Soft Targets

Like Noel O’Hare, I attended the September Skeptics’ conference. Noel, winner of an NZ Skeptics Bravo Award “for critical analysis and common sense for his health column throughout 1997”, had a gripe (Shadow Of Doubt, Listener, 19 September 1998). He accused us of favouring “soft targets — psychics, New Age fads, alternative medicine, astrology.” “Poking fun at Creationists or crystal healers,” he wrote, “may produce a warm glow of superiority — but doesn’t change much.”

More important issues we avoid, he said, were economic theory and political ideology. He said that research shows the widely supported doctrine of competition, which underpins our economic (and education) system, almost never works. Good on him! He’s obviously a healthy sceptic. But a true sceptic must produce proof that theories he or she is discrediting are incorrect. This is practically impossible with subjects like economy, politics, philosophy and even writing, which he later suggested we should be examining.

So rather than “favouring soft targets”, we’re taking apart the obviously fraudulent, such as magicians, faith healers, clairvoyants, chelationists, herbalists and some doctors, judges, news reporters, scientists, pharmacists, nutritionalists and broadcasters, when they dishonestly fleece the naive. And these are hardly “soft targets”. Many behave like wounded bulls when they are rumbled.

Lastly, Noel O’Hare asked why skeptics have been silent about the Teletubbies. I’ll tell him why. They’re there! Their existence is fact. You may not like them, but you have to accept their being. Ours is to expose the adulterated, not shout the bleedin’ obvious.

Poor Marketing

I sat next to Bob Jones at the conference and found him an outrageous fellow. He then disappointed me, with his speech, when he demonstrated a total and complete misunderstanding of skeptics. He equated us with religious bigots and flat Earthlings. So he’s no different to the public at large. However, he certainly re-enforced my belief that we do not communicate too well. “You need to be more assertive,” he kept shouting. He’s right of course — although this attitude didn’t get him too far in politics.

It’s not our name that needs changing, but our image.

Prize Quack

My award this issue goes to Dr John Briffa, who has a regular column in the British Daily Mail. He has just devoted over half his page in that influential journal (21 September 1998) to a woman who cured her rheumatism with a magnetic bracelet. No other explanations were forthcoming from him. No scientific examination or discussion of the natural history of disease, placebo effect, spontaneous remission, medical trials etc. He summed up by quoting the lady, “It may not work for everyone, but I urge people to give it a try.”

Noel O’Hare and Bob Jones regard sceptics as not only lacking influence but also importance. But this one unethical doctor demonstrates just how crucial our role is. His “expert” advice, avidly scooped up by hundreds of thousands of sufferers, is probably causing unbelievable disappointment and suffering. He does it for two reasons. Money and status. Without sceptics, Dr Briffa and his like breed and grow unchecked, like an epidemic of diarrhoea. And if sceptics don’t stop em, who will?

Another doctor with questionable motives, Dr John Hedley, writes in Pharmac’s just-released 1998 annual review that the wave of enthusiasm for evidence-based medicine “has a backwash in which the latest published data can put blinkers on doctors’ judgement”.

Pharmac, a tax-funded organisation designed to save millions, has this year put enormous pressure on both doctors and patients to change to medicines produced by drug companies with whom they have struck a financial deal. By withdrawing their financial subsidy they place doctors in the almost impossible position of having to ask patients to change from their well tolerated and curative drugs, on to those with less scientifically established safety, efficiency or reasonable side-effect profile.

Dr Hedley says that just because one brand of medicine is cheaper, it doesn’t mean that it lacks similar effects to the drug that it is replacing. This is misleading, because doctors are not only being forced to change the brand, but also the type of drug. Anyone can see where this is leading. The profession and their patients are submitting to enforced second-rate medicine. The trouble is that the changes often end up costing the taxpayer more, as the mistakes for trying out unproven cost-cutting methods are uncovered by subsequent management regimes.

The most likely positive spin-off from the present health changes, however, will be that evidence-based medicine will be the only treatment funded by health departments of the future. This will force my alternative colleagues into honest employment, or unfunded magic.

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