Job Application for Speciality Doctor in Homoeopathy

re NHS Tayside’s decision to sack 500 staff, but still advertise a £68,000 per year post for a homeopath.

Dear Sir / Madam

I think I have exactly the personal qualities, skills and attributes you may be looking for the post of Specialty Doctor in Homoeopathy.

I have an honours degree in biochemistry and genetics. I studied in the 1970s so I was out of my head on drugs most of the time and didn’t really take much in when they talked about the Avogadro constant and dose dependent effects and all that shit. I don’t think my science studies would present any obstacle to my carrying out the duties of this post with a straight face.

Later I did a BA in philosophy and a PhD in the philosophy of science. I realize that this does not really make me into the kind of Doctor you are looking for but you could put “Dr” in front of my name and lots of letters afterwards on the plaque on the door and nobody would really know the difference – after all Gillian McKeith got away with it and she got her doctorate from the American Holistic College of Nutrition which isn’t ever a real university. She’s into all that alternative medicine stuff and none of the people who consult her seem to notice anything wrong with her qualifications.

While my original science studies might be thought to disqualify me from believing that disease can be treated with sugar pills sprinkled with pure water, I think I can assure you that my doctoral studies make me uniquely qualified for the post you are offering.

One thing I learnt in my philosophy studies was that a lot of science is based on inductive reasoning. As Karl Popper has pointed out, however, just because a treatment has been repeatedly shown to work (in randomized controlled trials) does not provide any logical guarantee that the treatment in question will continue to work in the future. In my thesis I develop a line of argument that is a corollary of Popper’s insight: just because a treatment has been repeatedly shown not to work (in randomized controlled trials) does not provide any logical guarantee that the treatment in question might not start working next time it is tested.

I think you will agree that the credibility of homeopathy hinges on the plausibility of this line of argument.

How about it?

PS You can obtain details of the post from the above link and send your applications in to recruitment.tayside@nhs.net. @zeno001 on twitter is maintaining a list.

Conspiracy Theories and the Strange Case of David Kelly

While the Daily Mail is busy trying to persuade us that there was all kinds of skulduggery behind the death of David Kelly, David Aaronovitch (@DAaronovitch) and others are busy trying to persuade us that this is the latest example of a loopy conspiracy theory (I can’t provide a link because David now writes behind the Murdoch paywall - see below – but you can buy his book which devotes a chapter to this issue here.

While David A talks a great deal of sense on conspiracy theories, he does, at times, come dangerously close to using the inductive fallacy and presenting an argument something along the lines of: “all conspiracy theories so far advanced have turned out to be a complete load of bollocks therefore all conspiracy theories are bollocks.”

Of course his actual arguments are more subtle and presented more articulately than that that, but there is more than a whiff of the style of reasoning employed by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian when he argues that because BSE and various flu pandemics turned out to less catastrophic than many had feared, nothing scientists ever warn us about will ever really be dangerous (again I paraphrase slightly).

In fact, conspiracies are commonplace in the legal system – especially when it comes to terrorism. It was conspiracies to pervert the course of justice that resulted in the conviction of both the Angry Brigade and the Birmingham Six. Sadly, in the case of the Birmingham Six, those convicted had not actually committed the crimes for which they were “fitted up”.

It is, it might also be noted, not completely unknown for our security forces to engage in murder and torture – though it is more common for them to outsource such tasks to others; and more common still for them to distance themselves still further, while turning a blind eye to what they know or suspect is going on.

And finally, there are all sorts of strange unanswered questions about Dr Kelly’s death.

So is the Daily Mail right here and has David Aaronovitch got it wrong?

Well of course, there is no way to know for certain, but I think we can usefully apply a bit of rational speculation here:

Real conspiracies in the justice system typically involve a handful of police officers who become convinced that someone or other is guilty (or conversely that one of their own ought not to be found guilty) and set about manufacturing evidence or hiding evidence or lying in order to further their cause. These conspiracies may occasionally involve prosecution lawyers (a bit) but they do not typically involve judges or politicians. If they did, these conspiracies would unravel much more easily than they do. Of course (as in the case of the Birmingham Six) the judges and politicians may realize (or come to strongly suspect) that there has been a miscarriage of justice and attempt to keep a lid on the matter for as long as they can. But such misguided individual attempts to avoid embarrassment and avoid bringing the legal system into disrepute hardly constitute being part of a conspiracy.

Such considerations are, I submit, something to bear in mind when considering the Kelly case.

Kelly may not have died from haemorrhage alone (of course he may have died as the result of other actions he took to try and end his own life and/or from coincidental natural causes); it may have been a mistake to halt his inquest and hand the matter over to the Hutton inquiry; there may be a number of anomalies about his case that were not properly addressed at the Hutton inquiry; but to suggest that the security services and Blair’s government and the police and the coroner’s office and Hutton were all part of some baroque plot - to murder Kelly, make it look like suicide, and nobble subsequent inquiries in order to cover all this up - is simply bonkers.

I can’t establish beyond any reasonable doubt that the murder theory is wrong of course. Only more evidence and empirical investigation might be able to do that. But the murder theory is a bit like the alien space craft theory used to explain UFOs, it raises a hundred times as many difficult questions as it purports to answer.

I therefore make the following bold conjecture: When it come to the Kelly case. David Aaronovitch has got it right and the Daily Mail is talking twaddle. If I’m wrong, I’ll eat my tin-foil hat.

PS David Aaronovitch article now available here


Should we pay to read the Times online?

(Random thoughts on a tweet sent to David Aaronovitch)

I have never quite bought the argument advanced by some bloggers and fellow tweeters that there is something intrinsically immoral about charging for online content. In fact, it would probably be much better from the point of view of promoting journalistic integrity if newspapers relied less on advertising revenue and more on income provided by sales of their products.

Market forces will, I suppose, decide whether the new pay-to-view arrangements adopted by Murdoch’s flagship UK newspaper survive. As far as I can see, there are no great issues of principle here at all.

I have, nonetheless, thus far refrained from subscribing to the new “pay-wall” protected Times – even though I often read the online version in the past. A major attraction, in my case, was David Aaronovitch’s column. Not that I, by any means, agree with everything David has to say. In fact I often disagree. But, in my old age, I easily become bored reading articles I entirely agree with. Far more interesting to read intelligent coherent stuff from someone like David A and have my assumptions and opinions challenged. (Of course the newspapers – even the Times on occasion – are also full of reams of imbecilic incoherent stuff which I also disagree with, but I derive far less pleasure from reading that than I do from reading David Aaronovitch.)

So why – apart from being a cheapskate – do I refuse to hand over any money to continue reading David’s excellent journalism?

Well there are many reasons to despise Rupert Murdoch and his empire. My late father was fond of citing all of these reasons and his ashes up on the summit of Ilkley Moor would begin turning little pirouettes if his first born son ever handed over a penny to his favourite bĂȘte noir.

This is not, of course, to suggest that David Aaronovitch is doing anything terrible by working for Murdoch. Many of us end up working for firms and institutions we do not entirely feel happy with. I think I would baulk at being asked to write software for the design of (say) a cluster bomb, but I would - in the highly unlikely event that the Murdoch empire offered me some money to write something - be happy enough to accept the commission. While Murdoch’s business empire is responsible for many crimes against humanity – such as inflicting the soap opera “Neighbours” on an undeserving world - I’m not quite sure that the moral issues thereby raised are of quite the same magnitude as those raised by nasty weapons.

It is also a rather pointless gesture on my part to head a movement, of which I am the only member, which boycotts the Times. The boycott of Apartheid South Africa – though essentially symbolic in its effects – made sense. It enjoyed widespread international support and was directed at a regime that was a pariah in the eyes of every remotely reasonable person* - regardless of his or her general political views. There was a clear goal for the boycott and it ended when apartheid was dismantled. It is not at all clear what, if anything, would end the boycott of Murdoch’s Sun newspaper on Merseyside. Even though this boycott enjoys a great deal more support than my one-man Times boycott, it has, like my boycott, no real goal. It may be doing something for literacy skills in Merseyside (well unless they all read the Daily Sport instead) but it is hard to see the point of the thing.

Let me instead take a different tack: Just imagine you were a really big fan of “I'm the Leader of the Gang (I Am)”. Hard to imagine I concede, but some people must have been. It was top of the charts for four weeks after all. Would you buy it if you saw it on sale somewhere? (Let’s assume for the sake of this thought experiment that you can be sure that no royalties from the sale will actually reach the pockets of Gary Glitter and all the money will go to charity for poorly kittens) You wouldn’t, would you? This would not be a rational decision that you could justify to someone else, but you simply wouldn’t be able to do it would you?

Now I realize that this is a rather poor analogy on all sorts of counts, but it illustrates the point I wish to make. In the end, I suppose, I have to concede that my stance is not really rational; it’s just a matter of deeply held feelings.

Perhaps I should try and overcome those prejudices and start forking out £2 a week. If the Times were owned by someone nice and honourable and non-megalomaniacal who was not trying to take control of every media outlet in the world I probably would. As things stand, I shall probably just wait to see if the subscription model fails. I suppose I rather hope it does.

POSTSCRIPT I feel compelled to confess, publicly that, despite my remarks above, I did subsequently give in and start paying £8 per month to Mr Murdoch. It was very nice being able to read Caitlin Moran, David Aaronovitch, and even (sometimes) Daniel Finkelstein whenever I felt like it, but I did not find much else in the Times that particularly appealed to me. Also, since I wrote the above post, Mr Murdoch's power and influence in the world has waned somewhat. Currently on an economy drive while funding two children through university, I've cancelled my DD for a while. I realize none of this is of any particular interest to anyone else, but I like to set the record straight. What is of general interest is that the battle over the "Times paywall" still rages - on Twitter at least - and still conflates morality and simple economics in an unedifying fashion.

•Not, of course, in the eyes of Margaret Thatcher. I rest my case.