How do you want to feel on Friday 19th?

Tomorrow, the people of Scotland get the chance to make history.

97% of the eligible voting population are registered to vote in this referendum. The country is for once fully engaged in political dialogue and debate, people in pubs and workplaces are talking more about social justice and economics than the X factor. My own gran, who has never spoken to me about politics in my entire life, phoned me up two weeks ago to discuss her postal vote – we chatted for an hour about nothing but the referendum. I have watched the energy and excitement build up over the last few weeks and have been amazed and proud at how the country has owned this vote.

Scotland: How do you want to feel on Friday morning?

If a no vote would give you a huge sense of relief because the prospect of independence is just too risky, then I respect that.

But if you are someone who has been, perhaps for the first time, politically engaged and motivated by this referendum; if you are someone who believes that Britain is perhaps no longer so great; if you are disillusioned by the Westminster party politicians who no longer stand for what they once did but rather have merged into one average blended photofit; if you want to make a stand and start a process of change: Now is your chance.

I’m not building my hopes up for a yes vote to be revealed on Friday morning, but the latest polls suggest it’s going to be too close to call. If the result was yes, I would feel excitement. I would feel relief. I would feel empowerment and energy and autonomy. And I would love for all of this and more to spread across the country and beyond, because this isn’t just about Scotland. To all those posing the rather odd “what about England?” argument – a yes vote would send the message to London that “hey, some people outside London don’t like the way London runs things”. I can’t see how a yes vote would be damaging to our neighbours in England, unless you genuinely believe that once that border is made we are simply going to turn our backs and never consider those in the north of England. This idea is preposterous. Note to all: This is not a “Scotland hates England” thing. Trust me.

Will an independent Scotland be perfect? Of course not. Will things be hard initially? Probably, perhaps for some time. But I personally think these risks are worth it if we end up in control of our own country, and as a message to Westminster that many people across the UK are not happy with the status quo.

Whatever happens over the next two days, I am exceedingly proud of Scotland. The past two months have been incredibly reassuring, and it’s proved that the general public are far from apathetic about politics – it’s just that for many, for the first time ever, they feel like they have been given a real choice. A real chance to make their voice heard. And that’s something that is not going to go away.

2014-09-17 09.24.23

I found this stuck to a wall on Woodlands Road. I liked it.

On Being Curious

Curiosity is a trait we tend to associate with children (and dead cats). Most of us want our kids to be active learners, to take an interest in the world around them, and to ask questions (to a certain extent, before we get a “BUT WHY” headache and pap them off onto the nearest available parent/grandparent/computer game/tv show/shiny thing).

In adults, the trait of curiosity tends to take a back seat. We often accept answers we are given with little or no questioning, and “that’s just the way it is” can be seen as a satisfactory explanation for all sorts of phenomena. Information is something to be absorbed when required, not explored for the fun of it. After all, grown-ups have enough to worry about (work/family/finances/housing/bills/food/childcare/ holidays/work/repeat) than to take precious time out of their exhausting day to question and wonder about what exactly is going on in the world around them.

Just to illustrate this point, here are some Google image results (Genuine first page of results, and they are better than I could ever have hoped):

"Curious Child"

“Curious Child”

curious adults

“Curious Adult”

I think we should give more time and appreciation to being curious. It is a wonderful trait to have. If you can look at a flowerbed in a park and see not just pretty petals but an ecosystem, the insects and birds that are manipulated by the petals to aid their own pollination, the season in which those particular flowers come into bloom, and the creatures that live in the soil beneath them, your brain will be engaged for longer. When you walk past a Chihuahua (other tiny dogs are available), notice not just how adorable it is, but that this toattie wee pup has evolved directly from wolves, in a line of selectively bred species which only came into existence in the last few thousand years. How long ago did it become its own breed? Which of its traits have been selected for? ARE ITS EYES BIGGER THAN ITS BRAIN??

Since my childhood my mother has always asked me, with varying degrees of exhaustion and sincere marvel, “doesn’t your mind ever stop?” No, it doesn’t, ma’. And I like it that way. I love to learn, and I value knowledge and understanding above many other things. I am never bored because I know I can never know everything, there are always new things to absorb and discover. Even as I write this, I am sitting outside and there is a plane flying overhead. Even though I have studied how aeroplanes fly in a fair amount of detail (mostly as a strategy to get over my fear of flying), I will never take for granted how amazing it is that every day we send thousands of people thousands of feet into the sky in a mechanical rocket-bird and in 99% of cases, nothing goes wrong. How does that happen? What speed does a plane have to be going before it falls out of the sky? I see two planes in the same section of the sky – how far apart are they in reality? How close can planes get before it’s considered a danger?

It’s ok to be curious. I’d argue that it’s better than ok – that it’s part of a recipe for a healthy and happy mind. Being skeptical needn’t mean being pessimistic, and questioning everything needn’t be pedantic. We have so much information at our disposal nowadays that we have forgotten how to figure things out for ourselves. Don’t get me wrong – there’s absolutely nothing wrong with using Wikipedia to answer a burning question – it’s a resource I’d be lost without – but we often forget to ask the question in the first place. We know all the information is accessible, so we take it for granted without actually finding it.

Embrace your inner child. Look at things a little closer, allow yourself to wonder just a little bit deeper. It might make you happier, it might not, but it works for me.

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In Support of Homeopathy Awareness Week

Hurrah, it’s Homeopathy Awareness Week (henceforth known as HAW, which in my neck of the woods is a friendly/aggressive* way of saying “excuse me, may I have your attention for a second?). I thought this was the perfect opportunity to break my blogging silence and raise some awareness of homeopathy.

 

History

The first thing to be aware of during HAW is the history of homeopathy. Its founder was a man named Samuel Hahnemann, whose name even suggests he is having a laugh. Hahnemann was a German physician who received his medical degree in 1779, but for fifteen years he struggled to make a living from medicine and was uncomfortable with the standard procedures of the time. Then one day he made a discovery which changed his life and made him a millionaire. While playing around with quinine (an anti-malarial drug), he noted that it actually produced mild symptoms of the disease it was designed to cure (i.e. in a healthy patient quinine causes fever, but not to the extent that malaria does). From this, Hahnemann deduced that illnesses could be cured by giving a patient medicine which, if given to a healthy person, would produce similar symptoms of that same illness but to a lesser degree. Basically, if you were feeling sick, Hahnemann would prescribe you medicine that would make you feel sick. OBVIOUSLY. Thus arises the saying “like cures like” (the term homoeopathy comes from the Greek words homois meaning similar and pathos meaning disease).

From Wikipedia

From Wikipedia

We shouldn’t be too hard on Hahnemann. After all, this was the late 18th century, conventional medicine wasn’t exactly the safe and evidence-based option it is today, and all Hahnemann wanted to do was develop therapies that were patient-focussed and less invasive than the routine medical practices of the day, like bloodletting. Additionally, Hahnemann mistakenly believed that the success of vaccines showed support for his “like cures like” theory (the use of the cowpox vaccination to prevent smallpox is an example). However the main feature of homeopathy that caused controversy in the medical community at the time was the dilution principle. Hahnemann believed that the active ingredient in the homeopathic medicine should be diluted as much as possible, so that it only produces the slightest symptoms. This somewhat complicated dilution process is explained below by LiveScience:

A typical homeopathic dilution is 30X, where the X represents 10. So, one part toxin (such as the aforementioned poison ivy) is mixed with 10 parts water or alcohol. The mix is shaken; one part of this mix is added to 10 parts of water or alcohol again; and the whole process is repeated 30 times.

The final dilution is one molecule of medicine in 10 to the 30th power (1030) of molecules of solution — or 1 in a million trillion trillion. At this dilution level you’d need to drink 8,000 gallons of water to get one molecule of the medicine — physically possible but implausible.

The fact that homeopathy cannot possibly work was unbeknown to Hahnemann, who developed the treatments before we understood the number of molecules present in any given amount of a substance.

 

Homeopathy Today

However, today we do know about dilution and molecules and we do understand that at the levels of dilution homeopathic medicine work with, it is physically impossible for the treatment to have a causal effect on an illness. So why are there still homeopathic practitioners today? Well, here we become aware of the phenomenon which explains it all. Homeopaths explain that homeopathy does work, because water memory. Yes, you heard, water memory. This is the idea that water has the ability to remember of shape of the medicine it once contained. Bear with me while I explain why this argument is far from water-tight (lolz).

  1. Water memory is not a thing as far as physics is concerned.
  2. According to this theory, ALL THE WATER has a memory. Therefore the water from your taps and your toilet has the potential to be a magical homeopathic potion too.

 

BUT the evidence says it works?!

During HAW, you should be aware of the fact that you can make statistics say anything. You really can. And supporters of homeopathy will insist that the evidence for the treatment’s effectiveness is supported by evidence. This is not true. In all scientific research, you will find an inverse correlation between the quality of the study and the spread of results. The studies that are cited as being strongly in favour of homeopathy are often low-quality studies (owing from many things to their methodology, the number of participants, lack of a control group, and experimenter/publisher/funding body bias). Additionally, homeopath supporters rely on case studies (THIS ONE PERSON SAID HOMEOPATHY WORKED FOR HER!!!) and the research is often carried out by biased homeopathic practitioners (OMG LOOK THIS STUDY I CARRIED OUT SAYS MY WORK IS REALLY GOOD!!)

The take-home message is this: When studied properly and scientifically, homeopathy does not work.

Taking homeopathic treatments may make people feel better, but that is not because of the homeopathic treatment, it is likely due to a fascinating phenomenon called the placebo effect. The placebo effect is related to the perceptions and expectations of the patient. If you’re unwell and are given a sugar pill which you believe to be medicine, you will report feeling better. Moreover, if you are given a saline injection which you believe to be medicine, you will feel even better, and more quickly. If you believe that homeopathy will help you, then it will. But this is a good thing. So what’s the harm?

 

So What’s the Harm?

It’s easy to see homeopathy as a harmless alternative medicine, but it is not. It’s unlikely that the treatments themselves will cause harm, since as we have discussed already, they are basically water. But there are indirect consequences, such as the case of the woman who died an unnecessary painful death from bowel cancer after following the advice of her homeopath husband. Alarmingly, there are organisations who are trying to convince people not to vaccinate their children but to put our entire population in danger of epidemics by promoting homeopathic alternatives. Heck, you can even get homeopathic first aid kits (for the bargain price of $79.99)

homeopathy first aid kit

As one article has noted, homeopathy don’t kill people – homeopaths do. People who make their money through homeopathy are convincing patients to ignore conventional, evidence-based, life-saving medicine in favour of water and sugar pills. And that is harmful.

 

HAW: Key Points

1. Be aware that homeopathy does not and cannot work.

2. Be aware that homeopathy is not harmless.

3. Be aware that promoting homeopathy as an alternative treatment to evidence-based medicine is dangerous.

 

I hope I have helped to raise awareness of homeopathy this week.

 

*In Glasgow, this is really not as oxymoronic as it seems.

 

Refs

http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1676328/

http://www.livescience.com/31977-homeopathy.html

http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/the-swiss-report-on-homeopat

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