Monthly Archives: March 2012

“The Skeptic” magazine article and public appearances

Hello, world.

I’m about to recommend a wonderful magazine to you for two reasons. One is altruistic and the other is shameless attention seeking.

The Skeptic is a quarterly published magazine produced by the Australian Skeptics Inc. It’s over 30 years old and features some incredibly diverse articles on all matters sceptical. Being produced by Australians means that it focuses on issues affecting us specifically, but there is plenty of international news and opinion in there to cater the most well-travelled sceptic.

I highly recommend that you subscribe to this magazine not just for your own sake, but also to support the Australian Skeptics who do an amazing job at promoting science and scepticism and tirelessly fighting against woo. At $44 a year it’s a complete steal.

Also, the latest issue has a feature article written by yours truly titled School of Thought which details some of my experiences and some advice for anybody thinking of following suit. I fully expect my Mum to subscribe for this reason alone.

Additionally, I’ll be giving some public talks throughout the year. They will (obviously) be about the sceptical society and what I’ve learnt from the experience. The dates are:

24th of May, 7:30pm- Humanist Society of Victoria (Balwyn Library, 336 Whitehorse Rd, Balwyn)

5th June, 7:30pm – Mordialloc Skeptics (Mordialloc Sporting Club, 528 Main St, Mordialloc

20th August, 8pm (dinner from 6pm) – Vic Skeptics (La Notte Restaurant, 140 Lygon St, Carlton)

I’d love to see people come along to have a listen and a chat. The more the merrier!

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Placebos and ethics

Would you give a placebo to somebody who has a minor headache? A stomach infection? Been hit by a bus?

How would you feel if you discovered your doctor had given you fake medicine?

We discussed these questions today, in our first session for two weeks and last session for three. With public holidays, school holidays and camps we haven’t been able to meet as often as we’d like but the kids made a good show by turning up today.

Last week we chatted about placebos. What they are, how they work and what can they do. During the discussion I asked the question “is it ethical to prescribe placebos to patients” and was suddenly assailed by hands in the air and comments being called out. Not wanting to skim over the issue I took a few comments and told them that we’d spend an entire session discussion next time.

We had a quick recap to refresh students of the nature of placebos and got a few questions out of the way. Placebos can be sugar pills, but aren’t vitamin tablets sort of placebos too? Yes actually, a type known as an ‘impure placebo’. Still containing an active substance, but one that isn’t really going to do anything.

We talked about endorphins and how their production can aid the body with pain relief. If smiling can produce them then surely a placebo can too. This takes the placebo effect out the purely psychological realm and implies a physiological response. Doesn’t this mean that placebos can actually change things in the body?

(Clearly, I am not a doctor. If any medical-type people notice that I’ve made a mistake, please pull me up on it.)

I asked them how they’d feel if they discovered that a doctor had given them a placebo. The response was varied.

“I’d be angry at first, but I think I’d get over it if it had actually worked.”

“I’d only be angry if it didn’t work at all.”

“I wouldn’t trust that doctor and would stop seeing them”

Most of them didn’t seem too bothered about the idea. Ultimately, they seemed to feel that as long as it worked it was ok to do.

A few other comments came up about this. One girl suggested that it would be ethical if it was for treating a minor problem, but only if it was a minor problem. She didn’t like the idea of  a pure placebo being given to somebody who needed real medicine. Another student felt that it was probably ok if it was a last resort. If the doctor that there was legitimately nothing else that could be done then a placebo would be fine just to make the patient feel hopeful. Some other students disagreed though and thought that false hope was worse than no hope at all because it prevents people from truly dealing with their illness.

One of my regulars girls thought that it would be fine to give to kids or hypochondriacs, just to shut them up for a while. I couldn’t really disagree with this.

We only had minutes to go before the bell rang so I asked them what they thought would happen if the public found out that doctors all over the country were using placebos. Most of the responses involved rioting, revolution and mass litigation but a calmer student prevailed and suggested that perhaps people would stop going to doctors altogether and instead get absorbed into the world of CAM.

A horrible thought, but fortunately the bell rang before they time to see my tears.

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If you offer them free stuff, they will come.

Numbers have been down recently due to other lunchtime commitments so I needed someway to trick them into appearing. Fortunately, I had a box full of Placebo Bands at home courtesy of the wonderful Nick Croucher from the SkepticBros. I advertised in the school bulletin that there would be prizes given out and it seemed to work. I had over forty kids eagerly awaiting my words of wisdom. And free stuff.

I asked the kids first about what they knew of placebos. Most of them knew that they were fake drugs that could have real affects depending on the recipient’s belief. They didn’t know a lot of the more interesting stuff though. I showed them this video to get them thinking:

Here are some of the more interesting points:

  • Two placebos are stronger than one
  • Capsules are stronger than pills
  • Expensive placebos work better than cheap ones
  • People in different countries react different to placebos
  • Actual medicine also has a placebo affect
  • You can get addicted to placebos and suffer withdrawal when being taken off them

Of course the kids were fascinated by this, not having realised just how powerful placebos were. We spoke about how a placebo might help with a headache but not with a broken limb and about how they can work on animals (they affect the owner’s impression of the animal’s health).

After a few minutes of discussion I got hit with a question from a year 7 girl which I completely loved.

“Can you overdose on placebos?”

I loved the question because I didn’t know the answer. I immediately thought of James Randi overdosing on homeopathic sleeping pills, but he knew that they were inert. If people can suffer withdrawal from placebos couldn’t they also overdose? I have no idea! Hopefully some research or smarter people than I will help.

We ran out of time to discuss the ethics of placebos but got some interesting points from the kids. They were really mixed as to whether or not doctors should prescribe placebos. Some felt that it was ok as long as the condition being treated wasn’t too severe. Others felt that it should only ever be a last resort. We’ll delve further into this topic next week.

Before we finished I got a volunteer up to demonstrate the Power Balance Band scam. Instead of using a “real” band, I used one of the placebo bands. Here’s a video of Richard Saunders explaining how it works:

The kids enjoyed the show and enjoyed getting a free band even more. They found it pretty unbelievable that so many people could be suckered in with a magic trick. They all promised to annoy their family and friends with demonstrations in the next week. And annoying family and friends is what we’re all about.

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How does Astrology work?

Today we talked about Astrology and how exactly it’s supposed to work. Pretty much everybody has heard of astrology and understands a little bit about it, but one thing that seems vague is its mechanism. What on Earth (or not on Earth) is actually happening?

One obvious idea is gravity. Somehow the gravity of the stars is meant to influence our decisions and destinies. This isn’t one of the most thrown about ideas because it is so easily debunked. The gravity of the Earth overwhelms every other astronomical body out there that the idea is ridiculous. Even the moon has a minuscule affect on us. Me sitting on my computer is having more influence on you than all of the stars in the zodiac put together.

Astrology powerpoint

The main concept that seems to be believed in is the idea of universal ‘connectedness’. Apparently the planets and stars and UFOs all have some kind of intrinsic connection to us. It’s vague and metaphysical and probably also quantum. It can’t be detected because science isn’t advanced enough. It can’t be disproven because nobody really seems to know what it is. Talk to an astrologer or read a website and you’ll never get a straight answer.

The students were interested in the various theories. One of my girls made a point about the use of the word ‘connected’. She mentioned that economists talk about the world being more connected nowadays and asked why it was ok for them to use it but not the astrologers. She’s one of my most hardcore sceptics and I love how she plays devil’s advocate and questions me in order to further the discussion. Her question led to a chat about the difference between people using a word correctly and people just throwing terms around. It really depends on who is using it and in what context. A physicist saying something is ‘quantum’ is probably trustworthy but I get suspicious when reiki masters use it.

We’ll probably continue the astrology discussion next week. Coming up, placebos!

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