Why Zebras Have Stripes (and 21 other things you’re probably wrong about)

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I like to think of myself as a reasonably knowledgeable guy. Actually, scratch that – I like to think of myself as an extremely knowledgeable guy. I’m aware that I’ve not specialised in any particular area, so my knowledge is not necessarily particularly deep, but it’s definitely broader than most.

At university and on my own I’ve studied anatomy, ancient languages, anthropology, archaeology, architecture, art history, astronomy and autism, and that’s just the first letter of the alphabet. I’ve done history and science and history of science; forensics and psychology and forensic psychology; politics and philosophy and political philosophy. Warfare and weaponry; crime and punishment; history, geography, geology, etymology; and a partridge in a pear tree. 

But I’m not a one-trick pony. Since I live in the real world of Ed Sheeran, Ellen DeGeneres and Elon Musk, I back up this academic knowledge with a sound insight into popular culture. I can tell my Spielbergs from my Scorceses, and my Khloes from my Kourtneys; my Family Guy and Firefly from my Stranger Things and Breaking Bad. Other than my Achilles Heel (sport), I’m the one you want on your pub quiz team.

But there are a number of difficulties that come from being so knowledgeable. Firstly, you’re surrounded by people who know less than you, which makes you feel great until you realise that when you want to talk about something that interests you, nobody is able to offer anything resembling an informed opinion until you’ve schooled them on your subject. Secondly, it makes you think that knowledge is a static monolith, when it’s actually a fluid multitude of changing viewpoints, so staying current on such a breadth of ideas is impossible and makes much of what you know obsolete. And thirdly, perhaps most importantly, it makes you act like an arrogant turd.

Like the other day when my wife told me that zebras have stripes to stop flies landing on them.

‘Of course they don’t,’ I said, practically laughing in her face. ‘Who told you that rubbish?’

‘My friend.’

‘Well, your friend is wrong,’ I said in a very superior way. ‘Zebras evolved stripes as a way of breaking up their outline to make it more difficult for predators to cut an individual out from the herd.’

‘But it stops flies from landing on them because the stripes confuse them.’

‘Well, that might be a secondary benefit, but come on – evolution is all about survival. You really think they evolved stripes to stop flies landing on them and not to counter the 400lbs of teeth and claws trying to rip them to pieces on a daily basis? Use just a basic modicum of thought and you can see how stupid that sounds.’

And then, to hammer home how much of an asshole I am, I googled it to show her how I was right and she was…

Ah, hell.

I was right that evolution is all about survival. I was totally wrong about everything else. The current scientific consensus is that zebras evolved stripes to stop disease-carrying flies from landing on them. Thinking about it, it makes sense: there are probably a million flies for every lion, and once you’re weakened by a disease, you’re going to be easier to pick off.

So I was wrong. Completely. And more importantly, my wife was right. I’m never going to live this one down.

So I thought I’d make a list of some things that people think they know but are actually quite wrong about, whether through old information, fictionalisation in movies and TV, or simply because the conventional wisdom isn’t always as wise as it thinks it is. Arm yourself with these facts so you don’t fall into the same trap I did.

1. Hyenas are mostly predators, not scavengers. Estimates vary, but the widest known species, the spotted hyena, kills between 50% and 80% of the food it eats, and when lions and hyenas are seen around kills, in more than half of the cases, the hyenas made the kill. So why do we see them as skulking scavengers? Centuries of negative portrayals in literature, mythology and folklore because of how they look and sound. Yep, the maligning of Africa’s most successful predator is the closest we get to racism with regard to the Animal Kingdom.

2. Humans have far more than the five senses you were taught as kids. We also have equilibrioception (sense of balance and ability to detect acceleration); proprioception (sense of self-movement and body/limb positions); nociception (sense of pain); thermoception (sense of temperature); and a whole bunch of others like hunger, thirst, fullness, need to pee and need to poop. The best estimate is that we have between 14 and 20. Take that, M. Night Shyamalan.

3. You already use 100% of your brain. The myth that we only use 10%, and could do so much more if only we could unlock the rest of our potential, needs to be put to bed, not only because it’s wrong but because it keeps spawning naff action movies (Limitless, Lucy). You use different parts of your brain for different things, so you’re not going to use the whole 100% at the same time, but that doesn’t mean those other parts aren’t used. If they weren’t, they’d get colonised by other parts of the brain. The idea that a massive amount of the body’s blood supply goes to nourish an organ of which 90% lies dormant is just ‘laughable’.

4. The fat, laughing, half-naked golden Chinaman is not the Buddha. He is Budai, a 10th century CE Chinese Buddhist monk. Technically, he’s a Bodhisattva, like Patrick Swayze in Point Break – a spiritually-enlightened being. The actual Buddha was Siddhartha Gautama Buddha, who lived in the 5th century BCE. Most depictions of him are of a slim man sitting cross-legged, with short, tight curls and a top-knot on his head, a ‘third eye’ on his forehead, and a beatific expression on his face. This holy figure is most often seen as a neighbour’s lawn ornament. Speaking of holy figures…

5. The man we know as Jesus of Nazareth was actually called YeshuaThe Aramaic name Yeshua from the Hebrew Bible entered the Greek Bible as Iesous, which was translated into the Latin Bible as Iesus, and into the English Bible as Jesus. Likewise, God was not Jehovah, but Yahweh. Don’t anybody tell the guys at the Watchtower.

6. The Coriolis effect doesn’t make toilets flush clockwise/anti-clockwise in the northern/southern hemisphere. The Coriolis effect – essentially the deflection of an object that travels a long distance over the surface of the Earth without actually touching it – is caused by the planet rotating faster at the equator than at the poles, and affects weather patterns, ocean currents and the occasional sniper’s bullet, but not toilets, despite what you might have seen on The Simpsons. Toilets and even swimming pools are simply too small for the Coriolis effect to have any influence.

7. Dinosaurs aren’t extinct. Yep, this is a hard one to get your head around because it’s been drummed into you all your life that dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago, but they didn’t. Most did, but the bird branch of the family tree survived and evolved into the avian species we know today. Birds are Maniraptors, which are coelurosaurs, which are theropods, which are saurischians, which are dinosaurs. Weird. Even stranger, the flying reptiles (pterosaurs), the swimming reptiles (ichthyosaurs and plesiosaurs) and the squat ones with the sails on their backs (dimetrodons) that you see in all the posters, aren’t even dinosaurs at all. A simple rule of thumb is that a dinosaur’s legs are under the body, so anything with legs that stick out to the sides (like a crocodile or a tortoise) isn’t a dinosaur.

8. Cutting an earthworm in half doesn’t create two worms. Quite simply, worms have a head and a tail. The head has a mouth, the tail doesn’t. Both ends might wriggle around for a bit afterwards, but only the head can survive – the tail won’t.

9. Things burn up on entry into Earth’s atmosphere primarily because of air compression, not friction. When something hits the atmosphere, it’s normally travelling several kilometres a second. In the upper atmosphere where the descent is hottest and fastest, the air is too thin to create very much friction. Instead, the object’s travelling so fast the air in front of it can’t move out of the way so becomes squashed. As anybody who’s used a bike pump should know, when you compress air it heats up, and in the case of an object entering the atmosphere, massively so. There’s a lot of science involved, so if you want to properly understand it, follow this link to a guy from NASA explaining it better than I ever could.

10. The ‘alphas’ in wolf packs didn’t get there through aggression. For aeons we’ve been justifying competitive, hierarchical, and oftentimes quite shitty behaviour in business and society using the model of the wolf pack, in which a dominant ‘alpha’ male fights his way to the top like a particularly furry Al Capone. It’s a ‘dog-eat-dog’ world, after all, especially if you want to become ‘top dog’. However, while this might be true of captive wolves in which unrelated individuals are confined together, studies in the wild show something very different. The ‘alphas’ at the top of the social hierarchy in wild wolf packs are actually ‘mum and dad‘; the subordinates are ‘their children’. When they reach maturity, young wolves go off to become alphas of their own packs i.e. find a partner, settle down and have some kids. Even among primates, where the alpha can physically dominate the rest of the tribe, their behaviour is far more supportive and nurturing than the ‘alpha male’ stereotype that business magnates and your asshole boss would have you believe.

11. Carrots don’t help you see in the dark. If you have a vitamin A deficiency that causes a loss of night vision, eating carrots rich in vitamin A will restore your night vision to the same level as a normal, healthy person. If you don’t have vitamin A deficiency, eating carrots won’t make you see any better in the dark than someone who never touches carrots. This is a myth that goes back to the Second World War. To conceal the fact that the RAF were intercepting German bombers at night using radar, the Air Ministry issued press releases claiming their pilots could see in the dark by eating carrots. Not only did the Germans believe it but the British public did too, and here we are almost eighty years later still fooled.

12. Glass is a solid at room temperature and doesn’t continue to flow. I’ve been told many times that glass is a supercooled liquid – once by a guide showing me around the Colleges of Cambridge University. The error seems to stem from the fact that the glass in the windows of old buildings is thicker at the bottom – which my erstwhile guide pointed out many times during the tour – suggesting that the glass has continued to flow over hundreds of years. This is actually completely wrong. Glass is an amorphous solid. This means its atomic structure isn’t neat, the way it is in crystals, say, but it’s still solid. The reason medieval glass is thicker at the bottom is simple: glass-making back then wasn’t exactly refined, so the sheets they created were often uneven; builders would put the thicker end at the bottom, because they weren’t stupid. That said, I have seen the occasional examples where they’ve put the glass in with the thicker end at the top, proving (if it even needed proof) that glass is a solid. And speaking of people in the past being stupid…

13. People didn’t used to think the world was flat. At least, not for the past 2500 years. Okay, some people still think the world is flat, but the experts, like scientists, mathematicians and navigators, knew it was roughly spherical. Ancient Greek astronomers (3rd century BCE), Roman astronomers (1st century CE) and Arab astronomers (830 CE) all calculated the circumference of the Earth, and there are anecdotal, pseudoscientific claims that the Ancient Egyptians also knew. The reason Europeans mocked Christopher Columbus was not because they thought he’d fall off the edge of the world but because they knew he was wrong. Columbus massively miscalculated the size of the Earth (he also thought it was pear-shaped), and if he hadn’t stumbled into America, his crews would all have starved. In fact, he died still thinking he’d sailed all the way to India, when he was actually closer to India in Europe without ever leaving home!

14. Columbus wasn’t even the first European to visit North America. There were Viking colonies in Greenland and Canada hundreds of years before the Spanish conquistadors. The best guess is that the first European in North America was Leif Eriksson around 1000 CE, five-hundred years before Columbus.

15. You can’t restart a stopped heart with electricity. The defibrillator stops a heart that’s in atrial fibrillation (an irregular heartbeat i.e. a heart attack) in the hope it starts itself in a normal rhythm. It does nothing to an already-stopped heart, so there would be no situation where the heart monitor flatlines, someone shouts, ‘Clear!’ and with a loud PA-JOOM, the patient is jolted back to life. So why do we see it all the time on TV, even in shows that are otherwise medically accurate? Because audiences expect it. Presumably it was first used, wrongly, to make for a dramatic scene; then others started doing it; and now, if you don’t do it, people are taken out of the movie or show because they’re thinking, ‘Why’s he not shocking her?’ This particular nonsense shows no sign of disappearing any time soon.

16. Shaving doesn’t make your hair grow back thicker and faster. It just feels like it does. Your hair follicle is under the skin, so when you shave, you’re not removing the hair entirely, just the end of it. What you actually do by chopping off the end is to make it blunt, and therefore rougher to the touch. It doesn’t stimulate growth or anything else. And while we’re on the topic of hair…

17. Your hair and fingernails don’t keep growing after you die. Folklorists and internet experts will tell you that the vampire myth comes from people digging up dead bodies only to discover their hair, teeth and nails had grown longer. This is only a partial truth. In reality, the longer hair, teeth and nails is the result of the corpse’s skin shrinking as it decomposes. In addition, dark ‘purge fluids’ leaking from mouth and nostrils, and the bloating of the corpse through trapped decomposition gases, all contributed to the idea that the dead could climb out of their coffins and drink blood from the living. (As a side note, the belief in vampires is still scarily common in certain parts of the world, with a bunch of villagers digging up and defiling the corpse of a neighbour in Romania in 2003 after he turned into a ‘strigoi‘).

18. Stretching before exercise doesn’t prevent soreness. Sure, we’ve all been indoctrinated into the belief that you need to stretch before a workout to avoid aching the next day, but it isn’t actually true. Stretching regularly helps to keep you supple and flexible, but it doesn’t prevent strains, injuries or aches. So whether it’s before, during, or after exercise, stretching is about increasing your range of movement, not a magical preventative to protect you from overdoing it.

19. Cracking your knuckles doesn’t cause arthritis. It’s not a pleasant thing to do by any means, but popping bubbles in the synovial fluid around your joints isn’t going to wreck your hands in later life. There is some evidence it might reduce grip strength, and you might break your knuckle if you do it too hard, but you’re not going to give yourself arthritis.

20. Stomach ulcers aren’t caused by stress. Since time immemorial it was thought that peptic ulcers – a thinning of the lining of the stomach to create a sore – was caused by lifestyle factors, such as stress, coffee, alcohol and spicy foods. While these things certainly exacerbate peptic ulcers, they don’t actually cause them. Instead, up to 90% are caused by helicobacter pylori bacteria, and the rest by long-term use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like Aspirin and Ibuprofen, although smoking apparently increases your risk (as it seems to do with everything). Unfortunately, knowing it’s not caused by stress makes a certain Malcolm in the Middle episode far less enjoyable.

21. There is no such thing as biological race. Or, to quote National Geographic, ‘There’s no scientific basis for race – it’s a made-up label’. Yeah, this is a controversial one and perhaps the most difficult to accept. If you look at genetics, there is incredibly little difference between people. We’re more closely related to one another than chimpanzees to other chimpanzees. In fact, since all non-Africans are descended from the same few thousand individuals that left the continent 60,000 years ago, Europeans and Asians and Native Americans and Oceanians are more closely related to one another than Africans to other Africans. The category ‘black’ to refer to all Africans as a single ‘race’ is therefore incredibly reductive, since they encompass far more genetic variation than non-blacks.

‘But we look different,’ I hear you cry. Yes, we do, but that’s mostly because we’ve adapted to where we happen to live on the planet, and haven’t moved around very much, so each population has ended up looking a little different, the way that my kids look like me and my brother’s kids look like him. Genetically, however, beneath the superficialities of skin colour, eye-shape and whether or not you can grow facial hair, we’ve remained remarkably similar. Indeed, of a person’s 20,000 genes and three-billion base pairs, a difference in a single gene, SLC24A5, where there is a G in sub-Saharan Africans, and an in Europeans, accounts for most of the difference in skin pigmentation.

If we were different races – if there were more than just superficial differences – you’d expect there to be distinctive alleles (the particular ‘flavour’ of a gene) belonging to each different race. There are indeed different alleles that appear to relate to different regions – around 7.4% of the total studied. However, these ‘race-specific’ alleles only occur in 1% of the population, meaning 1% of Africans have an African allele, 1% of Europeans have a European allele, and so on. Indeed, given the variation within populations, a European might be more genetically similar to an Asian than another European. This is hard scientific proof that while you might be able to infer a person’s ancestry from their appearance, we are all the same.

So if race doesn’t exist, why are we still so obsessed with it? Probably because we invented the notion of race to explain why we look different long before we had a scientific understanding of DNA and genetics. I mean, the Human Genome Project wasn’t completed until 2003. We’ve spent the past few hundred years dividing people into different races based on their ancestry, and then assigning those races different characteristics and relative values, so while race might not exist as a biological reality, it certainly exists as a social, political, cultural and psychological construct, interwoven into the fabric of how we see ourselves and others. If everyone came to accept the new, scientific view that the differences between people are cultural, not biological, perhaps the world would be a better place; but in doing so, you’d undermine the means by which billions of people self-identify. Instead of proclaiming that black lives matter, we really ought to be chanting that race doesn’t really exist, but I honestly don’t think it’ll happen in my lifetime.

And these are my facts. If you’ve made it this far, well done: you’re better armed against the untruths that litter society. But don’t take my word for it. Do your own research. Read both sides of an argument. See which you agree with or if there’s a consensus.

And if you can, do it before you put your foot in your mouth.

Greta the Aspie

There’s a strange assumption I’ve come across of late that, by dint of my autism, I must necessarily be a fan of other people on the spectrum. This is particularly odd when the only point of similarity between us is our diagnosis. As a tattooed, shaven-headed, guitar-playing proponent of punk, rock, metal and grunge, is it really likely that I’m going to listen to Susan Boyle simply because she’s Aspergic? And as a fan of mostly horror and crime fiction, am I going to enjoy Chris Packham’s meandering nature memoir because he, too, is on the spectrum? (Short answer, no).

So, in a week during which 16-year-old autistic activist Greta Thurnberg dominated the headlines by not only arguing her case at the UN Climate Action Summit in New York, but also giving the Leader of the Free World the worst case of stink eye I’ve ever seen, everywhere I go it’s assumed I must be a fan. People keep asking my opinion of her, and of climate change, and whether we should be running for the hills screaming, ‘The sky is falling, the sky is falling!’ all because we both happen to have Asperger’s Syndrome.

On the one hand, it’s rather patronising to presume that, because we’re both autistic, I have specialist insight into a 16-year-old girl from Sweden who has made it her mission to beat everyone over the head with a virtue stick like a real life Lisa Simpson. On the other, it’s nice that people are talking to me, and since, as a result of my autism, I’m a keen observer of the human condition (even if my conclusions are sometimes way off base), it probably makes more sense to ask me than some random weirdo who sleeps on a park bench and smells of cheese.

So what do I think of Greta Thurnberg?

I have mixed feelings. I think she’s done an amazing job almost singlehandedly putting environmentalism at the centre of the political agenda and bringing the issue of climate change to the forefront of everyone’s minds, and there’s little doubt her autism has played a massive part in this – her obsession, stubbornness, and dogged refusal to be put off by any criticism or negative feedback have all served her well. She’s demonstrated in the best possible way that one person can change the world, if only they work hard and believe in themselves enough. And unlike some environmentalists (*cough* Prince Harry *cough*), she practices what she preaches, travelling by trains and yachts instead of cars and planes. Kudos.

However, the same autism that has enabled her to succeed has, I think, exposed her to legitimate criticism in terms of her message, and created genuine concern about the potential impact of being so notorious so young on both her short-term and long-term mental health.

Climate change is clearly her obsession, but as with many people on the spectrum, while we are fabulous at learning facts and figures, we often lack a genuine understanding of the topic – we’re great at studying the trees, but not so good at putting them together to see the forest. You know, big picture stuff. There is certainly a tinge of millenarian hysteria in her rhetoric, and while she has been emotionally restrained in the past, her speech on Monday was dramatic, scathing, emotional and scolding. It risked undermining the good that she’s done since nobody likes being lectured by a know-it-all teenager who thinks they can solve all the world’s problems because they’re better than you. I should know – as a teen I was insufferable, and, human nature being what it us, I never managed to convince anyone that my extensive knowledge of playground social interaction meant anything in the ‘real’ world. Strange.

Now, before you say I’m a climate change denier, I’m not. The science is unequivocal – the climate is changing. And anyone who ignores the impact of man on the environment and thinks it’s all a conspiracy to charge higher taxes simply doesn’t want to face the uncomfortable truth that we are a massive cause of this. That said, predicting the effects of anthropogenic global warming using computer models is on less sure-footing given our inability to accurately measure the influence of millions of different variables on complex weather patterns, ocean currents and ecosystems. I think much of the panic afflicting young people right now is from taking the ‘worst case scenario’ models. It’s ‘end of the world’ stuff, a doomsday cult with scientific backing, so it’s no wonder that schoolkids are crying themselves to sleep over our impending demise.

I’m not so pessimistic. I think we’re going to be seeing a turbulent few decades involving mass migration of people, increasingly frequent extreme weather events, and lots of highly-charged arguments about power sources and a diet containing less meat and more locally-sourced produce, but I don’t think humanity is going extinct. And the accusation that we’re doing nothing to combat climate change is just as selective a reading of the evidence as climate change denial. We’re not doing enough, certainly; we can definitely go further; but the very fact so many people are engaging with this issue shows that it is being taken seriously by large swathes of the population, including consumers, manufacturers, lobbyists and politicians (with the notable exception of Donald Trump).

Likewise, I fundamentally disagree with many climate change zealots who seem to think we can save the world by going backwards, banning cars and air travel and returning to a pre-industrial-type lifestyle. That genie is out of the lamp, and it’s not getting put back in. Through the natural earthly cycle, climate change is going to happen whether or not we change, so preparing for it is far better than trying to hold back the tide. We need more technology, not less. Look at how digital streaming services have massively reduced the manufacture of CDs and DVDs. Look at how 3D printers prevent the need for transporting goods from the other side of the world. Look at the new Sabre oxygen-hydrogen hybrid engine, which promises far greener air travel. These are the things that are going to let us reach a carbon-neutral society, not a bunch of Luddites throwing their shoes into the machinery.

When it comes to effecting change, I think Greta Thurnberg is right in targeting the young and will reap the rewards of this stratagem, but not in the way that she thinks. Far too many pressure groups and protesters (like Extinction Rebellion and many of Thurnberg’s student activists) seem to prefer standing on the outside shouting at ‘the Establishment’, and I have no truck with that that way of thinking. If you want system change, you do it from within the system. You train hard and work hard, you become an expert, you get into a position where you have the power to change things – you don’t piss and moan on a street corner. I don’t think the student strikes will change the world, but I think ten years from now, when those same students move into government and academia and industry around the world, that’s when things will change – from the inside.

As far as Thurnberg’s mental health goes, I do worry what kind of support she’s receiving. This is a person with diagnoses of autism, OCD and selective mutism who, by her own admission, has battled depression and anorexia and who is right now at the very centre of world affairs and media scrutiny. Of course, I’m not saying that this in any way detracts from her message or that she should be denied the right to express it, but as someone who has experienced breakdowns and burnouts throughout his life, I wonder how long she can keep it up. My saying this probably comes across as patronising in itself, and if so, yeah, I am, but that doesn’t change that, from my experience of those of us on the spectrum, her mental health is a legitimate concern and she should not be mocked by the President of the United States simply for being herself.

So, in summary, I think Greta Thurnberg should be applauded, not only for highlighting the issue of climate change, battling her way into the corridors of power, and ensuring the next generation of lawmakers and decision-makers will be concerned about the environment, but for practising what she preaches, even if I’m not entirely on-board with the severity of her message, and I have more hope about the future than she seems to be.

The way I see it, while climate change makes the future a terrifying unknown, we’re humans – we’re creative, adaptable, resilient and determined, and I have no doubt we’ve got this. Of course, climate change fanatics, and Greta Thurnberg herself, might call this hubris, since humans can also be stupid, selfish, backward-looking and incredibly resistant to change. It all depends on your perception of humanity, and whether you believe we are collectively a good or an evil. I’m prepared to think we’re better than Thurnberg thinks.

I hope humanity doesn’t prove me wrong.

Pseudoscience and Amber Necklaces: Just Say “Magic”

In my previous post I poked fun at people who believe an electronic box can detect allergies, enzyme deficiencies and underperforming organs simply by running a mild electrical current through the skin (electrodermal testing). In this post, since a girl turned up my daughter’s birthday party wearing one the other day, I’m turning my attention to a favourite medical intervention of the tie-dyed parent: the amber necklace.

Amber necklaces, for those fortunate enough never to have procreated, are strings of amber beads you make your infant wear from the age of three months to seven years, usually around the neck but sometimes around the wrist or ankle, to soothe their teething pains and whatever else happens to ail them. If you question the wisdom of tying something around a baby’s neck, fear not: they are designed to break at the slightest pressure, so you only have to worry about your child choking to death on amber beads and not being strangled.

Now, I’m not going to say that amber necklaces don’t have painkilling properties, mostly because I’m afraid of getting lynched by the Mumsnet mob, but also because debunking every nonsense health fad gets tedious after a while. Instead, I’m going to focus on an aspect of the marketing of amber necklaces that really gets my goat: pseudoscience.

I hate pseudoscience, I really do. It’s the hot chick in the porn film who puts on a white coat and glasses to pretend she’s a professor when we all know she’s wearing nothing underneath.

Exhibit A: succinic acid.

While some of the advertisers go all airy-fairy, citing ancient wisdom and claiming amber is a bio-transmitter that contains an electro-negative charge that activates the root chakra to promote natural healing, a surprising number of others drape themselves with the veneer of scientific credibility. Baltic amber contains succinic acid, they say. Succinic acid is rich in antioxidants that combat free radicals, they continue. Occurring naturally in the body, it’s a key intermediary in the Krebs cycle, a stimulant to the neural system aiding recovery, and a boost to the body’s immune response in fighting infection.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? I don’t know if any of that is true or not – I suppose I could find out – but there’s no need, because it doesn’t matter. All that matters is: does the mechanism for getting that succinic acid from the amber into my child sound plausible?

According to the intellectual behemoths behind amber necklaces, the infant’s body temperature dissolves the succinic acid from the amber, allowing it to be absorbed into the baby’s skin.

Wow. Just wow. After dazzling you with medical jargon, they drop the ball spectacularly with that one.

You don’t need to know anything about succinic acid to realise how extraordinarily unconvincing that explanation is – it only takes a soupcon of logic and the distant memory of your basic chemistry lessons at school. Are they really suggesting succinic acid is so incredibly stable and unreactive it can remain in fossilized tree sap for millions of years, yet so amazingly unstable and reactive it will dissolve with the barest application of warmth? Really?

Furthermore, the reason most alternative health advocates avoid mainstream medicine is because they dislike the idea of putting chemicals (i.e. medicines) into their children’s bodies. Yet they seen strangely fine at allowing an unknown strength or dose of a natural chemical to seep into their babies. Wouldn’t you want to know more? How much succinic acid is too much? What happens if they OD? Are there any side effects? What if it’s a really hot day?

Frankly, if someone told me that chemicals were leaking from my children’s accessories into their bloodstream through their skin, I’d be somewhat worried about that. I certainly wouldn’t go out and buy one specifically because it can drug my kids. And if succinic acid is so useful, why not buy it in pill form? Then you could control exactly how much they’re getting. Doing it via a necklace seems a little reckless to me.

Most advocates of alternative medicine claim to be inquisitive, discerning and sceptical people. Instead of blindly accepting the word of mainstream medicine like the rest of us sheep, they aren’t afraid to question the orthodoxy and seek out the Truth (with a capital T). Strange, then, that people who reject the scientific proofs of mainstream medicine appear so ready to believe anything that alternative medicine tells them, no matter how much it goes against basic logic. In fact, the more it flies in the face of accepted medical doctrine, the more they seem to accept it.

Ironic, don’t you think, that so many non-conformists choose to non-conform in exactly the same way?

Anyway, I don’t have a problem with people giving their kids amber necklaces, or wearing copper bracelets or magnets or whatever other unscientific fad they choose believe in. For one thing, it makes hippies easy to spot; and for another, so long as they’re using them in addition to regular medicine, rather than instead of, and they’re not hurting anyone, it’s nobody’s business. If it makes them feel good, helps them get through the day, then more power to them.

All that I ask is that people are honest about them. Don’t say it works because of some pseudoscientific claptrap you’ve pulled out of your ass. It’s patronising and offensive to anybody who understands basic science. Just say it works by magic. I would respect that far more.

Magic Allergy Testing Rubbish

I have mentioned before, many, many, many times, that I am a sceptic. I don’t believe in ghost hunting, conspiracy theories, psychokinesis, homeopathy, UFOs, or the the anti-vaxxer movement. I don’t suffer fools gladly, and I most certainly don’t appreciate people with zero knowledge of medicine or healthcare offering me medical advice. Indeed, I think I’ve made it pretty clear to not only my readers but everybody in my life that if they come at me with pseudo-scientific, superstitious nonsense I’m going to cut them off at the knees.

So why do some people never learn?

My eldest daughter has asthma, for which she uses an inhaler. I don’t have a problem with that, because why would I? A certain person in my wife’s family, however, has a different view.

‘You want to cut her reliance on that inhaler,’ she said. ‘It’s very bad to use it long-term; it causes so many health problems and it’ll give her bad teeth.’

As someone who has asthma and has used an inhaler for around half my life, I have never heard something so absurd. But she doubled down on the ridiculous by suggesting we send my daughter for an allergy test to see what we should avoid, the implication being we can ‘cure’ her asthma by going gluten-free and eating more quinoa.

She then offered to put us in touch with her nutritionist for an allergy test, which would involve connecting my daughter to a box that measures the electrical resistance of her cells and organs (a.k.a. electrodermal testing). Knowing I’m a sceptic, she offered the ‘proof’ that this same nutritionist had used the machine to diagnose a friend’s one-year-old as having too few digestive enzymes, and suggested the foods that would remedy this.

The first warning sign was when she said ‘nutritionist’. It doesn’t necessarily mean the person is a crank, but while ‘dietician’ is a registered, protected title, like doctor, ‘nutritionist ‘ is not, meaning anybody can claim to be one. That’s not to say that there aren’t professional nutritionists out there – you can probably trust a ‘registered nutritionist’ with a BSc in Nutrition who is voluntarily regulated by the Association for Nutrition, for example – but if they wear a beanie hat and smell of yoghurt, it’s probably best not taking lifestyle advice from them.

The second warning sign was when she said the nutritionist would perform an allergy test. While dieticians are qualified to give advice about diet with respect to specific medical conditions, such as coeliac, nutritionists are not – they give more general advice about diet and healthy eating. So why would a nutritionist be doing an allergy test and then giving advice about the results?

The third warning sign was, of course, the magic box that somehow diagnoses every problem in your body. I mean, seriously, do people really believe that? Have they never visited the doctor for a mystery ailment and been sent for further tests? Why would he give you a blood test, refer you for a gastroscopy, do a stool culture or dip stick your urine if he could just hook you up to a machine and know you inside and out, lickety-split?

And the suggestion that running a very minor electrical current through your body can tell a machine that you are lacking in digestive enzymes is so ludicrous, it’s not even worth discussing. All I will say is that when the NHS, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), the Australian College of Allergy, the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy, the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, and the Allergy Society of South Africa all advise against electrodermal testing as it has no scientific basis whatsoever, it doesn’t take a genius to work out it’s a pile of BS. Yet still people believe it! Why are so many so ready to turn their backs on reality and common sense to live in a world of make-believe? I just don’t get it.

Yet despite my pointing out the absurdity of the suggestion, and stating in no uncertain terms that we would not be doing it, my wife took it seriously and is now worried about the dangers of long-term use of inhalers, and keeps asking me if there’s any harm in having the test done. The harm, dearest, is going to a snake-oil salesman instead of a medical professional in order to get fake medical advice about a chronic respiratory condition that is already being dealt with by the asthma nurse. The harm is that we’re being encouraged to turn against inhalers, the very medicine designed to treat asthma, in favour of magic beans. And the harm is that if you go down that road you lose my respect because you reveal yourself to be a gullible idiot.

But she won’t see things my way, which is so frustrating, her response being that I am entitled to my opinion and she’s entitled to hers. Oh for crying out loud, I replied – it’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. The sky is blue; water is wet; electrical boxes can’t tell you how much bacteria lives in your gut. And when it comes to the safety of my children’s health, her opinions don’t matter one jot.

I reminded her that I had one of these tests done myself, around twenty years ago when I was young and stupid, and was highly dubious of it even then.

‘It didn’t work because you’re a sceptic,’ she said.

‘So you need to believe in it for it to work?’

‘Yes.’

‘Then it’s a placebo, and the bare minimum standard you can expect of a medical intervention is that it performs better than a placebo, so what good is it?’

But you can’t win them all – there’s no arguing with stupid.

For the record, steroidal inhalers can slow the growth of children, but this only affects 1 in 10,000 sufferers. And that’s with high-dose, long-term use, while my daughter’s dose is entry-level low. The risks of not treating your asthma are considerably higher, and I know this from personal experience.

As a baby, my parents were adamant that I had asthma. The doctors were adamant that it was whooping cough. By the time the doctors realised their mistake, my asthma had been untreated for so long that I was left with scarred bronchioles. Bronchioles are the tubes in your lungs that carry the air you breathe to the different regions, and they are designed to be elastic, expanding to increase airflow when you’re exercising and need more oxygen and contracting when you’re at rest. Guess what? Scarred bronchioles don’t stretch.

What this means is that no matter how fit I get or how healthy I am, I become out-of-breath very quickly during exertion because my tubes just won’t open up. When I get stressed or anxious or ill, I can’t take the deep breath needed to make me feel better, and if I ever do yoga or tai chi, I have to take two breaths for every one that you’re supposed to take. All because I didn’t have an inhaler when I should have.

So, no, I don’t take it lightly when somebody advocates replacing tried and tested and scientifically proven medicines with sugar pills, especially when my wife is unduly influenced by her family members.

I just can’t comprehend why seemingly rational people so often switch off their critical thinking skills when it comes to their health. But maybe my wife is right, and it comes down to belief. They put their faith in the nutritionist and his mysterious box the same way they trust the tarot card reader and her pack, the fortune teller and her crystal ball, the astrologer and his birth charts – because it offers certainty, however false, in an uncertain world.

You know, I think it might be fun to send my wife to have one of these tests herself. Since her hands are always sweaty, and the tests work through skin conductivity – or galvanometric skin differentials that signal energy imbalances along meridians, apparently – she’ll probably test positive for every allergen and health problem programmed into it. Then we’ll see if she continues to think it’s real, or if she’ll admit it’s a con to sell her nutritional and dietary supplements!

My Psychokinetic Child

The oddest thing I’ve ever experienced happened this afternoon. I’ve spent my life hoping to encounter something supernatural that I couldn’t dismiss out of hand as the result of some highly improbable yet entirely possible set of circumstances, and I very nearly got it today thanks to my psychokinetic child.

The facts of the matter are these: My mother-in-law treated us to pizza for lunch. Lizzie, my wife, drank a glass of Coke during the meal. While we were waiting for the bill, my daughter leaned over and lightly touched the empty glass with her fingertip. And the glass literally exploded.

This is one of the few occasions in which the word ‘literally’ is used accurately, because we’re not talking a slight cracking here, no; we are talking about an incredibly loud bang that shattered the glass and sent a thousand razor-sharp fragments flying in every direction across a circle with a diameter of six feet, one of which cut open my mother-in-law’s finger, but luckily left the rest of us untouched. Bewildered, confused and a little bit apprehensive, but unharmed nonetheless.

It didn’t sound or behave like a glass on a table top falling over and breaking, and nor did it sound or behave like a glass being knocked off a table to smash on the floor. Instead, it sounded and behaved like a glass being dropped onto a table from the ceiling. Every conversation in the restaurant instantly died as fifty diners turned as one to work out what could have caused such a violent breakage. A waitress who saw it happen was shocked and seemed wary of approaching the table, casting sideways glances at my daughter as she helped us clear up.

My first thought was that somebody had shot the glass, such was the energy of the explosion. My second thought was that my child has psychokinetic powers and released a burst of energy that shattered the glass. As I said, it was the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced.

Alas, being something of a sceptical rationalist, a saner head started to prevail. The glass had contained ice, which caused it to contract; as the restaurant was on the quayside at Portsmouth, the sun reflecting off the sea and pouring in through the window caused the glass to expand; and the resulting tension between these two opposing thermal forces created a wellspring of potential energy awaiting the tiniest impetus to release. When my daughter touched the glass with her fingertip she exerted just enough physical stress to trigger all the pent-up tension, which caused the glass to explode. Nothing supernatural or special. Unusual, granted, but not beyond the realms of scientific possibility.

Damn it.

So I won’t have to check my daughter’s scalp for a suggestive birthmark when I give her a bath this evening.

Unless it happens again, of course…

MMR and Autism

I’ll lay out my position right at the start so those who have already made up their minds to the contrary are prepared for my vitriol: MMR does not cause autism. The MMR/autism link has no basis in reality. As an autistic father of a neurotypical child who has her MMR tomorrow, I am sick to death of people telling me that vaccinations cause autism, and I will therefore be disparaging towards the anti-vax movement and, by extension, anti-vaxxers as a whole. You have been warned.

There. Now we can get started.

To the average man on the street, the letters MMR and the word autism have been inextricably linked since the early noughties. The media had a field day whipping up a national health scare, frightening parents and misreporting the facts. As a result of this, there seems to be a general undercurrent of feeling that MMR might cause autism, that scientists don’t really know the answer, and that the jury is still out on whether it’s safe or not.

Not true. The jury is in. The jury has been in for years. But news stories about all the studies published in the past decade showing how MMR doesn’t cause autism are far less newsworthy than sobbing, guilt-ridden parents with shattered lives bewailing the fact that a vaccination might have damaged their baby. Thus the one highly questionable, discredited and fraudulent study suggesting a link between MMR and autism has received massive amounts of media coverage, and the rest have received pretty much none at all. And that makes the press equally culpable in the propagation of the anti-MMR scam.

The fact is, the jury should never have been out in the first place as there has never been any evidence to suggest MMR causes autism beyond gut feelings and anecdotes. The thing is, I understand the parents jumping on the anti-vaccination band wagon. To discover your child has autism is obviously a big thing, and when life deals you a random blow, it’s human nature to look around for someone or something to blame. Thanks to a man named Andrew Wakefield, the object of blame became the vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella.

‘Who is Andrew Wakefield?’ I hear you cry. It might surprise you to learn that he was the lead author of the paper published in the Lancet in 1998 suggesting the link between MMR and autism. Surprising, because perhaps you thought there were numerous studies and a body of evidence that pointed towards this link, rather than one solitary paper based on a test group of a whopping twelve subjects. One paper describing twelve autistic children, eight of whose parents blamed MMR for their autism, provoked a total of 1257 news articles in 2002 alone. That’s like responding to the neighbour’s kid throwing a snowball at you with a full nuclear strike.

Now, I don’t need to tell the intelligent reader that a sample of twelve children is ridiculously small to extrapolate a global theory of cause and effect. Nor do I need to point out that one study, the results of which were never repeated and which were outright contradicted by various meta-analyses of massive data sets, should be described as ‘unreliable’ at best. What I do feel I ought to point out is that not only was Wakefield’s study an anomaly, it was also found to be fraudulent.

There are two key facts you need to know about Andrew Wakefield that might help you judge the efficacy of his work. Firstly, he was paid £435,643 by trial lawyers who wanted evidence to suggest MMR was unsafe, with payments starting a full two years prior to his paper being published. Secondly, he applied for patents for his own vaccine to rival MMR. Therefore, he was paid lots of money to try and prove MMR caused autism, and if he succeeded, he would make tens of millions from his own vaccine. This is what we call a ‘conflict of interest’, something he hid from the Lancet, who said that, had they known, they would never have published the paper.

What’s worse, it was discovered that many of the results in the paper had been manipulated. Diagnoses were adjusted and dates were moved in order to strengthen its conclusions that autistic symptoms started directly after the children received the MMR jab. Furthermore, the parents of eight of the twelve children in the study were already seeking compensation for MMR damaging their children before the study took place. Indeed, they were represented by the same lawyers who paid Wakefield to prove MMR was unsafe. Thus the selection of subjects for the study was far from random. That’s before we mention that Wakefield formed a partnership with one of these parents to market autism tester kits on the back of an MMR scare to rake in a predicted $43 million a year. To say the conclusions of this paper were ‘unreliable’ is an understatement.

Long story short, the General Medical Council said Wakefield had acted dishonestly and irresponsibly, and that his study was improperly conducted. He was found guilty of serious professional misconduct on four counts of dishonesty and was struck off the medical register. The Lancet then fully retracted the paper. Case closed.

Except it wasn’t, and it isn’t. The damage was done. In people’s minds, MMR might cause autism, and so rates of vaccination fell. According to the Psychiatric Times, as a result of Wakefield’s paper the number of cases of measles in the UK rose from 56 in 1998 to 1348 in 2008, with two deaths. Similarly mumps, very rare before 1999, was up to 5000 cases in January of 2005 alone. The MMR scare therefore caused some very real consequences for thousands of families.

I don’t want to ram the evidence down your throat since it’s ridiculously easy to Google any number of studies rejecting the link between MMR and autism, so I’ll just mention two. A study in Denmark including all children born between January 1991 and December 1998, covering 440,655 children vaccinated with MMR and 96,648 unvaccinated found no difference in the rates of autism or autism spectrum disorders between them. Likewise, a 2012 meta-analysis by the Cochrane Library covered 14,700,000 children and found no causal link between MMR and autism. Which is much more conclusive than a study carried out on a sample of twelve.

Yet despite this evidence, anti-vaxxers still maintain a link between vaccination and autism. They claim that rates of autism are increasing and that their child’s or their friend’s child’s symptoms started around the time of the MMR jab. There must be a link, right?

It’s true that rates of autism are increasing, but not because of an increase in the actual incidence of autism – rather, better screening methods and increased public awareness of autism mean more people are being diagnosed with it. And autistic symptoms often kick in around twelve months – right at the time they have the MMR jabs. As I said before, it’s understandable that parents of autistic children might want to blame something for their child’s condition, however inaccurate that might be.

What I find wholly unacceptable, however, is for celebrities like Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Charlie Sheen , Billy Corgan, Robert De Niro and Donald Trump to repeatedly preach about the dangers of vaccination, ignoring any and all scientific evidence to promote scare stories and misinformation, which has led to epidemic levels of measles and mumps. Why people would choose to listen to a Playboy model, Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, a drug addict, a Smashing Pumpkin, a man who strapped a boob to his chestand an orange-skinned capitalist who makes sexually suggestive comments about his own daughter, rather than doctors, scientists and the National Autistic Society, is beyond me. In regards to their views on vaccination, these people are more similar to Boko Haram and the Taliban than they realise.

Now, in order to provide balance, I have to point out that no medical intervention is 100% safe. Around 1 in 5000 children who have MMR will suffer febrile seizures, while 1 in 40,000 will develop immune thrombocytopenic purpura and 1 in a million will contract meningitis. However, if you compare this to rates of complications from measles, mumps and rubella – 1 in 1000 with measles will get meningitis and 1 in 5000 will die, while 1 in 40,000 with mumps loses their hearing and 1 in 10,000 will die – then MMR is much safer than the alternative.

I have no qualms or doubts about having my daughter vaccinated. If you’re undecided, that’s okay. All parents have the right to choose what is best for their child. Do some research, weigh up the benefits and the risks. But make sure you choose with your head, not your media-induced irrational fear of giving your child autism. Because MMR does not cause autism.

And don’t get me started on ‘Why can’t we have them as three separate vaccinations?’…