Jeni Barnett looses the internets.

February 11, 2009

Until a few days ago I’d never heard of Jeni Barnett.  But now she has had her name plastered all over the internet as an excellent example of How To Loose The Internets.

Briefly, Jeni Barnett is a radio and television broadcaster who hosted a three-hour phone-in broadcast stating that vaccines cause autism.  Ben Goldacre at caught wind of it and used a 40-minute clip of the show to play a quick game of Bad Science Bingo.  Normally this would have been left at that, and life would continue as normal, and most people outside of London would have remained blissfully unaware as to who Jeni Barnett was and how woefully ill-informed she is on the current state of vaccine research.  Unfortunately it didn’t end there.

LBC – the company who pays Jeni to broadcast to Londoners – decided to send in the lawyer attack-dogs to Ben Goldacre claiming copyright infringement on the clip he’d posted on his blog.

Now whether you agree with the lawyers or not, this is a monumentally dumb thing to do.  Ben Goldacre is an extremely popular blogger, and his posts regarding the piss-poor state of science journalism in the UK is both frightening and enlightening in equal measures.

Can you guess what happened?

The clip in quesion is now on Wikileaks, and pretty much every corner of the internet.  It is now being discussed in everything from the most obscure blog (which I think is officially this one) to the most popular.  Pretty much everyone with the most vaguest interest in good science is now aware of LBC and Jeni Barnett.

And do you think it stops there?

Does it hell.  Ms Barnett later decided that she was only interested in a health debate, and posted a comment to this effect on her blog, whilst calling Ben a “Bad Scientist”.  As she’d invited comment, people – informed people – commented.  Of course, being interested in debate, she removed the comments and closed comments on her blog.


The comments are freely available here.

Jeni Barnett: EPIC FAIL,


On presumed consent.

November 28, 2008

I am a big supporter of the idea of “presumed consent” when it comes to organ donation and I am frequently baffled when I hear the arguments of those people who are against the idea.  I can’t fathom it.  The two systems basically boil down to this: under the current “opt-in” system, a person who dies, and whose organs are suitable for donation, must have provided prior consent before the organs in his cadaver can be used for transplantation.  That consent can be challenged by relatives, and directly over-ruled even where clear consent has been given.  Under presumed consent, a person is presumed to have given consent, unless they explicitly register their lack of consent.  The family of the deceased may not overule the presumption of consent, but neither may they overall the explicit lack of consent.

Normally I expect the opposition to presumed consent to come from the more fundamental religious folk.  I would imagine that to most atheists, the idea that a cadaver has any intrinsic value would be self-evidently nonsense.  So I was suprised when I came across this letter (search for “Fairbairns”) in the National Secular Society Newsline e-mail, by one Zoë Fairbairns:

It’s not just religious people who are opposed to “presumed consent” on organ donation. There are good secular and humanist arguments for insisting that our bodies belong to us rather than to the government – the same arguments which are made for free choice on abortion and assisted suicide.

I am terribly confused by this statement, “our bodies belong to us ….”.  How can a body – a corpse – belong to itself.  A corpse is not a person.  A corpse has no legal rights. A corpse cannot own anything.  Forget about any arguments about free choice on abortion or assisted suicide, or any nonsense about the government owning human transplant organs, one thing is abundantly clear: a corpse does not belong to a dead person.  The arguments regarding abortion and assisted suicide in this case are utterly irrelevant: those are arguments being made by the living.

We’re told that two-thirds of British people support presumed consent. Fine. Let them carry donor cards, and their consent will be — quite correctly — presumed. No doubt they are all carrying cards already. If they are not, the sincerity of their support must surely be questioned. Perhaps they only support it for other people?

Presumed consent changes one thing, and one thing only: who is required to register a wish with respects to organ donation.  Under the present system, everyone who would like their organs to be donated after their death needs to inform people, and ideally needs to carry a card, or be on the NHS organ donor register.  Under presumed consent, only those who do not want to be donors need bother explain to anyone why, or to register this wish on a register. Ms Fairbanks seems to want to place the burden on the majority, rather than the minority.  And she accuses the medical practitioners of arrogance.

An article entitled Organ Donation – an Outline for General Practitioners, published in 2002 by the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) makes clear that surgeons removing organs for donation frequently anaesthetise the “corpse” – suggesting that they are aware of the risk that it may not be a corpse at all. The article is available online.

This is a real clanger.  I mean this is beyond stupid.  From the quoted link:

Those members of the public who read media reports on medical matters will remember some controversy reported on this activity. It is more or less standard practice for anaesthetic agents to be used during organ retrieval.

The logic behind this will escape those who say ‘if the donor is dead, why is an anaesthetic needed – and if he’s not dead, you should not be doing this.’ The difficult truth, as stated by the anaesthetists and surgeons, is that the cadaver may retain some reflex movement that hinders the smooth retrieval of organs and makes the transplant surgeon’s work difficult. The use of muscle relaxants, for example, helps the process. The reasons have been well argued by the College of Anaesthetists, and, for the time being, have been generally accepted by the profession.

Does Zoë really believe that when people die, they just suddenly go limp like they do in the movies?  I’m only a lowly computer programmer, and I knew what I was about to read before I even clicked on the link.  So she lied.  She’s trying to make a secular case against presumed consent and she lied.  And I personally think she lies again:

I used to carry a donor card, but the RCGP article, coupled with the terrifying arrogance behind the notion of “presumed consent” has made me tear it up. As the sole proprietor of my body, I will certainly opt out of any “presumed consent” system. I hope I will not be required to fabricate a religious reason for this.

She used to carry a donor card, but read that anaesthetics are used during organ removal (and then failed to read the rest of the paragraph), and she didn’t like presumed consent being discussed (even though it wouldn’t have affected her personal choice in any way) and threw her card away.  Surely, though, if she was an ex-organ donor, mere discussion of other forms of providing consent wouldn’t change her mind that organ donation was a good thing. I hope she remembered to remove her name from the Organ Donor register…

Zoë is not going to be the sole proprietor of her corpse when she is dead.  She is entitled to every say over her body while she is still alive, but once she’s dead it’s game over. She will not be able to own anything, because she will be dead.  Just as I or you will not be able to own anything once we are dead.  Sure discussions can be made about who does own it (the deceased’s family would be a better – although far from ideal – choice), but arguing that the dead can own their bodies is ludicrous.

As a side-note.  If you are in the UK and would like to ensure your organs are donated after your death, please remember to add your details to the organ donor register.  Details here.

Can’t do the job – don’t do the job

September 29, 2007

This story highlights the problem when religion mixes in society. When a woman is prescribed a drug by her doctor, it would be reasonable to presume that a dispensing chemist would supply that drug. One would imagine that the only reason that the chemist should have to refuse to supply would be that the prescription was invalid – perhaps forged or tampered with. Apparently that is not the case if the drug is the morning after pill, and the chemist is religious.

I cannot see how this is a defensible position; a person who choses to become a pharmacist must be aware that that job entails dispensing contraceptive drugs. If that person feels that they would be unable to perform this vital part of their job, they quite simply should choose another career. This is not a choice that affects just them. The woman in this story was both unnecessarily embarrassed and inconvenienced. Nobody is expecting the pharmacist to take the damn drug themselves; just to do their damn job

I’m also extremely disappointed by the position taken by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society. Their position appears to be that because the woman was referred to another chemist, everything is okay: but this is likely only to be true if the chemist is located in a large town. Imagine if this woman lived in a small rural village, and the chemist was the only one available locally. According to the ‘ethics’ laid down the the RPS, it is perfectly acceptable to require the woman to travel – at her expense and inconvenience – to the next nearest town or village just to find a chemist who is prepared to do their job. This is unacceptable; the woman – through no fault of her own – is now penalised for someone else’s dubious philosophical position.

This, to me, highlights the problem of religious privilege. There is no good reason for the RPS to support the position it does except to avoid the ire of religious organisations. They have put in place a policy that essentially says that one can be registered to do a job one is not prepared to do, and that is okay because – although it is potentially costly and highly inconvenient for the customer – the customer/patient can be ‘referred’. I wonder how they marry this position with this.

Shut up Giuliani

September 21, 2007

From the BBC:

US Republican presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani has criticised the record of the NHS during a visit to London

Yuh, because America has such a fine health care system:

“I had prostate cancer seven years . My chance of survival in the US is 82%; my chance of survival if I was here in England is below 50%. Breast cancer is very similar.

This is clearly from the “Numbers I pulled out of my arse” department.  According to Cancer Research, in the UK, the five-year survival rate for prostate cancer in men is 71%. Not exactly the “below 50%” claimed by Giuliani.  Of course, making any such statement is utter nonsense anyway – to state “survival rate for cancer x is y” overlooks the problem of categorizing the various stages of that cancer, as this page shows. Oh, and breast cancer survival rates appear to be similar.

 So when Giuliani says:

“Healthcare right now in America – and I think it has been true of your experience of socialised medicine in England – is not only very expensive, it’s increasingly less effective.

 He’s clearly talking utter tripe.  Well, not quite, American health care is insanely expensive and if you get prostate cancer and do not have insurance, you’re dead (an excellent example of this can be found in Lance Amstrong’s autobiography – insurance problems don’t just affect the poor), health care in the UK is pretty shoddy but you will get treated.