World Wide Weirdness Shootout – updated

January 27th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in africa, alternative medicine, bad science, matthias rath, MMR, nutritionists, religion, scare stories | 59 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday January 27, 2007
The Guardian

I’m not a complicated man – as my girlfriend could happily tell you – but I do get a bit worried about these stories I’ve been emailed, where African people say something stupid about the science of Aids and we all laugh at them. To be fair, the facts don’t make it easy for me to be this sanctimonious. The Gambian president, Yahya Jammeh, has just this week disclosed that he can personally cure HIV, Aids and asthma, using charisma, magic and charms. “The cure is a day’s treatment” he says: “asthma, five minutes”. HIV and Aids cases can be treated on Thursdays, and within three days the person should be tested again. “I can tell you that he/she will be negative.”

Gambian bloggers have described the president – the president! – marching triumphantly into hospitals and leaving patients vomiting and in agony. It’s hard to tell what the treatments involve, but Jammeh explains his patients are not allowed to eat seafood or peppers, and “they should be kept at a place that has adequate toilets facilities, because they can be going to toilet every five minutes.” The official news source meanwhile – in a country where journalists have been imprisoned and shot dead in unexplained circumstances – reported that the president’s curative power left doctors and nurses “mesmerised and stunned“.

Medicine deals in biblical themes like life and death, tragedy, and pain, and so naturally it’s a magnet for superstitious beliefs. But – torturing despot though he may be – I’m not sure the president is alone in this fruitcakery.

We actively export our superstition: there’s the white European nutritionist Matthias Rath from last week, out there in South Africa, selling his ridiculous vitamin pills with the message that they are better than antiretroviral medications, with a sturdy influence over Thabo Mbeki.

And people are still dying of polio, simply because of a deluded anti-vaccination movement causing havoc and death in northern Nigeria; its anti-vaccination propaganda would sound eerily familiar to your ears, because it gleans moral and intellectual inspiration, unfortunately, from its cosier cousins bravely campaigning against MMR in Hampstead.


Jammeh & Bush

We have superstition in our own despotic leaders, of course. Over here it just makes them discriminate against gay people, but in America everything’s bigger. Like Pepfar, the grandiosely named Presidential Emergency Plan For Aids Relief: among its many bizarre manoeuvres, Christian moral superstition made Pepfar demand that every recipient of aid money sign a declaration, promising not to touch sex workers.

This may be insensitive to the Christian value system, but to me, sex workers and Aids policy do go very naturally together. Because science, viruses, microscopes and drugs are one thing, but if you secure the legal rights of sex workers to be free from violence and discrimination, you empower them to demand universal condom use, and that way, you stop HIV being spread into the whole community).

But of course these superstitious Christians don’t like condoms either; or needle exchanges, because their moral principle of abstinence is more important than saving lives.

And then there are the widespread financial superstitions. I hate to break it to the shareholders out there, but it’s pretty obvious to us non-believers that people in Africa have never bought – and will never buy – your new patented Aids drugs: you know, the ones with better side effects. But they hold on to the dream, they can’t step outside the frame and give them away, in the developing world, off-patent.

Last year 2.8 million people died of Aids, and 40 million are HIV positive. This is an illness that laughs at our superstitions, it laughs at our politics, it dwarfs our wars, it laughs at our quackery, our love of money, and it shows up our morality as nothing more than vanity. In no sense does the president of the Gambia stand out of this picture as being particularly weird.

· Ben Goldacre won the Royal Statistical Society’s inaugural award for statistical excellence in journalism last week.

EDIT:

Holy crap, the Gambian Observer is reporting that he’s been successful!

Jammeh’s Breakthrough Nine HIV/AIDS patients cured

Now Video Here:

news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30200-1252349,00.html


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59 Responses



  1. apothecary said,

    February 2, 2007 at 12:25 pm

    Thanks for that @ 48:

    >>Jesus might have existed (there is some evidence beyond the bible that he did), but as for the resurrection, well its just a bunch of arse isn’t it? Dead people don’t rise from the grave whether its written in a book or not. Apologies if you find that offensive – its not meant to be

    None taken!

    “Why would he [address the issue]”? Its the crucial question. In falsificationist terms, its the criterion on which Christianity stands or falls and is openly admitted and positively declared as such- see I Corr 15: 12-19 (its at www.biblegateway.com/passage/?book_id=53&chapter=15&version=31&context=chapter, if you want to see). Summary – if Jesus wasn’t raised, its all a lie. One can’t say “in the absence of any evidence to the contrary I must assume that God does not exist”, and ignore this crucial bit of (alleged) evidence, which if true provides strong positive evidence and if false blows Christianity out of the water

    So – no-one seriously doubts that in the 1st Century CE Roman province of Judea, there was an itinerant preacher named Jesus bar Joseph who got a lot of people exited, p*ssed off the authorities (Roman and Jewish) and ended up being executed. There were many people like that. But the difference from the others was that starting three days later (counting inclusively, like all ancient peoples did) his followers turned from a frightened, scattered, disillusioned group to one that was boldly telling people Jesus was alive again. And claiming that large numbers (up to several hundred) people had seen him again, spoken, eaten and drunk with him – including people who had spent the last three years or so wandering the country with him, so presumably knew him very well. And were prepared to stick to their stories in spite of particularly unpleasant torture and death. But surely, as JJ Hankinson said “dead people don’t rise from the grave”. So what other possible explanations are there?

    1 – he wan’t really dead. Well he was executed by trained professionals well used to that method of execution. Luke (a physician) wrote that they stuck a spear into his heart to confirm death and “out came blood and water” – sounds like post-mortem separation of cellular components and plasma to me. He was also sealed in a cold tomb and left. I guess with modern ITU facilities a top team might be able to save someone whose been crucified and exposed for several hours (after a severe flogging too) – but that really wasn’t the situation here

    2 – the authorities removed the body. Clearly the way to snuff out any rumours would have been to display it, so that doesn’t work either

    3 – the followers hid the body, and concocted stories about meeting the risen Jesus later. Surely the truth would have got out eventually. And would so many people be prepared to stand by their stories that they’d seen and interacted with the risen Jesus, in the face of torture, execution, etc, if they knew it was all a hoax?

    4- the followers found the wrong tomb, saw it was empty and claimed it was a miracle. Well, the authorities could easily have displyed the body (as in 2) and anyway, people claimed to have seen and interacted with a risen Jesus (see also 3)

    5 – it was a mass delusion/hallucination. Many people who have lost someone close to them have had the experience of thinking they see them again, then realising it was someone else. This was different. Witnesses recount talking with, eating and drinking with a risen Jesus, over a long period of time (40 days or more) – large numbers of witnesses, many of whom knew the (pre-mortem) Jesus extremely well and so would not have been taken in by an imposter over that length of time.

    I can’t think of any other possible explanations (short of time travel, alien abduction, etc). So having eliminated those, I’m left concluding that the only explanation, however improbable, is that Jesus really did “rise from the grave”.

    It’s up to you. That’s my “witness statement” as it were. I’m not trying to convert anyone – that is emphatically not my job. I’m only trying to demonstrate that mine is not “blind faith”, or something that deep down I know is untrue, or something that I want to believe because it makes me feel better or I think will make me a better person. I’m trying (a la Socrates) to follow the argument wherever it takes me. If someone happens to come to the same conclusion as me – fine. I don’t get any benefit from that, no extra “spiritual brownie points”, no financial or other benefit, nothing. If they don’t – well, as I said, they have my sincere respect.

    This has been my third long post and I do apologise if this is getting tedious. We are also, I suspect and as jj-hankinson implies, moving very off-topic. I think its best to stop posting on this now, as I don’t want to trespass further on the group’s (or Ben’s) patience. If you’ve read this far – thanks.

  2. jj_hankinson said,

    February 2, 2007 at 1:01 pm

    Apothecary, re: post #51:

    “But the difference from the others was that starting three days later (counting inclusively, like all ancient peoples did) his followers turned from a frightened, scattered, disillusioned group to one that was boldly telling people Jesus was alive again. And claiming that large numbers (up to several hundred) people had seen him again, spoken, eaten and drunk with him – including people who had spent the last three years or so wandering the country with him, so presumably knew him very well. And were prepared to stick to their stories in spite of particularly unpleasant torture and death. But surely, as JJ Hankinson said “dead people don’t rise from the grave”. So what other possible explanations are there?”

    And your evidence for all of this is…? All these claims are in the Bible, which is a book written and edited by lots of different people over a period of several hundred years. Any belief based purely on what the bible says is somewhat flawed. You wouldn’t even get away with using it as evidence in a GCSE History class… its second or third hand, written by a biased source and most of it can’t be confirmed by referencing other texts from that time.

    And with all due respect, you only need to look at recent incidents like the Jonestown Massacre to realise that people will blindly follow charismatic leaders with very little trouble.

    Do you equally believe in the flood that Noah survived? Or is that one just a nice story? Or doesn’t that count because its in the Old Testament and no-one really believes that anyway?

    This is why I find literalist believers much easier to understand. At least I know they view their holy texts as literal and 100% fact.

  3. apothecary said,

    February 2, 2007 at 3:24 pm

    >>All these claims are in the Bible, which is a book written and edited by lots of different people over a period of several hundred years

    They are, but I wasn’t relying on any (solely) biblical claim. The claim of the resurrection was made consistently by people at the time, before as well as after the gospels were written, and there is external evidence for that (ie that the claim was made). Persecution of Christians started pretty much soon after the resurrection, largely because they were making claims which ran counter to religious orthodoxy and/or threatened state security.

    I then tried to apply reason to the problem (these people all said it happened – can we really believe it) and worked it out from there.

    WRT OT stories – we haven’t got space here for discussion of Myth (technical use) vs history, the nature of different types of biblical writing, etc.

    >>And with all due respect, you only need to look at recent incidents like the Jonestown Massacre to realise that people will blindly follow charismatic leaders with very little trouble.

    this is undoubtedly true, but I’m not sure I see why you raise that – sorry. It wasn’t one or two people who claimed they had met the risen Jesus, and then persuaded others, it was lots. OK I know this is internal evidence, but Paul (writing a letter) not many years after the resurrection said “look, Jesus appeared to lots of people, some of them are dead, but many are still around – don’t trust just my word, ask them” That doesn’t suggest to me someone who was trying to deceive others – it would have to have been a pretty huge conspiracy and as they saying goes “two people can only keep a secret if one of them’s dead”

    >>This is why I find literalist believers much easier to understand. At least I know they view their holy texts as literal and 100% fact.

    So – if we swallow everything literally without engaging brain, we’re naive fools, and if we try to apply some intellectual process we’re sophists? Can’t win then :-) ! (That is not intended to be offensive)

  4. apothecary said,

    February 2, 2007 at 5:04 pm

    re 49 _ sorry, posts crossed so didn’t see this til now

    >>have any of you dealt with the issues of the revalation of the Qur’an to the Prophet by the Angel Gabriel in a serious way?

    That claim is based on one person’s (ie Mohammed’s) testimony that it happened, it can’t be tested in the same way.

    >>One might have assumed, speaking as a layman, that Jesus would have thought to mention something that important.

    Islam was founded several centuries after the gospels were written, so presumably that specific issue didn’t come up at the time. :-)

    That really is the end of posts from me on this topic. If others want to carry it on, go ahead without me. Thank you for reading if you’ve got this far, and thank you especially to my interlocutors – I have found your contributions very interesting and thought provoking (that may sound a bit patronising – it really isn’t intended to be).

  5. killary45 said,

    February 3, 2007 at 12:54 pm

    Aspiring Pedant (45) While I am glad that my post has encouraged someone has looked at the data about relative rates of HIV/AIDS in countries in which the Catholic church has influence, I am sure that you will agree (and presumably do not claim) that it is not possible to prove or disprove a correlation by picking out a few individual elements of the data.

    I have done a correlation analysis of the full data which clearly supports my argument. When I get time to write it up properly I shall publish the figures in a blog so that they can be criticised and commented on. I hope that In that way the debate about this subject can be better informed.

  6. Aspiring Pedant said,

    February 3, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    Killary45,

    I only gave a few examples, but I have have looked at a great deal of data and can see no correlation between religion and aids rates. While Catholic countries in Western Europe have higher aids rates than non-Catholic, I very much doubt that Catholicism is a causal factor. In other parts of the world making comparisons is difficult. There are no non-Catholic countries in South & Central America, for example. Similarly, there are few Catholic countries in Africa.

    I’d be very interested in seeing your data and analysis and if you can produce data to support your argument please do so, otherwise it looks like you’re bluffing.

  7. Robert Carnegie said,

    February 3, 2007 at 1:56 pm

    I found online a summary of a debunking of “Hitler was a vegetarian”, but the principal evidence seemed to be a statement by someone who cooked for him before he allegedly switched to a vegetarian diet. That wasn’t very convincing. Apparently at that time he often ate poultry and fish but not red meat. He was then advised by a doctor to go vegetarian.

    So according to this version, he wasn’t vegetarian from birth or from adulthood and it wan’t from conviction but on specific and personal grounds of health, but if that’s as rebutted as it gets… I mean you don’t think he was sorry for the animals? (Then again… I can see that too. He was a vicious man but his viciousness may have run in some particular channels and not in others. Please don’t think I’m a fan.)

  8. jj_hankinson said,

    February 5, 2007 at 12:55 pm

    We’re way OT here (Ben – tell us to clam up if this is not the place for this…), but:

    Apothecary: post #53:

    “They are, but I wasn’t relying on any (solely) biblical claim. The claim of the resurrection was made consistently by people at the time, before as well as after the gospels were written, and there is external evidence for that (ie that the claim was made). Persecution of Christians started pretty much soon after the resurrection, largely because they were making claims which ran counter to religious orthodoxy and/or threatened state security.

    I then tried to apply reason to the problem (these people all said it happened – can we really believe it) and worked it out from there. ”

    Apologies if I missed this, but where is the evidence that lots of people saw Jesus post-resurrection (other than the Bible)? People still claim this today, but they got their evidence from the Bible and church from what I can see – this is not what I would call a quality source of evidence.

    The fact that Christians were persecuted by the Romans isn’t really evidence either way. The Romans persecuted a lot of different peoples!

  9. Ben Goldacre said,

    February 21, 2007 at 10:47 am

    apparently sky have video of this man here:

    news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30200-1252349,00.html