“I don’t hold with this new fangled doctoring. Any problems, I go to the Wise Woman.”

(Title quote courtesy of S. Baldrick, c1590AD)

NB – see my earlier post about Helen Duncan here for the full background to this review of a recent UK TV programme.

See also Jon Donnis’ takedown of some of the rubbish “mediumship” on display in this programme, on the Bad Psychics website.

It’s always warmingly nostalgic to see Tony Robinson reprising his Baldrick role. But I wish he’d stop doing it in supposedly “factual” television programmes. This time it’s a new 3-part series called “Unexplained”, with feisty science journo Becky McCall cast in the “closed-minded” sceptical redhead role, and Robinson all the while “wanting to believe” as the Mulder of the piece.

It’s a frustrating set-up, because there’s some good sceptical content in this first episode, which deals with fraudulent wartime medium Helen Duncan. Professor Chris French ably demonstrates the Barnum effect with a Derren Brown-esque identical horoscope trick, and Dr Richard Wiseman does a (too brief and limited) bit of physical mediumship. McCall is instantly convinced (despite a lack of reproduciton of Duncan’s methods), and Robinson too is swayed. The pattern continues, with  McCall steadfastly poo-poohing and Robinson by turns sceptical and credulous. I can’t actually be too hard on him here (or the daft laddie character he’s possibly playing here, a la early Time Team), because if his experience of filming is anything like the finished product, I can understand his mixed feelings. The scepticism here feels badly aimed, and I think goes off half-cocked.

The result is a programme that simply confirms one’s prior feelings, whatever they might be. Equal weight is given to anecdotal evidence and appeal to emotion as it is to debunking and critical thought. The sceptical demonstrations either do not directly address the claims being made, or they go only so far, leaving easily answerable questions unanswered (e.g. despite two images of WW2 seamen being shown with the correct “HMS” on their tally bands – no ship name) – the claim that “Syd” the dead sailor was identified by the “HMS Barham” on his cap went unchallenged. Cold reading wasn’t really adequately explained (not French’s fault – I think this can only be done quickly and effectively by demonstration), though it was at least offered as a sound explanation for the “clairvoyance” of the Barham sinking. Yet towards the end of the programme, the earlier seance is mentioned in which Duncan is supposed to have divined the sinking of HMS Hood – and our Tony doesn’t see any way but via the spirit realm that this could have been achieved. Why on earth doesn’t the same possibility apply? That Brigadier R.C. Firebrace (a spiritualist and astrologer himself – not mentioned in the programme), present at the seance, might have been cold-read himself? It would go something like this – Duncan throws out (or has a “spirit” report that) “A ship has gone down…a big warship”. Firebrace says something like “good god, not the Hood!?”, and Duncan (perhaps deciding he knows something she doesn’t) decides to go with a “yes”. Now, this was a famous ship even then. But as ever in mediumship/cold reading, had she been wrong, she could have modified her question/statement, or just relied on the limitless good will of  her sitters to let the miss drop. In that case Firebrace would have been astounded to hear from the Admiralty that the Hood had indeed been sunk. By readily ignoring the method used, the level of information volunteered by the sitters, and probably even misremembering Duncan’s exact words, an amazing anecdote is created. Yet whenever  a recording or transcript is obtained, or blinded testing attempted, no psychic can ever show results better than chance. How many “misses” did Duncan register?

Another example of the disjointed feel to the programme is the brief investigation into the dead sailor said to have appeared to Duncan at a seance and announced the sinking of HMS Barham ahead of time. This is perfectly valid as an exercise, but feels out of place at the start of the programme, bearing in mind that much of the remainder is devoted to ostentibly proving or debunking mediumship itself. Cart, horse, anyone? It doesn’t even further the investigation, in either direction. They come up with three possibilities, narrowing it to just one – an Acting Stoker called Sydney A. Fryer. The problem is that this is done on the basis of evidence from an MI5 agent present, who reported that the name “Syd” and the rank of Petty Officer had been mentioned. Here’s an exercise for you – choose a nickname popular in the 1940s, let’s say “Alf”. Then choose a common naval rank or position (there were many at petty officer level) – let’s be charitable and not for just “rating” – how about  “Able Seaman”? See if you got a hit like I did (in fact, I got two). Note that the nickname can be applied to first or other forename, and need not even relate to the man’s actual name (typical in the military). Note that he may never have been known by that nickname (was Sydney known as “Syd”, for example? Or was his loved one simply assuming?). Also bear in mind that as a medium you’d be able to tell the approximate social status of the client in the audience, and therefore have an informed guess at the right rank (seaman, NCO, or officer). And if you extend my guess at Jack to mean “John” (the former being a nickname of the latter), well, you have many more chances of a hit. What I’m saying here is that the exercise only helps progress things if there is NO possible Petty Officer “Syd”. The fact that there is at least one means next to nothing. It gets worse. Five minutes on the same site as the programme’s researchers used, and I get not one, but FOUR possibles (here, here, here and here). If I’ve missed something here, by all means point it out. But this seems to be another exercise in highlighting the possible whilst ignoring the probable – to dishonestly keep the spiritualist hypothesis in the race.

The pseudo-sceptical approach used does nobody any favours. McCall comes across as closed to new evidence – even smug and mean-spirited. The scientists and psychologists appear unable to explain the more extraordinary “feats” performed by Duncan – to the extent of performing their own tricks as distraction. Whilst Tony Robinson throughout cheerfully eschews alternate explanations in favour of emotional eyewitness accounts. He finishes the programme ostensibly still a fence-sitter – sure that Duncan did commit fraud (the photos of her cheesecloth spirits could hardly do otherwise) but still desperately clinging to the sincere testimony of the nice people he has spoken to – that maybe there is something in it all. His last sentence says it all – he wishes he could have attended a Duncan seance himself, as then he could have known for sure either way. And that is the failure here – to even suggest to the viewer that we might ALL be fallible, gullible, easily fooled in the right circumstances. That seeing is NOT always believing, or at least, it shouldn’t be if one is seeking the truth of the matter.

I suspect deliberate sabotage. I suspect that the programme makers, to (possibly!) quote PT Barnum, want to “have something for everybody”. They need an element of doubt so that Robinson can muse on the possibility that Duncan was both a fraud AND a genuine medium – to both provide a false sense of wonder and to make Duncan’s conviction seem all the more unfair. This is a real shame, as with a little more testicular fortitude on the part of the programme makers, those with the truly closed minds would still have come away unaffected, but those really on the fence would have had all the information to REALLY make up their minds. As it is we got a disjointed, pub-level natter about mediumship and spiritualism in general, with maybe half the programme devoted to the Duncan case itself.

I’ll end by pointing out yet again that  Duncan was convicted NOT of witchraft, but of pretending to conjur spirits. Though one contributor did say this, the whole programme and its marketing campaign focussed on the old chestnut that Duncan was Britain’s last convicted witch. And the same man went on to support Tony Robinson’s push for uncritical acceptance of fallible witness testimony by dismissing the juror’s decision in the Duncan case as “prejudice”.

Now Tony, I know you can do critical thinking properly, so repeat after me – if I have two anecdotes, and I add two more anecdotes, what does that make? (Hint – it’s not “evidence“.)


What if the Hokey Cokey IS what it’s all about?


What if the Hokey Cokey IS what it’s all about? Catholics in Scotland seem to think it might be. These days the long-running religious struggle in the British Isles between Catholicism and Protestantism is often (thankfully) played out through (arguably) less violent means – football, or soccer to you Americans.

It is this battleground that underlies a recent political storm over, believe it or not, the Hokey Cokey. Some Catholics (namely one Cardinal Keith O’Brien as well as politician Michael Matheson) are claiming that it originated as a slight against the Eucharist – the symbolic cannibalism of Christ. There’s a good summary of the story here, and the specific claim appears in the Times article here;

“…the ditty was composed by Puritans during the 18th century to mock the language and actions used by priests at Latin Mass”

Is it, though? One exasperated commenter to the Scotsman newspaper points out that the song we all know today was not written in the 18th century, nor even the 19th. And the writer was a Catholic himself, a man called Jimmy Kennedy. It was released in 1942 and became a big hit amongst those of the Cockney persuasion.

However, as you will see from the above link, the old “you put your left X in, your left X out” routine was already well established by 1883, and that was in America (Games and Songs of Children by William Newell). In fact Jimmy Kennedy’s song was copyrighted as the “Cokey Cokey”, and was clearly based upon something already extant. Newell’s book itself points out that in England, the same song went by the name “Hinkumbooby”. The same goes for Scotland, as this book shows. There are similarities here – a silly dance involving a ring and bodily appendages, with a nonsense key-word. It may even go deeper than this, however. The original tune, pre-Kennedy, was “Lillibullero” – an overt pisstake of Catholicism by Protestants dating to the mid-17th century.  It has a longer history of aggression than even that, being adapted by the Orange Order as “The Protestant Boys” and used to abuse Catholics during the Troubles. Things really get interesting when you realise the prominence of the hinkumbooby” variant of the song and dance amongst the Shakers of the US. Shakers being a radical Protestant sect formed in reaction against perceived Catholic persecution, escaping to America in the 18th century. It makes sense that a traditionally anti-Catholic rhyme would remain in currency in a culture like this, even if its significance might well be lost over time.

Whatever weight all this lends to the Catholic claim, the specifics are still somewhat speculative, ie the limb movements and words themselves being a direct perversion of a certain Catholic ritual. An SNP minister has pointed out the similarity of the phrase itself “Hokey Cokey ” (and the variant Hokey Pokey) to “Hocus Pocus”.This is a well-known phrase for nonsense, which is innocent enough on the face of it. One variant of the rhyme includes another nursery rhyme, “looby loo“, which also appears to talk about acting crazy or silly in some way. Crucially though, “hocus pocus” specifically (rather like “mumbo jumbo” refers to magical or superstitious nonsense – exactly what the older Christian rituals came to be seen as by Protestants. The icing on the cake etymologically  (and perhaps too conveniently) is the “hocus pocus” – hoc est corpus connection. This is what is being claimed today, and it likely originates with Tillotson back in 1684 in his criticism of the ritual of Transubstantiation. I have my instinctive reservations about this, and I see they are shared. I look at it this way – at best, Tillotson got it right, and hocus pocus really was a mocking of Catholic ritual. At worst, he made it up, but the claim is itself ancient enough to carry weight – to get Protestants using it against Catholics. Not that this is even necessary – the common-currency usage to mean “magical nonsense” would be enough to support the “hokey pokey” connection given the other evidence presented here. The subsequent mutation to “hokey pokey” is likewise not too great a stretch, though one should never rely upon similarities like this. “Notes and Queries” has more on the phrase.

Some argue that  “hinkumbooby”, “hokey cokey”, and hokey pokey”, are corruptions of one another, which could reinforce the “hocus pocus”  connection. You’d want to be sure of your dates for this to truly dovetail however, and I am not. The variants seem to have existed concurrently on both sides of the Atlantic. The other evidence is enough for me to give this claim a Mythbusters-style “plausible” verdict though.

Regardless of the historical reality (or otherwise), as with any so-called “hate crime”, context is key. In the playground, innocence robs the rhyme of any such power (if it ever had it). In the football terrace environment of rivalry, aggression and animosity, it’s easy to see how even a chant whose meaning has been forgotten (or never existed!), can become a powerful insult. This makes the etymology stuff somewhat of a red herring. If Rangers fans are singing the hokey cokey in order to poke fun at Catholicism,  then that’s the meaning of the song – regardless of past meanings it has carried. and  regardless of how much more heinous it might seem to some if it really were a perversion of Catholic phrases. Which brings us to whole problem with the idea of a “hate crime” – second-guessing what other people know, think, and intend, when the language being used is ambiguous. I won’t touch that one with a ten-foot pole, however!

The irony here of course, whether or not my assessment is correct, is that by pointing out this origin story for the rhyme, the Catholics are actually drawing attention to it,  potentially bestowing it with more context and therefore “hate” power than it could ever have had intrinsically. It’s obvious that the vast majority of people, even at Rangers v Celtic matches, wouldn’t have known about this origin/interpretation. The “nonsensification” effect of repetition is seen in playgrounds across the world, where new rhymes with topical, even political themes are rapidly mutated, Chinese-whispers style, into meaningless verse. Without this reminder, and with the widespread usage of the rhyme as a bit of fun nonsense, the hokey-cokey might just finally have lost its power to offend. The cynical might even suggest that elements on both sides relish the conflict, and making publicity out of it is simply stirring the pot. Hope for some measure of (further) reconcilation is not lost however, as according to the Times, fans on both sides of the divide are planning, on Dec 27th at Ibrox, to taunt those crying “hate-crime” with a rousing joint chorus of the “Hokey Cokey”. Puts the whole thing in perspective, doesn’t it? Unless this is just another “Christmas Truce” (and there’s an article for another day!).

The Great Homoeopathic War


Or; “Homoeopathy! Huh! What is it good for?”

If you do some Googling around the subject of First World War medicine, it won’t take long before you come across the subject of homoeopathy. One account is to be found on the venerable “Vlib” – here – but gets reproduced wherever there are homoeopaths hawking their wares (there’s an illustrated version here). It describes the work of the Anglo-French American Hospital in France during WW1. This actually happened, and the text is reproduced from a primary source.  Further, two out of five articles in the WW1 medicine section of Vlib deal directly with period homoeopathy, this being one. So did homoeopathy play a big part in WW1?

Context is vitally important here, and the author of the “editor’s note” at the start of the article has attempted to provide it. Unfortunately it is entirely credulous and lacking in supporting references. It’s written by a Dr M. Geoffrey Miller – a proper doctor, who seems to have a soft spot for the brave homoeopaths prepared to take on actual diseases armed only with a small phial of water (if you’re thinking “huh?”, read on).Miller seems to take the view (here also) that in a context where conventional medicine couldn’t help and might even hinder, some kind words and a placebo were exactly what was called for. He doesn’t appear to be a proponent of modern day homoeopathy, but like some of his colleagues and many members of the public, he misunderstands what it actually is. He says;

Homeopathy (or Homoeopathy) is the treatment of disease by diluted drugs that in a healthy person would produce symptoms of that disease.”

This is, frankly, bollocks. Treatment of a healthy person with a homoeopathic preparation would NOT produce symptoms of anything. This is because by definition, any truly homoeopathic treatment is so diluted as to contain not even one molecule of the “drug” it is meant to contain!  Let me put this as simply as possible:

Homoeopathy is NOT herbal medicine – it contains no herbs.

Homoeopathy is NOT medicine – it contains no active ingredient.

Homoeopathy is water. Magic water.

Or sometimes a magic sugar pill.

You know what other “treatment” is provided in the form of a sugar pill with zero medicinal content? That’s right, a PLACEBO. And that’s exactly how homoeopathy “works”. Now, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with  exploiting placebo effects to ease suffering. But all it’s doing is playing with the patient’s perception of how unwell they are. So any claims of patients recovering because of homoeopathy should be treated with great scepticism.

What of the results given in the essay? Aren’t they suggestive of some working treatment? Well, no. 10 patients had typhoid – all survived. Must be down to the homoeopathy, right? Nope. Typhoid, untreated, has a 10 – 30% fatality rate. For none out of ten patients to die is fortunate, but hardly evidence of effective treatment.

This is irrelevant, since for a treatment to be worth anything, it must produce reliable results, and must be distinguishable from natural recovery (aka regression to the mean). No scientific studies have shown homoeopathy to be better than placebo. This is, in fact, because it IS placebo. The Neiully homoeopathic “hospital” was in fact a convalescent ward for non-critical patients.

Predictably, bound up with the talking-up of homoeopathy, is the  doing-down of conventional medicine (or “allopathy” in the homoeopaths’ cultish newspeak):

…because orthodox management of disease frequently cause iatrogenic illness from the toxic effects of drugs that were commonly prescribed and which were not particularly effective in any case.

Bzzt! Let’s play homoeopathy bullshit bingo! Homoeopaths and their fans are always on about “iatrogenic illness” – this is the harm done by drugs with side-effects, misdiagnosis, and medical incompetence. All of which are possible because conventional medicine ACTUALLY DOES SOMETHING. Homoeopathy, which DOES NOTHING, is free from such complications. In a WW1 context, critics have much more of a point than they do now – with penetrating traumatic injury and far from ideal conditions in many hospitals, infection and disease were much harder to control by any means. Thus harmless quacks could be let loose on people that might recover given time and relatively sanitary conditions, or might not. But the failings of early 1900s medicine are not positives for homoeopathy – it must stand on its own as an effective method of treatment. And even 80 years later, it simply does not. Further complicating any meaningful assessment of this hospital is that it appears to have employed conventional medicine also. How are we to disentangle the effects of a) homoeopathy, b) “allopathy” and c) people getting better on their own? Needless to say, this situation allows the homoeopath with rose-tinted glasses to credit homoeopathy with all the successes and to slate conventional medicine’s “toxic effects“.

This is a common tactic of today’s homoeopaths – how else would you persuade people to lay aside proven treatment and drink magic water?

The author also states that;

It would be true to say that very few medications of the WW1 period were truly effective, certainly not in the way that modern medications are today.”

In this context, he’s almost right. We’re pre-antibiotics here. But it would be even truer to say that NO homoeopathy is “truly effective”. The reality here is not that homoeopathy was able to step in where conventional medicine failed, but that precisely because there was (and is) no active ingredient in homoeopathic medicine, a facility based around its use would at worst do no harm. Read between the lines of this statement;

nearly all the medical complaints were incurable by the orthodox treatments of the time and all would fare as well as they would if they were admitted to the orthodox General Hospitals.

Then there’s this bit;

Many would do better because of care that they were given by the dedicated nurses and doctors.

In other words, given a less crowded and lower pressure environment, the staff would be able to offer personal attention to patients and a better bedside manner, thereby enhancing the placebo effect. Making people feel as though they were getting better, as if the medicine were working.

Every single non-surgical case referred to constitutes a self-limiting illness that would have got better on its own. If it hadn’t, it wouldn’t have been selected for inclusion in this article! The second half of this screed deals with surgical patients (a majority) who were simply in recovery for, or being cared for prior to, surgery at an ACTUAL hospital – in this case the American Ambulance Hospital, also at Neuilly:

In the later months of the work at Neuilly the cases were increasingly surgical. Altogether they totaled one hundred and twenty-two. Many of these had been operated on at the base hospitals, cases of fracture having received the requisite surgical first-aid, and bullets and shrapnel fragments having mostly been extracted. Here the process of healing merely required watchful safeguarding, and the concussion injuries and contusions without open wound also required no active surgical interference.”

We are not told of most patients’ fates. Though conventional medicine could do little for infection, there is no evidence here, nor anywhere else, to suggest that homoeopathy could either. In fact bearing in mind its proposed mechanism – magic water – there is no possible way it could have.

Essentially it appears that this “hospital” was used as convalescent bed-space, and not for terribly long either. As the homoeopaths could do no active harm, and had at least one surgically trained doctor on staff as well as professionally trained nurses, they were permitted to go ahead and try their luck (and my patience). This is further evidenced by the comment;

“The War Office and Admiralty respectively had ultimately accepted the offer of beds made by British Homoeopathic institutions early in the war, and an increasing number of patients from the Army and the Fleet were being sent to the Homoeopathic hospitals in England.”

They accepted because bed space is the #1 commodity in healthcare, especially in time of war. The vast majority of patients were (and to an extent still are) recovering on their own under observation by others. And those observers, the nurses, would have been just as professional and experienced as at any similar institution not employing dubious treatments.

As for why this hospital lasted less than 18 months, the author cites pressure on homoeopaths at home (to administer the aforementioned beds, as well as thinking they were also treating patients), many homoeopaths called to service in the RAMC, and (more importantly!) the fact that the landlord wanted them out. The place had been a sanitorium before, and as it was again by 1934, we might speculate at the reasons for eviction.

The article gives us a total of 122 patients in the 15 months that the hospital was in operation, with 11 nurses on staff according to an article on the Royal College of Nursing site. The number of doctors isn’t clear, but it appears to have been a handful. This is typical of an Auxiliary Hospital of the time, and in fact, that’s what this place was.

Auxiliary Hospitals were vital but non-critical establishments intended to allow long-term sick and post-operation patients to convalesce.This is not to do-down their role, just to belie the implication of the article that this was some frontline hospital (note that this stresses a location as close to the front as possible).

What of the wider context claimed here? That homoeopathy was;

…widely practiced during WWI…

First – blood-letting was widely practiced in medieval times – this is not an endorsement of its efficacy. Second, what does “widely” mean? Where are the numbers? What other hospitals were there? What studies and results are cited? Bugger all, that’s what. And there’s nothing on the WWW, nothing on Pubmed,  and nothing in the JSTOR journal archive to even suggest this. The only possible source of enlightment in this regard is an article locked behind a pay wall at Sciencedirect. So, a homoeopathic gold bar to anyone that can show me evidence that justifies this claim (use the comments section below).

Til then, it’s just self-aggrandising hot air.

Last word goes to the “Quackometer”, which awards the article 4 “canards” out of 10

For more on homoeopathy, see the excellent Bad Science blog, run by the Guardian’s Dr Ben Goldacre.

Wary Had a Little Lamb or “Peruvian Pareidolia”

Thanks to Foolmewunz on the JREF forums for this beaut of a BS History story. An “archaeoastronomer” named Bill Veall claims to have found an ancient temple in the Andes. But not just any temple. This one is LAMB SHAPED, baby!

This has to be textbook pareidolia. Think Jesus on a skirting board, the Face On Mars, that sort of thing. So far, this guy is keeping his cards close to his chest – when and if he releases the location, we can check for ourselves just how lamb-like this “feature” is. I suspect that is the real reason why he hasn’t yet done so. To quote Veall himself;

“I have a very simple explanation for those who don’t believe me,” Mr Veall says. “If I gave you the co-ordinates of the site, a million people would find it immediately. When you know where it is, it’s obvious. But we want to secure and preserve the site until we can get a scientific team to have a look at it.”

Last time I heard evasion like that, the earth-shattering discovery in question turned out to be a monkey-suit covered in offal. Then (assuming it is our chum) we have the rather childish retort on the Sky comments page;

“To all those disbelievers in what is surely a momentous and historical discovery- please keep your inane rubbish off SKY NEWS;I know for a fact that the images are absolutely genuine and the whole site will be filmed at close quarters in April/May 2009Habasha”

I really hope that isn’t you, “Bill”, for your sake. The internet doesn’t give a fig for your ego.

William J Veall’s only internet presence prior to this story was the Nascodex site a bounty of speculative online archaeology. See what you think of an earlier discovery of his – an, erm, “owl”… Neither can I find any academic or other publications under his name. Aside from “Nascodex”, we do have the website of the company that produced his promo video (as featured in the Sky News link).  There’s some lovely self-publicity and handy press contact details on the  bio page, but precious little of substance re the actual “discovery”.

Shadron of the JREF Forums has whipped up a nice little analysis of one feature – the so-called “language” on the so-called “altar”. You can see it in the link above, but for reading ease (and because this entry lacks piccies!) I reproduce it here;

“OK, just for grins I did a little analysis on the pics on Bro. Veall’s images on his web page. On the first page he shows “altar” with the supposed writing on it; for those who are blind to his imagination, he shows another image on a “more…” page. The two are obviously extracted from the same image (first of all, no maps service is going to update some forgotten crag in the Andes very often, and for he second, all the snow patterns are identical). Now, Veall states at the bottom of the page that the images have been “lightly retouched to enhance definition for transmission over the Internet”. Indeed. Unfortunately, the point of this all is in that “definition”.

After rotating one image and then resizing it downward to match the other in resolution, here are the two images side by side:


The one on the left is the enhanced image on the second page. The enhancements include:

  • Touch up on the “letters” on the stone (apparently done in snow on the altar), particularly the first and third characters, but including all.
  • All the surroundings except the altar are grayed out.
  • The color on the altar is played up, particularly the green, which is only hinted at in the right image.
  • The pic is stretched in the vertical direction about 12%, giving more room for the letters to be better depicted.

Now, NASA photo users enhance some of NASA’s astronomical photographs (over and above the fact that many are false color images anyway) for more spectacular results in public consumption, but that’s not really an attempt to deceive.

This does appear to be. Why am I not surprised?

Shame on him for trying to con a poor country like Peru, anxious to get some tourist attention. Shame on them for believing him, if they bite.”

Shame indeed, Shadron, if it is indeed a hoax.

Update – the rather good Museum of Hoaxes has similar feelings.

Update #2 – still no proof offered by Veall, but another counter to the original claim that I can’t believe I didn’t think of myself – THERE WERE NO SHEEP in Peru until Europeans introduced them, well into recorded history. Needless to say, there were therefore no lambs, sacred or otherwise, to serve as models for any carved feature.