Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Death Penalty as a Cost Saver

Over the years I have spoken to many people online about the death penalty. Luckily, most of them are in agreement with me and think that it's a bad idea. A few will agree that it's not a great idea, but are sometimes swayed by emotion; for example, if a particularly heinous crime is committed or they’re personally affected. Then there are those who are so in favour of the death penalty that they actively seek to defend their position with what I call Murder Apologetics.

The one reason in particular I wanted to talk about is the so called "cost saver". There are actually people who think that a good reason to kill people is saving the tax payer money. I am hoping to show that this is not only illogical, but that if we take the logical argument to its conclusion, we get situations that are morally repulsive.

When faced with the cost saver argument I always like to point out that killing people to save money is an absolutely disgusting proposition and I am not happy that the many old and infirm individuals who could be considered a burden on the state should be deemed expendable. Of course, the apologist is quick to say that they do not believe old people should be killed, just the criminals.

Next I ask them why criminals deserve to be killed because they are a burden on the state and yet old people who are a burden on the state do not? What is the difference between the two groups? I am then treated to a text-book example of circular reasoning. Apparently criminals deserve to be executed because they have committed a crime. However, the apologist is only telling me what the definition of a criminal is. I know what the definition of a criminal is, what I am asking is why criminals THEREFORE deserve to die. They can phrase it in different ways; for example, if they are talking about murderers they may say "because they took a life", but the logical fallacy is just the same. What most people don't realise is that criminals being deserving of punishment is a non sequitur. There is no way to argue from one fact to another.

You'll be surprised how many people can't explain to me why people who commit crimes deserve to be punished. They've been taught it from a young age. It has been drilled in to them. But nobody can rationally explain why they think it is the case. The only thing they can do is offer it as an opinion or say “just because”. Well, I don't know about you, but I don't think we should be deciding whether people should live or die simply because of a majority preference.

Once you understand this simple truth, your view of the justice system changes somewhat. You don’t suddenly believe we should stop punishing people or that the doors to the prisons should be opened. But you do start to understand that there are legitimate, utilitarian reasons for punishment such as deterrence and rehabilitation. However, saving the tax payer money is not one of them, unless you want to support the murder of the elderly too.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

An Ode To Rhys

Last night's Cardiff Skeptics In The Pub event was awesome, as is usually the case. I wrote a little poem to serve as an introduction to his talk and I wanted to share it with online friends who couldn't make it to the event. Obviously humour takes priority over absolute fact, but I think it sums up my experience of Rhys pretty well. I'm not sure the content is suitable on the 21st Floor, so I'll play it safe and post it here. Enjoy!

I arrived early at the Promised Land,
and greeted Alice and Dean with glee,
I think they thought me sexually deviant,
Alice excused herself for a hasty wee.

I then met all of the regulars,
and in the corner, Jimmy Crankie himself,
I thought he was the local eunuch,
but it turns out he was a skeptical elf.

No, he wasn't really an elf,
or a halfling, hobbit or some other un-PC reference to a dwarf,
it was the one and only Rhys Morgan,
the purveyor of suits that are morph.

Now Rhys had been a bit poorly,
and he asked some people on the 'net what to do,
but when they recommended drinking bleach,
he knew they were talking out the wazoo.

He told them they were crazy,
and there were no studies to support their claims,
but when people got mad and feelings hurt,
it was him who got the blames.

So, he phoned the Trading Standards,
the BBC got involved, that was a shock!
before he knew it he was famous,
and all the girls wanted his – autograph.

Then our teenage hero was a critic,
of a bogus treatment, as most would agree,
some muppets in Houston have spent decades on it,
and the trial has only got to stage three.

His comments risked a libel suit,
when he took on the infamous Doctor Burzynski,
who sells terminal patients piss in a bottle,
and who's therapy can best be described as risky.

Rhys has also got into trouble,
with peers and school authorities,
for publishing a picture a Jesus and Mo,
that offended some religious minorities.

But, I don't want to paint a bad picture,
of Rhys as hell-raiser skeptic in a pub,
he's also founder, and talented writer,
of a blog called the Heresy Club.

Now, I don't want tell his story for him,
even though it may employ razor-sharp wit,
I'll let him do that himself,
and stop making myself look like a tit.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012


In my last post I detailed how the IAIM have finally taken down the dodgy claims they made about the benefits of baby massage. Fulfilling my prophesy this arrived a couple of days later:

So, we have a result! As I said in the previous post, however, my work is not quite done. I now have quite a number of instructors' websites with equally dubious claims on them. At least I now have something to quote in my correspondence with them. If there is a way for me to get action on misleading and unsubstantiated claims without having to trouble an over-burdened ASA then I still believe it is worth my time.

I'd like to thank the few people who've supported my efforts and taken the time to show an interest in the practical application of skepticism.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Episode 69 - No Subtitle Required!

More relaxed podcasting and editing means you get this a little late. However, it's still definitely worth a listen! Go download it now.

We talked about the drug dealer who wanted more jail time, the Tories' solution to child poverty, Indian Skeptic facing arrest, Hooters, Jeremy Hunt, Julian Assange, David Cameron's poor parenting skills, John Sentamu's homophobic rantings, gay marriage, the Daily Mail's "hot" technology news and Trevor sends in some super secret bonus material to keep you happy.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Finally There Is Action

Last night I thought I'd go and check the IAIM UK website to see if they'd updated their list of benefits of infant (baby) massage and lo and behold they've removed the two claims I highlighted in my complaint to the ASA! I assume that I will soon be receiving correspondence from the ASA telling me that the case is now closed. However, I can tell you now that my work here is not finished and I'll explain why shortly.

It's a shame that the IAIM had to be referred to the ASA rather than taking seriously very genuine concerns over the scientific validity of their claims. Their behaviour highlights a very real and concerning problem: many people and organisations neglect their duty to be truthful in their dealings with others. Unless there is a legal requirement, many are more than happy to make unfounded, misleading or even flat out wrong claims as long as they're supported by anecdote, loose or faulty interpretation of clinical data, cherry-picking of data or studies, or "intuition".

There are a great number of professional bodies and organisations who do much valuable work. Very often, however, we see an insulated culture where misinformation spreads within the "echo chamber". What sets the good, science-based organisations from the chaff is engagement with critics and action when problems are identified. In this case my legitimate concerns were eventually acknowledged but the seriousness and urgency of them were not; truth appeared to be of low priority. If professional organisations are not willing to act then they join the ranks of quacks and charlatans such as homeopaths and reiki healers who are happy to cash in on their denial of reality.

What also irks me is that only the bare minimum has been done. The two claims in my complaint were the most grevious and were easily shown to be unsupported and misleading. However, I still believe there to be scope for the IAIM to do more to support the remaining claims (or remove if required), although I doubt they will so, or impress upon its members to do the same. This isn't evidence of an attitude change.

My attention will now turn to the claim that massage can help "boost" the immune system, which I have seen on several massage instructors' websites. Although I do not have an adjudication against the IAIM to use in any correspondence with these people, I'll be highlighting the fact that the ASA has shown an interest in the industry, the types of claims being made and the fact that the IAIM has had to withdraw some of them.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

IAIM ASA Complaint Update

Just to keep people up do date with my compaint against the ASA, here's a letter I received in the post yesterday. 

I don't think it really shows much progress beyond my last update, but it does confirm that they'll be asking the IAIM for evidence to support their claims and then it will be looked at. Obviously the IAIM could simply remove the unsupported claims from their website and then the complaint would be resolved. However, I get the feeling that whatever the outcome, I'll be submitting many more complaints about unsupported or misleading claims on the websites of individual massage instructors. If the IAIM is unable to grasp the importance of this issue in regards to their own website then I'm not sure they can be relied upon to inform and regulate their memebers.

If it gets to the point that I need to comment on any recommendation to the ASA Council then I may be looking for a little help in formulating a robust response.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Episode 68 - Face Eating

Carwyn joins us again in another episode jam-packed full of nonsense.

This week we discuss a Queen's pardon for Gary McKinnon, the Daily Mail agrees with Steven, coffee mug-ger, Rebekah Brookes is hot, the Leveson Inquiry, misogyny loses baseball, stoning victim in logic fail, stupid kid's names, more government u-turns, Welsh nationalism, bath salt face eating and a watery threat to the Olympic torch.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

ASA Begins Investigation into IAIM Claims

It may not be as salacious as some other announced investigations, but I can now confirm that the ASA are investigating the IAIM UK Chapter for potential breach of advertising codes in relation to the truth / substantiation of claims. For those people who have missed my previous posts about the communication of my complaint to the IAIM you may want to go and read them here and here.

Although the IAIM agreed that I had made a valid complaint, they chose to fob me off with the promise of a "review", not acknowledging the seriousness of unsubstantiated and potentially misleading claims on their website. After receiving no further reply I referred the complaint to the ASA. Yesterday I received confirmation that the complaint has been handed over to the investigations team. I won't post the email as ot was just a simple confirmation of further investigation from Lewis Jones (Complaints Executive).

If the ASA uphold the complaint then I will be referring as many breaches as possible from massage instructors' websites, in accordance with the ASA's compliance procedure. A message needs to be sent to organisations and individuals who offer these types of services: just because you have years of experience and anecdote about happy babies and mothers it does not give you license to make exaggerated, unfounded or misleading claims about health benefits.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Episode 67 - Carwyn Davies

This week we welcome Carwyn Davies as guest co-host, filling in for a busy Trevor. We discuss Obama coming out to support gay marriage, Diagio PR corruption gaffe, Prince Charles presents the weather, Matthew Wright has OFCOM woes, drugged dolphins, libel reform, austerity in Europe, british trains, Kuwait's new blasphemy law and John's ASA complaint.

Download it here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Episode 66 - Newport Takes A kicking

Steven returns from his self-imposed exile to abuse the third best known city in Wales. This week we talk about Abu Qatada, anti-EU sentiment in the media, Alan Davies & Liverpool, Norwich City's "intellectual" property, excommunicated bishops, s127 of the Communications Act and African cake.

Download it now!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Follow-up: Keeping Baby Massage Honest

Good news! I got a reply from the president of the IAIM, Ms Anita Bates. After reading her reply and googling her a bit I arrived at the conclusion that she's a genuinely nice person who wants to help. Here's her reply:

Dear Mr Stabler,
Firstly, can I apologise that you did not receive a response from your initial email to us. We have checked and cannot find a record of it, so there was obviously a glitch at our end.
Thank you for taking an interest in the work of the International Association of Infant Massage (IAIM), and for blogging about how using infant massage strengthened the bond between your wife and your baby son.
I note you mentioned that the instructor who had run the baby massage course your wife attended had made some ‘very interesting claims’ about the benefits of massage, which were also included in the literature your wife received.
It would really help us to know if the instructor was IAIM trained as, if she did make misleading claims, then of course we need to know and to take action. We would also like to see a copy of the literature you refer to, to help us in our investigations.
The IAIM’s founder, Vimala McClure, began developing what is now the IAIM’s infant massage programme, which combines centuries-old Indian and Swedish massage traditions with principles from yoga and reflexology, in the 1970s.
Tens of thousands of parents and healthcare professionals around the world have since been trained to use the techniques, and happily endorse the positive physical and emotional benefits that the techniques can bring to both babies and parents/carers.
However, we do take your questioning of the evidence behind some of the very positive benefits outlined on the IAIM website very seriously.
I would like to assure you that the IAIM UK Chapter is currently undertaking a complete review of the information on the website. In fact, over the last few years the board has been piloting ways of gathering feedback from parents, carers and health professionals, so our claims can be clearly be backed up by evidence and demonstrated in real time.
Please do not hesitate to get back to me – especially if you can identify the baby massage instructor and the printed materials you refer to.
Kind regards
Anita Bates
President, IAIM UK Chapter

Considering the content of her response I wondered why it took so long to get back to me, but I guess I can appreciate people are busy. At least I got a reply!

I won't pick her response apart; I'll just post my reply:

Ms Bates,
Thank you very much for your reply. I can understand your problems with my first email; I work in IT and I know first-hand how overzealous some spam filters can be.
Unfortunately, my wife's attendance at a baby massage course was quite a while ago now so we do not have any of the literature and memory of who the instructor was has long-since faded. I mentioned it in my previous email only to provide background and the reason for my attention to your website. My primary focus has been the claims made on the IAIM websuite because of the potential for IAIM members to use it as a source of information for their own websites etc.
It doesn't surprise me that tens of thousands of people attest to positive experiences with baby massage and my wife may be one of them. However, this doesn't really address the problem of a lack of objective scientific evidence for what are specific claims of health benefits.
I'd like highlight a very recent example which I believe demonstrates the problem with the current trend of using testimony and anecdote to justify objective claims. Recently the ASA concluded that the claims made by a faith-healing group were misleading (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-somerset-16871116). While I accept that the claims made for infant massage are not as extreme as those by the HOTS group, the analogy is very close. I am sure tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of people would attest to positive health outcomes through the use of faith healing or prayer. However, whenever controlled studies are performed on the efficacy of faith-healing or intercessory prayer it is discovered that it does not work in any practical sense. Therefore a higher standard of evidence is required to make such claims.
I'm glad that you acknowledge the importance of questioning the evidence underpinning claims of benefits. I am, however, looking for actions that demonstrate the IAIM is dedicated to an honest and evidence-based approach in their communications. Although I have no reason to doubt that the IAIM is currently reviewing the contents of its website may I just reiterate the fact that I am not simply seeking some kind of personal satisfaction; I am looking to establish whether the website material breaches very important regulation that exists to protect the public (http://www.cap.org.uk/The-Codes/CAP-Code/CAP-Code-Item.aspx?q=CAP%20Code%20new_Specific%20Category%20Sections_12%20Medicines,%20medical%20devices,%20health-related%20products%20and%20beauty%20products_Rules#c581), something the IAIM should be looking to address urgently.
Therefore I'd appreciate it if you could answer some further questions:
1. How long will the review of your website take?
2. Will the completion of the review result in the removal of unsubstantiated claims?
3. Will the completion of the review result in the citing of scientific evidence to back up any objective claims made?
4. What does the IAIM's efforts to gather feedback from parents, carers and health professionals have to do with providing objective evidence to back up claims made?
If the answer to the first question is a period of time longer than the resolution procedures of the Advertising Standards Authority then I may as well just complete their online complaints form and add to their workload. However, I'd much rather see an internal resolution. I'm also keen to see the claims made on IAIM members' websites substantiated. On, what I assume, is your own website, for example, I found dubious claims such as "strengthens baby's immune system" and "helps to balance baby's respiration" (http://www.babybitsandbobs.com/page2.htm).
Health workers and professionals play a very important role in society, but they must be careful not to step outside the boundaries of fact and into the world of fiction when making objective claims for their treatments and interventions. Using assumptions, intuition and anecdote instead of science leads to the slippery slope of misleading and potentially harmful claims.
Kind Regards,
John Stabler

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Episode 65 - Self-Imposed Exile

Hopefully this is this episode represents the last week of Steven's exile from the podcast. But John and Trevor put in an extra special effort to bring you some of the more unusual news from the last couple of weeks, including Kony 2012, catholic USB porn, video game nasties, illegal homeless, Rowan Williams resignation, Christian Voice, gay marriage, age of consent and the start of our illiberal government.

It's not all depressing, so don't be too worried about downloading it now!

Episode 64 - Save Kony!

The title for this week's episode is a joke that we couldn't finish, even though Trevor put his comedy mind to it for quite a while.

Anyway, please enjoy the usual comedy gold from an episode that was almost lost due to laziness and incompetence.

Lots of love, John, Trev and Steve x

Keeping Baby Massage Honest

Back in November 2010 my son, Evan was born. My wife was very proactive and was always looking to do whatever she could to improve his well-being and development. Water Babies was an obvious choice of activity because we were keen on getting him used to water and able to swim as soon as possible (for family holidays abroad etc). My wife also chose baby massage as an activity for them in the first few months. She enjoyed attending the sessions and felt that they were of value because Evan enjoyed massage and she felt it strengthened the bond between them.

However, she mentioned in passing some very interesting claims of benefits that were being touted by the massage instructor and associated literature. Now, being a skeptic, I could help myself and had to go and check on some of the more dubious ones such as that massage boosts the immune system and aids digestion. I also found these claims being made on the International Association of Infant Massge (UK Chapter) website.

I found no such support for these claims in any scientific studies and so felt that it was up to me to bring it to the attention of the IAIM that they may be in breach of ASA advertising codes. I was also open to the possibility that I was wrong and simply hadn't looked hard enough so I suggested that they cite the evidence on their website. This was around the time when many in the skeptic community were scrubbing UK web pages of woo and homeopathy.

I didn't hear back from them directly, however I did notice that the specific claims of benefits to immune and digestive systems had been removed and some wording changed. Recently I revistited their web site to take another look at the claims and investigate some of the other ones a little more. Included was a claimed benefit to infant development which was not only unsupported, but had also been concluded to be not true by a Cochrane review.

Here's the email I sent to the IAIM (UK Chapter):

From: Johnathan Stabler [mailto:john.stabler@gmail.com]
Sent: 05 April 2012 16:17
To: info@iaim.org.uk
Subject: Massage Benefit Claims on IAIM Website

I sent you an email on 25/072011 pointing out that some of the claimed benefits of infant massage on your website were not supported by clinical evidence. I have noticed that the claim of "boosts immune system" has now been removed and "helps digestion" has been changed to "stimulation of...digestion...systems". While I am still concerned about your use of the word "stimulation" and the implication of benefits, I'd like to draw your attention to another statement on your website at http://www.iaim.org.uk/what_benefits.htm that claims "helping with language development, memory and concentration". I took the liberty of, once again, checking medical publication websites for trials/studies related to infant massage and this specific claim and once again drew a blank. In fact, a Cochrane systematic review concluded that there was no evidence of effects on cognitive and behavioural outcomes.
If there is evidence for the efficacy of infant massage in such matters then I suggest you update your website and literature to cite such studies. If there are none then you are likely to be in breach of ASA advertising codes. Currently it would seem that the Wikipedia article on Infant Massage is better able to substantiate claims and cite sources than your organisation.
In my previous email I also sought assurances that massage instructors were not making unsubstantiated claims of benefits. However, I was disappointed that my email was not even acknowledged, let alone information provided on how your members were being educated about the importance of evidence-based practise.
Kind Regards,
John Stabler

And here is the reply:

Dear Jonathan
Many thanks for writing to the IAIM. Your enquiry has been referred to our committee board who will reply back to you shortly. Please do not hesitate to contact us if you have any other queries in the meantime.

Kind regards

Nina Allen

Administration Assistant
International Association of Infant Massage (UK) Chapter
Suite 10, 96 George Lane
South Woodford
E18 1AD
Tel : 020 8989 9597
Registered Company : 6832002

Some people may ask me why I bothered? It's a helpful activity that provides mother and baby with many emotional benefits and there is nothing to suggest it causes any harm. However, baby massage courses cost money and are sources of income for the massage instructors. Also, the promotional literature tells parents that the course is of value and provides benefits that they wouldn't get otherwise. It could even be (indirectly) construed that you'd be denying youself and child something if you didn't do it. I believe all claims should be substantiated, no matter the potential for harm or the amount of money being made.

I will keep you up to date!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

NHS reform...

The NHS is need of change.

There is no doubt to this fact and I am sure this would gain cross party support in the House of Commons. There is seemingly unmanageable bureaucracy at all levels, the mistakes Dr’s, nurses et al (they are only human) make are increasingly in the spot light, partly due to our increasingly prevalent “compensation culture”, we have the so called “post code lottery” and waiting lists seem to be ever increasing. Money is sluiced away.

The NHS is in need of a shake up, of this there is no doubt.

But I still love the NHS. It’s like a favourite old aunt, loveable, caring, always there to put her arms around you, but with a bad hip and ever so slightly incontinent.

I, like many people in this country have relied upon the NHS. It has arguably saved my life, it has certainly saved the lives of my mother, father and brother. Up and down the country people say the same thing. It is the greatest invention of the last century, inspired and led from the welsh valleys, through Nye Bevan and the Tredegar Medical Aid Society. It’s founding principle was clear: A health service available to all, funded by taxation. People contributing according to their means. This model should still work today, sure we are living longer (down to improved Health Care), but our monetary wealth has increased also.

Lansley’s bill seems hell bent on destroying the NHS. Reformed to the point of destruction, deliberately broken beyond repair to pave the way for full privatisation. The bill has been rumbling around Parliament for a couple of weeks now and the sheer volume of amendments show just what a bad bill this actually is. Trumpeted as a cost saving and reforming exercise by the Government, the Health Secretary himself has admitted that it will cost £1.4bn to implement, with the National Audit Office warning of short term costs rising significantly coupled with decreased patient care.

The real elephant in the room, is of course the back door privatisation of the NHS. I have 2 issues with this. Firstly, I don’t believe that Competition is a good thing I don’t want a bargain basement service, where costs are cut to be increasingly “competitive”. I want a service that will work and give me the best possible care. If a private company can make a profit out of the NHS, why can’t the Government make a profit to reinvest rather that sit in shareholders pockets? Although, this bill does not fully introduce “privatisation” it is ultimately the end game. If in doubt please read this article published in the BMJ (courtesy of Dr Ben Goldacre).

Secondly, privatisation of the NHS will mean that health care provision will be available only for those who can afford it. According to Official Reports the gap between rich and poor in this country is ever increasing (a problem affecting both this and the previous Governments). The current inflation rate and low wages further exacerbates this problem, adding the cost of health insurance to the monthly bill of a low income family will push people further into poverty. A lot has been said about the American model of health care, so I’m not going to cover it here in detail, but I would urge you to watch Michael Moore’s film “Sicko”. Although, I’m not a huge fan of Moore this film alone provides justification for a National Health Service.

The Lib Dem’s have an opportunity this weekend to deliver a knock out blow to this legislation. It is their party conference and there are 2 motions re: the NHS bill. One by Dame Shirley Williams to encourage support of the Bill, the other calls for the Lib Dems to scrap it. They have the power to defeat this bill, Labour will oppose the bill en masse meaning the Tories need the Lib Dems to pass this bill, if there is a revolt by the party we will see the end of this bill. I urge the Lib Dem conference to support the second motion, to listen to the views of the Health Professionals - The Royal College of GP’s, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing, the Faculty of Public Health - they all believe that patient care will suffer at the hands of this bill. One of the thing we have heard the Health Minister talk about is “empowering doctors” and “handing power back”, well how about taking that on board and listening to them as they shout at him, “we do not want this Bill.”

The NHS needs reform, this Bill will destroy it, and we will be left with a flash Aunt, conspicuous by her absence gallivanting around the world without time for us, maybe receiving the odd email. I don’t want that. I to be cwtched by my old aunt with her shiny, new hip replacement and to come away slightly damp.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Episode 63 - Cameron Cancer

This week Trevor and John discuss the Anglican church's anti-gay marriage bigotry, bias and fractal irony in the US media, the workfare scheme and the scandal-hit management company, female reproductive rights and cherry-picking evidence, bat-shit crazy Republicans, praise for Gove and the usual features.

IMPORTANT NOTE: We do not really believe there is a causal link between David Cameron and cancer. However, there may be a correlation, so we just thought we'd put it out there.

Download it now!

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Episode 62 - Men Love Porn

Returning to our usual schedule, this week we talk about fairness in football and the media, Julian Baggini discovers the obvious, men love porn, Leveson enquiry, privacy and freedom of the press, card-carrying catholics, Anglican bishop irony, citizen justice, twitter joke trial, PM's question time and the usual feature.

Download it now!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Episode 61 - Long Overdue

Here it is. Sorry it has taken so long. There have been issues with the first two recordings after Christmas and I've been very busy in work and also ill, so this one is well overdue.

Hopefully it'll be up to the usual high standards and we'll be back to our regular schedule now.

Download it now!