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an open letter to a homeopath

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B_zXQldU0AAfdTR.jpg-largeWhen I was in Canberra last year I came across an article in the Canberra Weekly, written by one Wesley Smith, director of the ‘Live Well Spa & Wellness Centre’ in Manuka, a Canberra suburb. It was called ‘Homeopathy in the cross-hairs’, and you can probably guess the rest.

I tore out the article, vaguely intending to do something about it, and promptly forgot about it, but having rediscovered it today, I’m thinking it’s not too late.  An online version of Mr Smith’s (he’s not a doctor) article is here. On this centre’s website, I note that it advertises ‘holistic’ wellness (see my recent post), and offers ‘acupuncture, herbal medicine, kinesiology, naturopathy, remedial massage, meditation and yoga’ as some of its treatments – and reading the bios of Wesley’s quite large team tells me that cupping, EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques), dry needling and ‘soft tissue therapy’ are also on offer, though I note that nowhere in these extensive bios is there any mention of a medical degree. The only mention of qualifications is in Wesley’s own bio – he has a Bachelor of Applied Science in Acupuncture from the University of Technology, Sydney (shame on the institution). But this gladbag of BS is too large to deal with, though it does indicate the depth of crazy in which our Wesley is mired. I’ll just keep to homeopathy, with maybe a dash of acupuncture (I can’t help myself).

So here’s a letter, which I’ll send by email to Mr Wesley Smith. It may mark the beginning of a rich relationship.

Dear Mr Smith

In reference to your article ‘Homeopathy in the cross-hairs’ published in the Canberra Weekly some time last year, I would like to point out some problems with your analysis of the situation with homeopathy.

Firstly, as you know, the NHMRC has now completed its review on homeopathy and its findings were made available online in March 2015. They are clear: there are no health conditions for which there is reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective. The review also states that

People who choose homeopathy may put their health at risk if they reject or delay treatments for which there is good evidence for safety and effectiveness. People who are considering whether to use homeopathy should first get advice from a registered health practitioner.

Having visited your website and read your biography, I’ve found that you’re not on the APHRA list of registered health practitioners. I could check out your team, but as I notice that no medical qualifications are mentioned for any of them, it’s probably reasonable to assume that none of them are in fact registered health practitioners.

I find it strange that in your summary of homeopathy in your article, which is reasonably accurate as far as it goes, you describe its principles as ‘challenging’, and suggest that it would be particularly so for those with some knowledge of basic chemistry and ‘a lack of imagination’.

While imaginative insight is indeed required to postulate a new theory, as with Maxwell’s insight about the relationship between electricity and magnetism, Einstein’s insight about the relationship between space and time, and Darwin’s insights about competition and variation, the really hard work involves proving the theory to be true, as I’m sure you’ll agree. Maxwell and Einstein had to develop accurate, watertight, explanatory equations as proofs of their theories, to enable them to be tested ad infinitum by others. Newton developed a whole mathematical calculus, which has since become one of the most valuable tools available to science, in order to precisely calculate his revolutionary laws of motion. Darwin devoted a whole lifetime to providing detailed evidence of adaptive development in a wide variety of species…

Yet it’s remarkable how little work has been done, especially by self-proclaimed homeopaths, to provide proofs of the efficacy of homeopathy. Imagination is hardly sufficient. It seems that, out of exasperation, as well as a sense of ‘duty of care’, the NHMRC, representing medical professionals, has decided to take on this proof-providing responsibility, and the results have been damning, but unsurprising to any one with a scientific bent and a respect for evidence.

You’ve defended homeopathy by claiming there ‘must be’ hundreds of thousands of Australians who’ve been ‘astounded’ at how their bruises respond to homeopathic arnica. Surely you can’t expect any medically trained person to accept such claims as evidence. It would be like accepting someone’s word that hundreds of thousands of people have had their prayers answered by their god, therefore their god really exists and really does answer prayers. In order for such claims to be counted as evidence – as you well know – information would have to be gathered about this multitude of individuals, the nature of their ‘bruises’, and the mechanism by which the bruises responded to the treatment. You would think that homeopaths the world over would be enormously interested in how arnica, in such infinitesimally minute doses, has this miraculously curative effect. The fact is surely sensational and would revolutionise the treatment of bruising – essentially, internal haemorrhaging – around the world, saving millions of lives. Yet homeopaths appear not to have the slightest interest in causal mechanisms. They’re only interested in claimed effects. There are no laboratories working on how homeopathic treatments work, in testing and developing their theoretical underpinnings, in finding further applications for these truly extraordinary ‘principles’. Why ever not? How can homeopaths be so irresponsible? So completely incurious?

You claim that it’s impossible to dismiss the curative effects of this treatment as due to placebo. In other words, you know that it works. That’s fantastic news, now all you have to do is prove it. I cannot believe that this would be difficult for you, since you claim that hundreds of thousands of Australians (and presumably hundreds of millions worldwide) are astounded at the treatment’s efficacy. Considering this, you must be astounded, in your turn, at the NHMRC’s final report. How could they have got it so wrong? Furthermore, how is it that in Britain a study by Edzard Ernst (himself a professor of complementary medicine), which made a systematic review of the Cochrane Database of reviews (the Cochrane Database being justly famous for its rigour), found, again, that homeopathy had no discernible effect beyond placebo? Is there a conspiracy happening here? You seem to be suggesting as much when you write of the huge profits for pharmaceutical companies in successfully trialling their products, compared to the difficulties for poor homeopaths. But homeopaths could surely unite, with each other and with these millions of delighted clients, to provide the proof you need in the form of double-blind, placebo-controlled, randomised trials with large sample sizes. After all, you yourself have testified that the treatment is nothing short of sensational. It would surely haver wider application than simply healing bruises. If these principles really work, why wouldn’t they be effective for curing cancer, ebola, malaria, or any other scourge to humanity? The benefits would be such that you would be criminally negligent not to pool your resources and provide these proofs for humanity’s sake. There would certainly be a Nobel Prize for medicine in it for you if you were to organise the trials that led to these revolutionary cures,  not to mention eternal fame and the gratitude of billions…

But let’s not get carried away. The ‘revolution’ of homeopathy has been around for over two hundred years, and it has never progressed beyond the French characterisation of it as médicine douce, the kind of medicine you take when you don’t need medicine, our fabulous immune system being what it is. If it really was as effective as you claim, pharmaceutical companies would have financed the research trials in a jiff, thereby turning their millions of dollars of profits into billions. Not to mention the fact that if homeopathic ‘principles’ worked, much of the science we know would be up-ended, and most of our modern physics and chemistry would have to be scrapped.

The real situation is as described by Dr Steven Novella at Science-based medicine:


… proponents of homeopathy would have the world believe that one man, Samuel Hahnemann, stumbled upon a fantastic secret two centuries ago (actually, multiple secrets) that defy scientific explanation, have been ignored by 200 years of scientific progress, and yet to this day would turn our scientific understanding of the world upside down. For some reason, however, believers just can’t seem to produce any convincing evidence for any of it, not even that homeopathic products have any properties at all, let alone clinical efficacy. After 200 years all they can produce are endless excuses and demands for more research.

And what do we have in your article, Mr Smith? In its last lines, true to form, you make excuses about (200 plus years of) limited funding, and demands for more research. QED.

Written by stewart henderson

April 11, 2015 at 2:44 pm

a couple of controversial subjects

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Our state government has, surprisingly, ordered a Royal Commission into nuclear power, which will bring on the usual controversy, but everything I’ve read on the science and energy front suggests that our energy future will rely on a mix of sources, including renewables, clean coal (if that’s not an oxymoron), nuclear energy and perhaps even fusion. Fukushima scared everyone, but it was an old reactor, built in the wrong place, and nuclear technology has advanced considerably since then. I hope to write more on this, probably on my much-neglected solutions ok? blog.




VLAD SOKHIN These men call their gang “Dirty Dons 585” and admit to rapes and armed robberies in the Port Moresby area. They say two-thirds of their victims are women. Photo taken from The Global Mail


I was shocked to hear the other day about people (mostly women, but also children) being accused of witchcraft/sorcery in PNG, right on our doorstep, over the past couple of years, and hunted down and brutally slaughtered, often in bizarrely sexualised ways. Somehow this story has passed me by until now. The country, or part of it, seems to have been gripped by a witch craze, like those that broke out in Europe from time to time, especially in the seventeenth century, not really so long ago. And they fizzled out as mysteriously as they burst into being. In fact the USA’s Committee for Skeptical Inquiry was reporting on these horrors from back in 2008, with some 50 victims claimed for that year. The article ended on an optimistic note:

Papua New Guinea is in dire need of skepticism, education, and legal reform. It appears that the latter is finally happening. These latest horrific killings, and no doubt the ensuing media outrage, have prompted the country’s Constitutional Review and Law Reform Commission to create new laws to prevent (or at least reduce) witchcraft-related deaths.

However, this 2013 article, from the sadly no longer extant Global Mail, indicates that the problem is far more deeply-rooted and long-standing than first thought, and it’s mutating and shifting to different regions of the country. Brutality is on the increase, fuelled by drugs and alcohol, but above all by massive social dysfunction, with children being regularly indoctrinated in methods of public torture. Sanguma, or sorcerers, are usually blamed for any deaths, and gangs of unemployed men (and almost all the men of the region are unemployed) go hunting for them amongst the most marginalised and unprotected women in the community. The article makes for harrowing reading, going into some detail on the suffering of these women, and highlighting the intractability of the problem. There are heroes too, including Catholic priests and nuns working at the coal-face. Unfortunately, tossing around terms like skepticism, education and legal reform won’t cut it here. This is a problem of deep social malaise, suspicion, superstition, poverty and despair that will take generations to resolve, it seems.

Written by stewart henderson

February 12, 2015 at 6:19 pm

movie review – shadowless sword

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Pour qu’une chose soit interessante, il suffit de la regarder longtemps.

Gustave Flaubert


The altogether too irreproachable So-Ha











I’ve done a couple of movie reviews in the past, and I think I might do them more regularly in the future, just to give some play to my more creative writing side.

The Korean film Shadowless Sword (filmed in China) begins with warfare and a fighting heroine Mae Young-Ok, who unlike La Pucelle in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, doesn’t need voices from heaven or magical powers to help her. This is a modern (2005) movie, though set in the tenth century (presumably the Christian dating is for we westerners’ benefit), and so the heroines are tough, highly skilled sword-fighters with flawless grace, spotless costumes and peerless beauty, which of course I’m all in favour of. Korean women can do anything!

At the outset, we’re told that the old Korean land of Balhae fell to the Georan, a northern tribe, in 926. The Georans renamed the area, but the vanquished people regrouped and fought to recover their homeland. Again, not unlike the situation in La Pucelle’s France in the fifteenth century… And a quick check of Korean history tells me this isn’t MiddleEarth make-beliieve. Balhae, which indeed came to an end in 926, was an empire that covered northern Korea and southern Manchuria for some 300 years. Not that this film’s director, Young-jun Kim, intends to be any more historically accurate than Shakespeare. Billed on SBS as a martial arts film (but it isn’t really, it’s a historical fantasy), Shadowless Sword takes as many liberties with the basic laws of physics, not to mention credibility, as it does with history. Swashbucklers fly through the air with the greatest of ease, disappear in a puff of chemicals, and swat enemy combatants like flies in battle scenes that would leave poor old Richard III scratching his hump in wild surmise. All of which I happily forgive in view of the film’s real heroine, the inscrutable Yeon So-Ha….

In the opening scene, Balhae’s capital Sanggyeong is raided by the Eastern Georan ‘Killer Blade Army’ under their leaders Gun Hwa-Pyung and Mae Young-Ok, and the crown prince is killed. The Balhaens, if that’s what they call themselves, are in crisis, and need to find a new leader, preferably of royal blood, to carry on the fight. This is a problem, as the Killer Blade Army seem intent on murdering every last member of the royal family, but there’s one possibly promising candidate, an exiled prince named Jeong-hyun. Balhae’s PM (probably not elected) sends the nation’s premier swordswoman, the aforementioned So-Ha, to seek out the prince and offer him the kingdom. So-Ha is of course totally stunning as well as prodigiously disciplined and effortlessly talented – probably better suited to recapture the greatness of the dynasty than any male… but her role is to serve.

She finds the quondam prince in a far-flung backwater, trading in the black market under the name of Sosam. When she makes enquiries about his real name, he tries to bump her off via his gang of thugs, which sets up the next scene of choreographed mayhem, this time played half for laughs. So-Ha then confronts Jeonghyun with the situation, that he must take up the role of king. The somewhat embittered Jeonghyun is unimpressed – considering that his motto now is ‘survive no matter what’, why would he take up the apparently lost cause of the Balhaeans? With that answer, he disappears in a burst of fire and smoke, as you do. But he’s not out of trouble, as his beaten-up gang has discovered his identity, and, at the same time, the Killer Blade Army have arrived in the region to dispose of the last remaining royal. Of course So-Ha arrives in time to rescue the prince, whereupon Mae Young-Ok arrives to kill him off. Appropriately, as the bad guy, she’s just slightly less beautiful than So-Ha. They exchange pleasantries – ‘great to meet you at last, I’ve heard so much about you..’ Then there are some attempted negotiations – ‘hand over the prince and nobody else’ll get killed’. The gang leader, a comic character, tries to team up with Mae Young-Ok and the KBA, in the hope of profit, but is slaughtered for his pains, to impress upon us the ruthlessness of the bad guys. In the ensuing violence So-Ha urges Jeonghyun to make a getaway, thus further binding him to her. There follows a lengthy chase over rooftops in the dark with the usual flying and acrobatics and swordplay, but of course they escape, and their relationship, still shaky and suspicious, starts to develop. They retire to a tavern, where the worldly Jeonghyun tempts our squeaky-clean heroine with alcohol and food, to no avail of course, she’s has no such material needs. In fact, this is one of the more interesting scenes, which takes it beyond a mere ‘martial arts’ movie (in fact it is described as belonging to the broad genre of wuxia, which literally means ‘martial arts hero’, a category that So-Ha fits squarely into, a category that includes popular literature, opera, TV and video games).

A group of uniformly clad individuals enter the tavern – their slightly outlandish outfits broadly represent the Georan style in the movie. Jeonghuyn recognises them as another of the ‘gangs’, who are are out for trouble because their leader has been killed. So-Ha, not much interested, suggests they move on, as they’re in constant danger. Our princeling, feeling trapped by this stranger who’s trying to force him into kingship, stands on his dignity, saying that nobody can tell him when to stay or go, and in an access of frustration, he hurls his cup at the gang sitting nearby. They react in the usual low-key but totally ominous fashion of martial-arts types, standing up and asking what might be the matter. Jeonghuyn, apparently improvising, says that his boss, indicating So-Ha, wants to ask if their leader died due to sexual over-indulgence. This of course leads to a confrontation, but before things escalate, a female figure, the former leader’s daughter, floats down from the ceiling, demanding to know what’s going on (I like how these female figures are given such prominence in what is clearly a patriarchal ancient society, a modern twist designed to appeal to both sexes). One of the gang members tells her what So-Ha is alleged to have said, whereupon she shoots the (male) messenger, a reminder of the arbitrariness of ‘justice’ in this world. The daughter, or spirit, than asks So-Ha to repeat what she ‘said’, whereupon the two women retire to the forest, not in the ‘let’s step outside and settle this man-to-man’ fashion of your Rambo type, but to sort things out rationally and truthfully. The spirit-daughter is made aware that it’s Jeonghuyn who’s causing trouble, but that he’s to be forgiven as he’s potentially the saviour of the kingdom. Alternatively, So-Ha may have told her a cock-and-bull tale… In any case the scene reverses old values: the male is infantile, the women are wise, and their cool heads must prevail.

Meanwhile, the KBA leader, Gun, is being castigated by the Georan leadership for not having captured Jeonghuyn or dealt with So-Ha. They’re also annoyed with Gun for his nasty habit of killing off the royal princes, when they want to bring them onside, to bring peace to the country. Gun, though, is driven by family and tribal revenge, as we see through a flashback of his father being tortured and killed before his eyes, and through his regular remarks about family honour counting for everything – the usual primitivist prescription. ‘If you want to achieve something big, you need to control your vengeful spirit,’ the royal courtier tells Gun, in one of the film’s most resonant lines.

Mae Young-Ok is in hot pursuit of our heroes, who are moving from resting place to resting place, all the while talking and arguing about evil spirits and the role of the sword in everyday life, with Jeonghuyn sometimes lashing out at the demands being made on him. While passing through a market town he makes a break for it, but is caught by one of the KBA leaders, at the same time that Mae Young-Ok catches up with So-Ha. There follows the obligatory martial arts scenes, with swordplay and magic and comedy. So-Ha bests Mae Young-Ok, who lives to fight another day, while Jeonghuyn comprehensively slaughters his adversary – another milestone on the road to kingship. The pair reunite and flee, chased by the KBA. Just before they’re caught, they jump in the lake, which leads to underwater swordfighting, which starts to make me wonder if this is all based on real events. At one point Jeonghuyn looks like drowning, but trusty magical So-Han gives him the kiss of life. They eventually escape through the sewers or something, where they have another heart-to-heart about kingship, duty and destiny, rudely interrupted by the magical arrival of Gun. More unbelievable swordplay ensues, with no conclusion – the good guys make their escape, with Jeonghuyn wounded in the back, and Gun is left looking murderous and steadfast.

In the next scene, the two bad guys contemplate their failure, and Mae Young-Ok is given one last chance to kill So-Ha. Meanwhile, So-Ha tends Jeonghuyn’s wound, the second serious wound in the back he’s suffered. Jeonghuyn makes light of it, but So-Ha reminds him of his youth, before his exile, when he fought bravely for the dynasty. Then we have flashback of the battle in which he received his first wound, and where, as So-Ha reminds him, he received the title of ‘General Splendour’ and the acclaim of the people. Clearly So-Ha knows more than one might expect, and all the while she’s trying to push towards acceptance of his destiny. Her faith in him, of course, comes with a degree of sexual tension.

Once Jeonghuyn has sufficiently recovered they travel on through the countryside disguised as Georans. They witness the suffering of the people and the brutality of the Georan overlords, all intended to sway Jeonghuyn to the side of righteousness. At the next resting-place, he starts practising his swordsmanship; he’s falling under the spell of the shadowless sword, apparently. Shortly after this, at a stream where Jeonghuyn catches fish, they’re ambushed by Mae Young Ok and her band. In spite of being sitting ducks, Mae Young-Ok’s gang misses them with their arrows – incredibly incompetent for a super-warrior. So we have another chase, with magical flights through the trees, and another inconclusive clash of the two woman-warriors. Somehow the good guys fight off the bad guys, but So-Ha has been struck by an envenomed dart, and she begins to weaken. This is the occasion for another piece of moralising, as So-Ha insists that she be left behind, for Jeonghuyn must continue onto his destiny. Jeonghuyn though, argues that if it is a kingly duty to leave his man behind to die, while preserving himself, then he wants nothing to do with kingly duties. So-Ha relents and allows herself to assisted.

They arrive at the home of a man So-Ha calls her uncle, who greets Jeonghuyn as a royal prince. So-Ha collapses, the venom is discovered, and she’s given no chance of recovery.

In the next scene we’re at Georan HQ, where they’re concerned that So-Ha’s uncle is raising an army against them. Gun’s men, the Killer Blade Army, having failed in their task, are to be replaced by the Golden Bow Army. Gun and Mae Young-Ok are pretty unhappy about this, but the Georan PM is adamant. However, he forces Mae Young-Ok to sleep with him, making vague promises to give her another chance. Gun, seeing this, remembers the promise that he made to his faithful warrior-servant, that once all the royal children were killed, they would create their own dynasty together. He’s not a happy chappie.


women warriors


So now it is Jeonghuyn’s turn to watch over So-Ha, who miraculously recovers. Gun kills the Georan PM, while Jeonghuyn recognises So-Ha’s uncle as the commander from the battle of his youth, who tended his wound. So-Ha rises from her sick-bed, recognising that Jeonghuyn is in danger, but Gun arrives to confront her. Her uncle, though, intervenes, and begins a fight with Gun which you know he’s going to lose. Meanwhile the KBA, or is it the GBA, attacks Jeonghuyn while he’s visiting his mother’s grave, but S0-Ha rescues him. Returning to camp, they’re attacked again, this time by Mae Young-Ok, who assures So-Ha that if she overuses her energy now, her arteries will become twisted and she will die. So much for ancient Chinese medicine. Anyway, after more inconclusive balletic battling, along comes Gun to save the day. It’s the moment of truth, at long fucking last. Gun squares off against So-Ha, informing her that he’s disposed of her uncle. He promises to do the same with Jeonghuyn, telling her that she can win only with a decisive killing blow. Can your sword kill? he taunts her. She responds with one of the film’s tropes – the sword is not for killing but for protecting valuable things. With that they commence their final whirligig battle, which ends when Mae Young-Ok tries to intervene and is run through by So-Ha. So-Ha stops, stunned, and Gun takes the opportunity to run Mae Young-Ok through in the opposite direction, in the process delivering what will be the mortal blow to So-Ha. This of course further emphasises Gun’s black nature, and Mae Young-Ok gives a ‘ya shouldna oughta done that, boss’ look to Gun before dropping dead.

Meanwhile Jeonghuyn comes to the party. He’s been on the periphery of things, but rushes up to tend to So-Ha. ‘Nothing can stand in my way,’ says Gun, ‘now watch me slice up this little princeling’. Jeonghuyn notices Gun’s sword, which he took from the crown prince when he killed him. Gun conveniently tells him that two identical swords were given to two princes. This brings on a flashback. He remembers when, as a youth, he taught an orphan girl (yes, the young So-Han) to fight with this sword, telling her it wasn’t for fighting but for protecting valuable things. So he takes up So-Ha’s sword and prepares to fight Gun to the death. Needless to say, he wins, being able to control the ‘internal injury’ (you’d have to see it, and you still wouldn’t believe it).

Returning to So-Ha, who’s still on her feet, brave warrior that she is, Jeonghuyn becomes emotional – ‘if it weren’t for you…’, and So-Ha responds ‘you have been the meaning of my life for the past 14 years’, and suddenly legions of armed men emerge from the bushes, not to fight but to pledge allegiance to their new king. Then suddenly they come under attack – signifying that there will be bloodshed in the kingdom for some time to come. Yet somehow, through the magic of film, our two good guys find themselves alone, which allows for a truly touching death scene, with tears dribbling down. So So-Ha will not become the power behind the throne, except in spirit. Jeonghuyn is now alone. We next see him leading his troops into battle, no longer resembling a Chinese Mick Jagger, and giving a stirring speech à la Elizabeth I or Churchill (sorry about the western references)….

So that’s Shadowless Sword, a marginally superior wuxia movie, I suspect, though I’m no expert – with an impossibly virtuous heroine, which does have a romantic appeal even to an old cynic like me. In some ways it takes me back to my own dreamy childhood, when, bedridden with the mumps, I spent my time reading a prose version of Edmund Spenser’s Tales from the Faerie Queane, and fell in love with the fair Britomartis, who donned armour to rescue her father from the wicked clutches of some black knight or other, in a world of dungeons, dragons and ugly old witches disguised as fair young maidens. Funny how vivid those childhood memories can be. Though no doubt distorted and inaccurate. What I liked too about the movie was the suppressed, or unexpressed sexuality of it all. So-Ha’s competence and unflappability made her sexy, not her dress, her walk, or anything ‘feminine’ about her. That again, took me back to Britomartis and Shakespeare’s Rosalind and other insouciant androgynes. There are certain types, it seems to me, that transcend culture, and I really love that.

Written by stewart henderson

December 14, 2014 at 12:59 pm

acupuncture promotion in australia

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I tried to find a picture of the chi energy system online, but guess what, nothing to be found. Here's a chi-reflexology map instead - from the Australian College of Chi-Reflexology, no less!

I tried to find a picture of the chi energy system online, but guess what, nothing to be found. Here’s a chi-reflexology map instead – from the Australian College of Chi-Reflexology, no less!

On the ever-reliable US-based NeuroLogica blog, Steven Novella reports on an interesting case of acupuncture promotion here in Oz, via Rachel Dunlop. As Novella reports, acupuncture has been studied many times before, and Cosmos, our premier science mag, did a story on the procedure a while back, reporting no evidence of any benefits except in the notoriously vague areas of back pain and headaches.

Not surprisingly, lower back pain was one of the conditions that supposedly benefited from acupuncture, according to media hype about the latest study. The trouble is, this study was being reported on before being published and peer reviewed, which, to put it mildly, is highly irregular and raises obvious questions. The Sydney Morning Herald is the offending news outlet, and Dr Michael Ben-Meir the over-enthusiastic researcher. As the article points out, Ben-Meir is already a ‘convert’ to acupuncture, having used it for some time in acute cases at two Melbourne hospitals. That’s fine, if a bit unorthodox, but it doesn’t accord with other findings, and there are therefore bound to be questions about methodology.

One of the obvious difficulties is that acupuncture can hardly be applied to patients without them knowing it. It’s a much more hands-on and ‘invasive’ experience than swallowing a tablet, and this will undoubtedly have a psychological effect. It seems to me, just off the top of my head, that acupuncture, with its associated rituals, its aura of antiquity and its oriental cultural cachet, would carry greater weight as a placebo than, say, a homeopathic pill. But in fact I don’t have to speculate here, as there is much clinical evidence that injections have a greater placebo effect than pills, and big pills have a greater placebo effect than small ones. So it doesn’t greatly surprise me that people will report a lessening, and even a dramatic lessening, of acute pain, after an acupuncture treatment, however illegitimate. I presume there are illegitimate treatments, because the ‘key meridional points’ where the needles are applied are precisely know by legitimate acupuncturists, and they apply their treatments with rigorous accuracy.

Well, actually there’s a big question as to whether or not there are any legitimate acupuncturists, because acupuncture is based on an energy system known as ‘chi’, which supposedly has meridional points at which needles can be inserted quite deeply into the skin, but there’s no evidence whatever that such an energy system exists, let alone about how such a system might function – for example, its mode of energy transmission (whatever ‘energy’ might mean in this case). Considering that we know a great deal about the autoimmune system and the central and peripheral nervous systems, it seems astonishing that this other bodily system has gone undetected by scientists for so long, and especially in recent times, with our ultra-sophisticated monitoring devices. When you look up ‘chi, sometimes spelt ‘qi’ or with other variants, you’ll find nothing more specific than ‘energy’, ‘life force’ or something similar – nothing corpuscular or in any sense measurable by modern medicine. Even so, researchers into acupuncture have come up with an attempt to measure its efficacy by comparing it to ‘sham acupuncture’ in clinical trials. Sham acupuncture uses the ‘wrong’ meridians and the ‘wrong’ depths to which the needle goes.

But herein lies an obvious problem. Sham acupuncturists insert needles only millimetres deep, while real acupuncturists put their needles between one and three or four centimetres deep: ‘Depth of insertion will depend on nature of the condition being treated, the patients’ size, age, and constitution, and upon the acupuncturists’ style or school’, according to an acupuncture site I visited at random. These are rather wide parameters, but the point that interests me is this. If you don’t put your needle in deep enough, you won’t make contact with the chi that needs to be stimulated or other wise modified to heal the patient. So goes the rationale, surely. It’s like, if you don’t put the needle for a standard vaccination in the right place, you’ll miss the vein. But veins are clearly real. If you go dissecting, you’ll find veins and arteries and nerves and muscle and fat and so on. But you won’t find chi. Yet, apparently it does have real existence. It’s between one and four centimetres down, according to real acupuncturists, depending on the above-mentioned variables (and no doubt many others).

So we can’t actually see it, or find it on dissection, but it’s locatable in space, vaguely. Or is it that chi is everywhere in the body but the right kind of chi, the bit that’s causing the pain and needs to be treated with needles at certain precise meridional points, is at a certain distance from the surface of the skin?

It all begins to sound a bit like theology, doesn’t it?

Here’s the ‘take-home’ for me. If you read about treatments that ‘work’ but you get virtually nothing about the mechanism of action, as is the case, for example, with homeopathy and acupuncture, be very skeptical. In the end I’m not impressed with clinical trials that show a ‘real effect’, even a startling one, because I know about regression to the mean, and I particularly know about the placebo effect. I want ‘proof of concept’. In this case proof of the concept of chi and of meridians. I’ve heard homeopaths defend their pills on TV recently by claiming that, ‘whatever the mechanism, clinical trials consistently prove that this treatment works’, and I can’t be bothered chasing up those clinical trials  and testing their legitimacy, I go straight to the concepts and processes behind the treatment – the law of similars, the law of infinitesimals, and don’t forget succussion. These concepts are so intrinsically absurd that we needn’t bother looking at the clinical data. If there are positive results, they haven’t been produced by homeopathy. The fact that homeopaths themselves are largely uninterested in the mechanisms is a dead giveaway. You’d think that the law of infinitesimals and the law of similars would surely have myriad applications far beyond their current ones. They would revolutionise science and technology, if only they were real (and they’d also render obsolete much that we currently know).

The same goes for acupuncture, and chi. If this bodily system were real, and chi could be captured in a test tube, and its constituents examined and isolated under a microscope, how revolutionary that would be. How transformative. Chi pills, chi soap, chi breakfast cereal…

Ah but I’m thinking like one of those limited westerners, so modern, so smug, so lacking in the insight of the ancients…


spirituality issues, encore

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a mob of didges, right way up

a mob of didges, right way up

To me – and I’ve written about this before – the invocation of the supernatural, the ‘call’ of the supernatural, if you will, is something deeply psychological, and so not to be sniffed at, though sniff at it I often do.

I’m prompted to write about this because of a program I saw recently on Heath Ledger (Australia’s own), an understandably romantic, mildly hagiographic presentation, in which a few film directors and friends fondly remembered him as wise beyond his years, with hidden depths, a kind of inner force, a certain je ne sais quoi, that sort of thing. As both a romantic and a skeptic, I was torn as usual. The word ‘spiritual’ was given an airing, unsurprisingly, though mercifully it wasn’t dwelt on. I once came up with my own definition of spirituality: ‘To be spiritual is to believe there’s more to this world than this world, and to know that by believing this you’re a better person than those who don’t believe it’. This might sound a mite cynical but I didn’t mean it to be, or maybe I did.

Anyway one of Ledger’s associates, a film director I think, told this story of the young Heath. A number of friends were partying in his apartment when he, the director, picked up a didgeridoo, which obviously Ledger had brought with him from Australia, and attempted to play it, but not knowing much about the instrument, held it upside-down. Heath gently took it from him and corrected him, saying ‘no, no, if you hold it that way it will lose its power, the power of the instrument and its maker,’ or some such thing. And the seriousness and respectfulness with which this young actor spoke of his didge impressed the director, who considered this a favourite memory, something which caught an ‘essence’ of Ledger that he wanted to preserve.

I’ve been bothered by this tale, and by my ambivalent response to it, ever since. It would be superfluous, I suppose, to say that I don’t believe that briefly holding a didge upside-down has any permanent effect on its musical power.

It’s quite likely that Ledger didn’t believe this either, though you never know. What I’m fairly sure of, though, was that his respectfulness was genuine, and that there was something very likeable, to me at least, in this.

All of this takes me back to a piece I wrote some years ago, since lost, about big and small religions. I was contrasting the ‘big’ religions, like Catholicism and the two main strands of Islam, with their political power in the big world, often horrific in its impact, with the ‘small’ religions or spiritual belief systems, such as those found among Australian Aboriginal or some African societies, who have no political power in the big world but provide their adherents with identity and a kind of social energy that’s marvelous to contemplate. My piece focused on the art work of Emily Kame Kngwarreye, whose prolific and astonishing oeuvre, with its characteristic energy and vitality, clearly owed so much to the beliefs and practices of her ‘mob’, the so-called Utopian Community in Central Australia, between Alice Springs and Tenant Creek to the north.

Those beliefs and practices include dreaming stories and totemic identifications that many western skeptics, such as myself, might find difficult to swallow, in spite of a certain romantic appeal. The fact is, though, that the Utopian Community has been remarkably successful, in terms of the usual measures of well-being, and particularly in the area of health and mortality, compared to other Aboriginal groups, and its success has been put down to tighter community living, an outdoor outstation life, the use of traditional foods and medicines, and a greater resistance to the more destructive western products, such as alcohol.

This might put a red-blooded but reflective skeptic in something of a quandary, and the response might be something like – ‘well, the downside of their vitality and health, derived from spiritual beliefs which have served them well for thousands of years, is that, in order to preserve it, they must live in this bubble of tribal thinking, unpierced by modern evolutionary or cosmological knowledge, and this bubble must inevitably burst.’ Must it? Is there a pathway from tribalism to modern globalism that isn’t entirely destructive? Is the preservation of tribal spiritual beliefs a good thing in itself? Can we take the statement, that holding a didgery-doo upside-down affects its spirit, as a truth over and above, or alongside, the contrasting truths of physical laws?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, of course. Groping my way through these issues, I would say that we should respect and acknowledge those beliefs that give a people their dignity, and which have served them for so long, but perhaps that’s because we’re feeling the generosity of someone outside that system who’s unlikely to be affected or to feel diminished by it. These are, after all, small religions, from our perspective, not the big, profoundly ambitious religions intent on global domination, with their missionaries and their jihadists and their historical trampling of other belief systems, as in Mexico and South America and Africa and here in Australia.

Of course there’s the question – what if those small religions grew bigger and more ambitious? Highly unlikely – but what if?

Written by stewart henderson

February 16, 2014 at 10:22 am

What is bluetooth?

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This is, at least sometimes, a science for dummies blog, because I’m a dummy about science and I’m here to educate myself, in a way that I’m hoping might be of interest to others.

So here’s something I’m truly ignorant of. Let me start with a definition from ignorance, then see how I can transmogrify it with a bit of research. Bluetooth is a technology used in mobile phones, computers and such, which assists in processing and communicating information more efficiently.

I don’t even know if this is a true definition, apart from its vagueness, but I expect it will have nothing to do with the colour blue or with teeth. So, it’s to Wikipedia I go, for starters:

Bluetooth is a wireless technology standard for exchanging data over short distances (using short-wavelength radio transmissions in the ISM band from 2400–2480 MHz) from fixed and mobile devices, creating personal area networks (PANs) with high levels of security.(I’ve removed the links – don’t want to make things too easy).

So now I’m slightly wiser. The short-wavelength ISM radio bands (Industrial, Scientific, Medical) are internationally reserved for the aforementioned purposes. That’s to say, to the exclusion of telecommunications.

But hang on, bluetooth is a telecommunications technology that apparently works within the reserved band. How does that work? I don’t know.

Anyhow, having read most of the Wikipedia article on bluetooth (I just couldn’t finish it), I definitely have a better understanding of the technology than I did before, despite only comprehending about 5% of the article. Still, I’m not in a position to explain it, even to myself. So now it’s time for How Stuff Works, for a less geeky guide to bluetooth. The following owes a lot to the HSW article “How Bluetooth Works”, but I’ve put it in my own words to wrap my head more tightly around the concept.

Bluetooth is a way of connecting electronic devices to each other, sans wire. You may be thinking Wifi here, but bluetooth is a quite different, though in many ways complementary, technology. It was first developed in the mid-nineties at the labs of the telecommunications company Ericsson, and has developed rapidly since then. It’s greatest advantage over other wireless systems such as the infrared technology used in most TV remotes is that it is more versatile, low-energy and low-cost – but versatility is the key. For example, infrared technology works with ‘line of sight’ – you have to point the remote at the device – and it’s essentially one-way.

Finding a way of connecting devices requires a protocol, a set of commands and responses which essentially make sense of the messages being sent between them. This protocol in Bluetooth technology requires very little transmission power, about a milliwatt of power for each transmission signal. The weakness of the signals are a key in avoiding interference in the all-important ISM band within which Bluetooth networking operates, but they limit the range to distances of about 10 metres. However, Bluetooth is not line-of-sight technology, and can be used effectively, for example, in a small house. Bluetooth can connect as many as eight devices simultaneously, but they don’t interfere with each other because of a technique called spread-spectrum frequency hopping, which means they change frequencies regularly, 1600 times per second, using 79 randomly chosen individual frequencies within a designated range. They make full use of a limited spectrum, and as each transmitting device uses this technique automatically, no two transmitters are likely to be using the same frequency at the same time. They’re also unlikely to disrupt other devices in the ISM range because of the fractional time-periods occupying particular frequencies.

Bluetooth-capable devices come within range of each other and automatically create networks known as piconets. This network may be as simple as one between a mobile phone and its headset, but these piconets, once established, frequency-hop in unison so that they can be in constant contact and can be differentiated from piconets in the vicinity.

Anyway, that’s basically as much as I need to know about Bluetooth. There are other issues around security, which can be interesting and problematic, but not too much of a concern for the average user. The automaticity of Bluetooth is one of its many pain-free advantages, and that’s apparently a help with security too. You can switch your Bluetooth mode to ‘undiscoverable’ so as to avoid contact with other Bluetooth devices, and there are other more elaborate security options.

So, with this knowledge, how do I change my world? I think the answer is – only connect.

Written by stewart henderson

December 27, 2013 at 7:57 am

Posted in magic, science, technology

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a particle of curiosity

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Curiosity, switched on, can take you to a fabulous place very quickly. Look at this piece of paper. What is it made of? What does it look like? If you were a nanoparticle – but what kind of nanoparticle? – landing on this paper, would you, in fact, land? Would you pass through it? And how long would that take you? And what would it feel like? What colours would you see? What patterns would you make? What dangers would you encounter? Would you be able to demarcate boundaries? Should you revel in the experience or take copious notes? It would be magical, but do you believe in magic? Perhaps only if your nanoparticle life is a matter of a moment….

Written by stewart henderson

May 30, 2013 at 7:47 pm