Monthly Archives: November 2009

Boots Loses Credibility Over Homeopathy Admission

No doubt UK readers will be aware that the country’s largest pharmacy chain, “Boots” (formerly Boots the Chemists) admitted two days ago that they sold homeopathic remedies for no other reason that they were popular. Speaking to the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, which is investigating the scientific evidence behind homoeopathy, the professional standards director for Boots, Paul Bennett said,  “There is certainly a consumer demand for these products, I have no evidence to suggest they are efficacious.”

So customer knows best. Well as pointed out by an open letter to Boots from the Merseyside Skeptics Society, the British public trust Boots and have neither the time nor expertise to evaluate the claims made by homeopaths. Only this morning, a medical GP and head of the faculty of homeopathy, Dr. Sara Eames appeared on BBC Breakfast television proclaiming that there was overwhelming scientific evidence for the efficacy of homeopathy and moreover, it was not just a placebo effect. This is not simply misleading the general public, this is telling big porky pies.

The whole homeopathy saga is like a broken record. Various voices such as Ben Goldacre or the Quackometer have written extensively on this medieval belief system – yes its older than 200 years (read SuperSense). But now with money involved and the House of Commons, it seems likely that the future of  five NHS Homeopathic hospitals (one in Bristol)  looks increasingly uncertain. But is Boots so bad? I was in another independent pharmacy yesterday picking up Tamiflu vaccine and the place was stocked with all manner of woo from herbal remedies to copper bracelets. People who hang out at these places clearly lap the woo all up.

But what about conventional medicine? Well, things are not much better when it comes to new medical treatments of depression.  I have been writing and researching the new anti-depressants including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors such as Prozac. These are some of the most common drugs prescribed by GPs today and the truth is that they are most likely as effective as homeopathy.

Last year, a meta-analysis of  SSRIs revealed serious flaws in the clinical trials. The authors confirmed first that the overall effect of these  antidepressants was below the recommended criteria for clinical significance. Then they showed that there was virtually no difference in the improvement scores for drug and placebo in patients with moderate depression and only a small and clinically insignificant difference among patients with very severe depression. The editor of the journal concludes, “These findings suggest that, compared with placebo, the new-generation antidepressants do not produce clinically significant improvements in depression in patients who initially have moderate or even very severe depression, but show significant effects only in the most severely depressed patients. The findings also show that the effect for these patients seems to be due to decreased responsiveness to placebo, rather than increased responsiveness to medication. Given these results, the researchers conclude that there is little reason to prescribe new-generation antidepressant medications to any but the most severely depressed patients unless alternative treatments have been ineffective.”

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the UK National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), and other licensing authorities have approved SSRIs for the treatment of depression. But with such serious doubts about the efficacy of SSRIs, are GPs right to continue prescribing these expensive drugs or should they switch to an infinitely dilute solution of arsenic or cuttlefish ink? After all, both GPs and homeopaths believe their treatments work. I guess the difference is that one seems plausible (altering neurotransmitter activity) where as the other seems supernatural (water memory, essence, vitality – call it what you want). The other main difference is that the process of scientific evaluation should eventually force the medical community to abandon procedures that are invalid.

Still, it does make you think – whether it is the belief in magic or the belief in neurotransmitter imbalance, they are arguably triggering the same mechanisms that make people feel better.


Filed under In the News, supernatural

Fat Chance It’s the Fountain of Youth: Update

One of the world’s most valuable industries is rejuvenating cosmetics. This business is estimated to be around £6.4 billion in the United Kingdom alone. The average British woman will spend £186,000 on cosmetics in her lifetime, and a large proportion of this will be on anti-aging creams. These creams are largely based on essentialist beliefs that including various youthful ingredients like fetal tissue or mulched placenta will “rejuvenate” aging skin. Another belief is that human fat makes the best soap which according to experts is “pure baloney.”

Peruvian Police Display Bottles of Human Fat Extracted From Murder Victims

What else could have motivated the gruesome murder and harvesting of human fat by a Peruvian gang? The gang confessed to five murders where they hacked off the head and limbs and disemboweled poor peasants and then hung the torsos on meat hooks suspended over candles to melt the fat. The fat they harvested was apparently to be shipped to Italy, via intermediaries, where it would end up being used in expensive skin-softening beauty creams.

Experts are skeptical at the police reports but I could well believe that this gang were misguided. Remember Tyler Durden’s raids of liposuction clinics in “Fight Club?” If the gang had, then they would have probably realized that one of the few things that western society is not in short supply of is fat. Rather, it’s kidneys and livers they should have tried to sell rather than throwing them away

Update: Well it turns out that this story has been a hoax. Reuters just released this report that the police officer in charge has been fired for cooking up a story based on local superstitions.


Filed under Essentialism, In the News

Ariane Does it Again

Yesterday, Ariane Sherine revealed the final phase of the atheist bus campaign with the new billboard. The campaign, scheduled to coincide with the Universal Children’s Day (Nov 20th), draws attention to Richard Dawkin’s point that some adults readily label children in terms of their religious background. The point of the campaign is to not label children at all, but rather allow them to come up with their own beliefs – and that includes atheism as well. Ariane says, “I hope this poster campaign will encourage the government, media and public to see children as individuals, free to make their own choices, and accord them the liberty and respect they deserve.”

I met Ariane in London last month at the Amazing Meeting where she really made me feel embarrassed. I went up and introduced myself to which she immediately replied, “Oh yes, I remember you, Bruce. You did the pervy thought for the day blog!” Well, she didn’t say ‘pervy’ but I felt so as I remembered making a double entendre comment on her picture I used in the post which has her posed in a rather seductive manner. Anyway, she is delightful – though she never signed my copy of her edited book, “The Atheists Guide to Christmas.” Oh well, I got an invite to the book launch in London so maybe I can make ammends then.


Filed under atheism, In the News

The Cardigan Professor

Graham James, Bishop of Norwich

Last month , the Bishop of Norwich gave a presidential address concerning my work and the recent tour of the religious relics of St. Thérèse de Lisieux in the UK. He began his address, “Bruce Hood must be a rather entertaining professor at Bristol University,” and then went on to recount the Fred West cardigan stunt that I executed back in 2006 at a British Science Festival held in Norwich of all places. (You can read about it in Chapter two!). Anyway, his point was that everyone can respond in an irrational way to an object and that the criticism from Matthew Parris in The Times, “St. Thérèse de Lisieu: come out, atheists, and fight,” about devout Catholics revering and praying to bones failed to acknowledge that humans are naturally inclined to such supernatural beliefs. He’s got a point. Religious relics are on a continuum with sports memorabilia. Our adulation of objects is not something restricted to religion though I doubt we believe that sports memorabilia can heal the sick and stop wars.

The Infamous Cardigan

The killer’s cardigan was a good stunt but it was only that. The way it is described in the media would suggest that I have done extensive research on moral contagion. Moreover, it was really all Paul Rozin’s idea in the first place. He asked participants to wear a Nazi cap in his early studies on moral contagion. All I did was adapt the idea for a stunt to demonstrate the immediate emotional reaction we can experience when asked to wear a piece of clothing worn by someone who is morally repugnant. From that early demonstration, I have become known as the cardigan professor. Andy Marr on “Start the Week” made me talk about it and it invariably comes up in other interviews. I have written apologetically to Paul Rozin, but a man of his intellectual stature and brilliance was not irked by this misattribution in the media. Actually, you may have noticed that Rozin’s name crops up again and again in the writings of Pinker, Gladwell, Bloom and many others writing pop science about the mind.

At the moment, I have students working on experimental variations of moral contamination from objects and in due course, this research will see the light of day by which time I would imagine that the world has moved on and forgotten about Fred West’s clothing. Still, I do feel uncomfortable about being the cardigan professor.


Filed under book publicity, In the News

Sick Psychics

There is so much to blog this week but I thought I would report something about money-grabbing, attention-seeking, bloody psychics. Not the nice deluded psychics who contact me and really believe they have powers. No, I’m talking about the ones who are milking the gullibility of people.

In an article in Saturday’s Guardian, we learned that a Welsh police force had spent approximately £20,000 following up leads from psychic mediums regarding a suicide. They claimed to have been contacted by the ghost of the man and that he had been killed by gangsters who had forced him to drink petrol and bleach. A second autopsy was ordered and no evidence of such substances were found.

A statement from Dyfed-Powys police said: “The revelations of the mystics were brought to our attention via the family and these were followed to reassure the family that the full circumstances of the death were as they appeared. Police have a responsibility to the deceased, their family and the public to investigate all deaths thoroughly.” You can read the story for yourself but clearly this sets a terrible precedence. I imagine the distraught family were fleeced for cash and told a cock-n-bull story about a murder.

Derek-Acorah-001But it’s Sky1’s broadcast of über psychic conman Derek Acorah’s attempt to contact Michael Jackson in a live seance watched by more than 600,000 viewers on Friday, 6 November that sticks in the throat. I think Derren Brown writing on his blog put it most appositely, “Can you honestly imagine anything – anything – more anus-invertingly unpalatable than this? I hate myself for drawing attention to it. So proud to be in telly.” The Guardian review does a pretty impressive hatchet-job on this most irritating of scousers but here’s an excerpt, “Acorah’s manipulation of the vulnerable was in such bad taste that it couldn’t be seen as entertainment on any discernible level. It was depressing. That’s all it was.”

The sooner psychics are made to provide scientific evidence to support their claims (which they can’t), the sooner we can persecute I mean, prosecute them for taking money off the gullible public. And that includes exploitative television. Burn the witch!


Filed under supernatural

Happy Birthday Sesame Street

With events at Fort Hood likely to cast a shadow over the coming days, I thought I would direct your attention to something more light-hearted. Today marks the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. In a world of darkness and cynicism, it is important to remember and celebrate these nuggets of innocence and joy. But before you think that I have gone completely sappy, have a look at this alternative version of Sesame Street’s Count singing about what he loves to do best. If you are young enough then you probably hear the Count “counting.” If you are a bit older, then you probably heard something completely different! Shame on you.


The Kaniza Illusion

This is an auditory equivalent of the visual Kaniza illusion where we fill in missing information based on past experiences. For example, in the figure on the right, you should easily see a white triangle that is not really there. The brain interprets this configuration as a white triangle floating above three dark circles. It is the most likely explanation that would produce this pattern and so the brain creates the perception of this triangle. However, the amazing thing about these illusory effects is that the brain generates neural activity in the networks that would be active if the missing information was really there. In other words, these illusions are based on real neural activity. In which case, if someone says they have heard or seen something that isn’t really there, then as far as the brain is concerned it is! Now that’s spooky.


Filed under Research

Dowsing for Death

With the release of “The Men Who Stare at Goats” this week in the UK, one might be forgiven for thinking the US army are complete knuckleheads when it comes to dismissing woo. That of course, would be a sweeping generalization (or sergeantization) depending on the rank of the remark. Thankfully, there are some in the current US army who are less inclined to woo-sh*t when they smell it.

This article from the New York Times is both comical and chilling at the same time. Apparently the Iraqi army is relying on magic to locate bombs and placing their personnel at risk. According to the article, the US military is less convinced. Nevertheless, a completely unscrupulous company is apparently  selling magical wands that are allegedly based on nothing more than dowsing and the authorities are buying them up at $60,000 a piece. Here is some of the sales jargon that accompanies the product info.

Simultaneous Detection of Multiple Types of Explosives or Drugs. The ADE651® incorporates electrostatic ion attraction [ESA] technology to target the specific substances. It can accommodate multiple substance detection cards to detect a broad range of explosive or drug [narcotic] substances. It can more specifically identify a substance by removing detection cards from the ADE651® after detection is received until the attraction is lost.

Sounds plausible doesn’t it? I understand that there are chemical “sniffing” devices that we have all seen at airports etc, but apparently the claims of  this company are completely unwarranted. The James Randi foundation has challenged the company to scientifically prove the efficacy of their wands and the NYTimes article reports that the US Department of Defense has dismissed the claims. That does not stop the Iraqi’s Ministry of Interior spending a reputed $32m for these wands last year.  Major  General Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives is reported as saying, “Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs.”

So who are these charlatans of death who are willing to sell a completely bogus piece of junk that has the potential to cost lives? This is where I am aghast with horror. It apparently comes from our neck of the woods. They are listed at the Randi site as Cumberland Industries UK LTD but I think this information is out of date. I have checked and found these guys

26 York Street
United Kingdom W1U6PZ

Is this the woo wand that detects bombs?

A Mr Vic would appear to be the foreign sales director and I believe this is a photo of the offending device. If (and I truly accept that I may have been wrong in misrepresenting your product and claims) this report is wrong and misrepresents your company then please set the record straight and issue a press release and opportunity to verify your product claims. There are some very serious accusations being made against your company and frankly if it is the case of dowsing for bombs then this needs to be stopped.

BTW if I seem to overuse “apparently, allegedly” etc it’s not that I don’t have an opinion, it’s just that I don’t have a large defense fund to pay for lawyers. KEEP LIBELS LAWS OUT OF SCIENCE!


Filed under In the News, supernatural

My Own D-Day



Well, Who Would Have Thought???

One of the most important books to influence me becoming a behavioural scientist was “The Selfish Gene” written 25 years ago. Today I finally got to meet the author who changed my worldview. It’s not the first time I have been in the same room  as Richard Dawkins. About 10 years ago, I shared a train carriage with him but he was so caught up in working on a manuscript and I was so star-struck that I didn’t have the nerve to introduce myself, and say what exactly?

As many of you know, my work has often been contrasted with Richard Dawkins and simpletons often misunderstand what I am saying as contrary to his meme thesis. However, today it was quite clear that we are singing from the same hymn sheet. We had a great discussion about essentialism before his co-presentation with his  wife, Lalla Ward (Yes, that’s right… Hammer Horror film actress and side -kick of Tom Baker’s Dr. Who). Children’s essentialism was raised again by a question from the audience (thank you for that Thalia of course!) where he discussed Ernst Mayr’s proposal that psychological essentialism was a fundamental obstacle in human reasoning when it came to understanding natural selection. Music to my ears of course.

He has a signed copy of SuperSense and promised to start reading it tonight. I even think he might! What a day to remember.


Filed under atheism