Saturday, December 09, 2006

Xenophobia - Botswana Guardian

I’ve been thinking about xenophobia. We can’t avoid it these days, it’s one of those fashionable words that suddenly become the in thing.

Whether it’s to do with foreign investment, the Basarwa relocation issue or the termination of expatriate’s work permits it’s a word that keep on cropping up.

People seem to think that xenophobia means a fear of foreigners but that’s not actually true. It’s much wider than that. It actually means a fear of the unknown. It can be anything, not just an unknown or perhaps strange-looking human being. You can be xenophobic about someone from the next village, not just someone from a different continent.

To some extent I suppose that it’s a natural reaction. If you think back a few hundred thousand years to when humanity was in it’s infancy, being afraid of something new was probably a very wise approach. The new, unknown thing really might want to eat you. Although we’ve moved forward a long way, there’s a huge part of each one of us that remains back in the primitive days, showing primitive reactions.

You see it all over the world of course. The list of places where xenophobia has led to death and destruction is endless. Rwanda and Burundi, Serbia and Croatia and, now I get really depressed, the Middle East. Despite reasonably successful efforts at reconciliation there are still issues in Northern Ireland, Cyprus and even in South Africa. In fact it’s probably easier to list the places where there hasn’t been any history of xenophobic conflict. Well, it would be if I could think of any. Iceland perhaps?

But just because something is “natural” that doesn’t mean we should just accept it. We all have so-called natural instincts that we know we shouldn’t give in to. I’m a man, I know these things! And just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s good. In the same way, just because something is “unnatural” it doesn’t mean it’s bad. Condoms, hypodermic syringes and newspapers aren’t “natural” but they are all wonderful inventions that do untold good.

I’m a firm believer in understanding our nature, where we come from and what our instincts are but I also believe we are smart enough, have developed a sufficient understanding of what’s right and wrong and most importantly have sufficient self-control to overcome our more primitive instincts. Whether it’s an instinct to steal, fight or rape we all know these things are wrong and repulsive and we shouldn’t do them. Saying it’s natural is no excuse. Saying that you can’t overcome your instincts is nonsense.

The same goes for that specific type of xenophobia: our fear of strangers. Just because your instinct says you should reject someone who looks different to you, well that doesn’t make it right.

Surely we all know that people vary? Isn’t that one of the most interesting thing about our miserable species? Isn’t it actually rather wonderful that if you walk though one of our many shopping malls you see people of every shape, size and colour?

I’d go so far as to suggest we need to adopt a new approach. Xenophilia. A love for the unknown, the new and even what we might call strange. Let’s start welcoming variety. It doesn’t mean we all have to change ourselves, just that we should see new people and things as challenging, interesting and maybe even exciting

One last question. Where would we be now if Seretse and Ruth had both been xenophobic?

Friday, October 27, 2006

Religious punchups

I’ve been experiencing a mixture of amusement and sadness following the recent arguments in the Botswana Guardian between Muslim and Christian writers.

Last week two Christian writers responded, in quite vicious terms, to Iqbal Ebrahim’s article suggesting that there is overlap between Christianity and Islam. A number of things struck me about their letters. Much of their argument was of the “My religion is better than yours, so there!” type, no more mature than an argument you might hear between two 7-year olds in a schoolyard.

However what struck me most was the absolute absence of logical thought. Arguments like “My religion is the sole truth because, well, my holy book says it is” aren’t even slightly intelligent debate in my view.

Quoting from scripture as an argument doesn’t really work terribly well when it’s the scripture you’re quoting that you are trying to prove is true. “My book is true and is the only true book, because it says it is” doesn’t work for me. Anyway can’t the same argument can be made for the Koran? And the holy texts of Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, the Moonies, even the lunatic ramblings of the Scientologists. They say they are the truth, so, well, they are the truth. Sorry, you’ll have to try a little harder than that.

Also I don’t think that the suggestion that Christianity is better than Islam because it came first works either. That’s about as logical as saying that my car is better than yours because it’s older than yours.

Actually maybe my car is analogous to religion. It consumes huge amounts of energy, it isn’t perfectly reliable and it pollutes the environment. I sometimes wonder if it’s worth the bother of keeping it. I love it though, however irrational that affection might be.

I would be very impressed if ever I actually saw a simple, logical and above all, rational argument from someone selling their religion. “It’s about faith, not rational argument” doesn’t work. Blind faith is, after all, blind. It can’t see.

On one of my occasional tolerant days I can be charitable towards religious organisations like the Salvation Army, like old-fashioned priests working for nothing in a village tending to the sick, the poor and the distressed and like those honest, hard-working and friendly people I know and respect. The trouble is they are undermined by the sharp-suited, limo-driven, mansion-inhabiting crooks you see on the religious TV channels.

More often than not I see religion rearing it’s ugly head behind almost all the conflicts our world sees. I don’t care whether it’s terrorism, Presidents saying they are advised by God to invade other countries or mullahs declaring fatwas that authorize the killing of authors because they wrote very long, dull books. What I see from religion is rarely peace. Instead I see hatred, contempt for followers of other faiths and a complete absence of rationality.

Back to the Guardian articles. The person I actually feel sorry for is Iqbal Ebrahim. In his article a couple of weeks ago he stood up, showed us that he is a member of that vast majority of Muslims who are perfectly decent people and extended the hand of friendship and understanding. And he got slapped in the face. Tell me, does the Koran teach that we should turn the other cheek?

I know some of the things I’ve said will irritate some people and I’ll probably be called an atheist, a heathen and perhaps even an infidel. Don’t worry though. I think those would all be compliments.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Detox your brain - Botswana Guardian

I’ve now twice seen a simultaneously hilarious and depressing bit of nonsense on DSTV, along, probably, with the rest of southern Africa. A Home Shopping spot dedicated to the amazing “Detox Foot Pads” from a company called Remedy Health for just R169.95. Apparently you stick these pads to the soles of your feet at bed time and they apply warmth to the reflexology points and "detox your body while you sleep". The advert claims that this boosts your immune system. According to the personal testimonials from a range of grinning faces you wake feeling refreshed and with "less toxins and impurities". (For now I’ll ignore the fact that I think they mean "fewer", not “less”.)

According to the various buffoons presenting these pads they generate "far infra-red radiation equivalent to a full cardiac workout". The graphics they showed of two glowing feet were apparently "Thermo X-Rays" that showed "the incredible effects". Actually it looked more like a kid's drawings of feet with wobbly orange spots but maybe I'm too cynical and perhaps "Thermo X-Rays" are a bit of medical technology I've missed over the years.

Unfortunately they fail to point out that what they say is just complete rubbish.

To begin with there’s the reflexology angle. Reflexology is based on the notion that the soles of your feet are somehow connected to every other part of your body. Stimulation of specific spots on your feet can remedy problems in related organs of your body. However, it overlooks the fact that these connections simply don’t exist. They’re not there. Nowhere. They are as imaginary as the supposed benefits that reflexology offers.

Bring me an anatomy textbook and we can fail to find these mythical connections ourselves.

Then there’s the issue of “detoxing” through the soles of your feet. The advert shows some used foot pads and, amazingly, they are all blackened with what we are told are the toxins extracted from your feet. No chance that the dirt could just be from dirty, sweaty feet is there? Feet are actually horribly grubby things. Why do you think they smell so bad if not washed?

My initial thought was that the marketers of this nonsense assume that we are just gullible but the more I think about the hints about boosting your immune system the angrier I become. Don’t forget people like Mantho Tshabalala-Msimang, the Minister of Health in South Africa who recommends beetroot as a remedy for AIDS? It was also Tshabalala-Msimang who at one point circulated around her Ministry a pamphlet explaining how the CIA and aliens were behind the pandemic.

The danger is that this sort of nonsense from national leaders opens up the victims of the pandemic to all sorts of charlatans and con-artists. Look at people like Matthias Rath and what he's been up to all over the world, claiming that ARVs make things worse, that HIV and AIDS aren’t connected at all and that if you buy a few vitamin pills things will get better. We are very lucky in Botswana that, when it comes to HIV/AIDS, our politicians, health professionals and community groups haven’t fallen victim to this criminal nonsense

While I think that satellite TV, newspapers and the internet are wonderful things they also have the ability to spread deception, dangerous conspiracy theories and outright lies. Detox foot pads may be a relatively innocent example but they are not that far from things that threaten our welfare, maybe even our lives.

Sometimes the detoxing we need is not of our bodies, but of our brains.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Your future is behind you - Botswana Guardian

I’m converted. Despite being a confirmed sceptic in the past I’ve now discovered something that has changed my mind about all that new age stuff and the traditional mumbo-jumbo.

Some of you may have seen on TV the profoundly eccentric Jacqueline Stallone. As well as being the actor Sylvester Stallone’s mother she is also a high-profile Hollywood astrologer and crystal-waving, New Age loon. Go visit her website at and take a look.

Thanks to Robert Carroll, the author of the fascinating Skeptic’s Dictionary (, I heard about her latest project.


There’s no way I can explain this wonderful new science better than Ms Stallone herself. She says:

“Just as a print of your fingerprints, palms, soles and ears tell a story, so does your rump. The lines, crevices and folds of your rear-end can, to the trained eye, reveal your personality, fate and future in luck and love”. Apparently your left buttock represents the right side of your brain and, somehow gives clues to your past as well. Similarly, your right buttock will give Stallone clues about your reasoning ability and language skills. She says that her analysis of your bum “will indicate whether you are going ass-backwards (back in that little closet called the left brain) or are going forward, “taking the plunge” with your right brain God-given tools of intuition and creativity.”

What she asks you to do is to send her a digital picture of your bare bottom and a payment of $125 and in return you get a “personal, condensed, no frills report on the signs and markings on your rear end”, “a condensed one-year prediction in the direction your rear end is taking you” and best of all an A4-sized colour picture of your backside “which you may want to frame as a family keepsake… or give as a gift to a special person”.

Now obviously this is one of the best examples of complete pseudoscientific hogwash I’ve ever seen. In fact it’s such an extreme case I’m not sure it’s even worth trying to suggest it’s nonsense. With reflexology, homeopathy and all the other New Age rubbish there is at least something to get your teeth into. They are expressed in sufficiently scientific sounding language that anyone with an understanding of scientific method can rip them apart. Not so with Rumpology.

So instead of arguing with it I’m going to adopt it completely. I think Rumpology is fantastic.

In fact I’m here to announce my own version of Rumpology. I’ve taken the basic principles and developed them to a new, advanced level. I’m going to set up a new organisation to be called the Applied Rumpology Studies Establishment. For a start we’re doing away with all that business of sending digital photographs around the world. No need for that. At A.R.S.E. we do all the readings ourselves, by hand. At A.R.S.E. we believe that you can’t do a real reading with just a picture. Obviously you need to give it a good feel with bare hands.

So, if you feel that your life is lacking direction, you need a vision of how things can be better and more rewarding pop on over to the A.R.S.E. team for a feeling, sorry a reading. You’ll be impressed with how thorough we can be, how prolonged the reading will be and quite how many volunteers there will be to read you.

If you have a nice one that is.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The experiment - Botswana Guardian

I’ve been a bad boy.

I recently conducted an experiment. Not a conventional, scientific experiment, but a rather eccentric one. One that investigated, in a very amateur way, the gullibility of the public.

So if you read this article and find that you were one of my experimental subjects, or should I say victims, and you feel like I’ve abused or insulted you then I apologise. I’m sorry. I really am. Well, perhaps just a little.

I wanted to see how gullible people could be. Not uneducated and ignorant people but literate, intelligent, 21st century people. In fact exactly the sort of people who read the Botswana Guardian!

Those of you with internet access may have come across the eDumela website ( This is a really great community site where people can chat, post messages, have online debates, post their pictures and maybe even find love.

A few weeks ago using an assumed name I posted a message to one of their Message Boards that suggested something ludicrous, something that can only be described as a ridiculous conspiracy theory. A story with absolutely no truth at all. None at all. A story that was plainly, clearly and obviously nonsense. One that I made up.

I suggested that the US government is relocating their base at Guantanamo Bay to the Kalahari and that there is a secret CIA base inside Kgale Hill overlooking Gaborone.

I’m not going to waste good Botswana Guardian newsprint on explaining why these rumours are nonsense, they just are OK? Oh and if anyone thinks that I’m somehow defending US foreign policy, well you clearly don’t know me.

After posting the original message I made no follow-up postings, didn’t respond to anything anyone else posted and in no way reinforced the original rumour. I wanted to see how many people would respond and what sort of reactions they would have.

Twenty-eight people posted responses to this ridiculous story and some of their responses were rather curious. A few of the responses suggest that people simply believe the rumour (“I’m sure this is all true”, “You’re not alone”).

However the really weird thing was how many other conspiracy rumours appeared as a result of the posting. One poster suggested that “US citizens in Botswana are immune to our laws” which is just nonsense. Others suggested that “Botswana is a CIA listening post”, “the US set up RB1 as part of their intelligence communication system”, “Batswana are being used as bio warfare lab rats” and that “the CIA have penetrated the high office in our land”. My favourite though is one really wild response. Apparently American Peace Corps volunteers are all CIA spies and part of a wider US conspiracy to involve groups like the Jehovahs Witnesses in intelligence gathering.

Where does all this come from? Maybe it’s something to do with the Internet? Perhaps the enormous amounts of information available and the ease with which it can be published contributes towards it? Do a search on the Internet for the words “conspiracy” and another of your choice and you can find a huge range of nonsense about how the CIA are behind everything, how the freemasons or the Jews really run the world and that the British Royal Family are really lizards.

So does it matter? Isn’t it all just harmless? Actually I think it can be dangerous. Think how much time has been wasted in South Africa in the battle against HIV and AIDS. Ludicrous conspiracy theories about how HIV has either nothing to do with AIDS or how it was invented by the CIA and aliens have had a devastating effect on people’s behaviour and the provision of ARVs.

Conspiracy theories cost lives.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Crooks in the pulpit - Botswana Guardian

On the 25th January this year the Daily News reported that Ogomoditse Matsila, the Acting Director of the Department of Civil and National Registrations said that it was "possible that some churches and other organisations could be used for money-laundering or tax evasion".

She also mentioned that the powers her Department have to regulate and monitor churches are limited and don't give them the right to inspect and record the goings on within the churches.

Excellent! I don’t think we really don't want the religion police running around and checking up on the activities of honest, respectable church-goers do we? No, we don't. Most churches are, of course, respectable, charitable and honest. Despite not sharing their beliefs I obviously recognise the good works so many do, the sense of community they give to their followers and the personal morality they teach.

However I think that Mma Matsila and her colleagues deserve credit for realising that religion and spirituality are very often covers for fraud, deception and, in quite a few cases, crime.

I really worry about the flow of churches of all descriptions and varieties into the country. For instance can there really be that many varieties of the Christian message? Is there really a need for another charismatic preacher when we have loads of them here already? What else have they got to preach to us? More importantly, what else is it they want from us?

At the simplest level I suspect that a number of preachers get a real kick from the performance they deliver. Most people who have become comfortable with public speaking will confess, if you push them, that they get a kick out of being the centre of attention. I know that I do. I enjoy standing in front of people and have them listening to me. It makes me feel good, makes me feel that what I have to say is important and, here I go confessing again, it makes me feel important as a person. Even though I know I'm not!

I suspect that many preachers feel this way as well, but even more so. They are having a real influence on people's lives. They are changing people's behaviour, their values and their outlook on life. What a feeling that must be! I don’t have a problem with this so long as what they are doing is legitimate.

My problem is with the con-artists. I'm not going to be silly enough to mention any here in Botswana but consider one of the most famous cases. An American evangelist called Peter Popoff. He was famous for his televised gospel shows where he would heal the sick. "Miraculously" he would call out the names of people in the audience who he had never met. He would announce before actually meeting them what was wrong with them, what they desperately desired and amazing personal details that he couldn't possibly know. Or could he?

Popoff was exposed as a con artist several years ago by one of my great heroes, James Randi. Randi has devoted much of his life to exposing charlatans, frauds and crooks and has set up an educational institute to continue his good work. I urge you to visit his web site at to learn more about what he and his associates do. If you don't have access to the Internet please write to me at P. Box 403026, Gaborone and I'll sent you more information.

Randi was convinced that Popoff's so-called abilities were not even slightly miraculous. He and his team went to one of his so-called miracle crusades with a radio receiver. Pretty soon they picked up signals being transmitted by Popoff’s wife to a tiny receiver in his ear. Before entering the hall every attendee had been asked to fill in a card outlining their personal details, their ailments and what they needed. Popoff's wife would then read these to him over the airways, allowing him to appear to have miraculous abilities.

Popoff went bankrupt shortly after he was exposed by Randi and his team. However the bad news is that he’s back again on the Internet preaching about how his followers should ignore his critics because they are the agents of Satan. I suppose that means me as well now. I’ve been called many things in my time but an agent of the Devil is a new one.

However how many of the TV evangelists we see on Channel 77 are up to the same tricks? Last year Carte Blanche on M-Net broadcast a major expose made by the Canadian Broadcasting Services on Benny Hinn and the staggering amounts of money he raises (and keeps for himself it seems). What’s that I remember about rich men entering the Kingdom of Heaven and something to do with camels and the eye of a needle?

I’m not suggesting that all the new preachers flowing into Botswana are crooks like Popoff. Clearly that wouldn’t be true. I just think that before we trust a new charismatic preacher or religious group we should do our research. We should think carefully about what they say. We must take step back and start from a position of scepticism, not trust. Only when they have proved themselves should we consider trusting them.

Maybe I can put it more simply. Never trust a preacher in a Mercedes.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Scientologists - Letter to Sunday Standard 9/9/2006

Outsa Mokone

The Editor
The Sunday Standard
P/Bag 351


9th April 2006

Dear Mr Mokone

I was very surprised to see the article published in the Sunday Standard on 9th April entitled “Scientology paints Botswana yellow” which covers the efforts this bizarre cult is making to convert people in Pandamatenga.

You make very veiled suggestions about me in the article, even though I am not named. As far I can recall only two people or organisations have written anything negative about the Scientologists in the Botswana press. I was one and the other was the Sunday Standard. You refer to “vitriolic letters to the editor write-ups”, which can only have been the ones I wrote. If you don’t have the courage to name me then please let me do it for you. What persuaded you at the Sunday Standard to fall for their propaganda? Have the alien ghosts the Scientologists believe in got to you?

My impression of your article is that it has been lifted directly from Scientology propaganda. 17 of your 24 paragraphs contain quotes directly from the Scientologists or flattering statement written to them from their gullible admirers. Only one paragraph even suggests that their may be any reasonable critics of this ridiculous cult, namely the very sensible German Government.

I wonder how many of the people in Pandamatenga really know what the Scientologists believe in? How honest have they been? Maybe I can fill in the gap they left?

One of their core (and confidential) beliefs is only made available to those who have paid enough and reached what they call “Operating Thetan Level 3”. This is that 75 million years ago Xemu, the Emperor of the Galactic Federation, decided to cure his over-population problems by murdering excess aliens by bringing them to Earth and killing them with hydrogen bombs. The souls of these people were then brainwashed with a "three-D, super colossal motion picture" for 36 days. These souls managed to escape and now haunt our minds and cause all our mental health problems. At the same time apparently this Xemu guy implanted both Christianity and Islam in our collective memory.

I am NOT making this up! Court records from the USA prove this and I would be very happy to make copies available to anyone interested. Oh and do the cult mention that before he founded his own religion L Ron Hubbard was a failed science fiction writer?

You appear to have breached your own “accuracy test” in publishing the article. Your own standards state that you must ask yourself “what absolute proof do I have that the story is correct”. Much of what you wrote in the article is absolutely false. For instance towards the end you refer to “how successful it’s drug treatment programs are” when the only scientific research into Narconon, the Scientology drug treatment program, showed it to be a catastrophic failure.

This study was conducted in Sweden in 1981 and the Scientologists claim that it showed 76.8% of 61 drug abusers they treated were drug-free four years later. However if you examine the report you find that only 14 of the 61 actually completed the Narconon program. Of those 14 only 4 said they hadn’t used drugs since. That’s a real success rate of just under 7%. That is not a success by anyone’s standards.

Incidentally your readers may have noticed that it’s not even possible to have 76.8% of 61 drug abusers without cutting them into pieces. It doesn’t come to a whole number.

In February 2005 the California State Superintendent Jack O'Connell urged all schools to drop the Narconon program after research concluded that it offers inaccurate and unscientific information and is seen by most as just a recruitment wing of the Church. In 1989 Everett R. Rhoades, M.D., the US Assistant Surgeon General said of Narconon that it “cannot be considered medically sound”. In 1991 the Board of Mental Health of the State of Oklahoma declared that Narconon “is not medically safe”.

I must also say that I am genuinely outraged that the cult has persuaded our police officers, teachers, customs officers and community leaders to lend them their support in their official capacities. Maybe we should ask Government if these officials were in fact authorised to endorse the actions of this cult?

Yes, people may think I have some grudge against the Scientologists. Yes, I suppose I do. Maybe my problem is that they were founded by a lying, cheating, apartheid-supporting, drug-abusing fantasist who constructed a church to make money from the gullible and the naïve. How can the cult he founded deserve any respect when they still idolise and canonise this now deceased drug-crazed madman?

I would like to end with a few quotes from the lunatic Hubbard himself that give a flavour of the true beliefs and ethics of the Scientology cult.

“Make money. Make more money. Make other people produce so as to make more money.”

Regarding critics of the cult he said “May be deprived of property or injured by any means by any

Scientologist without any discipline of the Scientologist. May be tricked, sued or lied to or destroyed”

And my personal favourite, written in 1952: “The only way you can control people is to lie to them. You can write that down in your book in great big letters. THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN CONTROL ANYBODY IS TO LIE TO THEM.”

With best regards

Richard Harriman

Friday, April 07, 2006

Sceptical about... Alternative Health

Everywhere we look there are offers of so-called alternative or complementary health products and services. There are homeopathic remedies in health shops, reflexologists that cure our illnesses by fooling around with our feet, people that sell us crystals because they channel energy and, well, the list is almost endless and seems to be growing every day.

So am I going to say that it's all rubbish and that people are wasting their money every time they buy one of these remedies?


Well, OK, perhaps not all of them. I may be sceptical but I'm not totally dismissive. I DO realise that many of the mainstream medicines we consume came from what you can call "natural" origins. Penicillin for instance was discovered when samples in a laboratory were infected by an air-born mould. Warfarin, commonly used to treat heart conditions, is found in many plants such as sweet clover and even in liqorice.

So I'm not against the idea that tomorrow scientists might discover that another so-called natural remedy does actually contain chemicals that cure disease and boost health. It happens all the time. Scientists all over the world are examining traditional remedies and finding amazing things.

What I AM against though is some of the more ridiculous claims that have absolutely no scientific basis.

A good example is homeopathy. The idea behind homeopathy is quite simple. An ailment can be treated with minute quantities of substances that produce similar symptoms to those of the ailment. Quite how this works is never explained although homeopaths no doubt want us to think that it's a bit like vaccination where an inert form of a dangerous infectious agent is given to the patient so he or she can form a resistance to it.

However, homeopathy and vaccination are completely different. One has a scientific basis and can be proved to work and the other? Well, no evidence I'm afraid, other than those "experiments" conducted by homeopaths themselves and they aren't exactly renowned for their scientific credentials.

Oh and one other difference between homeopathy and vaccination? One actually contains an active ingredient and the other doesn't. Homeopathic "remedies" are produced by repeatedly diluting a sample of the supposedly active ingredient. A homeopath may take a 1% solution of the active ingredient, perhaps a plant extract in water or alcohol and dilute it further several times. After being diluted to 1% each time you can quickly work out that after 10 dilutions only 1 atom in every hundred billion billion will be of the so-called active ingredient. And the most common forms of homeopathic remedy are actually diluted in this way thirty times. There is simply nothing left from the original ingredient. There's nothing there apart from water or alcohol.

So how do homeopaths claim it works? Well, if you have scientific background, sit down before reading further.

Apparently the water in which this ingredient once resided "remembers" that it once met the substance in question. Homeopaths talk seriously about "the molecular memory of water". And there was me thinking water was just hydrogen and oxygen and not something that remembered previous visitors.

Want another absurdity? Homeopaths believe that the more diluted the liquid becomes the more effective it is. And another? The principle of homeopathic "succusion" states that the remedy becomes even more effective still if you thump it against the heel of your hand or a leather pad. I promise you I am NOT making this up.

Homeopathy is nonsense. It flies in the face of all that we have learnt over the last couple of thousand of years in the fields of chemistry, physics and biology.

So what about all of you who have taken a homeopathic remedy and felt better afterwards? Were you imagining it? Was your mind playing tricks on you?

I don't think you were imagining it and I don't think you've gone mad. It just wasn't the little phial of water you drank that made you feel better.

So what was it? Well, there are three possibilities. Firstly you may have just got better! It happens. People just get better. Their bodies fight an ailment and win. Our bodies are usually pretty good at it. They have had millions of years to develop an immune system after all.

Secondly, there's the intervention effect. Sometimes just deciding to take action about your health brings about an effect indirectly. You start eating properly, taking exercise and looking after yourself better and this might involve you starting to take homeopathic remedies. Why assume it's the remedy that did it? Maybe all that extra fruit you ate that kept the colds away? At least fruit contains Vitamin C, something that actually does something!

The last possibility is the one that people often dismiss but is actually one of the most remarkable things that can happen in medicine. A truly remarkable effect that should never be dismissed or thought of as somehow second rate. The placebo effect. Just the action of taking medication can bring about an improvement, even if the medication is no more than a sugar pill. Nobody quite knows how it works but it does.

So why not embrace these possibilities instead of assuming that the homeopathic remedy you bought did something when it cannot possibly have done so?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Sceptical about... Blood types and diet

I read a report in the Daily News recently of the proceedings at a “food security” conference held recently. Apparently the big issue were diets for people with different blood types.

Yet again I think we’re in danger here. In danger of believing something that is nonsense. Utter nonsense. Let me state this in very clear and simple terms. There is absolutely no evidence that blood type has anything to do with the body’s reaction to the food it consumes. None.

The theories that were presented at this conference were based on the books written by a father and son team, Drs James and Peter D’Adamo. In their books they claim that they have collected “over 1,000 scientific articles on blood types and their correlations to disease, biochemistry, nutrition, and anthropology”. Yet strangely not one of them has been under controlled scientific conditions. All they have is a series of anecdotes along the lines of “Well, it helped my Aunt Alice, so it must work”. It’s just like those people you meet who had an aged relative who smoked until he was 105 years old, so smoking can’t be dangerous.

If there is real evidence for these theories, evidence that came from strictly controlled scientific studies, not just a few cases where improving someone’s diet made them healthier, then I can’t find it. Where is it? My challenge to the blood type food faddists is show us REAL evidence, not just anecdotes.

The simple truth is that many of the dietary recommendations the D’Adamos make would work for many of us. They suggest that certain groups should consume less fat. OK, so who wouldn’t benefit from that?

However what’s not often mentioned by people selling the bizarre ideas from the D’Adamo family business is that they took it further than just diets. They suggest that even our personalities are affected by our blood types. Apparently those of us who have type O blood have “strength, endurance, self-reliance, daring, intuition, and innate optimism...". Those of us unfortunate enough to be type A are “poorly suited for the intense, high-pressured leadership positions at which Type O's excel” and “become anxious and paranoid, taking everything personally”.

Curiously the big period in history for research into the personality aspects of blood types was during the lowest point in European history, namely during Nazi Germany. It was found to be rubbish then and it remains rubbish today.

The trouble with this sort of pseudoscientific claptrap is that it leads into a profoundly dangerous area – group stereotypes. You know the sort of thing. Europeans are clever and industrious, Jews are scheming and money-grabbing and that Africans are just lazy. We all know how dangerous that can be. Oh, and it’s just plain incorrect as well.

The best summary of the blood group and diet issue that I’ve come across was made by Dr Victor Herbert (a real doctor) from the Mt Sinai Medical Centre in New York. He said that it is “pure horse manure. It has no relation to reality. The genes for blood type have nothing to do with the genes that handle the food we eat”.

I urge everyone to treat this and other pseudoscience with the contempt it deserves.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Sceptical about... common sense

Sometimes, in my less than tolerant and easy-going moments (Yes, I DO have them occasionally) I'm astounded by the lack of simple common sense that some people display. Every week it seems that there's a story in the papers of someone who's been conned out of their hard-earned money or has given it all to a charlatan prophet in the hope of salvation or a miracle and has probably not seen them since.

Recently there was a story in the papers about a filling station manager in Francistown who had been conned out of P85,000. Apparently some guys approached him and told him that they had a magic box that multiplied money. All he had to do was put his own money in the box and miraculously it would increase. So he did. And you know what? They distracted him and ran off with the money. OK, so you are probably all thinking the same as me.

But the most remarkable thing about this story? They came back again the next day and he fell for it again! I really can't think how to describe (in polite terms) what I think about this, errr…. critically challenged individual.

Luckily the con artists who pulled this one off were caught and prosecuted but why isn't the victim being prosecuted for gullibility? Oh yes, I forgot. It's not illegal to be gullible. In my intolerant moments (and this is one of them) I think it should be illegal to be so foolish.

But how did it come to this? Presumably the victim is a reasonably bright guy. He must be, he runs a filling station. I have huge admiration for filling station managers. They have to be Finance Managers, HR Managers, Sales Executives, Stock Control experts and General Managers all rolled into one. It's high pressure, demanding work that requires the person to be constantly switched on. So how on earth did such a person fall for such nonsense?

It's not just that this particular guy was dreadfully gullible. It's as much a tribute to the quality of the con artists we have. Con artists are clever people. We should be proud to be in a nation that produces such imaginative people. They are specialists who prey on the gullible, the desperate and the innocent (that's a polite way of putting it). But surely we can see through their scams?

Why do smart people continue to fall for cons? Why don't we learn? Part of it is that con artists usually prey on one of our most disreputable characteristics: greed. So many of us want to get something for nothing and worse still, think that’s it’s actually possible to do so. We don't want to work to make money; we think we can get rich quickly without doing the work we know it actually takes.

So when they turn up and offer us something that is clearly too good to be true, like a magical box that multiplies money, our first thought is of the money, not of how ridiculous the idea is.

The same goes for all the internet-based cons, the so-called 419 scams which all revolve around an offer out of the blue, from a total stranger, usually about an opportunity to help him extract millions of dollars from Nigeria. You are offered 10% of the total sum as payment for your services. However, as soon as you're hooked, they tell you that you need to pay an advance fee, maybe legal fees, account opening fees or taxes. Funnily enough as soon as you pay these fees the con artists disappear.

These scams are obviously fakes aren’t they? If we engage our brains for more than a moment we must realise it. But thousands of people all over the world have fallen for them, giving away millions of dollars. How on earth do people believe that a total stranger will appear out of nowhere, offering them a few million dollars? This simply doesn't happen. Ever.

Do I really have to say this? There’s no such thing as a free lunch. If someone you've never met before offers you something that is clearly too fantastic to be true then the truth is clear. He's lying and wants to steal money from you.

So what about common sense? It’s been said before but I think it’s worth repeating.

Common sense isn’t.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Sceptical about... Scepticism

What actually is a sceptic? The Oxford English Dictionary defines a sceptic as “a person inclined to doubt accepted opinions”. You could also say that a sceptic is someone who understands that just because someone says or writes something, it doesn’t mean it’s true. That goes for me as well. You are forbidden from believing anything in this article unless you’ve thought about it first.

I believe that in this increasingly dangerous and confusing world we must examine everything. Nothing is exempt from analysis and critical thought. There are no sacred cows.

However some things don't take a lot of thought. For instance it's pretty easy to show that killing people is wrong, mainly because it's cruel and causes pain and suffering. Surely nobody needs to explain why pain and suffering are bad things that should be avoided if possible.

Nobody really needs to think hard about lying. Almost always lying is a bad thing and we shouldn't do it. Getting drunk and hitting people is bad. Being a racist is bad. Torturing people is bad. Cheating to become President of the USA is a bad thing.

None of these things really deserve a great deal of debate because the issues are fundamentally quite simple.

Then there are the issues where common sense and a little thought are needed, maybe not even full-scale skepticism. If a man approaches you saying he has a magic box that will multiply your money and all you need to do is give him the cash for a little while, well, surely it doesn’t take too much thought? Unfortunately for the filling station manager in Francistown who fell for exactly this a few weeks ago, well, maybe he’d left his brain at home that day.

At the other end of the spectrum there are the genuinely complicated moral and emotional issues like abortion, the death penalty and, dare I say it, the relocation of the Basarwa. I believe that on these issues most people, if they really examine their consciences, will confess that they understand the other side’s viewpoint even if they disagree with it. However the issues are often so complex, so difficult, so loaded with emotion that it's very difficult to be absolutely certain.

I think that the very best weapon we have in thinking these through is the sceptical approach. These issues deserve clear, rational and very careful thought. They are so important that we MUST give them the thought they require, that they demand. Surely if we are to be honest with ourselves we have to think them through for ourselves? The sceptical approach is simple. In my view it all comes down to the rule I mentioned earlier. Just because something has been said or written that doesn't mean it's true.

My biggest complant about the human race is our tendency to behave like sheep. We seem to be programmed to accept whatever someone in authority tells us to believe. Whether it’s a politician, a church leader or Survival International we seem sometimes just to take on their opinions as if they were the direct words of God and not to be challenged.

Despite their complexity surely these issues deserve clear, rational and very careful thought? Surely the best weapon we have in dealing with them is between our ears? Each of us is blessed with the most amazing piece of equipment the world has ever known. No inventor has ever come up with anything as advanced, as clever and as amazing as the human mind and they’re not going to, at least during the lifetime of anyone reading this article. So why don't we use it? It's like being given a Ferrari for Christmas and only ever driving it to the supermarket.

Every last one of us has the capacity to think about what we hear, what we are told and what matters. To make matters even better we live in a country where using our brain is actually encouraged! Remember that there are still a few countries left, like Burma, Turkmenistan and a certain country just a little north of us where using your brain will get you thrown in jail if you're lucky and a shallow grave if you're not. Let’s exploit the freedom we have and think about things, debate things, have heated arguments over a few drinks (not on a Sunday though) and listen to what other people think. And then make up our own minds.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Sceptical about... Qualifications

I am a fully ordained Minister of Religion. I can conduct weddings, funerals, christenings and baptisms. I can bless relationships, business opening and house-warmings. I haven’t actually done of these yet but who knows, maybe one day someone will ask me.

I can also absolve people of their sins which I can tell you comes in very useful, particularly when they’re my own.

You may be wondering what Church I belong to. This is where things become interesting. I don’t belong to any church at all. With the exception of weddings and funerals (not conducted by me unfortunately) I haven’t been to a Church service in about 30 years and I’m 41 years old.

So how am I a Minister of religion? Easy! Go to an Internet café, log onto the Internet at your workplace or dial up from home and visit the Universal Life Church at Five minutes later and for absolutely no money you are an ordained Minister of religion.

You think this is a joke? That it’s somehow not “real”? That it’s not legally recognised? You’d be wrong. I am fully legally entitled to conduct weddings, for instance, in almost all of the United States although I confess I’m not sure if I’m allowed to here in Botswana. Furthermore any weddings I conduct where they are permitted are recognised everywhere else in the world.

To tell the truth I ordained myself more as a joke than anything else. I honestly didn’t think it was legally recognised until after I’d done it and it came as a bit of a surprise.

I’m still not sure what to think about it. Sometimes I just think it’s funny that I, of all people, am a Minister of religion. Other times I think it says a lot about how religion operates in the USA, some of it ludicrous but most of it wholly admirable. The separation of state and religion, like we effectively have here in Botswana, is surely a wonderful thing and it separates us from theocracies like Iran, Saudi Arabia and the UK!

One thing it does prove though is just how easy it is to become “qualified” and how easy it would be to exploit these qualifications for selfish and perhaps corrupt reasons.

There are probably several other so-called Churches out there that will ordain people for the fun of it, I just found one of them. However, the thing that I think is most dangerous is not the ordinations you can get but the academic qualifications that are available.

A very quick search of the internet will find you a huge number of what they call “non-accredited” universities. These are institutions that award degrees that no legitimate academic institutions recognise. For instance if you applied to study for a Masters degree at UB and told them that you already had a BA from the “University of Cape Cod” they’d laugh at you and show you the door. Well, that’s assuming they checked of course.

Before you get too excited, the degrees these places award aren’t free. These are largely money-making schemes that probably appeal to people who want to get a job, a pay-rise or a promotion without actually going through the hard work of really studying for a real qualification. Another visit to the Internet and a quick search enabled me to find over 500 of these dubious places that will award a degree for various amounts of cash and for various trivial amounts of work from you.

Some of them are quite funny though. Calamus International University, which is based in the British West Indies, offers distance learning degrees in such subjects as “Regression and Reincarnation Studies” which allows you to help people remember being abducted by aliens and “Depth Psychology” which is based on a bunch of pseudoscientific nonsense that was thrown out by the rest of Psychology 30 years ago.

So what does it cost to get a degree from Calamus International University? According to their website, a BA will cost you around P16,000 and a Masters or a PhD will be around P30,000.

A good investment? Well, perhaps if you are prepared to lie in every job application or course you apply for. On the other hand if you are prepared to be honest and tell the world you weren’t energetic or clever enough to get a recognised degree then perhaps that’s OK.

If I take off my ordained hat and replace it with my sceptical one, what are my thoughts? As someone who once considered an academic career I’m appalled by how close having a non-accredited degree is to cheating. As a manager if I found that one of my employees had portrayed himself as being really qualified by having one of these meaningless “qualifications” I’d fire him on the spot.

As Mr Sceptic I think it’s slightly pathetic, rather silly and laughable but I also think it poses a serious threat. The lesson is to be sceptical about what you’re told when people say they’re qualified. See their certificates and then check that they’re from somewhere trustworthy!

My blessings to you all!

Sunday, January 01, 2006

My sources and inspirations

Much of the information I use in these postings is gleaned from a variety of excellent sources. Much credit must therefore go the authors of these web sites, including:
However, any errors made on this site are entirely my fault!