therapy, such as acupuncture, homeopathy, naturopathy, reflexology, reiki and applied kinesiology, to name a few, giving you some idea of an osteopath’s general mindset. Babies and animals are often singled out as specialisms of the osteopath, and the more brazen practitioners will blithely claim that their musculoskeletal manipulations can treat ailments such as eczema, asthma, colic and irritable bowel syndrome.

The subtext (not always very sub) is clear – many osteopaths see themselves as natural healers, travelling a different road to that of the General Practitioner, Physiotherapist and mainstream medicine, getting to the real cause of illness rather than just applying drugs to the symptom. The red flags of pseudoscience are definitely aflutter within the profession’s territory.

I’ve no doubt that a good bone and tissue massage, plus a great deal of personal attention, can do wonders for any patient (indeed I’ve experienced this myself, and it has its place), and there’s some (not strong) evidence that manual therapy may have some benefit in the case of lower back pain. But that’s as much as the NHS will admit to (“osteopathy is a complimentary or alternative medicine … [and] isn’t always based on scientific evidence”) and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) no longer recommends massage and manipulation as a first step in treating back pain due to the poor quality of supporting evidence.

Of course the anecdotes of many will say different – even my own experience was somewhat positive in the short term (longer term, the best thing for my back has been an increase in exercise, just what NICE does now recommend, and a lot cheaper too). But the trouble with anecdote in relation to osteopathy is that it’s prone to so many obscuring factors: confusing correlation with causation, regression to the mean, the self-limitation or natural remission of the condition, placebo effect, short-term relief of symptoms but not cure, misdiagnosis by an osteo-biased practitioner, and even, sometimes, a bit of self-delusion due to the financial and emotional investment of the patient.

There are a couple of more controversial aspects of treatment given by the majority of mainstream osteopaths that are worth looking at in a little more detail: spinal manipulation and cranial osteopathy.

Spinal manipulation at the neck involves the practitioner giving a sudden twist of the patient’s head to one side. I’ve had this done, and it was not a pleasant experience. The question is, however, does its supposed benefit far outweigh any risk? There’s no clear-cut answer, but there is a growing chorus of scientific voices who think the technique may increase the risk of vertebrobasilar stroke, and a number of cases have been highlighted. Part of the problem is that some of these strokes may not happen until some time after the manipulation, a matter of weeks even, and so the correlation, if present, may not be obvious.

Cranial osteopathy is a technique whereby the practitioner uses their hands to feel the skull for ‘rhythmic pulsations’ where they can then detect and release ‘restrictions’ using very light pressure. The alleged danger comes not in the physicality of the technique itself, but in the ailments it claims to be able to treat, and the lack of plausible science to back the theory and its outcomes (not to mention the taking of money for such a thing). It is especially controversial as it is often highlighted as a technique that can (and in some cases, should) be used on very young babies.

There is no doubt that osteopathy exists at the shallow end of the pseudoscientific spectrum, at its best inhabiting much of the same arena as its more practical cousin, physiotherapy, at its worst still clinging onto the full philosophy of its quack founder, A. T. Still, while also giving credence to a whole host of non-effective alternative medicine systems that accompany many practices, legitimised by the seemingly scientific glow of a Masters Osteopathy certificate on the clinic wall.

I’ll end with a quote from a GP I once saw, who was telling me about his new baby daughter’s problem with colic: “My wife and I took her to see an osteopath. Complete quackery, but we were desperate!”. Well, he said it, not me.

Part 2 – a survey of 100 osteopath websites – can be read here.

Notes: please see the links in the article above for sources and extra information. See also:

Edzard Ernst on Osteopathy
Skeptic Barista: Osteopaths: Talking a good game
Vic Skeptics: Does Osteopathy work? Is it Scientific?
Good Thinking Investigates: Osteopathy
Quackwatch: Dubious aspects of Osteopathy
RationalWiki: Osteopathy
David Colquhoun: Cranial Osteopathy at the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine

Note 2: this article was posted at the beginning of International Osteopathic Healthcare Week (17-23 April 2016).

Walk the Kingdom, hide the truth

A 63-year old man is to spend nine months walking the entire coastline of the United Kingdom in order to raise funds for drug awareness lecturer Peter Dwan so he can continue visiting the nation’s schools and “reach the kids before the dealers do”.

News media near and far have lapped up the story, focussing on his age, the selfless act of hardship and charity, and the undoubted good cause. How could anyone criticise such a venture?

Well, I admit, it’s not easy, and I’m not writing this with much relish. Steve Cook, the 63-year old grandfather embarking on this epic trek, comes across as a sincere and affable chap, earnest in the belief of his cause. The same goes for Peter Dwan, a former Thai boxing champion and martial arts trainer who seems genuinely passionate about the issue he has set his sights on.

But there’s something not so benevolent underneath it all. Something questionable. Something hidden.

Steve Cook has mentioned in several interviews that his own awareness of drug issues came about because he worked with addicts himself. More detail on this aspect of his past is not forthcoming, but the truth is that this was with Narconon, the Scientology front group that uses the highly questionable methods of the cult’s founder, L. Ron Hubbard, to try and get people off drugs.

Does it matter who’s behind the project? Surely getting information to kids and warning them of the dangers of drugs is more important than any strange spiritual beliefs someone might hold? Scientology themselves certainly profess that, and are constantly at pains to stress that Narconon is a secular organisation, totally separate from the “Church“, and only there to do good community work.

But there is a problem – in fact more than one. Narconon is not independent of Scientology, it is Scientology, and Scientology is a dangerous cult. Narconon exists in order to further spread the works and philosophies of L. Ron Hubbard – a very problematic individual, to say the least. And the programme is reliant on pseudoscience that can be genuinely dangerous – especially to addicts.

Narconon has its strongest foothold in the US, with at least ten rehab centres across the country, the most prominent of which is probably the controversial Lake Arrowhead complex in Oklamoma – the site of four inmate deaths, three within just nine months.

But what about in the UK? We have had Narconon centres here, most notably at St. Leonards-on-Sea near Hastings, but none of these has really had any staying power (St. Leonards lasted from 2005 until 2009). Narconon UK now mainly seems to consist of a number of amateur and decaying websites – all with different names and identities, a few mostly out of date phone numbers, the occasional effort to restart it or introduce a worryingly dubious home self-help programme, sporadic leafleting, and a handful of individual educators who go out into schools to spread the Scientology message on drugs – such as Peter Dwan. (Update: On 5 Sep 2015 a new UK Narconon centre was opened in Heathfield, Sussex).

If you ask Dwan, or Steve Cook, or any of his supporters, they’ll tell you that his drug education project is now independent of Narconon and has nothing to do with Scientology. He just wants to get the information to the kids. If it’s good information, that would be fine, but unfortunately it is not good information.

The Narconon programme consists of several components including self-awareness, self-improvement, detoxification and life-skills. This holistic approach sounds great until you realise that it all comes straight from the mind of L. Ron Hubbard – a man who created his own science-fiction religion for the purposes of money and ego, who lied about and exaggerated his own history, who spent many years on the run from several international authorities, and ended his life, in hiding, as a sick, paranoid drug addict.

One of the first things a new patient (or ‘student’ as they are called) will do at Narconon is a ‘therapeutic training routine’ to improve their communication and attention span. The terms have been softened, but this is the same course that greets a new recruit to Scientology – the Communication Course, consisting of several ‘training routines‘ known as TR0, TR1 and TR2, etc. Scientology critic and author Jon Atack calls these drills a form of hypnosis, creating malleable minds ripe for indoctrination.

The detoxification scheme is the centrepiece of the programme, but also one of the most troubling aspects. It involves taking mega-doses of vitamins and spending long hours in a hot sauna. This is because Hubbard believed that drug residue becomes lodged in body fat and stays there for years, sometimes restimulating the individual and causing further harm. High doses of niacin are supposed to break up these deposits, the sauna is supposed to sweat them out, and then vitamins and minerals are replaced through supplements.

This so-called ‘New Life Detoxification programme’ is called the Purification Rundown in Scientology. It’s exactly the same thing and it’s pseudoscience. There is no evidence that drugs stay for years – or even months in most cases – in the body’s fat. Niacin and vitamins are both instructed to be taken in doses that are known to be dangerous. It’s part of the whole scam that is the detox industry.

One of the side effects of niacin is that it can bring on an uncomfortable hot prickly rash. As a child brought up in Scientology I can attest to this as my sister and I were made to do the ‘Purif’ when we were 11 or 12 years old in the early 1980s. Once it came out in sore patches around my eyes and the supervisor told me this was because it manifested in patterns that relate to past-lives – these were evidently echoes of the goggles of a WWII fighter ace! (Hubbard actually believed the reaction was old sun tans and that the niacin was eradicating radiation from the body – also not true.) Another side effect of high-dose niacin intake is liver damage. Imagine that on a recovering alcoholic.

Scientology’s misaligned worldview is evident throughout the rest of the course too: important medication (for instance, anti-seizure drugs) may be taken away from the participant (reflecting Scientology’s mistrust of mainstream medicine and psychiatrists), the person will be persuaded that the cause of their problems may be to do with the influence of other people in their lives, including family members (invoking Scientology’s policy of Suppressive Persons and disconnection), and a graduating ‘student’ will be encouraged to stay on as a staff member, to bring more people into the centre (for a commission), and to take further Scientology courses within the main organisation.

So should Peter Dwan and Steve Cook be trusted as drug educators to our nation’s schools? If teachers were aware of their connection to Scientology they would probably be more reluctant to let them have any influence over their pupils.

Steve Cook worked at the Hastings Narconon centre, and his wife was one of the directors there. Both have been Scientologists since the early 1980s. Peter Dwan was an ambassador and director for Narconon Manchester, and has been a Scientologist since 2003. All have strong connections to Scientology, Narconon, and support other Scientology front groups such as the deceptively named Citizens Commission on Human Rights (CCHR, Scientology’s anti-psychiatry organisation).

In addition they come with the baggage that afflicts many Scientologists – an anti-scientific view of the medical profession and pharmaceuticals, and a strong tendency towards conspiracy theories. Cook supports the long-disproved notion that vaccines cause autism, but goes even further down the rabbit hole into the ideas of the so-called New World Order and its various false flag agendas – so much so that he’s become editor and writer for the UK edition of the Liberty Beacon website, a brand that’s fully immersed in the conspiracy and pseudoscience nut jar.

Peter Dwan is not averse to these sorts of ideas either, tweeting in support of the ridiculous and dangerous ‘MMS‘ – the industrial bleach concoction that its creator, ‘Bishop’ Jim Humble (an ex-Scientologist who has since created his own religion), claims will cure everything from AIDS to Malaria and Cancer. And again, like many Scientologists, he seems to be chasing the ‘quick-easy-fix’ in life – earning money off the questionable claims made by multi-level-marketing brand Juice Plus, and promising speedy mastery of several martial arts by selling Al Case’s highly dubious ‘Matrix‘ fighting system (Al Case is also a Scientologist). To guide him through all this, Dwan is in the thrall of American ‘get rich quick’ marketing guru Grant Cardone – another Scientologist.

The quick fix, the magic bullet … health in a tablet, the tincture that cures all ills, the DVD that gives you black belt in a year, the sure-fire marketing method, the complete by-numbers drug programme … and the answer to life the universe and everything in a single package: Scientology.

The erasure of Narconon from Dwan’s websites and printed literature and promotions is a recent thing. His current leaflets and hand-outs are the same as those used by Narconon, only now the Narconon logo has disappeared and been replaced with ‘Peter Dwan Drug Education’ and ‘Smart About Drugs’.

But there’s no doubt that Dwan is using “the very successful Narconon lecture format” – his flip-chart drawings are the same as those used by other Narconon lecturers and the information remains the same, including the blatant misinformation about toxins stored in body fat as well as other Scientology-related ideas about the reactive mind and drug restimulation. His mantras to “reach kids before the dealers do” and to give them “the truth about drugs” are straight from the Narconon script.

I do wonder if this is part of new strategy for Narconon UK. Director Lucy Skirrow announces that they “currently have eight active presenters who work in schools, youth clubs and businesses, based in Sussex, London, Manchester and York”. But the name Narconon is not as visible as it used to be. And if you want one of these lecturers you can expect to pay about £140 for a session (2006 price) – for many schools it’ll be your taxes that pay for it.

As I said earlier, Peter Dwan is evidently passionate about teaching children the dangers of drugs, and he almost certainly believes he’s giving good information. But he’s been hoodwinked by Scientology’s usual ways of pulling people deeper and deeper into their clutches and then utilising them for dissemination, recruitment and financial gain.

However, Dwan does have another aspect to his story that is much more positive. After drugs (alcohol, cannabis and speed in his case) he found focus in life with martial arts – a noble endeavour – and he was successful at it. As he says in his lectures, the buzz of training and winning the British Thai boxing title was greater than anything that could be provided by some chemical high.

If he could fortify this enthusiasm and experience with some proper training as a drug counsellor and educator, utilising up to date, peer-reviewed science, and recognise the reality of mental health problems that often accompany addiction, incorporating modern education methods rather than out-dated propaganda, scare tactics and misinformation, then he’d truly be a welcome positive force in the UK’s schools.

In the meantime, Steve Cook Walks the Kingdom to fight the “UK drugs epidemic”. If you want to donate then there’s a button to pay through PayPal, but no public accounting, such as there would be if a service such as Just Giving was used. (Update Jul 2015: almost two months into the walk Cook started a GoFundMe page – not linked to from his website; it has, to date, raised £100, with a target of £20,000).

How much has he raised? I have no idea, as of this writing there doesn’t seem to be any way to know. How many people have seen the dozens of articles and heard the radio interviews and donated? Well, Cook says that all donors will be publicly acknowledged online, and I count 14 listed on the website at the time of writing (8 days into the walk) – at least ten of whom are Scientologists.

I wish this were for a better cause – it’s an astonishing thing to walk over 4,000 miles of rugged coastline, especially when you’re 63 and a smoker (not very drug free!). (Another Scientologist, Danny Fitzgibbon, is planning to row unaided across the Atlantic ocean for Dwan in September, a feat he has abandoned once already). Cook’s early diary videos gave a hint that perhaps he was having doubts about his ability and stamina, and his schedule doesn’t appear to include a single rest day. I can’t help but have some admiration for the guy. (Update: Cook has ended his walk halfway through, see updates at the end).

As for Narconon, it is a gateway drug to philosophies that were born out of the skewed mind of L. Ron Hubbard – a man addicted to cigarettes (3 or 4 packs a day – he actually believed they could help prevent lung cancer), who popped “pinks and greys” (benzedrine), and who died with the psychiatric tranquilliser Vistaril in his bloodstream; a man who claimed to have travelled to Venus, and that an intergalactic overlord called Xenu had ruled the Galaxy 75 million years ago and dropped billions of his citizens into volcanoes on Earth from spaceships that closely resembled DC-8 aircraft.

Scientologists believe that only they have the “tech” to save the planet, and that the thoughts and ideas of Hubbard are infallible. If what they taught about drugs was true, if it was evidenced science, could anyone take this data and lecture it in schools? Or administer the Purification Rundown in their own centres? I think it’s more likely that Scientology would try and take them to court for infringing on their exclusive system.

I know Dwan and his fellow lecturers aren’t going into schools and administering Hubbard’s Purification Rundown to children, but they are almost entirely informed and backed-up by Narconon and Scientology, and the schools who pay for these lectures (how much of the fee goes to Narconon/Scientology?) are allowing poor science, outdated educational methods, and questionable philosophies into their classrooms.

Bad information about narcotics and alcohol will lead to bad decisions by kids when they eventually come face to face with drugs, and schools should be 100% certain of whose ideas are influencing their young pupils. They should know if it is Scientology.

Update Jul 2015: Cook got as far as North Queensferry, just across the Forth from Edinburgh, before a bad foot caused him to return to East Grinstead on 11 July 2015 – this has not been updated on his website, which still shows him in Scotland.

Update Aug 2015: It seems the walk is over for now, as Cook has announced on Facebook that he plans to possibly get back to the walk in Spring 2016, though the Walk the Kingdom website has not been updated with this news. (20 Aug: his website has at last been updated. Aug 2016: no mention or continuation of the Walk.)

For good science on drugs please visit DrugScience.
For good advice on drugs for youths please visit Talk to Frank.

Measles and the Yanomami: did a Scientist “kill Amazon indians to test race theory”? No.

According to recent activity across various social networks, those evil scientists are at it again. And this one must be true as it’s from no less a robust and upstanding source as The Guardian

“Thousands of South American indians were infected with measles, killing hundreds, in order for US scientists to study the effects on primitive societies of natural selection, according to a book out next month.”

It’s got it all: scientists conducting eugenic experiments on an innocent native people, funded by an organisation that makes atomic bombs, and using vaccines to spread disease and cause death.

Many don’t bother to read the article – they don’t have to, the headline confirms everything they already knew. They click ‘like’, share and retweet it, tag it with keywords such as ‘white supremacy’ and ‘eugenics’, and make comments referring to Ebola, AIDS, the Tuskegee Experiment, the depopulation agenda, MMR, racism and, of course, the Nazis. Some versions also show an indigenous tribesperson covered in a mosaic of awful welts – presumably the very measles that was deliberately set off to run free within this jungle utopia of a savage yet noble people at one with nature.

Those who do follow the link and read the article do not have their minds changed. In the late-1960s, a “new book” reveals, an anthropologist named James Neel, backed by the US Atomic Energy Commission, administered a harmful measles vaccine, Edmonston-B, to intentionally create or exasperate a measles epidemic among the vulnerable Yanomami people in the forests of Venezuala, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of men, women and children.

Let the outrage pour forth!

Or … perhaps, you should take a closer look. Note, for instance, the date of the article. It was written in September 2000 – over fourteen years ago. And what about the picture (warning: unpleasant) … is that really measles? It doesn’t look right. An image search reveals it is not a case of measles, and is not a member of the Yanomami – in fact the young girl in the photograph is not even South American. She is a Bangladeshi with smallpox, and the image comes from the CDC’s Public Health Image Library (it’s not actually part of the Guardian article, someone has added the photo somewhere along the line and it has accompanied the Facebook version of the link ever since).

Once your skeptical hackles have been raised, if, in fact, they ever have, it is not hard to find out what became of this terrible crime against humanity. It never happened.

The Guardian article consists primarily of quotes from a leaked letter written by Professor Terry Turner of Cornell University to the president of the American Anthropological Association. Turner had just read the proofs of a forthcoming book, Darkness in El Dorado, by journalist Patrick Tierney, and wanted to warn the Association so it could prepare its defence.

The allegations in the book are damning and Turner’s assessment is equally harsh and accusatory. Neel, aided by ‘maverick’ anthropologist Napoleon Chagnon and funded by the US Atomic Energy Commission, used the Edmonston-B vaccine to instigate measles – a highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease – in order to observe ‘survival of the fittest’ in action. The book is copiously annotated, was previewed and reviewed widely and positively, including prominently in the New York Times, and was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award.

But even before it was published, in November 2000, Tierney’s story started to unravel, causing the author to apparently edit a number of his claims before going to press and to distance himself from Turner’s suspiciously enthusiastic ‘leaked’ commentary. Turner, it emerged, was one of the people Tierney had thanked in the book’s acknowledgements.

The resulting inquiry by the American Anthropological Association – though it concluded that Neel saved many lives through vaccination – was a mess, selective in its evidence, biased from the outset, and seemingly a panicked shot fired in self-defence rather than a rational and balanced look at the facts. Though the damage was done, Turner himself retracted his statement that Neel was responsible for the measles outbreak once he actually bothered to look into the facts of the matter, and the AAA later admitted their report was flawed and withdrew their support of Tierney’s work three years later.

James Neel did not deliberately introduce a measles epidemic to the Yanomami at the bidding of his dark masters, the US Atomic Energy Commission. The US AEC were widely involved in supporting genetic research and Neel had worked for them previously in relation to Japanese victims of the atomic bombs. This was all out in the open, there was nothing sinister or unusual about it. The Yanomami represented, for Neel, a living example of humankind as it might have existed in its pre-agricultural state, offering a near-perfect opportunity to research and compare their genetic structure with modern populations – Richard Dawkins described them as “a human tribe which probably ran as close to the cutting edge of natural selection as any in the world”.

One aspect of Neel’s expedition was a humanitarian one – to vaccinate the tribespeople against measles, a disease he discovered they were particularly susceptible to due to practically no genetic history with the virus, and one that was dangerously close to spreading among them. Neel consulted with experts to choose the right vaccine: true, the Edmonston-B strain had slightly increased side effects (a higher fever) compared to the more recently developed Schwartz strain, but it conferred longer-lasting immunity and the fever could be pacified with an additional shot of gamma globulin. After nineteen-million doses given (and, despite being phased out, it was still being used in the US at the time), not one had been the cause of a measles outbreak. Two-thousand doses of the vaccine were donated to Neel’s mission by Pharmaceutical companies on the grounds they were to be used for humanitarian purposes and not for scientific research.

To further put this accusation in the grave, where it belongs, a close examination of the dates reveals that measles reached the Yanomami at least a week before Neel arrived (it was most likely brought in by the daughter of a missionary at Toototobi). His carefully planned vaccination strategy had to be abandoned as he and his team raced to try and control the epidemic. Unfortunately they couldn’t prevent its spread, but there is no doubt they saved lives. The claim that Neel deliberately withheld treatment can also be dismissed – with nurses employed and documented requests for doctors and penicillin made by radio. The expected 30% death rate turned out to be just 8% thanks to Neel’s medical direction.

The main point of Darkness in El Dorado, and Turner’s conveniently leaked letter to the AAA, seems to have been a smear campaign against Neel’s assistant, Napoleon Chagnon, something that had been rumbling away for a good few years, involving two opposing tribes of anthropologists and their respective ideologies. That debate, relating to the ethics of studying and intervening in the lives of indigenous peoples, is a separate issue, but the wider accusations of the book have been roundly discredited multiple times, including investigations by the American Society of Human Genetics, Alice Dreger in Human Nature, the University of Michigan, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, by Kim Hill of the University of New Mexico, and John Tooby at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

It is interesting to note that in the years since his book was published and debunked, Tierney has drifted into the arms of the modern anti-vaccination movement, in particular becoming a friend of the discredited pariah Andrew Wakefield. Here he has found an audience who are all too eager to lap up his tales of human experimentation and vaccine-induced death and injury.

And so perhaps this is why Tierney’s work is once again getting an airing, this time on the Facebook pages of those who think vaccines are the government’s way of  controlling the population and polluting the perfect immune systems of their children, rather than what they actually are – the cause of millions of lives saved and the near eradication of once common killers from our privileged existence.

But how can they resist such a damning headline? The blame for that should lie with The Guardian. It’s blatantly provocative, without foundation, and worthy of the most lurid of the gutter press (the article appeared later in the Manchester Guardian with the almost-as-bad headline ‘US scientist brought death to the Amazon’). There’s no visible update to inform the reader that the story presented has since been definitively consigned to the rubbish-tip of smear journalism and it’s even tagged with the label ‘MMR’, despite that having nothing to do with what’s reported.

So it lives on, a time-capsule causing heartache to those whose reputations it tramples (or their families, James Neel died seven months previously), and provoking real harm in a world where distrust of vaccines in developing countries results in the continuance of deadly disease and the murder of those who work to eradicate them.

As of the time of writing, Paul Brown’s ‘Scientist killed Amazon indians’ article has over 27,000 shares. Its follow-up, James Meek’s ‘Professor denies causing measles epidemic‘ has zero shares. There seems to be no further update or reporting from The Guardian dealing with the eventual debunking of Turner and Tierney’s false allegations.

The Yanomami-measles link itself is a virus – reactivated after years, spreading from one Facebook page to another, ratcheting up the clicks and infecting viewpoints. At some stage someone has added the smallpox image, an adjuvant to increase the emotional reaction among the uncritical devotees of an imagined Illuminati-lead world. They blindly repeat and publicise the misinformation because it supports their agenda – and a lie is the perfect shape for an ignorance-shaped hole.


Please read historian of medicine Alice Dreger’s response to the resurgence of the Guardian article: And the Dead Claims Shall Rise (8 Mar 2015)


I have been accused of writing an article with no basis in fact and no sources. The article is peppered with links to back up the statements made. However, here is a more visible list of the most relevant links, for convenience:

Scientist ‘killed Amazon indians to test race theory‘ by Paul Brown, The Guardian, 23 Sep 2000
Open email from Dr. Samuel Katz, co-developer of the measles vaccine, 28 Sep 2000
Professor denies causing measles epidemic by James Meek, The Guardian, 4 Oct 2000
University of Michigan Report of the Ongoing Investigation of the Neel-Chagnon Allegations, University of Michigan, 20 Oct 2000
Jungle Fever – Did two US scientists start a genocidal epidemic in the Amazon, or was The New Yorker duped?, John Tooby, 25 Oct 2000
Hearts of Darkness by John Horgan, The New York Times, 12 Nov 2000
The Turner-Sponsel Memo, Terence Turner, 13 Nov 2000
Report of the Medical Team of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro on Accusations Contained in Patrick Tierney’s Darkness in El Dorado, Nov 2000
Statement by Kim Hill of the University of New Mexico, April 2001
Response to Allegations against James V. Neel in Darkness in El Dorado, by Patrick Tierney, American Society of Human Genetics, 19 Nov 2001
El Dorado Task Force Papers, Volume I, American Anthropological Association, 18 May 2002
AAA Rescinds Acceptance of the El Dorado Report, American Anthropological Association, Sep 2005
Darkness’s Descent on the American Anthropological Association by Alice Dreger, 16 Feb 2011

Charlie Hebdo: pencil lines and bullet holes, freedom and religion

Seven days into the new year, 2015, two men dressed in black forced their way into the offices of Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris and murdered eleven people. During their escape they shot and killed a police officer before going on the run, hiding out in a print works outside Paris, and were then killed as they emerged from the building with their guns blazing.

The aftermath has seen an ocean of words on terrorism, Islam, free speech, media bias and racism. It’s a useful debate to have, not least for the reason that some uncomfortable truths, on all sides of the argument, have come to light. But there is also a lot of confusion and anger that is clouding any kind of rational analysis.

The thing that has made me most uncomfortable are the articles and comments that question whether Charlie Hebdo was hiding racist and Islamophobic content behind a veil (if you’ll excuse the metaphor) of free speech. I find this attitude highly distasteful – it is tantamount to suggesting the journalists and cartoonists who lost their lives brought the situation upon themselves. It is the equivalent of suggesting that a rape victim is to blame because of the way she dressed, or because she drank too much.

Now, there may indeed be a wider debate to say that women (or men, for that matter) should take some care in social situations, but that does not excuse rape, or even light uninvited fondling of another person’s body. What it does is shine a light on the fact that it’s a sad indictment of society, and male attitudes, that a woman might have to consider these things at all. They shouldn’t have to. It is the perpetrator who is 100% in the wrong.

These people were murdered in cold blood. The only ones to blame are those who wielded the weapons and fired the bullets. Not the cartoonists, not the editor, not France’s free speech laws, not the makers of the AK47 assault rifle, and not Muslims.

Let’s pretend that Charlie Hebdo was a magazine that’s sole intention was to ridicule Islam, that its staff was populated by racists and suspected pedophiles, and, just to top it off, none of them ever bathed and they stank out the Paris Metro every morning on their way to work. Nobody liked them. Does this justify their murder?

I hope your answer is no. If a person feels they are a victim of hate speech or ridicule then there is a system that can be utilised to examine the claim and seek justice. You can take the offender to court. Let’s say the victim wins – should the death penalty be implemented for holding such a racist or hate-filled view? Again, I hope your answer is no. A monetary fine or maybe even a custodial sentence, sure, but as soon as you start taking lives, you become a savage.

It might be argued that the court, or even the law itself, could be biased or corrupt, or that the wronged party could not afford to take the accused perpetrator through the justice system. Even so, there is a better way than shooting someone in the face with a machine gun. Petitions, publicity campaigns, protest rallies, engaging the media – all are likely to elicit a more positive reaction and wider awareness of your cause than wilful slaughter. People might actually listen to you.

Every time someone shares an article that says Charlie Hebdo was a racist magazine, or cries hypocrisy because some anti-Semitic comedian or cartoon got taken to court and banned (not shot, you’ll note), or that two hundred people died in Nigeria and it’s being ignored by ‘the media’ (they usually then link to a BBC or Guardian article about it) and no one’s holding up signs and marching for them (like they did for Iraq in 2003 or Palestine in 2014), they are making an excuse for the murder of twelve innocent people.

The staff of Charlie Hebdo did not bring this tragedy upon themselves and they did not deserve to die.

That’s addressed the question of blame, so now onto the wider debate. Let’s play the game and look at what influences each side might have contributed to this tragic situation. There are two opposing ideas, as I see it: was Charlie Hebdo a racist/hate publication; and did the religion of Islam inspire the murders?

I don’t see strong evidence that Charlie Hebdo was pushing a racist agenda. Its fuzzy edges may have strayed over that line on occasion (cartooning often lampoons physical features, and this can indeed be insensitive, especially if your community is the target), but its raison d’être was satire – ridicule to promote analysis and discourse with the aim, one would hope, of achieving raised awareness leading to an improved situation.

Most people who see satire and misinterpret it as racism are not quite getting it (and many are not even actually seeing it, they just hear about it and then call for an immediate ban). It’s like the character of Alf Garnett in the 1960s and 70s sitcom ‘Till Death Us Do Part – he was created to highlight the absurdity of the racist Little Englander, but for a number of similarly narrow-minded viewers, who missed the point, he was a role model. ‘Till Death Us Do Part was accused by others, who also missed the point, of being racist.

Humour is a very powerful way to criticise bad ideas. Yes, you could write serious tracts analysing the possibility that the Quran, rather than being a book of peace, is a book that inspires some to violence. But satire, through the use of humour, can often make the point so much better. It’s showing rather than telling, one of the golden rules of good storytelling.

Charlie Hebdo was a liberal magazine from the start (in fact before the start, when it was Hara-Kiri) – it supported environmental concerns, free speech, feminism, equality, the rights of minorities and immigrants, social justice, and was anti-fascist and anti-racist. It lampooned all religions, Islam was not singled out.

Covers that often depict what some see as racism (for instance, showing Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as a monkey), are actually criticising racism. Taken out of context, and not knowing the stories (often two current events of that particular week combined), the misinformed and wilfully biased jump directly to the wrong conclusion.

If you can’t see the difference between the anti-Semitic stand-up comedian and friend of the National Front, Dieudonné, joking about urinating on the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem or sending someone to the gas chambers, and a Charlie Hebdo cartoon that shows the Prophet Muhammed lamenting the fact that some of his followers are “jerks” (for their extremist actions in the light of the Danish cartoons), then you’re missing the point.

Anti-Semitism is a form of racism; Jews are an ethnic group not solely defined by their religion. You can be both Jewish and an atheist. You cannot be an atheist Muslim – a Muslim is a person who follows the religion of Islam. It is a choice in a way that your ethnicity is not. You can be an Arab, a Celt or a even a Jew and be a Muslim.

I sometimes question, with my critiques of religion, if I am Islamophobic. Am I afraid of Islam? In some ways, yes, I am. I’m Christophobic too. I am afraid that a set of beliefs based not in evidence, but in blind faith, that are out of step with modern thinking, that are anti-science and anti-humanist, that advocate violence and intolerance based on irrational ideas, that convert people to the ideology through unthinking indoctrination and fear, that condemn me to eternal damnation for not also believing, will screw up this world and the people in it. If climate change doesn’t get us, then some religious war probably will.

But all too often ‘Islamaphobia’ and ‘racist’ are terms used to label those who merely criticise the tenets of Islam. They are hot-button keywords designed to shut down an argument that you don’t like. It’s equal to calling someone a pedophile – it has a power of its own and can stick, a molotov cocktail in a single word.

There was a meme that quickly did the rounds on social media in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo murders, once the inevitable backlash started against “Je suis Charlie”. It showed the harrowing image of one of the gunmen advancing on the injured policeman, Ahmed Merabet. “In case you are confused”, it said, “this is a terrorist”, pointing at the gunman, and “this is a Muslim”, pointing at the man on the ground.

But that is a false equivalence. One is a terrorist and one is a policeman. One is a Muslim terrorist and one is a Muslim policeman. Both are Muslims.

It’s clear (to most) that not all Muslims are the same, and no Muslim should be obliged to either make excuses or apologise for the actions of an extremist. There is not one Islam. Just like Christianity and the Bible, there are as many interpretations of the Quran as there are Muslims. Each Muslim will cherry-pick from the book, interpret according to their own beliefs, conscience and moral barometer. It is a book that can be used for war or peace – and that makes it problematic.

Radio DJ James O’Brien produced some good radio when he shut down a caller who was demanding a condemnation from the Muslim community. “Your name’s Richard”, O’Brien fired back, “shouldn’t you apologise, on behalf of all Richards, for the actions of shoe-bomber Richard Reid?”.

It was a clever argument, but like the meme mentioned above, not quite logical (all Richards to do not share an ideology). Although I don’t agree with it, I can understand why some people want to know what other Muslims think of the terrorists’ actions. The terrorists made it plain they were avenging their Prophet. Whether you like it or not, they were directly inspired by their faith, and if you have Muslim neighbours or relatives, you may be curious to know where that influence comes from.

The killers were extremists, but extremists of what? What does an extremist cake decorator do? What does an extremist sports addict do? What does an extremist atheist do? What does an extremist Buddhist, Christian or Muslim do? Perhaps religion does have something to do with these terrible events after all.

The move to distance the general Muslim population from the extremists and proclaim that they were not Muslims is an example of the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy. Islam is often claimed to be a ‘religion of peace’, but a simple read through the Quran and Hadith will soon disavow you of that idea (and the same is true of the Bible). ‘Divine books’ that are open to such a variety of interpretations are plainly imperfect and reveal their mortal origins all too clearly. It is advancing secular reasoning that has mostly tempered the extremes of religion.

You can find justification in the Quran and Hadith to kill those who insult the Prophet Muhammed. You can also find verses that show mercy and compassion within the religion. It all depends on how these passages are translated or interpreted – usually to reflect the taste of the particular ideology of the reader.

Many Muslms are angry. They’re rightfully angry at the terrorists who have dragged their version of the religion, once again, into the mud. Many are ethnic minorities in Europe and experience real racism on a daily basis, so it might be understandable that they confuse criticism of their philosophy – a philosophy that strongly defines them – with racism. But if there’s to be any real debate, reason must prevail – genuine criticism of bad religious ideas must be allowed.

For some, that anger has turned into making excuses for the killers, putting the blame on Charlie Hebdo, or the West, or secularism. Perhaps their faith is not quite as rock-steady as they would like to think. Perhaps the satire of Charlie Hebdo was a little too close to the truth, enough that reasoned argument fails and the accusatory grenades of ‘racism’ and ‘Islamophobia’ have to be thrown.

In the end, it’s an incredibly sad situation. The growing far-right in Europe will use the events in Paris to expand their reach and bolster their hateful arguments;  fearful governments will have an excuse to bring in harsher laws and curb freedoms; religious fanatics will gain followers and claim victory; and everyday Muslims will be under more pressure and experience more prejudice, leading to a decrease in understanding between cultures that should be able to live in harmony. No one wins.