Tuesday, February 26, 2008

DFL - You're Not Helping

In response to the moronic statement issued by our (apparently) retarded Minister of Health regarding the fact that African traditional medicine should not be subject to scientific testing, an organisation named Doctors For Life (DFL) had this to say:

“Being inconsequent with scientific safeguards will leave ample loopholes to make it virtually inevitable for the general public who use untested traditional medicines to ingest substances from scavenged body parts that are mixed with some of these medicines...From the extremely high incidence of muti-killings, it is clear some potions sold as traditional African herbal medicine contain these human body parts. The DFL has testimonies of traditional healers using human body parts in herbal mixtures, and poisoning is often a consequence.”

I think they're missed the boat here.

While I suppose it's a legitimate concern that some or other murder-victim might end up in the muti (African traditional medicinal preparation) you buy at your local sangoma (witchdoctor African traditional medicine practitioner) I am sceptical that the probability of that is very high.

The South African Police Service don't exactly have a good track-record on releasing specific crime statistics, but several statements by the SAPS Occult Unit have implied that apparent muti-related crimes are on the increase. Be that as it may, I still find it hard to believe that there is such a high incidence of this that there is a real danger of any given sangoma client receiving 'Extract of placenta' in their cold-and-flu remedy. But I suppose it is still greater than zero, which is unacceptably high.

I feel (and I suppose this is a matter of opinion in the absence of data) that the far bigger danger here is in perpetuating the myth that alternative therapies quackery should be exempt from scientific scrutiny and proper regulation. This tendency would lead not only to the possibility of your neighbour ending up in your medicine, but of any number of other toxic additives, contaminants who knows what else being sold to the general public as therapeutic interventions. And since the general public tends not to know enough about it to question, they will happily assume that some sort of quality control has been enforced when no such control exists.

I May Have Said This Before...

Manto is a complete goddam idiot!

I'm not really all that surprised that that moron would spout such idiocy, but that doesn't shake my indignation.

I'm going to have to reproduce the article here to really give it justice:

African traditional medicines should not become "bogged down in clinical trials" when being subjected to research and development, Health Minister Manto Tshabalala-Msimang said in Pietermaritzburg on Saturday.

Addressing members of the presidential task team on African traditional medicine, Tshabalala-Msimang said: "We cannot use Western models of protocols for research and development. We should guard against being bogged down with clinical trials."

She later explained that she was not against clinical trials per se. "But some of the medicines have been used by traditional healers for thousands of years. Clinical trials need protocols for traditional medicine."

She also warned against "charlatans tarnishing the image of this sector [traditional African medicine]" and "who promise our desperate help-seeking people all sorts of things that are not practically possible to deliver".

The task team is trying to come up with legal guidelines on traditional African medicines. It is expected to present these to the Cabinet early in March. It is also expected to discuss the naming of traditional medicines and patent and ownership rights.

"This lack of documentation [in traditional medicine] sometimes creates serious legal challenges," said Tshabalala-Msimang.
Ladies and gentlemen, our Minister of Health.

The woman who is responsible for making decisions that affect people's lives, quite literally, doesn't think that traditional medicines should be subject to "Western" test protocols.

In real science, there is no distinction between "Western" medicine and "African","Traditional" or "Alternative" medicine. There is only medicine, and a lot of other stuff that isn't medicine.

How do we know whether something is either medicine or not? We subject it to scientific testing. Not "Western" testing. Scientific testing.

If it works, it gets incorporated into the mainstream. if it doesn't, it gets discarded as being either worthless or harmful. Finished and klaar!

I can only laugh at Manto's little tirade at "charlatans". What exactly does she think "traditional medicine" is capable of delivering? Who are these people failing to deliver on their promises? I'll tell you who they are: anyone claiming to offer medicine who is not an MD, and even some who are!

In logical terms, in this statement Manto is committing the fallacy of special pleading: she somehow feels that African traditional medicine cannot be measured for efficacy by the same tools used to evaluate all other medicine. She feels that the tools of science - double-blind testing, clinical trials and so on - are insufficient to the task, since African traditional medicine is somehow exempt from the laws of the universe - the laws science makes its business of testing. As a Medical Doctor, she should be ashamed of herself for even thinking such a thing.

The other logical fallacy she commits here is found in this sentence:
some of the medicines have been used by traditional healers for thousands of years.
This is called the argument from antiquity, a special variant of the argument from special pleading combined with another logical fallacy: the argument from authority. She seems to assume that since these methods have been employed for a very long time, that they must work. The question that should be asked here is, when, at any point during those thousands of years, where any studies actually performed to evaluate the efficacy of the interventions? Is there any reason why they should be considered effective?

Bear in mind that practices like bloodletting and trepanning wre also practiced for centuries before they were critically evaluated and found to be useless and harmful. How do we know that the same is not true of African traditional "medicine"? We don't know, not until it has been subjected to testing... real scientific testing.

Idiocy of this nature is inexcusable. Based on this statement alone, and excluding the many, many other examples of Manto's incompetence, she should lose her job. Why is this woman still employed in the Health sector, let alone as its head?

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Away Mission: Donating Blood

Just in case any of you guys are interested in what we actually do on the USS Dauntless.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Moral High Ground

Things going on this this country worry me.

Today it's the woman who was attacked, raped and jeered at by a mob at a minibus taxi terminal here in my home town. Her crime: she dared to wear a mini-skirt in public.

This, of course, reminds us of the woman who was similarly attacked by a mob in Kwazulu-Natal Province several months ago for daring to wear trousers in public.

This kind of thing makes me so sad, I struggle to write about it.

As a sceptic activist (it feels good to describe myself as such) and an atheist, I spend a lot of time reading and listening to folks who are experts in the behaviour of fundamentalist religious folks, especially the Muslims in the Middle-East and Christians in the USA. A key point that comes up from time to time in diatribes against those fundamentalists is the special social status of religion that they hide behind.

Specifically, these people believe that their religion should not be subject to analysis, should be exempt from any criticism and should be protected from any speech that may not be complimentary. This whole Mohammad cartoon story is a perfect example of this: these people feel that any disrespect shown towards their faith or their religious icons amounts to oppression, and must be fought.

This claim, that their religion should not be subject to critical analysis, is clearly an attempt at self-preservation. They must know that their beliefs cannot withstand rational scrutiny, and therefore should be protected from it. They'll continue to practice their religions (which they have every right to do) and sometimes even resort to enforcing outdated and cruel regulations that their ancient texts dictate (which is stupid). If anyone complains about it, they cry foul and reassert their immunity from examination and judgement.

While it should be perfectly harmless to allow them to make their little assertions as much as they like, it's not. Why not? Because we let them get away with it. We, as moderates, seculars, non-believers and apathetic people allow them to perpetuate this, and most of us actually back off, letting them get away with all sorts of things.

How does this relate to the mini-skirt lady? This is how.

Since the dawn of the New South Africa (TM) in 1994, there has been a very similar trend among the black citizens of our society. It started off, I believe, as an honest and well-meaning attempt at exchanging cultural norms and customs, with the intent to create a greater level of mutual understanding. Awesome.

I remember going to the early precursors of what we now call 'Diversity Training', and learning about simple cultural differences between my upbringing (based primarily on Western European customs) and the backgrounds of my black countrymen. It was genuinely interesting, covering things like eye-contact, hand-shaking and other simple things.

But this began what become, in retrospect, a pretty slippery slope. It quickly degenerated from "This is how we do it in my culture, just so you know." into "You have to respect this, because this is my culture."

A dangerous transition.

Out of an attempt to be accommodating, we whites (and presumably a whole lot of culturally moderate blacks) just said "Um, okay." and let them get away with it. That wasn't too bad when it was being used as an excuse to justify being late for work, or not addressing superiors with the proper respect. When it started being used as a justification for harmful, and even criminal acts, a line was crossed. But by then it was too late - the precedent had already been set.

When Jacob Zuma claimed that he hadn't raped that woman, because it was "his culture", we all caught a bit of a wake-up. But clearly it wasn't enough, because he got away with it. And now he's going to be our next president. Go us!

But it's getting worse. This excuse-mongering, coupled by the deplorable behaviour displayed by our "leaders" seems to have exacerbated the situation. Innocent citizens, going about their own business, are being attacked by their own peers for violating their fragile sensibilities.

And how do these mobs justify their behaviour? "It's our culture".

It shouldn't have to be said that if a cultural (or religious) practice is morally reprehensible, as this definitely is, then there can be no reasonable justification for it. These morons must, MUST, be brought to justice as a message to their compatriots: rational, civilised societies will not tolerate brutish, savage, barbaric behaviour. They are not compatible, and one must give.

I can only hope that it is indeed civilisation and reason that will win this struggle. It could too easily go the other way.

Friday, February 15, 2008


I must apologise to me regular readers. Apparently you do exist... Google told me so. Who knew?


Anyway, I must apologise for not posting as often as usual. Under normal circumstances I try to get at least one post up here a day on average. As you'll have noticed, this is my third post in the last couple of weeks.

So what's the deal?

I assure you that I haven't lost interest in this blog, and I'm not suffering from Malaria or writer's block or anything, I'm simply a victim of circumstance.

I do most of my surfing and blogging at the office. I could do it at home, but my home PC is unbelievably slow, and I use my cellphone as a modem. Mobile broadband = expensive.

My office PC was injured by Eskom several weeks ago, and since then hasn't been the same. It's pretty difficult for me to surf productively, and just painful to try and write anything of significant length.

I have been able to squeeze out some writing for the USS Dauntless website, as well as posting some interesting items on my Google Reader feed and my Facebook profile. If you're really keen to see what I'm up to, I suggest you check those out (and subscribe to the feeds... feeds = good idea).

Once the issues with my work PC have been resolved (he said, optimistically) I'll be able to resume my usual blogging schedule. In the mean-time, please bear with me, and feel free to browse through the archives.


I'm Going to Kill Myself

Or at least I'm going to try to, but I doubt I'll succeed.

Why not? Because I'm going to try and overdose on Homeopathic sleeping pills.

Get the full story on the USS Dauntless website. Sign up for the event on Facebook for updates.

Wish me luck!

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Holistic Fayre

The Dauntless SciOps team and I visited our local Holistic Fayre this weekend. I've posted the full report here for your enjoyment.