Teach Evolution, Not Creationism

The British Humanist Association is behind a new campaign called “Teach Evolution, Not Creationism“.

Of course any reasonable person is going to support the campaign. No-one wants creationism taught to children as fact in science lessons. But there are a couple of subtleties that should probably be explained in detail.

Firstly, I’ve seen this as described as an attack on faith schools. Whilst I’m sure that the BHA is no fan of faith schools, it’s important to note that this current campaign has nothing to say at all on this subject. The evolution vs creationism debate is a completely separate one. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of faith schools in the UK are run by religions that don’t subscribe to creationism and won’t be teaching this nonsense to schools. Creationists are good at making their movement seem more important than it is, but most British christians are Catholics or Anglicans and neither of these churches subscribe to these ideas.

This campaign says nothing about the status as faith schools. It just says that creationism should not be presented as scientific fact in state-funded schools.

Secondly, people say that creationism should be taught at school as long as it isn’t presented as fact. And I agree with that completely. I’m very happy for creationism to be discussed in religious studies classes or even as part of a course in the history of ideas. There’s even an argument for covering it in science courses where it could serve as a case study of applying the scientific method to a problem and examining the evidence to come up with the best theory. I don’t want schools to produce children who have never who heard of creationism. I want them to produce children who know about creationism and who know enough about evolution to be able to counter the obvious nonsense that the creationists come up with (“There are no transitional fossils.” “What about this almost complete sequence demonstrating the evolution of the whale?”)

Finally, a friend pointed out that he doesn’t want facts taught in science lessons. He wants science lessons to teach “how science works”. By which he means critical thinking and the scientific method. And I can’t argue with that. That’s exactly what I’d like to see too. My experience of the school science curriculum is over thirty years out of date, but I’d hope that it isn’t just “here’s a fact learn it”. It wasn’t like that when I was at school.

Please read the campaign’s position statement and the progress that has been made so far.

And if you’re in a petition-signing mood, please sign their petition.



If you’ve been hanging around the skeptic community over the last couple of years, then you’ll already know Tim Minchin‘s beat poem Storm. But unless you were at last year’s TAM London you probably won’t have seen the official animation of it which was premièred there.

For nearly six months I’ve desperately wanted to be able to show this to people. And finally the wait is over as it was launched on YouTube last night.

Sit back and enjoy it for the next ten minutes. And think of all those dinner parties where you’ve kept politely quiet as someone like Storm expounds the benefits of homeopathy, acupuncture or other such nonsense.


Homeopathy Petition Response

A year ago, the House of Commons science and technology committee published the results of its evidence check on homeopathy. The committee’s findings were unequivocal and the report strongly recommended against the NHS continuing to waste money on treatments that did nothing. Soon after that I set up a petition asking the government to implement the recommendations of the report.

The petition received over 1600 signatures before the petition site was suspended for last year’s general election. And when the election was over and we finally got our new government they announced that the petition site would be closed down. They also said that any petition that had been signed by 500 people would receive a response from the government.

Whilst I waited for my response, it became obvious what it would be as the new government published their response to the report. The response pretty much ignored any of the committee’s findings and made it clear that the NHS would be free to continue wasting money on magic water. A clear indication of this government’s commitment to evidence-based policy making.

Yesterday the government finally emailed the petition’s signatories with its response. There’s nothing surprising there. They just reaffirm that the NHS will continue to waste this money. It’s all very disappointing but not very surprising.

The response includes a link to this page which it claims explains the government’s decision in more detail. Unfortunately that’s a link to a completely unrelated page. I think they probably meant to link to this page instead.

So, no change. This government is still happy to waste NHS money on ridiculous treatments and the new government has just as much trouble understanding scientific evidence as the previous one did.


Snow vs Global Warming

Every winter as the snow starts to fall we get some some climate change denier claiming that the existence of snow categorically disproves the existence of climate change. This weekend the race was won by Richard Littlejohn who added the following to the end of his column in the Mail on Sunday.

It’s late November and parts of Britain are under eight inches of snow. That’ll be the global warming, then.

Why do these people have so much trouble understanding what “global” means?

Update: Tory MP Douglas Carswell made the “joke” this morning. But Carswell has previous in this area.


Government Ignores Science

Section 47 of the Government Response to the Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check on homeopathy:

We note the Committee’s view that allowing for the provision of homeopathy may risk seeming to endorse it, and we will keep the position under review. However, we do not believe that this risk amounts to a risk to patient trust, choice or safety, nor do we believe that the risk is significant enough for the Department to take the unusual step of removing PCTs’ flexibility to make their own decisions. We believe that providing appropriate information for commissioners, clinicians and the public, and ensuring a strong ethical code for clinicians, remain the most effective ways to ensure quality outcomes, patient satisfaction and the appropriate use of NHS funding.

So basically no change. Our new government is just as capable of ignoring scientific evidence as the old one. And the NHS will continue to squander millions on sugar pills.

I expect I’ll come back and fill this in with some more detail when I’ve calmed down a little.


Petition Closed Prematurely

Earlier this year, I created a petition on the (then) government’s petition web site. The petition called for the government to fully implement the recommendations of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee’s Evidence Check on Homeopathy – basically calling on the government to stop wasting money on homeopathy.

The petition was due to be open for signatures for a year. In retrospect, that was probably a mistake as no matter who was in government, they would have made up their mind about the issue long before the petition closed.

But since the general election everything has changed. All of the petitions were closed to new signatures during the election campaign and they didn’t re-open once the new government was in place. Instead the web site explained that the new government was considering the best way to proceed with the site. The front page of the site now says:

With a new Government in place a review is taking place of online services, including e-petitions. We are committed to improving the e-petitions process and are looking at ways of ensuring that it functions as part of a cohesive approach to public debate and transparent government. A full announcement on how we plan to use these and other services across Government will be made as soon as this important work is completed.

It goes on to say:

Existing e-petitions, submitted to the previous administration, will not be carried forward to the new administration as part of this process. E-petitions that were live at the time of the election announcement on 6 April, when the e-petitions system was suspended, will therefore not be reopened for signatures. We are issuing responses to petitions that had exceeded the 500 signatures threshold as of 6 April 2010 and these can be viewed on the HMG e-petitions responses page.

So my petition has been closed. In the three or four months that it was open, over 1,600 people signed it. That means that we can expect some kind of response from the government, although it’s not there yet and there’s no indication of when we will receive it.

Thanks to everyone who signed the petition. Perhaps in this new cuts-driven regime removing finding for magic water on the NHS is an obvious way to save a few million quid.


Homeopathy Petition

We’re all, of course, very happy about the results of the House of Commons Science and Technology committee’s evidence check on homeopathy. But it’s important to realise exactly what has happened. This is a House of Commons committee which has produced a list of recommendations. The government is under no obligation at all to take any notice of those recommendations. Unfortunately, Richard Wiseman’s tweet, “yipppeeee it’s official, NHS will no longer give people smarties”, is likely to be somewhat premature.

So that’s why I’ve set up a petition on the number 10 web site. The petition says:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to Implement the recommendations of the House Commons Science and Technology committee evidence check on Homeopathy.

The House Commons Science and Technology committee has recently undertaken an evidence check on the usefulness of homeopathy and has now published its report.

The conclusions are unequivocal. They say “To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.”

The government should implement these recommendations as soon as possible.

If we can get enough people to sign this petition I hope we can send a message to the government letting them know that we support the committee’s findings and don’t want the NHS’s money wasted on nonsense like homeopathy.

Of course, this close to an election, the government is likely to be very wary of making any kind of a statement that might lose them support amongst the woo-mongers. We need to persuade them that skeptical (and rational) voters outnumber the idiots. At the very least, we should be able to get more signatures than this ridiculous petition.

So please sign the petition. And please pass the details on to anyone else who might be interested. The battle has not been won yet.


Homeopathic Dilutions

Like many press outlets, the Daily Mail pre-empted the publication of the Science and Technology committee report and published a story yesterday summing up the MPs’ findings. Of course the Daily Mail is the home of the gullible reader and a good number of the comments on that story are attempting to defend the woo-mongers.

The Mail often stop taking comments on their stories after about a day (giving no indication that they’ve done so) and the number of comments on this story has stuck at eighteen since I first saw it last night so we must assume that they won’t publish any more.

This is a shame as there’s quite a lot of unchallenged nonsense there. In particular, the most recent comment published is from Dave in Basingstoke. Someone previously in the discussion had mentioned the ludicrous amount of dilution in homeopathic solutions. Dave replies with this:

“But scientists point to the fact that the ‘cures’ are so diluted that the cannot possibly contain even a single molecule of the original substance.”

Ha! Maybe a climate change pseudo-scientist would say that, but a chemist never would because it isn’t true. If you dilute a solution of anything by a million to one, there will still be thousands of molecules of the substance present in the diluted solution. The body can detect that amount, and work on it.

Let’s ignore his childish dig at climate change and get to the meat of his argument. Dave thinks that is you dilute something by a factor of a million then there will still be molecules of the original substance in the solution. And he’s right there. No one will argue with that fact at all. But homeopathic remedies aren’t million to one dilutions.

Homepathic dilutions are given a number on the “C scale”. Each time you dilute something by a factor of a hundred, you get another point on the C scale. A dilution of a hundred to one would be called 1C. Dilute that solution be another hundred to one (that’s now ten thousand to one from the original solution) and you get to 2C. Another step to 3C gives us a dilution of a million to one from the original solution. That’s about the level of dilution that Dave is talking about.

But homeopaths don’t stop there. 3C dilutions are nothing. Remember a key tenet of homeopathy is that the weaker the dilution, the stronger the effect. Homeopaths carry on diluting their solutions again and again and again. Next time you’re in Boots have a look at the numbers on the tubes of homeopathic remedies that they sell. You’ll see that 30C is a really common dilution. That solution has been diluted by a factor of a hundred to one thirty times. The original solution has been diluted by a factor of one to a number which is one followed by sixty zeroes. That’s a huge number. With numbers like that involved, it’s perfectly reasonable to say that there is none of the original material left.

Here’s an example to help you get to grips with those numbers. The number of water molecules in a swimming pool is going to be around a one followed by thirty two zeroes. One molecule of something else in that pool will be equivalent to a 16C homeopathic remedy. See the Wikipedia entry on homeopathic dilutions for more examples like this.

This is why the slogan for the 10:23 campaign is “There’s nothing in it”. It’s literally true. There is no active ingredient left in any homeopathic remedy that you find.

I’d love it it if Dave from Basingstoke found this entry. It would be great if he could see just how misinformed he is.


NHS Money Wasted on Homeopathy

Don’t have time to go into the detail that it deserves, but the House of Commons science and technology committee has published the results of its evidence check on homeopathy. The results won’t, of course, come as any surprise to anyone who has been following the debate. But I have to admit to be impressed by the lack of ambiguity in their conclusions. This is paragraph 157:

By providing homeopathy on the NHS and allowing MHRA licensing of products which subsequently appear on pharmacy shelves, the Government runs the risk of endorsing homeopathy as an efficacious system of medicine. To maintain patient trust, choice and safety, the Government should not endorse the use of placebo treatments, including homeopathy. Homeopathy should not be funded on the NHS and the MHRA should stop licensing homeopathic products.

Absolutely no equivocation there.

So what’s the next step? When to the homeopathic “hospitals” get closed down? When does the NHS get that money back for real medicine?

Update: The Woo-mongers in the House of Commons don’t plan to take this laying down. They’ve proposed an Early Day Motion criticising the committee’s report. Of course, only MPs with no grasp of science will be signing it. If your MP is on this list, then I suggest a strongly worded email might be in order.


Andrew Wakefield

After a hearing lasting two and a half years, the General Medical Council has decided that Andrew Wakefield acted unethically in his study which proposed a link between the MMR vaccine and autism.

It’s now twelve years since his paper was published. During all of that time there has never been more of a tiny number of scientists who agreed with his findings. Unfortunately the few who do have been widely reported in the press and this has lead to a climate where a large proportion of the general public still believe that his findings are valid. Before Wakefield’s study was published, 91% of children in  the UK were receiving the vaccine. By 2003 that had fallen to 80%. in 2006 the UK had its first death from measles for fourteen years.

Wakefield should, of course, be ashamed of the effect he has had on the immunisation figures, but a lot of the blame must also be shouldered by the press who reported his findings as fact and who still refuse to admit that no link exists despite the number of studies which comprehensively disprove Wakefield’s theories.

Reporting on yesterday’s events, the Daily Mail still talk about “the controversial study” and devote a lot of column inches to interviewing people who still (with, it has to be emphasised, no scientific basis whatsoever) believe that Wakefield was right.

Yes, children contract autism. That’s a sad fact. And there is a tendency for it to first be noticed at about the same time as the MMR vaccine is administered. But in study after study it has been shown that there is no causal link between the two events. Children who don’t have the MMR vaccine are just as likely to become autistic as those who do.

But this is a classic example of a mob reaction that can’t be turned off. The idea of the link is now out there and no amount of proof seems to counter that. You only have to read the comments on the Mail story to see that. The verdict from the GMC investigation is seen as Big Pharma trying to shut up the one man who is telling the truth. Or it’s our Marxist Government trying to stifle dissent. Here are some examples:

Parents aren’t daft and know full well the MMR damaged their children. He is a very brave man and a hero to many.
– Pippa, Notts, UK

A smear campaign was launched to discredit his findings.

In years to come I am sure that Dr Wakefield will be proved to have been correct in his beliefs about the MMR vaccine.
– Retired paediatric nurse, Surrey

Oh dear. Someone questioned the efficacy of expensive treatment courtesy of big pharma? Heaven forbid that someone would question the status quo of treating disease with expensive drugs for life, these alternatives might be more effective and actually cure, cheaply.
– tom bowden, perth australia

This is what happens under communist marxist Labour,,anyone who dares to disagree,rightly or wrongly is punished, now this doctor is struck off, this is to remind others not to dare
confront these parasites, 3 months to go, then back to Democracy.
– jack, ashford.england

I particularly want to draw attention to this one:

If there is every any shred of doubt about the safety of a medicine, no responsible parent should even consider giving
it to their children.
– Susie Squeegee, Leicester, England

I agree with this. If there is a shred of doubt then, of course, no-one should be expected to give it to their child. But there isn’t any doubt about MMR. Any doubt was manufactured by a hysterical press misreporting a flawed study. I really wish there was some way that the journalists and editors responsible for publishing these stories could be held accountable for their actions. They have probably caused more (and more lasting) damage than the original study.

As you’d expect, Ben Goldacre has more detail on the affair. His book also covers this area in some depth and is highly recommended.