Tim Minchin’s rather brilliant poem Storm is being made into a film. You can see the newly released trailer above. The full poem (available here) tells a rather familiar story for thinking people: how do you react when cornered by absurd ‘alternative’ thinking in a social situation? In Storm, Tim describes a North London dinner party situation where the eponymous guest starts spouting fluffy headed views on alternative medicine. What to do? Bite your lip and preserve the social harmony, or let out the bottled anger building up inside and ‘rock the boat’?
You see, as someone who rejects the fluffy thinking of quackery, we are made to look like extremists. When so many hold at least partially accepting views on alternative medicine (“Well of course I don’t believe in [that quackery], but once I tried [this quackery] for my bad back/ME/electrosensitivity, and I was cured, and I am not easily taken in by such things.” Sigh. ) we are easily portrayed as being narrow minded and rude. We live in a society when the unwritten rules of polite conversation state that we should agree, when we have opposing views on a subject, that the truth can happily live somewhere in between our views. And as such, our pleasant dinner party remains convivial.
But Truth knows no such compromise. Reality will not obligingly drift into the middle of our positions for us. On questions of science, it is quite possible for people to be utterly wrong. And sometimes this matters. Flaky views on medicine are not harmless – they have great powers to harm. Our social compromise is often preventing dangerous views from being challenged. But maybe times are changing a little bit. Maybe holding dangerous views about vaccines or homeopathic pills is becoming less socially acceptable these days. Comics like Dara O’Briain routinely mock homeopaths. TV comics like Mitchell and Webb have done the same thing with their classic Homeopathy A&E sketch. And newcomer Tim Minchin is regularly appearing on shows like Jonathan Ross. And Ross himself even took his family to the weekend long James Randi’s TAMLondon 2009.
But there is a way to go. Belief in alternative medicine is seen as normal in so many areas of life. We saw a bizarre exchange in the House of Lords this week on the regulation of astrology where Baroness Thornton stated, “Complementary and alternative medicine therapies have proven to be effective, cost-effective and safe.” Where she got that notion from I am not sure.
In the Telegraph, the actress Julia Sawalha provided us with a Perfect Storm moment when she discussed her medical preparations for her holidays. In a moment of total irresponsibility and stupidity she promoted homeopathy for the prevention of malaria,
What do you always take with you?
My homeopathic kit; it’s got 36 homeopathic remedies that have rescued me from food poisoning and infection many a time. I don’t get inoculations or take anti-malaria tablets when I go abroad, I take the homeopathic alternative, called “nosodes”, and I’m the only one who never goes down with anything.
It is worth reminding ourselves once again how even the Queen’s homeopath condemns such dangerous nonsense. Dr Peter Fisher says,
I’m very angry about it because people are going to get malaria – there is absolutely no reason to think that homeopathy works to prevent malaria and you won’t find that in any textbook or journal of homeopathy so people will get malaria, people may even die of malaria if they follow this advice.
Sawalha feels comfortable risking her own life by being unprotected against a fatal disease. What is worse is the Telegraph also feels comfortable allowing her to promote this nonsense to its readers. Julia Sawalha’s own contradictory position is exposed by herself when she describes her ‘Worst holiday experience’,
Falling ill in Nepal. I’d been travelling around India and when I got to Nepal the air was very fresh and I took loads of deep breaths. But I must have got something airborne, because within two hours I went down. I lay in my sleeping bag for three days, shivering and unable to move. I couldn’t eat or drink or lift my head off the pillow.
So much for her 36 homeopathic travel remedies that makes sure she is the ’only one who never goes down with anything’.
But society appears to not just accept, but also applaud more concerted attempts to promote nonsense pseudo-medical beliefs. Take Dounne Alexander who set up Gramma’s, “an ethical enterprise, specializing in the manufacture of traditional herbal foods”. Gramma’s makes ‘healing cuisine’ and includes a range of sauces, seasonings and herbal teas. Alexander has won many awards for her entrepreneurship. Most notably she received in 2006 an MBE for ‘services to the food industry’.
Now Dounne may have received the highest blessing from Her Majesty, and received orders for her products from Waitrose, Sainsburys, Harrods, Selfridges and Fortnum and Mason, but she has also attracted the attention of various regulatory authorities. You see, Dounne Alexander does not just claim her foods are healthy. On her web sites she includes testimonials about how the teas appear to treat cancer.
My dog had cancer lumps in his mouth which had swollen up like the size of two eggs. It was bleeding and dripping and I had to follow him around with a towel.
After giving him Zara’s Herbal Tea for ten days, I noticed the lumps have gotten smaller – (still there but hardly noticeable). The bleeding has also stopped.
She appears to be quite aware that making claims to treat cancer with her foods would be illegal. Her web site tells us that,
‘So you think nothing can heal cancer?!’
Did you know…
1939 CANCER ACT makes it illegal for any natural product (i.e. herbal food, remedy or supplement) to make health claims on their benefits? Even if proven safe and effective, it is a criminal offence to promote or sell it
This does not appear to stop her saying that “See how our products combined with a balanced diet can help fight against this list of common illnesses …i.e. Cancer, diabetes, heart conditions, etc”.
We are then led to a page that describes all sorts of nonsense quackery.
The main reason we become ill is because our ‘BLOOD’ has turned ACID instead of ALKALINE. Scientific evidence has shown that disease cannot survive in ‘alkaline-blood’. Acidity is caused from a deficiency of essential ‘vitamins & minerals’ in our daily diet.
Which is, of course, complete gobbledygook. The foods are described as having medicinal properties, such as,
ZARA’S HERBAL TEA: powerful ‘blood cleanser and immune strengthener’. Power packed with essential ‘blood cleaning’ medicinal herbs which provides the balance between what we ‘eat & drink’.
More utter nonsense.
The Advertising Standards Authority decided that an advert of Dounne’s did not meet their ‘social responsibility’ guidelines. The advert contained the endorsement,
After a consultation last week, my skin cancer appears to be clearing up. This I believe is a direct result of taking ZARA’S HERBAL TEA ‘neat’. I am astounded by these results as this is after only 1 month
And now Dounne Alexander appears to be complaining that the MHRA have stopped her selling this tea as they regard it as a medicine. Naturally, Dounne is furious (pdf), and sounding just like Minchin’s Storm, she says,
It’s hard to find any justification other than the elimination of competition by destroying health businesses to secure maximum profits for the pharmaceutical industry.
Alternatively, Dounne, it could be that suggesting your tea had cancer healing medicinal properties is completely irresponsible when there is no good reason to believe this to be true.
I am sure that both Julia Sawalha and Dounne Alexander MBE would be charming and entertaining dinner party guests. However, with increasing awareness of this sort of dangerous nonsense, I am afraid a small crack might appear in my diplomacy dyke.