The Blairs’ Witch Project

May 12th, 2007 by Ben Goldacre in alternative medicine, bad science, dangers, MMR, religion | 69 Comments »

Ben Goldacre
Saturday May 12, 2007
The Guardian

So normally you just wouldn’t bother with the New Age stuff. The people are pretty friendly and harmless, and they tend not to make too many scientific claims. But Tony Blair stepped over some pretty significant lines.

In 2002 he refused to say whether his son Leo had received the MMR vaccine. From survey data, this was the fact the public remembered best about the vaccine, and it was this move that drove the story away from the specialist health journalists, and into the rabid hands of the generalists.

From that day on, we got our advice on complex immunological and epidemiological issues from political diarists and lifestyle columnists. It’s testament to the poor quality of popular rhetoric on the subject that public perception of the vaccine only recently improved, and not in response to the mass of data showing it to be safe (which has been systematically ignored by all corners of the media), but rather when it was shown that Dr Andrew Wakefield had received hundreds of thousands of pounds for work done for lawyers making a case for MMR’s dangerousness.

We don’t know whether baby Leo eventually received the MMR jab. But what is more interesting is what the Blairs may have done instead. You might remember Carole Caplin, the intuitive people person and life coach who was taken in by convicted fraudster Peter Foster. He did the Blairs’ property deals, of course, and he also says that they took Leo to a New Age healer, Jack Temple, who offered crystal dowsing, homoeopathy, herbalism, and neolithic circle healing in his back garden.

Apparently, says Foster, the prime minister agreed to this bloke waving a crystal pendulum over his son to protect him (and therefore his classmates, of course) from measles, mumps and rubella. And Foster also reckoned that Tony let Cherie give Temple some of his own hair and nail clippings. Temple, who died in 2004, preserved these cuttings in jars of alcohol and said that he only needed to swing his pendulum over the jar to know if the owner was healthy or ill.

Using this crystal dowsing pendulum, Temple claimed he could harness energy from heavenly bodies, and offered remedies with names like Volcanic Memory, Rancid Butter, Monkey Sticks, Banana Stem and my own personal favourite Sphincter, perhaps for courage. Temple was one well-connected cookie. Jerry Hall endorses him. The Duchess of York wrote the introduction to his book.

How likely does all of this sound? It’s just so unrelenting. Cherie Blair was a regular visitor to Carole’s mum, Sylvia Caplin, a spiritual guru. “There was a particularly active period in the summer when Sylvia was channelling for Cherie over two or three times a week, with almost daily contact between them,” the Mail reported. “There were times when Cherie’s faxes ran to 10 pages.”

Sylvia was viciously anti-MMR, as are most alternative therapists. “It has definitely caused autism,” she told the Telegraph. “All the denials that come from the old school of medicine are open to question because logic and common sense must tell you that there’s some toxic substance in it.” One source even claimed that Cherie Blair and Carole Caplin encouraged the prime minister to have Sylvia “douse and consult The Light, believed by Sylvia to be a higher being or God, by use of her pendulum” to decide if it was safe to go to war in Iraq.

And of course the Times described the Blairs’ holiday in Temazcal, Mexico, where they rubbed fruits and mud over each other’s bodies inside a large pyramid on the south end of the beach, and then screamed whilst going through a new age rebirthing ritual. Then they made a wish for world peace.

In my mind, weapons of mass destruction which can be mobilised in 45 minutes are from the same category as creationism and Light Beings. And people who perform New Age peace rituals before initiating death/war situations remind me of those house guests who get outrageously drunk on wine, after extra portions of pudding, and then eat seeds with seaweed juice for breakfast the next morning. Washed down with a sanctimonious speech on alternative lifestyles.

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69 Responses

  1. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2007 at 10:33 am


    Nature identifies “more money going in” but does not discuss “where it goes”.

    As in much else the Labour Govt has done, science has seen an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots alongside the increased overall funding.

    The problem with this in science is decreased diversity within research and particularly the loss of skills seen as less “productive”. For instance, in the biosciences most of the money has gone into molecular cell biology (which is fair enough) but other areas have been starved as they are perceived to be old-fashioned.

    To give an example of the consequences, we now get 100+ trained molecular biologists applying for any job in molecular biology. Meanwhile the PharmaCos cannot find UK-trained people who know how to anaesthetise an animal and monitor (say) its blood pressure and urine output.

  2. superburger said,

    May 17, 2007 at 10:50 am

    It’s true – all the chemistry and physics departments closing down…

    This bizarre obsession with nano-everything is beyond me too.

    I know it’s wrong, but i’m bored, bored, bored with climate change as well.

  3. Lurkinggherkin said,

    May 17, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    59 (apart from quantum physics)

    I don’t know how you resisted the urge to say “which might or might not be”

  4. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2007 at 5:44 pm

    Agreed re stem cells, Gimpy.

    Stem Cells (“Britain Leads The World! Hurrah!”) is what I call a “Interdisciplinary Scepticism-Suspended Snouts-in-Trough-in” (ISSSiT).

    i.e., if you can re-badge what you do as:

    Stem Cells! New! Pioneering! Cure the Incurable! The Paralysed Will Walk!

    …You are now suddenly fundable, whereas before you were just another plodding hack.

    Bioscience, as you’ve no doubt seen, is full of people (from all disciplines) who now say they are working on stem cells.

    The last great example of a runaway ISSSiT was Gene Therapy. I used to work in a solidly good-science-but-not-world-beating physiology lab which then turned “gene delivery” – the difference in spin-fueled fundability was startling.

    Of course, one struggles to think of any examples of how gene therapy has revolutionised patient care.. or indeed made any difference at all to anything much.

    More Initiative-itis.

    So… the rush to Stem Cells means funding loads of deeply average stuff thinly badged as “Stem Cell Research” rather than rather better stuff which isn’t… sorry, I’m coming over cynical again, I’ll shut up.

  5. jjbp said,

    May 17, 2007 at 6:51 pm

    Another phrase of yesterday was chemical biology (i.e. chemists talking to those people in the Dept/School of Biology/Medicine/Biomedical Sciences). It seemed like a darn good initiative with a lot of support until RAE Units of Assessment made everyone chose between chemistry, explicitly bioey places or, em, “subjects allied to medicine”.

    I was trying to guess what the least fashionable bio subject was… and I think I can’t beat botany (though it does have a special place in my heart).

    As a new uni person, can I launch a pre-emptive strike. Before ANYONE mentions trendy yet bollox “forensic science” can I point out that FS taught well turns out rather useful analytical chemists who are currently going into that sort of role in the UK chem/pharm/process industries. Admittedly it is not always taught in this way…

  6. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2007 at 8:17 pm

    Yes, hard to beat botanical taxonomy for sheer unmitigated unfashionable-ness. Although re-doing taxonomies with Mole Bile sorry, mol biol – is quite fashionable – just don’t mention “taxonomy”. I think the modern phrase is “molecular systematics”, although by now it probablly has an “-omics” all to itself.

  7. Dr Aust said,

    May 17, 2007 at 10:13 pm

    Gimpy: “Anyway stem cell research is pretty dull if all you get to do is look at things differentiating or not in cell culture.”

    Trust me, Gimpy, having sat through a bunch of the seminars, that really is what a lot of it is. That plus QPCR (or similar, perhaps microarrays if you’re really cutting edge) “profiling” of which genes go up/down in the process.

    My tagline for this sort of Stem Cell work:

    “It’s cell culture … but now it GROWS ITS OWN IMPLANTS”

    (think enhancement.)

  8. Gimpy said,

    May 18, 2007 at 9:58 am

    66. Quite agree. I’ve suffered a view interminable lectures illustrated with bloody monochrome excel graphs and dubious P-values. At least the microarray talks have a bit of colour in them. Its a terrible shame that areas of science that the public seem to latch onto (stem cells, population genetics, nanotechnology) make for unbeliveably dull experiments. At least crystal healing lectures have cool looking rocks.

    If I’m excited by rocks its pretty fair to assume that I am easily excited so stem cells are clearly super dull.

  9. Dishevelled said,

    May 18, 2007 at 6:36 pm

    Surprised no one has mentioned ‘Systems Biology’.

    ‘A Systems Biology approach to the analysis of Stem Cell (or better yet Cancer Stem Cell) function using genome wide RNA interference and proteomic analysis’ being possibly the most fundable grant title possible in the current climate.

  10. Gimpy said,

    May 18, 2007 at 7:12 pm

    68. I wonder in a few years if someone will get away with a Sokal-esque hoax by submitting a systems biology paper along the lines of An Integrative Theoretical Fractal Approach to Hypothetical -omics Network Modelling in Complex Adaptive Systems.

  11. Dr Aust said,

    May 18, 2007 at 9:55 pm

    Dishevelled wrote:

    “Surprised no one has mentioned ‘Systems Biology’.

    ‘A Systems Biology approach to the analysis of Stem Cell (or better yet Cancer Stem Cell) function using genome wide RNA interference and proteomic analysis”

    100% with you on systems biology

    “Systems biology… the new name for… mathematical modelling.

    Has systems biol got an -omic yet?

    Systomics? (sounds oddly nasty)

    PS For science-geeks who fancy a bit of omic mickey-taking, try:

    (scroll down the page to the article)

  12. Dishevelled said,

    May 18, 2007 at 11:44 pm

    69. Hmm, check out the contents page at BMC Bioinformatics to see just how close you are to the truth (

    70. Dr Aust – Systomics – was forced to do a Pubmed search to check, it had the ring of truth – it’s not there (yet). But then did a Google and found this (and others)

    ‘Systomics is a systems biology approach that integrates and models large-scale ‘omics’ data.’


  13. Robert Carnegie said,

    May 19, 2007 at 1:13 am

    The other week the BBC Radio 4 obituary magazine (cheery stuff – not; on before [The Film Programme]) had someone or other who was something in stem cell research apparently, and dead. Of course. This seemed to be a matter of categorising bone marrow transplants as “stem cells” applied. But I don’t think it’s what they said at the time.

    Also this week, unexpected growth of new hair follicles – in mice – seems to be said to involve stem cells.

  14. Dr Aust said,

    May 19, 2007 at 10:38 am

    As so often, the reality is beyond anything a satirist could invent – see:

    PS One they HAVEN’T done yet, but should, is the set of all genes involved in fat metabolism, which I have decided to call the “steatome”.

    Try saying “Steatome” fast and you’ll realise what it is ageing scientific farts like me increasingly feel like doing in the face of the tide of shite-omics.

  15. Dishevelled said,

    May 19, 2007 at 12:50 pm

    73. Heh, heh.

    From link 2, Pseodome – which unfortunately doesn’t mean what you hope it might but in fact refers to pseudogenes.

  16. amoebic vodka said,

    May 19, 2007 at 8:51 pm

    There’s loads of molecular biology being done in ‘botany’ (called molecular biology / systems biology / nanotech / pharmacology on the grant application…). The molecular biology version of taxonomy has proper uses though – it’s used to follow what’s going where when breeding new crop varieties, so it’s not entirely pointless. It speeds up the process somewhat, though not as much as using evil GM to do the same thing.

    Really, it just goes to show that the government can come up with stupid targets and even stupider ‘initiatives’ for science, like everything else, and the response is to do pretty much the same stuff as before, but reworded slightly and with 50% added pointless paperwork. It means a few scientists have to be sacked to afford to pay more admin staff to deal with the sea of paperwork, but they count as spending money on science, so no loss there.

  17. Dr Aust said,

    May 19, 2007 at 9:23 pm

    Amen to that, AV. Am just staggered how much extra pointless paperwork “Full Economic Costing” / FEC has generated.

    I would say that, in the 20 yrs since I wrote my first grant applications, the amount of verbiage and form-filling you have to generate to ask for (allowing for inflation) the same amount of dosh has increased by about 200%. And the number of Research Admin staff in the Univ has expanded by about 400%.

  18. Gimpy said,

    May 19, 2007 at 10:47 pm

    76. Hmm as a scientific youngster I clearly have lots of form filling to look forward to as I approach my dotage. Still these bloody COSHH forms must be good practice. I got watched like a hawk on health and safety issues for a while after setting off some dry ice bombs during a safety inspection. Made to sign a form for every minor experiment I did.

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