Groucho Marx

Blog Archive – August 2005

Click here for translations

“ I know that most men, including those at ease with problems of greatest complexity, can seldom accept even the simplest and most obvious truth if it would be such as oblige them to admit the falsity of conclusions which they have delighted in explaining to colleagues, which they have proudly taught to others, and which they have woven, thread by thread, into the fabric of their lives. ”
Leo Tolstoy

“ There is nothing too impossible to have happened, there are only things too impossible to be believed. ”
Thomas Carlyle

“ Reason itself is a matter of faith. It is an act of faith to assert that our thoughts have any relation to reality.”
G K Chesterton

August 26 2005

Lanced!

My, but there's some neat skills being displayed in handling the media relations for today's announcement of the latest meta-analysis of trials into homeopathy's effectiveness! (The Lancet Vol 366, 27 August 2005: 'Are the clinical effects of homeopathy placebo effects? Comparative study of placebo controlled trials of homeopathy and allopathy'.) In the UK at least, it's being delivered as a kind of "final word" on the subject, as if we can now forget about it and consign it to the dustbins of history. Nice try boys and girls!

Funnily enough, that sort of thing was tried once before. Nearly 100 years ago. And homeopathy's still with us. I wonder why. As Sir John Weir (1879-1971), Royal Homœopathic Physician serving George V, Edward VIII, George VI and Elizabeth II, once said:
“I suppose not one of us has approached homeopathy otherwise than with doubt and mistrust; but facts have been too much for us.”

The facts that Weir is talking about are not, of course, randomised controlled trials, but the vast number of individual cases and cures recorded throughout homeopathy's 200-year history. These include many cases that seem rather unlikely candidates for the placebo effect – babies; animals; cures where several remedies were tried before finding the one that worked. In the 1854 London cholera epidemic, the results from homeopathic treatment were so positive that they were deliberately withheld from parliament. The House of Lords asked for an explanation and it was admitted that if the homeopathic figures were to be included in the report, it would "skew the results." The suppressed report revealed that mortality under homeopathic care was just 9%. Under conventional care it was over 59%. Real results; real lives saved; and a matter of public record, rather than trials and convoluted statistical analyses available only to paying subscribers. You can't help but wonder why that was never considered the last word on the subject ...

It's fascinating to see what lengths people will go to to try and discredit something which doesn't fit the "map" we have of the world. It'd be interesting to know who funded this latest report in the Lancet.

(For a much fuller exploration of the subject, see the essay Unscientific Attachment.)

August 26 2005 | | | Permalink

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Marden, 9th August 2005. Photo © Steve Alexander

Marden, near Chirton, Wiltshire. 9th August 2005.
Photo © Steve Alexander

Marden, 9th August 2005. Photo © Steve Alexander

Central circle of the Marden formation. Photo © Steve Alexander

August 18 2005

Crop circle season – the final weeks

Rather like a firework show, it seems to have become an annual feature that the last circles of the summer are some of the most stunning to appear all season.

The circle which appeared at Marden, near Chirton in Wiltshire, reported on the 9th August, is no exception.

A lot of the enthusiasm, wonder and energy seems to have evaporated from the season over the last two years – the skills of human imitators have come on in leaps and bounds from the early ham-fisted (or footed) attempts. Many of the circles, which at first glance look impressive, show the tell-tale signs of human construction on closer examination. Those who follow the season have spent as much time discussing who overheard who planning what in the Barge Inn as they have the circles themselves. Mistrust and suspicion greet the arrival of every new design, and for as many who believe it's "genuine", there are as many who believe it's man-made. It all seems quite tragic, and more than a bit ironic in view of the message deciphered from the 2002 Crabwood Farm disc – "Beware the bearers of FALSE gifts & their BROKEN PROMISES. Much PAIN but still time. BELIEVE There is GOOD out there. We OPpose DECEPTION".

It's almost as if this circle has deliberately upped the ante. Check out the more detailed photos and ground reports at:
http://www.ukcropcircles.co.uk

Saq' Be'

Someone at Crop Circle Connector (update May 06: link now expired) found an image with similarities linked to a site dedicated to preserving the environment and culture of the Mayan and other indigenous peoples of Central and South America. The present Article of the Moment exposes some of the threats these people are facing.

August 18 2005 | | | Permalink

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Organic farming

Organic farming

Effects of modern farming methods

Effects of modern farming methods

Dr Tewolde B G Egziabher

Dr Tewolde B G Egziabher, Head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority

Percy Schmeiser

Percy Schmeiser

August 06 2005

Can organic farming feed the world?

This question was the subject of the Soil Association Scotland's Lady Eve Balfour Memorial Lecture last month (July 13) in Edinburgh. Speakers were Colin Tudge, author of So Shall We Reap, and Sue Edwards, director of the Ethiopian Institute for Sustainable Development. (The lecture was also given in London the night before and has been subsequently published in Resurgence Magazine.)

As it turns out, the question might more usefully be framed "Can modern farming methods feed the world?". Start digging below the surface of the agribusiness PR machine and a disturbing picture emerges.

Aside from all the health implications of artificial fertiliser pollution (see Time for a Change of Heart?), large-scale monoculture has enormous ecological implications which pretty much guarantee that it's ultimately unsustainable. The bumper yields promised by selective crop breeding, genetic modification and artificial fertilisation are turning out to be largely pie-in-the-sky. GE crop varieties are becoming susceptible to disease even faster than conventionally engineered varieties. Attempts at large-scale agricultural management with the aim of securing our food supply have been highly inefficient – the EEC's Common Agricultural Policy is generally accorded about as much respect as an appallingly bad joke – and successive managerial disasters have been compounded by tying the system up into greater and greater inflexibility. The supermarket shelves of the West have been kept stocked at a huge cost: enormous wastage on the one hand, and a progressive impoverishment and restriction of the agricultural sector on the other.

But it goes much deeper. Lack of attention to the quality of the soil itself is something that can't be remedied by any amount of superficial dressing. Impoverished soils don't hold nutrients or even water for very long, or support all the other kinds of life that are essential to the functioning of a healthy and resilient ecosystem. Loss of biodiversity results in a degraded ecosystem which has little or no flexibility to respond to change. Since 1945 almost 11 per cent of the Earth’s land area, about 12 million square kilometres (4.6 million square miles), has been moderately to severely degraded. Every year farmers abandon 70,000 square kilometres (27,000 square miles) of formerly arable land because the soil no longer supports crops.

In contrast, Sue Edwards (who also happens to be the wife of Dr Tewolde Egziabher, Head of Ethiopia's Environmental Protection Authority) showed what could be done when land reduced to virtual desert is properly cared for using local traditional methods of agriculture – which, after all, have sustained humanity for all but the last half century or so of its roughly 10,000-year existence – plus a little help and adjustment from what has been learned in other sustainable agricultural systems in other parts of the world. Substituting compost, including composted animal wastes, for direct application of animal manure has been one of the most significant and beneficial changes.

Her husband Dr Egziabher, widely acknowledged as Africa's chief biosafety and biodiversity expert, was originally to have given this lecture himself, but had to cancel at the last minute in order to attend an international meeting on biological patents (see Canadian assault on biosafety). What's going on here is simply criminal. Not content with chaining most of our own farmers to lifelong contracts for seed supply (see Percy Schmeiser vs Monsanto), agribusiness is seeking to hold some of the poorest people on the planet to ransom, prohibiting them from collecting and growing their own seed and forcing them to make annual payments for the privilege of obtaining the means to eke out the barest subsistence level of existence. Seems what the West gives with one hand, it takes away with the other ...

So can we instantly return to organic methods of cultivation and solve the problem? Not without reversing some of the post-WWII population trends and society's attitudes to agriculture and the food we eat into the bargain. Organic farming is more labour-intensive. The proportion of the US and UK populations now working on the land is just 1%, and even at that, the farming community is hard-pressed to survive against the demands of the processors and retailers, the dictates of agribusiness, and the regulations of the agricultural policymakers. Farming barely rates a score on our social scales of fashionable and aspirational occupations. Next time you see a supermarket advertisement trumpeting ever cheaper prices and better value, ask yourself who's really bearing the cost. Steadily improving profits says it's not likely to be the supermarkets.

It all seems depressingly reminiscent of our societal attitudes towards healthcare. Our values seem hopelessly upside-down. We're happy to pay huge sums of money for overseas holidays, second homes, additional cars, the latest piece of technology or a cosmetic makeover, yet grudge a fraction of that amount for food and healthcare. Surely it should be the other way round? Shouldn't the fundamental building blocks of a healthy existence be top of our personal spending and qualitative priorities, not devolved to the responsibility of a state dominated by profit-driven corporate agendas? And complaining about the state and the extent to which big business milks it for all it can achieves nothing either. Until each of us take personal responsibility for adjusting our priorities and spending patterns, we surely can't expect the collective to reflect that adjustment. No matter to what extent big business tries to manipulate public spending patterns to safeguard its revenue streams, ultimately the choice is ours – each of us individually – and ours alone.

Back to basics – and what could be more fundamental, more salt-of-the-earth common-sense, than comments like these? (From Voices from Knox County.)

"Why is it that when somebody gets deathly sick with cancer or something, and a doctor recommends that they go on an organic diet? I think all these people know that there's a difference."

"If you get on a chemical system, the only way you can keep going is to keep adding more and more powerful chemicals. If you get on an organic system, it will perpetuate itself. You don't need to keep adding more and more fertilizer because it is a natural system. It's like the difference between paying interest on a loan and getting paid interest on your savings."

"The nice part about organic is that it's economically viable, and the reason is that you don't have to spend a lot of money, because the Good Lord designed the cycles of nature in order to do it itself."

More reading:
Interview with Dr Tewolde B G Egziabher
G8 approach to global poverty is simplistic
Compromise, Hell! – Wendell Berry

August 06 2005 | | | Permalink

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smeddum.net – Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard