A talk on eliminating human ageing

Last night I went to a talk by Dr. Aubrey de Grey, who explained why he thinks the elimination of human ageing is a reasonable technological goal, achievable within the lifetimes of people alive today.

I’d been invited by a friend and, honestly, for a few minutes I wondered whether it was going to be whackjobbery. By the end I was impressed enough to want to read more on the subject.

In hindsight, he reminds me of Ray Kurzweil. And not just because of the beards. Like the man behind the Singularity, Dr. de Grey’s ideas seemed, from a lay perspective, to hang together. They certainly didn’t collapse under their own weight, and I eventually hit the limit of my own ignorance: I’m not a biologist, so have no idea whether his claims actually make sense in the real world. But I was impressed by the logic and apparent ingenuinty of his arguments, as well as his willingness to say ‘I don’t know’ to some questions – ‘what would be the effect on the brain of reversing ageing?’, for example.

Dr. de Grey’s idea goes something like this:

  • Ageing and death are caused by the accumulation of ‘damage’ in our bodies.
  • The cumulative effects of this damage eventually causes a pathology, which, no matter how it is treated, must eventually be a downward spiral to death.
  • We don’t understand enough about the human body to prevent the damage happening in the first place. Any intervention in a system we don’t understand is likely to result in failure, if not more problems.
  • The treatment of the damage, however, need not be reliant upon an understanding of the underlying causes. Once we have a solution that can treat all types of damage, at least up to some degree, we can begin to extend lifespans.
  • Once the rate of progress of damage treatment methods reaches what he calls the ‘longevity escape velocity’, repeated applications will allow people to effectively live forever.

As I said, I’m no biologist, but I’ve read enough popular science that the damage theory of ageing isn’t completely new to me. So I don’t think this was made up. The damage hypothesis seems reasonable on the surface, but I wanted more detail, even at the risk of not understand it. What is this ‘damage’?

He went into detail, listing the seven types of damage that are thought to result in all the problems of ageing. He claimed that this list, not of his writing, is widely accepted among scientists, and hasn’t changed since 1982. They seemed specific: mutations in DNA, protein crosslinks, junk in cells, junk outside cells…At this point I had to take his word for it that this was indeed the case.

Dr. de Grey pointed to two of the damage types and said that theoretical treatments are already in the pipeline, although far from trivial. One of these was stem cell therapy, which is obviously quite the exciting and challenging area. He then pointed to the remaining five, and said that there were theoretical possibilities for treatment that, reading between the lines, research hasn’t started on yet. But, he said, none were insurmountable.

He went into detail on one specific problem, relating to the issue of breaking down harmful components inside cells. This, he said, is extremely difficult because the harmful components are by their very nature difficult to break down, or the body’s repair mechanisms would have done it for you (these mechanisms are extremely efficient, but can’t handle the extreme cases, which become ‘damage’). So what’s to do? Well, his idea relates to the wonder of microbes. In any environment, microbes will adapt to break down substances. There are apparently microbes found next to motorways which can break down rubber. This is a major part of research into the disposal of environmental waste. But where could we find microbes that would break down these hard-to-attack substances inside cells? His answer: graveyards. Bodies are being decomposed all the time, so there must be microbes present that can deal with these problems. So, it seems, it has proved.

Obviously I had to take his word for it that this was true. But this solution is elegant and out-of-the-box rather than ridiculous – exactly the kind of thing that turns up regularly in scientific breakthroughs. While skeptical, I was prepared to believe this could be the case.

He claimed to have similar approaches for all of the types of damage, and soon after this the talk ended. He was hammered with questions from the Oxford Science Society audience, and on the whole did a good job of responding. As I mentioned, he was prepared to say ‘I don’t know’ when necessary, and he expertly fielded the nuttier end of ‘are you going to make people get licenses to have children, then’ queries. He’d obviously spent plenty of time thinking about the ramifications of a ‘post-ageing society’, including that we’d all be a damn sight more careful crossing the road, although didn’t claim to have solutions to every problem.

The only reddish flag were his repeated references to the disdain in which his scientific colleagues hold him. He didn’t compare himself to Galileo or anything – the moment anyone does this you know they’ve lost it – but it was a little unnecessary. An orange-ish flag, I’d say.

I couldn’t come to any kind of conclusion – nobody without biological expertise could. He was a good public speaker, and I’m aware of my propensity for putting more trust into people with this skill. But my skepticism level is low enough that I’m interested in the opinions of others in the field, and shall watch out for his name in the future. He runs the Methusalah Foundation, which offers cash prizes to anybody who can extend the life of a mouse, and he’s written a book on the subject called ‘Ending Aging1 that should be out in the UK before too long. I’ll try to read some reviews. A very interesting evening, and recommended if he ever comes to your town.

  1. I have no idea how to properly spell the latter word []

Dr. Ben Goldacre on Ms. Gillian McKeith

Dr Ben Goldacre takes down Dr Ms. Gillian McKeith in this excellent Guardian article. For a start, he’s managed to get his dead cat the same non-accredited qualification she uses to call herself ‘doctor’. But it’s more than squabbling over her credentials: her ‘nutritional’ advice is bogus and outright harmful to the cause of medicine:

She talks endlessly about chlorophyll, for example: how it’s “high in oxygen” and will “oxygenate your blood” – but chlorophyll will only make oxygen in the presence of light. It’s dark in your intestines, and even if you stuck a searchlight up your bum to prove a point, you probably wouldn’t absorb much oxygen in there, because you don’t have gills in your gut. In fact, neither do fish. In fact, forgive me, but I don’t think you really want oxygen up there, because methane fart gas mixed with oxygen is a potentially explosive combination.

Future generations will look back on this phenomenon with astonishment. Channel 4, let’s not forget, branded her very strongly, from the start, as a “clinical nutritionist”. She was Dr Gillian McKeith PhD, appearing on television every week, interpreting blood tests, and examining patients who had earlier had irrigation equipment stuck right up into their rectums. She was “Dr McKeith”, “the diet doctor”, giving diagnoses, talking knowledgeably about treatment, with complex scientific terminology, and all the authority her white coat and laboratory setting could muster.

So back to the science. She says DNA is an anti-ageing constituent: if you “do not have enough RNA/DNA”, in fact, you “may ultimately age prematurely”. Stress can deplete your DNA, but algae will increase it: and she reckons it’s only present in growing cells. Is my semen growing? Is a virus growing? Is chicken liver pate growing? All of these contain plenty of DNA. She says that “each sprouting seed is packed with the nutritional energy needed to create a full-grown, healthy plant”. Does a banana plant have the same amount of calories as a banana seed? The ridiculousness is endless.

Her legal team is fierce (“If you said I wasn’t a doctor, I wouldn’t sue you; I’d roar with laughter.” says Dr. Goldacre), her sources and references dubious to say the least, and the way she treats people on her programmes deeply unpleasant. If the message were just ‘eat healthily’ nobody would have a problem, but her advice, it seems, goes beyond this into pseudoscience and causes deep confusion.

But let’s look at the evidence. Diet has been studied very extensively, and there are some things that we know with a fair degree of certainty: there is convincing evidence that diets rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, with natural sources of dietary fibre, avoiding obesity, moderate alcohol, and physical exercise, are protective against things such as cancer and heart disease.

But nutritionists don’t stop there, because they can’t: they have to manufacture complication, to justify the existence of their profession. And what an extraordinary new profession it is. They’ve appeared out of nowhere, with a strong new-age bent, but dressing themselves up in the cloak of scientific authority. Because there is, of course, a genuine body of research about nutrition and health, to which these new “nutritionists” are spectacularly unreliable witnesses. You don’t get sober professors from the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research Unit on telly talking about the evidence on food and health; you get the media nutritionists. It’s like the difference between astrology and astronomy.

I’m increasingly viewing the word ‘nutrition’ as a red flag – my skepticism level increases dramatically whenever it turns up.

Homeopathy and Malaria

Thursday’s Newsnight included an investigation into homeopathy and malaria. Undercover reporters contacted ten separate, and apparently randomly chosen, London homeopathic pharmacies and asked for help with preventing malaria. Every one recommended homeopathic remedies – none suggested going to a doctor, and some actively said that no other treatments would be necessary. The report is available on the BBC website via here.

Obviously this advice is complete toss – all homeopathy is – but this could easily kill somebody. This has been very well covered by Bad Science, the associated forums, and the Bad Homeopath. Fun facts include that the report states that homeopathic remedies are ‘99.99% water’, and contain ‘trace amounts’ of quinine. In reality – as the Bad Homeopath points out – the remedies are 99.999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999999% water, so ‘trace amounts’ are highly unlikely to even be a single molecule.

What interests me particularly is the spokesperson from the Society of Homeopaths, who sat in the Newsnight studio and said the following:

She does a very good job of seeming to agree that the homeopaths in the report should have behaved differently, while actually saying nothing of the sort. She nods a lot, but after claiming she can’t do anything about homeopaths at risk of killing people until somebody complains, says:

“there has not been, to date, a large-scale research study into the prophylactic use for homeopathy in malaria”

I’ll give her that. I’m sure she’s correct. But that’s because every study into homeopathy has shown it to have no effect whatsoever. There’s no reason to even investigate such a claim, when huge numbers of other, methodically-identical, homeopathic claims have shown no effect. But the report wasn’t into homeopathy as a whole, so Simon Singh couldn’t really bring that up without changing the whole topic of debate, which the presenter may not have liked. Then, at the end, she slips in:

“it’s used prophylactically in diseases such as malaria. indeed the first remedy ever proved, as we call it – discovered – was a remedy for malaria”

This is a particularly evil redefinition of a word. She uses the word ‘proved’ completely differently from any dictionary definition. Anybody who doesn’t happen to know this would think she’s saying homeopathy has been shown to have some effect. In fact, homeopathic ‘proving’ involves giving homeopathic samples to people (just water, really) and measuring their symptoms1. This is the way in which homeopaths discover which ailments/diseases should be treated with said solution, based upon the like-cures-like argument.

Although she gets the number of years wrong in the report – it’s far closer to 200 than 300 – the initial idea for like-cures-like came from a malarial drug – kinda. The original guy took an anti-malarial drug of the time, experienced the symptoms of malaria, and extrapolated wildly to produce the like-cures-like argument. More details here. And that’s to say nothing of the whole dilution thing. James Randi put it something like “the first rule says that you should take something which produces the same symptoms as your problem; the second rule says you don’t do that”.

It’s a shame the interview wasn’t longer, as I suspect Simon Singh would have demolished her final argument given another chance to speak. The whole thing is just appalling, and you’d think that if anybody actually died there’d be a strong criminal case.

  1. according to Wikipedia, recent ‘provings’ have introduced placebo controls. This has resulted in the people taking placebos experiencing the same symptoms as those taking the remedies, and is explained away with ‘energetic resonance’ – I like how they’re trying to be scientific but give up if it doesn’t suit them []


I very much like the Skeptico blog as it does a great job of annihilating pseudoscience. A couple of recent posts that I thought were excellent:

  • In June 2000, an astrologer said ‘avoid terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001’. No trickery – she really said that before the event. Can you guess how she did it?.
  • A wide-ranging study that aimed to compare cases of autism with exposure to MMR recently published its results. 28,000 children were watched, and in results directly applicable to the number of autism cases and the amount of exposure in the US, no link was found. Nothing. Of course, this doesn’t please crazy people, who say that doesn’t prove there is no link. I’m going to write to them about the dragon in my garage. Full details.

Life coaching, and how I was seduced by nonsense

Just over a year ago I started seeing a Life Coach. Six months ago I abruptly stopped seeing a Life Coach. I think enough time has passed for me to get a decent perspective on the events, and to explain how I ended up wanting to believe somebody who was telling me that any problems I have may stem from a previous life.

A year ago I wasn’t having a good time. I was taking two A-levels under a self-study course and by late spring was faltering in a big way. I had no clue what I’d do once the exams were over, nor any real aims in life. Although pretty much over the upset from my break-up, I was still struggling with being on my own. My parents had heard good things about a local Life Coach, and, very kindly, offered to pay. I looked over the aims and benefits of life coaching, and this is the kind of thing that came up:

Coaching is future orientated and although touches on the past, it is predominantly focused on creating a better future. It is very practical in its approach, as it involves proactively planning specific actions, which will enable step changes to be made. Progress is often rapid and hence can be fairly short term.

It certainly seemed to be what I needed, and I agreed to give it a try.

In the first lesson we used some kind of chart to break my life down into various components – friends, health, romance, work etc. – and figured out which areas needed improvement. Self-image and work were the big issues.

For the next few months I saw her on a weekly basis. We’d talk about my week, going over anything that had upset me or I’d found difficult, then move onto ways to improve things. Chief among these was the idea of affirmations – small phrases of confidence such as ‘I am likeable’ that I should say to myself as often as possible. The theory was that after a while they would ‘sink in’ and would become my default thoughts, as it were. Another technique was the trigger: whenever I felt particularly happy or confident I should do some action – I used touching a particular knuckle – and then whenever I needed a confidence boost I would repeat the action, which would trigger associated positive feelings. The trigger was undoubtedly the most impressive technique; it really did help on a number of occasions. Affirmations I’m not so sure about.

In hindsight, simply spending an hour talking to somebody was as helpful as anything else. Maybe it played to my bad habit of attention-seeking, but having somebody external who seemed genuinely interested in helping me was undeniably pleasant. She helped me figure out what I really wanted to do with my life. I realised, through talking things out, that the activity I enjoyed above all else was writing. We figured out a plan to help me develop this, while still making money by other means. This was great, and exactly what I needed.

At one point I remember her saying something like “you’re a really likeable chap”. That, I think, was a mistake. Thereafter I didn’t want to tell her anything that I thought would change this opinion.

Although I was possibly backing away slightly, the by now fortnightly meetings were still productive. Then, not long before christmas, I had a bad week for one reason or another – can’t remember why, now – and wasn’t very happy. Towards the end of our meeting, she said something like “do you want to fix this problem once and for all?”. Naturally, I said yes. She explained that the cause of my lack of self-confidence was one particular event. It’s possible I wouldn’t even remember it, but this one event had started off the problem, and problems had spread like cracks ever since.

Alarm bells rang. This sounded a little dodgy. But, then, I’m not a psychologist. Maybe this was possible.

All right, I said. The good news, I was told, was that there was a way to fix this. It’s remarkably powerful, she said, and comes from neuro-linguistic programming.

Blink. I didn’t know what that was, but it sounded impressive. She had a certification in it and everything.

The answer to all my problems was ‘timeline therapy’. She had personally witnessed its amazing effects. Was I interested? I nodded. We arranged we would ‘do’ the timeline therapy the next week, and that I should bring with me a sheet of paper listing everything I disliked about myself.

So I went home. I didn’t know what to do. The skeptic in me was yelling that this sounded hokey, and I should at least do some research. But what if it did turn out to be ridiculous? I didn’t want to think any less of this woman who had helped me for the last six months. I asked Mum what she thought, and she Googled timeline therapy immediately. She read over it, and I saw her frown. She told me that it seemed ok until the last paragraph, which had started talking about past lives. Damn. I looked up neurolinguistic programming, and at the time the Skeptic’s Dictionary entry described it as a psychological technique that hadn’t been proven one way or another (at least, that’s what I remember it saying).

Then I saw a way out. Timeline therapy seemed to involve hypnosis. Great! I knew that hypnosis is still fairly mysterious, but is definitely a valid scientific area. Maybe this technique could really work.

And this is how I, die-hard skeptic, fell for one of the more ridiculous types of pseudoscience / alternative medicine. It was presented by somebody I liked, and claimed to be able to solve all my problems. I simply convinced myself that there could be something to it by latching onto the smallest area of possibility, namely hypnosis, ignoring all other evidence.

The next week I arrived, complete with a detailed list of my failings as a person that had not been fun to compile. I sat down in her office. She was confident, excited. This was going to give me a fresh start, I was going to leave the building with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. Ok. I would be open-minded.

She produced various documents. It was important that I understood the basis of timeline therapy. There are, she said, three reasons it works so well. Firstly, there’s the psychological reason. Ok. Then, there’s the metaphysical reason. More alarm bells. The word ‘metaphysics’ is a red flag for nonsense. I remember trying to push this to one side. There was still the possibility that this could work. Then came the third reason: quantum physics. My heart sank. If ‘metaphysics’ is a red flag, bringing up quantum physics is an air-raid siren. Its inherent lack of common sense lends itself to use by those who would have you believe something untrue, and any use of the term outside of a book on science is a guarantee that something is amiss. I was told that the process involved a ‘non-mirror reversal’ and asked, as somebody who’d studied physics, whether I thought made sense? Aside from the fact that A-level physics certainly doesn’t touch quantum stuff, I admitted that it didn’t. I was told that just because I may not have understood it didn’t mean it didn’t work.

Moments later, she explained the process to me. It didn’t involve any hypnosis, and that’s when the last real vestige of hope left me. I tried to bring it back, but the whole thing was too much, too ridiculous.

It was very important that she read out from a script. The conversation, as I remember it, went roughly like this:

LC: Close your eyes, and relax.
ME: Ok.
LC: Everybody has a timeline, which runs through them. This timeline represents your future and your past. I want you to visualise your timeline, and tell me in which direction it is going.
ME: (saying whatever came into my head) It’s going through me from front to back.
LC: Great. At some point in your life, there was an event that sparked off all of your troubles. You do not know where that is, but your subconscious does. We’re going to locate it. Firstly, and I want you to give me the answer that your subconscious supplies, did this event happen before, during or after your birth?

We were now firmly entrenched in woo-woo land.

ME: After.
LC: Great. I’m talking directly to your subconscious, now. What age did this happen?
ME: …
LC: Relax, and let the number come.
ME: …
LC: I want you to give me the first answer that comes into your head, as that will be the correct one. What age did this event happen?
ME: (this number did, indeed, pop into my head, presumably because that’s what happens when people tell you to think of a number) Five.
LC: Ok. Visualise yourself on your timeline.
ME: Ok.
LC: Float up and above your timeline, and move backwards along it, until you reach the age of five. Have you done that?
ME: (visualising it, and wanting to go home) Yes.
LC: Move to five minutes before the event. Feel the emotions.
ME: Ok.
LC: Move to five minutes after the event. Feel the emotions. Analyse them. Let them go.
ME: Ok.
LC: Move to the event itself. Release the emotions.
ME: Ok.
LC: Now, rise up into the air again, and come back to the present.
ME: Ok.
LC: Open your eyes.

Did I feel better, she asked. I said that I didn’t, really. She asked whether we should go through it again. I was noncommital, so we went through the whole routine once more, but much faster. Again I was asked whether I felt better. I said that I couldn’t really tell any difference. That was ok, she said, beneath the surface everything was much better, and I’d feel the effects eventually.

I tried to put up a pretense, but have never been any good at that. I was crushed, and it showed. We arranged to meet again the next week, and I left with neither spring nor smile.

That was a bad evening. I’d spent the morning writing down everything I hated about myself, and after realising that the whole thing was a con, I felt awful. My parents had paid, I kid you not, £40 a week for the life coaching, and I felt like I’d let them down. They’d spent all this money and I should have realised that it had been a waste of time.

If my life coach thought that timeline therapy was a reasonable thing to do, had everything else made any sense? The whole episode was swiftly undoing all of the good that had come before. In hindsight there had been advantages, even if they were just talking to somebody for an hour. It had helped. Confidence triggers really did work. But the whole timeline therapy thing was so far off the scale of reason that it threatened to invalidate it all.

I went back the next week, had a slightly awkward session, and she told me to see how it went from thereon, and contact her if necessary. I haven’t seen her since.

I’m in two minds about this rather sudden end: it’s entirely possible that she believed me fixed, and honestly thought I’d be fine. Or, it could be that I was clearly uninterested in her techniques, so she cut me off. I think it’s probably the former, but unfortunately can’t discount the latter.

I’m not claiming that life coaching as a whole is a con, and I don’t want to say that my life coach was a fraud. That’s clearly unfair. Much of the help she gave me was founded in psychology, and some of it was effective. My life coach gave every impression of caring deeply about helping me, and believing fully in what she was doing. It’s just that she’d been seduced by NLP, which is a real shame.

The event has made me far more aware of how easy is it to be taken in. I wouldn’t have expected that something so crazy could get in under my radar, but it did. Somebody I liked was telling me something I wanted to be true, and I actively worked against reason to convince myself that it could work.

I’ve since learnt that neurolinguistic programming is no more than a money-making scheme that has been roundly debunked in terms of both method and effectiveness. It remains a popular tool used by business, but is in reality just another con. Training costs thousands of pounds, and once you’re a ‘qualified’ practitioner you can charge large amounts of money that people will happily pay. The Skeptic’s Dictionary updated their entry, and their conclusion is:

It seems that NLP develops models which can’t be verified, from which it develops techniques which may have nothing to do with either the models or the sources of the models. NLP makes claims about thinking and perception which do not seem to be supported by neuroscience. This is not to say that the techniques won’t work. They may work and work quite well, but there is no way to know whether the claims behind their origin are valid. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. NLP itself proclaims that it is pragmatic in its approach: what matters is whether it works. However, how do you measure the claim “NLP works”? I don’t know and I don’t think NLPers know, either. Anecdotes and testimonials seem to be the main measuring devices. Unfortunately, such a measurement may reveal only how well the trainers teach their clients to persuade others to enroll in more training sessions.

A little knowledge of the techniques of pseudoscience did at least alert me to the potential quackery, even if I then ignored those signs until they became overwhelming. I certainly learnt a great deal, and am now more sympathetic to people taken in by alternative medicines.

If I ever need help again, I’ll talk to somebody scientific. Whatever a doctor would recommend.

Skeptics' circle image

Alternative Medicine: Faith-healing

The second of three BBC2 documentaries on alternative medicines was shown this evening. Last week’s covered acupuncture, and I thought it had good and bad points. After describing the theories of acupuncturists, Professor Kathy Sykes1 conducted a controlled experiment into the pain-relieving benefits of acupuncture, and found positive results. I was impressed with the methodology and the scientific attitude, but at the time I thought the show wasn’t long enough to adequately explore the topic. Acupuncture claims to be able to heal pretty much everything, after all. The logical extension would, it turns out, have overlapped with this week’s show.

The acupuncture episode ended up with an actual effect, but this time the topic was faith healing. This included mass religious healings (in Norwich!) as well as ‘spiritual healers’ on the NHS. The first 10-15 minutes showed interviews with people who claimed to have been healed, as well as doctors who have seen beneficial effects. Prof. Sykes began to investigate the methods and theories behind the practice, but ran into something of a brick wall. The only explanations that could be given were of a mystical energy which were manipulated via unknown methods. She said that there is currently nothing in science to suggest this is true, but then headed to Arizona and a government-funded study which claims to have detected these energies. This was most entertaining.

She’s a physics professor, and her reaction to the gobbledygook she found was great to watch. She was told to place her finger onto a GDV camera (which I can’t find any references to outside of pseudoscientific energy fields) and details of the magnetic, electrical and ‘scatter gas’ emissions from her finger were then shown and it was judged that these consisted of the aforementioned ‘energies’. Prof. Sykes was somewhat incredulous at this, but then she was shown a software program which mapped her ‘aura portion’. This, she discovered, was built in conjunction with faith-healers who can see the aura visibly. Outside of the laboratory, she admitted that this had actually angered her, and with good reason. You can’t claim to be scientific if you assume the effect under investigation exists.

Having established that there was nothing to the theories, Prof. Sykes then began explaining what could be causing the beneficial effects, and this was by far the most interesting part of the show. I knew something about the placebo effect, but not the power it’s been shown to have in experiments. I knew that students will get drunk on water if told it’s alcoholic, and there was a similar experiment shown involving caffeine. Further to that were studies demonstrating that surgical procedures in which nothing is performed (for example: the chest is opened, the motions are acted out, but that’s all) have the same effect as actual operations. Even more than that, sufferers of Parkinson’s disease were shown to experience actual physiological changes due to placebo alone, and it was suggested that this could be key to the whole process. Parkinson’s is related to a lack of dopamine, and this was released under placebo tablets and relieved symptoms. Dopamine, however, is released in humans and animals during periods of expectation, so it’s suggested that dopamine could, via methods currently unknown, be triggering other parts of the brain to react when placebo appears to help with other types of disease. This last theory hasn’t been shown to be true, however.

It turns out that the placebo effect has some fascinating depth: four placebo tablets will have more effect than two; some colours work better than others (no details, sadly); the ritual surrounding the placebo – the perceived complexity of the procedure, I’d guess – has a large effect. Most important, however, is the attitude of the practitioner. It seems that somebody who appears confident and assures you that their treatment will help will in themselves contribute significantly to the effect2

The whole benefit of faith-healing was put down to placebo, as you’d expect, but the show raises fascinating questions. To what extent can the placebo effect help? Is suffering to an extent illusory? Could the placebo effect make somebody feel better, if they are in fact still degrading? Also interesting, but not ethically-testable, is the negative placebo effect – could people get ill simply by being told that they will?

You have to wonder, mind, if there’s a case for not making this information widely known. If you want to harness it in medicine, surely the best technique is to implement it without telling people? Of course, maybe that’s already happening…It’s the only morally-justifiable conspiracy I’ve ever heard 🙂

Next week’s show confronts my favourite of all the alternative medicines: homeopathy. The craziness is actually quite inspired – I don’t think I could come up with anything as contrary to reality if you asked me! Although the final result is a given, it’ll be interesting to see the approach the show takes.

  1. recognisable from BBC4’s Mind Games, which I didn’t realise for aaaaages []
  2. I knew somebody who suffered from glandular fever at secondary school, and afterwards began to exhibit the signs of M.E, which is apparently quite common. She put her recovery entirely down to a new doctor who assured her that he was going to ‘get her better’ – she vividly remembered the conversation. Not scientific, but interesting 🙂 []

Astronomy / Astrology

BBC1 just now: “This is an amateur astrologer’s telescope”.

No. No it’s not. It’s not and it’s not and it’s not. It’s not. I’m extremely skeptical that astrologers have ever used telescopes.

Astrology = system of divination that uses the position of the planets, moon and sun in the twelve Zodiac positions at the moment of one’s birth to gain knowledge of the future; bullshit
Astronomy = the study of celestial bodies and the universe as a whole; wonderful

‘course, I can see how people mix up the words, which is probably what happened. There must be a clever way of remembering, like stationery / stationary’s ‘e for envelopes’.

Hmmm. All I can come up with is:

Astrology has ‘log’ in it. Logs are brown, and so is shit.

Well, it works for remembering which colour a plug’s live wire is…You think that’d make it into textbooks?


Other suggestions:

L for Lies (by Ed)
L for Libra