It’s homeopathy awareness week. So be aware: it’s total nonsense

Robin Helweg-Larsen:

Jesus’ miraculous cures fall into this category. He wasn’t able to restore a missing limb… or to put John the Baptist’s head back on!

Originally posted on The more accurate guide to the future:

Homeopathy amazes me by the number of otherwise intelligent people that believe in it. Some others do too, such as the UK’s Minister for Health Jeremy Hunt. How he keeps such a job while advocating such beliefs is a mystery.

Homeopathy is total nonsense. Proper scientists agree that it doesn’t work. There is no reliable scientific evidence for it, and no means by which it could possibly work other than invoking a placebo effect. It supposedly relies on dilution of some agent to such a point that not a single molecule of that agent remains.

If you believe in it, try this thought experiment, or do it for real if you prefer. Either way it will be at least as effective and much cheaper than paying for homeopathic treatment: collect a small bottle of seawater next time you go to a beach, preferably not at a sewage outfall (if you don’t live near the sea, best do the…

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All the dreams of all the ages

Throughout history, as far as we can tell from ancient literatures and from more recent preliterature societies, humans have dreamed of many of the same magical powers:

Icarus

  • to fly
  • specifically, to fly to the moon
  • to talk with animals and birds and fish
  • to be able to live and breathe underwater
  • to have a magic mirror that lets you see what is happening in distant lands
  • to know the future
  • to go back in time
  • to shrink to the size of a mouse, or grow to a giant
  • to change into a different creature
  • to turn a common substance into gold
  • to turn a large number of small common objects (ants, seeds, teeth) into an army of warriors
  • to heal sickness with a word or a touch
  • to come back from the dead
  • to live forever
  • to climb up and live on the clouds
  • to live in a palace in the sky forever, doing whatever you most enjoy doing.

Some people were said by storytellers to have done these things. Some people claimed to be able to do them. Followers of Jesus thought he rose from the dead, followers of Muhammad thought he went up to Heaven one night, followers of Odin thought that his ravens told him all the doings of the world – and of course many, many religious authorities promise you unverifiable after-death benefits in exchange for a cash contribution in the here-and-now.

But let’s face it: the dreams are cool! We wanted to do these things as kids, and we want to do them still. And better yet: we ARE doing them. Flying, in various ways. Walking on the moon. Looking at distant lands with our “magic mirrors”, whether phones or big-screen TVs.

And we keep working on the rest: trying to talk with dolphins; bringing people back from clinical death; planning for permanent colonies in the sky; and – the big one – trying to figure out how to live forever.

The dreams are the same as the dreams of those old religions. But now we know what we have to do, to make them become reality. (P.S. It involves work, not prayer.)

Wishing for eternal life, then and now

Humans have always (as far as we can tell) resisted the idea of their mortality. Many people simply refuse to think about it, and others refuse to believe it. In the face of all the evidence of creatures that die and rot or get eaten, and don’t come back to life, humans will confidently state that we are different.

True, some groups have accepted that even if we have a “soul”, our body rots in the grave and our “soul” gradually fades away underground. This was one of differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the time of Jesus. The former believed in a resurrection of the body and a divine rebalancing to reward the virtuous and punish the evildoer. The latter felt that life ended at death, and there was no reckoning in an afterlife. Therefore the Pharisees tended to be morally upright and religious puritans, while the Sadducees were generally more venal and collaborated with the Roman Occupation. Fair enough.

Jesus surrounded himself with Jews of all types in his attempt to bring all of Israel to repentance and purity. Of the four philosophies of his time, he was close to the Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes, less close to the Sadducees.

The promise of a physical resurrection of the body, together with the promise of an eternity in paradise if you are a believer or an eternity in hell if you are an unbeliever, is basic to Christian and Muslim belief. It has been a very powerful meme for persuading people to donate their time and cash to the promulgators of the religion. The Mormons have upped the ante by promising their adherents that they can become gods of their own planets… at least, if they are men; the status of women in all these religions is less than equal.

The religious afterlife may be an increasingly laughable idea, but the desire to avoid death is as strong as ever. Last year Google launched a new company, Calico, to focus on health and aging in particular. It is run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of Genentech and currently Chairman of the Board of Directors at both Genentech and Apple. This is a serious attempt at life extension, backed by Google and its $54 billion in cash.

Image

In Google, Larry Page and his cohorts Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt and Astro Teller have created a company that is known for two things: crunching data phenomenally well, and going after data-heavy speculative ideas (officially identified as “Moonshots”) that – even if they work out – will take many years of development to pay off. The original Google search engine was the product of vision and a data-heavy opportunity. Currently under development are a raft of others, including Google Glass and self-driving cars. Looked at in this way, medicine is just another information science with vast amounts of data – seven billion case histories walking around on the planet… data to be assembled and crunched for a path to understanding everything about our life processes. Google’s Calico should then be able to cure disease – eliminate all cancer (which would add some three years to average life expectancy) – and presumably tinker with our cellular and genetic structures any way we can imagine. To me, that suggests an indefinite lifespan in a body that would gradually move away from current human norms.

Timeframe for this? The only hint is from Larry Page: “In some industries it takes 10 to 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

Larry Page is only 40, but I’m 63. Let’s get a move on, guys!

And what will it cost? Google is “not a philanthropic organization. But,” says Astro Teller, “if you make the world a radically better place, the money is going to come find you, in a fair and elegant way.”

Or in other words, just like with the priests of old, the promise of eternal life will get you to give them a ton of money. The big difference is that this time around, it is grounded in scientific developments, not wishful thinking.

History as Irony

Into the land for which the Jews
A thousand years before
Had killed and burned to take,
Jesus was born.

In towns controlled by Rome –
Grafting their multicultural odd gods
Onto Rome-cleansed, Rome–straightened cities –
Jesus played.

Walking four miles from Nazareth
To Sepphoris with Joseph at age ten
To work and help his father build another
Roman Jewish palace,
Jesus toiled.

In the uprisings led by Judas of Galilee
When Joseph and two thousand Jews were killed,
Crucified by the Romans, Sepphoris burned,
Jesus escaped.

In hills and deserts outside Rome’s control,
Studying prophecies and hefting swords,
Jesus preached Israel purged of Rome.

Outside the shining city on the hill,
The Passover uprising crushed by Rome,
Flanked by two Zealots, heads of the revolt,
Jesus, King of Jews, was crucified.

Preventing further fundamentalists
Leading attacks against High Priest and Rome,
Saul hunted Jesus’ Messianic dregs.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Mixing old Jewish myths in a fresh blend
With Mithras, Isis – a One God for all –
Saul/Paul created Christ as a new God.

Antonia Fortress

The Antonia Fortress falls to the Romans, 70 AD

Both fundamentalist and Paulist Jews
Denying the Emperor’s divinity –
Disrupting commerce, peace and government –
Nero burned Jewish Christians, and
Titus destroyed the Jewish Temple, and
Hadrian deported all the Jews
From Palestine, scattering Christians and Jews
Throughout the Roman Empire and beyond.

Jews kept their heads down. Christians evangelized,
Spread through the powerless – slaves, women, poor,
Criminals and the lowest army ranks.

Seeing an opportune new power base,
Constantine changed Rome’s faith.

Controlling now (in part) the Emperor,
Popes ruled the West from Rome, built palaces,
And persecuted Jews.

(Jesus gives no opinion, being dead.)

Published: Ambit 211, UK, January 2013

Scientology – a peculiarly unpleasant organization

A case against Scientology is finally coming to trial after years of obstruction by the Church.

 

Laura DeCrescenzo in 1996

Laura DeCrescenzo in 1996

Laura DeCrescenzo has filed suit, claiming that she was 17 when she was forced by the Church of Scientology to have an abortion against her will. At that time, according to information coming out for the October 2013 court case, she was working 112-hour weeks under a billion-year contract that she had entered when her parents were members of the Church.

The stupidity of the ideas behind Scientology is one thing, and I can live with people believing all that, even if it was created by a science fiction writer as a way of making a lot of money. But the vicious exploitation of children under its control is something else, and makes Scientology into a peculiarly unpleasant organization.

Making a secular holiday tree

For thousands of years, the winter solstice – the turning point of the year, with the end of increasing darkness and the beginning of the return of light – has been celebrated with feasts, log fires, and a tree decorated with shiny things and candles.  It’s all about light.

If you want a holiday tree, but want to make it very clear what your religious or philosophic position is, then why not let 300 or so books return temporarily to their roots (so to speak), and be a tree for a couple of weeks!

You make whatever statement your reading habits make.

You make whatever statement your reading habits make.

A holiday tree, full of light.

A holiday tree, full of light.

There are several places on the web where you can find instructions for doing this in an organized way.

We started with a circle of seven outsized books, spines out, and built up from there. At about two feet we started to fill it with pillows and cushions, and at about four feet we put an oversized book across the shrinking hole to stabilize everything.

After we wrapped 80 feet of lights round it, we inserted a bunch of white lights into a convenient crystal cone to top it off.

Happy holidays!

Religious opposition to the table fork

Back in Biblical times people ate with their fingers, typically from a shared pot. Jesus states during his Last Passover Supper that he thinks one of the Twelve disciples has betrayed him to the Romans. He only says it’s someone dipping into the pot with him, which they were all doing. In retrospect, Judas is identified and blamed.

eat with the right hand

Eat with the right hand, if sharing food

Still today in the Arab world people eat with their fingers and share food from a common pot. This is why Arabs are so much more scrupulous than Westerners about washing their hands before they eat. It’s also why they have the convention a clean (right) hand for writing, shaking hands and eating, and the left hand for, you know, wiping.

Which also increases the punishment of having a hand cut off for theft. Then what? Would you want to have someone share a meal with you, if they’ve only got one hand – for everything?

So the medieval invention of the small fork for use at the table would seem like a good idea. (Industrial-size ones for cooking had been used by the Romans and others for centuries.) But you know what religious people are like when someone wants to introduce any sort of change – “It’s not sanctioned by Scripture! It’s the work of the Devil!”

Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article, “The Uncommon Origins of the Common Fork“:

Forks for dining only started to appear in the noble courts of the Middle East and the Byzantine Empire in about the 7th century and became common among wealthy families of the regions by the 10th century. Elsewhere, including Europe, where the favored implements were the knife and the hand, the fork was conspicuously absent.

Imagine the astonishment then when in 1004 Maria Argyropoulina, Greek niece of Byzantine Emperor Basil II, showed up in Venice for her marriage to Giovanni, son of the Pietro Orseolo II, the Doge of Venice, with a case of golden forks—and then proceeded to use them at the wedding feast. They weren’t exactly a hit. She was roundly condemned by the local clergy for her decadence, with one going so far as to say, “God in His wisdom has provided man with natural forks—his fingers. Therefore it is an insult to Him to substitute artificial metal forks for them when eating.”

When Argyropoulina died of the plague two years later, Saint Peter Damian, with ill-concealed satisfaction, suggested that it was God’s punishment for her lavish ways. “Nor did she deign to touch her food with her fingers, but would command her eunuchs to cut it up into small pieces, which she would impale on a certain golden instrument with two prongs and thus carry to her mouth. . . . this woman’s vanity was hateful to Almighty God; and so, unmistakably, did He take his revenge. For He raised over her the sword of His divine justice, so that her whole body did putrefy and all her limbs began to wither.”

And still today Christian fundamentalists think that gay marriage is causing hurricanes in the US, and Muslim fundamentalists think that women’s clothing is causing earthquakes in Iran, and it’s all caused by the Devil.
And do you ever see the Devil with a hurricane or an earthquake? No! (But you see him with a fork…)